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Major Traffickers & Their Organizations

The Cali mafia | The Cali mafia Leaders | Mexican Federation | Khun Sa

The Cali mafia

Players in the Cali mafia: Where Are They Now?

Since June 1995, the seven top leaders of the Cali mafia have either been arrested or have surrendered to Colombian authorities.

How the Cali Mafia Developed

Over 20 years ago, Colombian drug trafficker Carlos Lehder-Rivas convinced some Medellin area traffickers to pool their drug shipments, thus cutting their individual chances of financial ruin if a single shipment was seized. The method brought the traffickers profits beyond their dreams and led to the foundation of the Medellin Cartel.

A similar federation of traffickers was formed in the city of Cali, some 200 miles south of Medellin. The Cali mafia grew from a small criminal gang known as Los Chemas, founded in the early 1970s by Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela and Jose Santacruz-Londono. Los Chemas originally confined themselves to counterfeiting and kidnapping, but gradually expanded into the smuggling of cocaine base from Peru and Bolivia to Colombia for conversion into cocaine HCl. The group evolved into a loose association of five major independent drug trafficking organizations now called the Cali mafia.

The Cali mafia leaders direct a vast global network of cocaine production, transportation, wholesale distribution, and money laundering operations. They share certain resources when their interests coincide. The member organizations are: the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers; Jose Santacruz-Londono (deceased); Helmer Herrera-Buitrago; the Urdinola-Grajales brothers; and the Grajales-Lemos and Grajales-Posso organization.

How Trafficking Affects Colombia

Cali drug traffickers export hundreds of tons of cocaine into the United States annually, and launder billions of dollars in drug proceeds. Their drug money initially meant economic boom for that city of two million residents, and the Cali mafia operated with virtual impunity for over 15 years. Their tactics of intimidation and corruption caused bribed officials to overlook illegal activities. One Cali businessman was quoted anonymously in the Los Angeles Times last year to say Cali had become "a sewer of corruption and violence. The narco-traffickers have taken over. They control businesses, politics, everything."

When the Colombian government took an anti-drug stance in the mid-to-late 1980s, the Medellin drug mafia reacted with a wave of narco-terrorism. Hundreds of Colombian police officers, judges, government officials, journalists and ordinary private citizens were murdered by drug mafia sicarios (assassins). This savage violence included the murder of Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara-Bonilla (April 1984); the kidnapping and murder of Colombian Attorney General Carlos Mauro Hoyos Jimenez (January 1988); the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan (August 1989); the bombing of Avianca flight 203 that killed 110 people (November 1989); and the bombing of the Department of Administrative Security (DAS) Headquarters, which killed 50 people and wounded 200 (December 1989).

During 1995, the Colombian National Police (CNP) reports that 25,525 Colombians were murdered. Today, Colombia has an annual homicide rate of 70 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to the U.S. rate of 9. These gruesome numbers reveal the magnitude of Colombia's current crime problem.

Cali mafia Tactics

Unlike their Medellin predecessors, who used intimidation and terror to bolster their power, the Cali mafia prefer to appear as legitimate businessmen. They employ bribes and pressure as ways of doing business, although they are not adverse to killing competitors or double-crossers. For example, when DEA Operation Green Ice in 1992 resulted in the arrest of 165 traffickers worldwide and $54 million in cash and property being seized, Cali bosses retaliated against suspected informants by having them immersed in barrels of acid. However, Cali traffickers typically do not inflict acts of violent terrorism on the general population as did their Medellin counterparts.

Gilberto & Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela

Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela controlled the most powerful of the Cali organizations. The organization was involved in all aspects of the cocaine trade, including production, transportation, wholesale distribution and money laundering. The younger Gilberto was responsible for strategic long-term planning, while Miguel was the micromanager who was involved in the minuscule details of the organization’s daily operations. Although the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers did not take part in indiscriminate violence, they did engage in kidnapping and physical threats, and occasionally in murder. More routinely they used bribes and threats to further their business.

