Skip to main content

What I saw inside the Cali drug cartel

By Jorge Salcedo, Special to CNN
updated 7:18 PM EST, Wed January 18, 2012
Four drug traffickers and members of the now-defunct Cali Cartel cover faces on January 15, 2009, in Bogota.
Four drug traffickers and members of the now-defunct Cali Cartel cover faces on January 15, 2009, in Bogota.
  • Jorge Salcedo worked for Cali drug cartel in Colombia as security for a godfather
  • Salcedo paid off police, military, politicians, justices, prosecutors with millions in drug money
  • One military official got $20,000 a month for info, he says
  • Salcedo: Mexico must stop the bribery and intimidation that keep cartels in business

Editor's note: Jorge Salcedo is a former member of the Cali drug cartel, and his work with authorities helped destroy the organization. He was relocated to the U.S. along with his wife and children in 1995 and taken into the federal witness protection program. Salcedo's story is told in the book, "At the Devil's Table -- The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel," by journalist William C. Rempel. Neither the author nor CNN know Mr. Salcedo's whereabouts or his new name.

(CNN) -- Drug cartels, whether in Colombia or Mexico, cannot function without massive assistance from compromised officials at all levels. Corruption is the oxygen that keeps organized crime alive.

I know something about corruption and organized crime. I spent more than six years in the biggest, richest syndicate in the history of crime -- the Cali cartel. And I know that Mexico, like Colombia, can't succeed against its drug gangs without choking off much of the bribery and intimidation that sustain them.

First, some background: I used to be Jorge Salcedo. I left my name in Colombia when I entered the U.S. witness protection program 16 years ago. I also left a home, a country, friends, family, even my past. But maybe my experience will help show the importance of fighting corruption as a way to fight the cartels.

My primary job in the Cali cartel was security for one of four godfathers, Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, the daily operations boss. Others were more directly involved in routine bribery, but I still managed to deliver nearly a million dollars in payoffs. And I witnessed many, many millions more.

The biggest bribe I ever handled personally was a half-million-dollar payoff to a Salvadoran air force colonel. I was buying four U.S.-made bombs -- 500-pounders -- that the bosses wanted to drop on Pablo Escobar. It was a very bad idea, but they sent me anyway. The cash was disguised as a birthday present, about the size of a large shoebox, wrapped in red paper with gold trim. I'd never seen so much money. I remember that it was surprisingly heavy.

Then there were the two checks signed by Miguel worth about $50,000. As instructed, I took those to a bank near the Cali airport and deposited one into the account of a sister and the other to the mother of a captain in the Colombian anti-narcotics task force. It was a bonus for the captain's help getting the boss away from a police raid.

In those days, hundreds of high-ranking and lower level police were on the cartel's secret payroll -- tens of thousands of dollars paid every month for inside tips or for looking the other way. The youngest boss, Pacho Herrera, sometimes liked to use local police as sentries at his home.

The cartel had important friends in the military, too -- from helicopter pilots to generals. One well-placed insider was the sergeant and chief of staff to the military commander of the anti-narcotics task force. He cost $20,000 a month.

Between sources like the army sergeant, the police captain and others, my bosses and I were kept informed about dates, times and places for raids and such things as which cartel cars were being followed and what phone numbers were being tapped. On one occasion, we knew that Miguel had time for lunch and a shower before the raiding party was scheduled to arrive. Both the sergeant and the captain were among hundreds of police and military officers fired for corruption.

Besides law enforcement, the cartel bought a piece of Colombia's justice system with payoffs to prosecutors who lost evidence, misplaced paperwork, blocked search warrants or released prisoners before they could be questioned. Some judges became overnight millionaires. I see police and judicial corruption as the biggest price of organized crime.

Politicians were considered a long-term investment. It seemed sometimes that they all had their hands out. The bosses handed out $20,000 checks like hospitality gifts. I was there when campaign officials for a presidential candidate came for help. Eventually, a total of $6 million in secret donations made Ernesto Samper our president. After top campaign aides acknowledged receiving cartel funds, Samper insisted that if such contributions were made, it was without his knowledge.

And I was there when Cali cartel lawyers were allowed to rewrite our national constitution to outlaw extraditions of Colombian traffickers to the United States. You may be skeptical when I tell you, but no true Colombian could have watched that spectacle of democracy for sale without suffering some heartache.

When I agreed to assist U.S. drug enforcement agents 16 years ago, the Cali cartel was making $7 billion a year. Cartel documents turned over to Colombian authorities exposed a vast network of corruption. There was public outrage. Widespread arrests and firings followed, and the grip of corruption was broken.

That's what brought down the Cali cartel, and it can make a difference in other countries where a culture of acceptance makes corruption especially stubborn. The Mexican public needs to express its outrage. And, then, Mexican leaders need to sweep out officials at all levels who have sold their souls to organized crime.

How Colombia is busting drug cartels

Join CNN Opinion on Facebook and follow updates on Twitter

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jorge Salcedo

Part of complete coverage on
Suspected cartel chief Mario Armando Ramirez Trevino, aka X-20, was caught near Texas with thousands in cash, said Mexico's government.
Just days after drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero was released from prison, the Mexican government now wants him locked up again.
Two men reveal how they became teen killers for a drug lord, spreading fear on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.
updated 9:03 AM EST, Fri January 20, 2012
There's the barrage of horror flick headlines every week, but the Mexican drug war, at its core, is about two numbers: 48,000 and 39 billion.
updated 12:04 PM EST, Mon January 16, 2012
The death toll of Mexico's drug war grabs global attention, but forced disappearances are also a troubling problem that Mexico faces.
updated 3:02 PM EST, Tue January 17, 2012
Once dogged by a crime-ridden reputation, Mexico's capital has become a refuge. But in Mexico's drug war, are there any sanctuaries?
updated 12:42 PM EST, Thu February 16, 2012
Mexico has landed some hard punches against the drug cartels that have stirred violence in parts of the country -- at least on paper.
updated 2:02 PM EST, Thu January 19, 2012
At least 30,000 children in Mexico are involved in some sort of organized crime, according to an alliance of civic and social groups.
Photographer Shaul Schwarz has been documenting the violence in Juarez through images since 2008.
updated 8:36 PM EST, Tue January 24, 2012
Drug cartels in Mexico have found a way around border security by using special pass holders as their unwitting drug mules, officials found.
updated 7:18 PM EST, Wed January 18, 2012
Jorge Salcedo, an ex-member of the Cali drug cartel, writes about life inside the group: "Corruption is the oxygen that keeps organized crime alive."
updated 7:16 PM EST, Wed January 18, 2012
Opinion: Violence in Mexico has obscured one bright spot in Latin America's struggle with drug gangs: Colombia.
updated 8:53 AM EST, Thu January 19, 2012
Mexico's not the only country south of the U.S. border with a growing drug problem.
updated 9:47 AM EDT, Tue June 12, 2012
In suburbs and small towns across the U.S., police are increasingly finding drugs, guns and money they can trace to Mexican cartels.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Sun June 10, 2012
A New Mexico town struggles for survival and redemption after its mayor, police chief and village trustee sold out, running guns to cartels.
Follow the latest news, features and analysis from a Mexico perspective and in Spanish at