On August 26, 1995 Jorge Salcedo boarded a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) plane leaving Colombia for the United States, a new home, a new name and a new life. In his wake he left the collapsing Cali Cartel – at the time the world’s largest and most powerful criminal organization.
For over a decade Los Angeles Times journalist William Rempel spoke with Salcedo about his time working for the Cali Cartel and how he helped bring the organization crashing down by cooperating with the DEA. Colombia Reports spoke to Rempel following the publication of his book “At The Devil’s Table” (“En La Boca del Lobo” in Spanish), a narrative constructed from those interviews.
The first time Rempel met Salcedo was in a Miami court house. “It was a very unusual hearing,” he said. “The government prosecutor got up and told the judge what a courageous and helpful man he had been … and this was the government that was taking a plea from him – guilty to one count of racketeering”
Salcedo’s relationship with the Cali Cartel, headed by the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers Miguel and Gilberto, had begun in 1989 when he was hired to organize an audacious hit on Pablo Escobar because of Salcedo’s connections with a group of British mercenary commandos. The attempt ended in spectacular failure when one of the helicopters carrying the mercenaries crashed into a mountainside. However, Salcedo stayed on as the head of security for the cartel leaders. He was to remain in the position for six years, as a close and trusted employee. “He was of huge value to these men” said Rempel, “and on a purely human level, they bonded.”
That relationship ended in 1995. According to Rempel, Salcedo had wanted out for some time as the pressure from the U.S. and Colombian authorities mounted and the net closed around the cartel. “Jorge could see the future even if the cartel bosses could not,” he said. Salcedo finally made contact with the DEA after bosses ordered him to organize a hit on the cartel’s accountant. Rempel said, “He had the option of becoming a killer, or risking being killed himself, so he took that risk.”
Salcedo’s relationship with the cartel had been complex from the start. The portrait painted in “At The Devil’s Table” is of a quiet, respectable family man with no stomach for violence and the drug trade. Rempel said, “He was more of a spectator than a participant, but at the same time he was an enabler – he was protecting the people who were ordering murders and managing massive drug distribution systems.” He added, “It takes a fair amount of delusion and denial.” However, by the time he came to cooperate with the DEA, Rempel said, this had changed. “However much he avoided facing the truth during those years, he was absolutely clear-eyed and realistic about the risks he was facing by betraying Miguel.”
Salcedo remains ambivalent about his role in the cartel’s demise, according to Rempel. “He is sensitive about being called a snitch because he doesn’t think he was,” he said. “He felt like he had advised Miguel and Gilberto about what was in their best interest and when they ignored it he had done his best and there was nothing else he could do.” However, Rempel said, Salcedo remained “proud” of his role in bringing down the cartel, which, he stressed, he did “without being lured to the other side by offers of leniency or rewards of any kind. He went over in the face of a very personal dilemma.”
Reaction to Salcedo’s story following the publication of the book has been mixed. According to Rempel, “[many] Americans who read the book have questioned whether Jorge can be as naive as he was … they see him in more critical terms as being more complicit in the crimes of the cartel.” The reaction from Colombians, however, has been different. Rempel said those who he has talked to “see it in completely different terms … [they think] given the circumstances in Colombia what he did was unambiguously heroic, he was in a spot where he had to do what he did and you can’t understand that unless you have been in Colombia.” He added, “I certainly see it as an act of great personal courage no matter how ambiguous his actions had been before.”
Rempel is adamant that whatever the right and wrongs of Salcedo’s actions, he is suffering for them now. “This is not some minor punishment or something he got away with” he said. “It ruined his life, ruined his family’s life … they lost things that are fundamental, that we all take for granted, they lost friends, family and country.”
Salcedo and his family remain in hiding in the US, living under assumed names. Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela was extradited to the United States on December 3, 2004. His brother Miguel followed in March 2005 and both are currently in prison in Florida.