The Rodriguez brothers usually contracted the services of independent Mexican drug transportation groups to smuggle cocaine from Mexico to the United States via land. Southern Florida was also used by their organization as a key point of entry for cocaine smuggled aboard ships. After the cocaine was smuggled into the United States, wholesale distribution operations were carried out in Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and other U.S. cities. The organization also ran drug money laundering operations in these U.S. cities.

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The Cali mafia Leaders

Gilberto Rodriguez-Orjuela

Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela was the first of the Cali drug lords to be arrested. Colombian police staged several simultaneous raids on June 9, 1995. They were about to give up when Gilberto was found hidden in a secret closet of a luxury house. Gilberto, perhaps remembering the shoot-out that killed Pablo Escobar, is reported to have said, "Don't shoot me. I will surrender," when faced with the police.

Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela

Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela was captured on August 6, 1995, when the CNP broke down the door of his apartment and found him hiding in a secret closet in the bathroom. He had been the subject of an intense manhunt. According to Colombia's Foreign Minister, Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela could receive a maximum sentence of 24 years in prison. Following the successful arrest of Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela, General Serrano of the CNP proclaimed, "The Cali cartel died today."

Jose Santacruz-Londono

Jose Santacruz-Londono, aka "Chepe," was considered the number three leader in the Cali drug mafia. He was characterized as a low-key, non-presumptuous man who commanded respect from subordinates. However, he was also one of the more violent Cali kingpins. Although his talent rested in managing international cocaine transportation networks, his organization was also involved in drug production, wholesale distribution, and money laundering. He also played a key role in the Cali cartel's intelligence collection efforts.

His major U.S. wholesale cocaine distribution and money laundering operations centered around the New York City metropolitan area. He is believed to have ordered the 1992 slaying of journalist Manuel de Dios, an investigative journalist whose articles on drug trafficking for a Spanish language newspaper in New York angered the cartel. In addition, the Santacruz-Londono organization was linked to limited cocaine HCl production operations in the U.S. Northeast. In June 1992 the DEA seized two cocaine conversion laboratories in Brooklyn, New York, that were connected to Santacruz-Londono. DEA investigations also tied Londono to drug money laundering operations in various cities in Europe and the Americas.

Santacruz-Londono was arrested on July 4, 1995. Although he escaped on January 11, 1996, he was was killed in a confrontation with the CNP on March 5, 1996.

Helmer Herrera-Buitrago

Helmer "Pacho" Herrera-Buitrago has been depicted by colleagues as a quiet, decisive, and dependable individual who would not dishonor a contract. In the 1980s, Herrera personally directed cocaine distribution and money laundering activities in the New York City area on behalf of the Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela organization. However, by 1990, he had established his own family-run cocaine trafficking operations. Today, the Herrera organization is involved in cocaine production, transportation, wholesale distribution, and money laundering.

Pacho Herrera's wholesale cocaine distribution and money laundering operations in the United States are handled by numerous compartmentalized criminal groups (cells) that are responsible for specific functions in a given region of the country. In late 1991, the New York Drug Enforcement Task Force dismantled two of Herrera's cocaine distribution cells operating out of the New York City metropolitan area. Nevertheless, the Herrera organization remains most active in the Northeast, and dominates the lucrative wholesale cocaine market in the Queens/Jackson Heights area of New York City. The group also operates out of Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, and other U.S. cities.

Herrera, who faces a number of charges in the United States, surrendered to Colombian authorities on September 1, 1996.

 Julio Fabio Urdinola-GrajalesJairo Ivan

The Jairo Ivan & Julio Fabio Urdinola-Grajales organization distributes multiton quantities of cocaine throughout the United States, including Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, and New York City. It has also expanded somewhat into the production and trafficking of Colombian heroin.

Both Urdinola brothers are extremely violent drug traffickers, and are believed responsible for both the torture and murder of over 100 people in Colombia. However, the murder charges against Jairo Ivan Urdinola have been dismissed by Colombian authorities. Jairo Ivan began his criminal activity as an assassin, and is known to have had vagabonds killed in hopes of bringing "good luck" to his organization.

In April 1992, CNP arrested Jairo Ivan Urdinola on "illicit enrichment" charges. Notwithstanding his imprisonment, Jairo Ivan has continued to direct many aspects of the group's operations.

Julio Fabio assumed control over many of the organization's day-to-day activities after Jairo Ivan's arrest. Julio Fabio surrendered to the Government of Colombia in March 1994, and is still negotiating a final sentence.

Luis Grajales-PossoRaul Grajales-Lemos

Raul Grajales-Lemos and Luis Grajales-Posso, who are first cousins and related to the Urdinola-Grajales family by marriage, have been careful to publicly portray themselves as legitimate businessmen. In fact, they employ their numerous businesses as fronts for their drug and money laundering operations. They prefer bribery and corruption to the violence associated with their Urdinola-Grajales cousins. For smuggling, the two Grajales use aircraft and sea vessels in order to transport tons of cocaine to Western Europe. A smuggling method of this organization was concealing cocaine inside containerized shipments of fruit.

The Grajales organization has been very active in Western Europe, and now is exploiting Eastern Europe to establish new cocaine transshipment routes. Most of the cocaine transported through Eastern Europe and the independent countries of the former Soviet Union is destined for Western Europe.

Both are the subjects of indictments in New York, but remain at-large in Colombia.

Other Cali Traffickers Arrested/Surrendered in 1995

Victor Patino-Fomeque

Victor Patino-Fomeque
This Cali trafficker, a former CNP officer, surrendered to Colombian authorities in Bogota in June 1995. He is linked to Cali maritime operations in Buen-aventura, Colombia. In February 1996, Patino was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Due to anticipated sentencing reductions, he is not expected to serve more than 6 years.

Henry Loaiza-Ceballos

Henry Loaiza-Ceballos
This Cali trafficker surrendered to Colombian authorities in Bogota on June 19, 1995. He is considered one of the most violent members of the Cali drug mafia, and has been linked to at least three massacres in Colombia. In the 1991 Trujillo massacre, 107 people were hacked apart with chain saws and hurled into the Cauca River. He is also believed involved in the June 1995 bombing of the Parque de San Antonio in Medellin that killed 22 people.

Phanor Arizabaleta-Arzayus

Phanor Arizabaleta-Arzayus
This Cali trafficker surrendered to Colombian authorities in Bogota on July 8, 1995. Although a prominent Cali trafficker, he is not viewed as a principal leader of the Cali drug mafia. He faces kidnapping charges in Colombia, and is a fugitive from the Eastern District of Louisiana in a 1989 case involving the seizure of 275 kilos of cocaine.

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Mexican Federation

Mexican drug traffickers have long been engaged in heroin, marijuana and cocaine trafficking. In the late 1980's, Colombian trafficking groups from Cali turned to transportation groups in Mexico to help them smuggle multiton loads of cocaine into the United States.

The Colombians originally paid the Mexicans in cash for their transportation services; more recently, the Mexicans have been paid in cocaine. Mexican smugglers have been receiving up to half of every shipment of cocaine they transported. This new arrangement significantly increased the Mexican traffickers profits, and necessitated the expansion of their own distribution networks in the United States.

As a result, there are parallel groups importing Colombian cocaine into the United States via Mexican transporters. Both of these groups send their employees into the United States to direct and control the cocaine distribution in our country.

Four main groups of Mexican traffickers, collectively referred to as the Mexican Federation, are of particular concern:

Arellano Felix Brothers

  • The Tijuana Organization, headed by the Arellano Felix brothers, Benjamin, Francisco, Eduardo and Ramon, is headquartered in Tijuana, Baja California Norte. This group controls smuggling across the border to California and Arizona and is arguably the most violent of the Mexican organizations. During 1994 this group was involved in a bloody turf battle over the meth trade in San Diego in which 26 murders were committed. Benjamin Arellano Felix was indicted on May 2, 1989 in San Diego on charges of a Continuing Criminal Enterprise which involved the importation and distribution of cocaine. Arellano Felix is frequently seen in Mexico, and has never been arrested on these charges. Franciso Rafael Arellano Felix, his brother, was indicted in San Diego for possession and conspiracy to possess cocaine.
    Miguel Caro Quintero
  • The Sonora Cartel is headed by Miguel Caro Quintero. Miguel's brother, Rafael Caro Quintero, is in jail for his role in the killing of DEA Special Agent Enrique Camarena in 1985. This Cartel has direct links to the Colombian Mafia, and operates routes into California, Arizona, Texas and Nevada. Miguel Caro Quintero was indicted three times in Arizona and once in Colorado. He continues to be a fugitive.
    Amado Carillo Fuentes
  • The Juarez Cartel is headed by Amado Carillo Fuentes, the most powerful figure in the Mexican drug trade. His organization is linked to the Rodriguez-Orjeula organization in Cali, and has family ties to the Ochoa brothers in Medellin. For many years, this organization ran transportation services for the Cali Mafia, and used aircraft including 727's to fly drugs from Colombia to Mexico. Carillo Fuentes has been indicted in Dallas and Miami, and has been a fugitive for eight years.
    Juan Garcia Abrego
  • The Gulf Group was headed by Juan Garcia Abrego and distributed cocaine in the United States as far north as Michigan, New Jersey and New York. The DEA has reports that this organization smuggled over 40 tons of cocaine into the United States during an 8-month period in 1989. Juan's brother Humberto was arrested by Mexican authorities in October 1994. Juan Garcia Abrego, one of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted, was arrested in January 1996 by Mexican authorities. After his arrest, Mexican authorities worked quickly to expel Abrego to the United States to face charges of conspiracy to import cocaine and the management of a Continuing Criminal Enterprise.

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Khun Sa

Until January 1996, Khun Saalso known by his Chinese name of Chang Chi Fuwas the head of the Shan United Army, the leading heroin trafficking group in the Golden Triangle, which comprises the countries of Burma, Thailand, and Laos.

Khun Sa

Khun Sa and his family have been active in the opium trade for many years. In 1960, the Burmese government organized a self defense force under Khun Sa to defend itself against ethnic Shan resistance groups in the Shan State. To support his self defense force, Khun Sa transported opium for some of the major traffickers. By January 1969, Khun Sa emerged as one of the most powerful ethnic Chinese self defense force leaders in Upper Burma.

After arrest and subsequent release by Burmese authorities, Khun Sa took up residence in Thailand. A Thai sweep operation against his Shan United Army headquarters forced Khun Sa to relocate most of his headquarters to Burma. Khun Sa eventually built an army from a few thousand men to an estimated 20,000 well-equipped and well trained troops. With this army, Khun Sa became the most significant heroin trafficker in the Golden Triangle and the world.

Beginning in 1994, however, three major developments combined against Khun Sa. First, the Thai Government closed their border against him, thus depriving the SUA of valuable goods and services; second, the DEA, working with the Royal Thai Government, arrested 13 of Khun Sa's top lieutenants in "Operation Tiger Trap," thus depriving the SUA of cash from heroin trafficking; and third, the Burmese Army stepped up military operations against him, thus depriving the SUA of needed military hardware.

With their heroin-trafficking empire disabled, the Shan United Army surrendered to the Burmese Army in December 1995, and Khun Sa stepped down from its leadership. After the surrender, Khun Sa relocated to Rangoon, and is reportedly involved in a number of business deals with the Burmese Government and the Burmese business community.

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