Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, Colombian Drug Lord, Dies at 83

Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, who with his younger brother Miguel built and operated a globe-spanning cocaine empire from their hometown of Cali, Colombia, until their arrest and extradition to the United States in the early 2000s, died on Wednesday at a federal prison in Butner, N.C. He was 83.

His lawyer, David O. Markus, confirmed the death but did not state a cause.

Many people associate the Colombian drug trade with the Medellín cartel and its brutal, flamboyant leader, Pablo Escobar. But even as the Medellín organization grew in scope and notoriety in the 1980s, the Rodríguez brothers were quietly assembling an operation that would soon far exceed it.

Mr. Escobar preferred often spectacular violence to get his way, including bombings and public assassinations. Mr. Rodríguez opted for bribery and business alliances. Most of Cali’s drug income was laundered and then reinvested into a bulging portfolio of banks, drugstores and a soccer team, all of which he used to gain more power.

He also operated a vast network of spies, employing hundreds of taxi drivers, hotel clerks and construction workers to keep eyes on law enforcement, and even tapped the U.S. Embassy’s phones. In 1994, he and his brother gave millions of dollars to the Colombian presidential campaign of Ernesto Samper Pizano; Mr. Samper, who won the race, denied knowing about the money.

Fans of Netflix crime dramas will recall Mr. Rodríguez well: The actor Damián Alcázar played him in the series “Narcos,” and another series, “El Cartel de los Sapos: El Origen” (“The Snitch Cartel: Origins”), was loosely based on the Rodríguez family.

Mr. Rodríguez was often romanticized in both the Colombian and international press as brainy and something of a gentleman, a not wholly inaccurate portrayal when compared with other drug kingpins. He quoted poetry and seemed to prefer running his legitimate businesses over moving illegal drug shipments. His nickname was el Ajedrecista, “the Chess Player.”

Mr. Rodríguez was no pacifist, and the Cali cartel was no host of angels. But they realized that wanton violence, especially against government officials, only attracted the attention of the Colombian authorities. In Medellín, Mr. Escobar might order someone shot in a crowded plaza; in Cali, that person would simply disappear.

Thanks to Mr. Rodríguez’s savvy strategic moves, including a lucrative relationship with the Camorra crime syndicate in Italy, by the late 1980s the Cali cartel had surpassed its Medellín counterpart in its share of the global cocaine market.

At its peak, in the mid-1990s — after the police killed Mr. Escobar in a shootout and the Medellín cartel collapsed — Mr. Rodríguez’s cartel controlled about 80 percent of the U.S. cocaine market and 90 percent of Europe’s. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimated that the Cali cartel earned $7 billion a year in the United States alone.

Then it all began falling apart. With Mr. Escobar out of the way, the government turned its attention south, to Cali. After years of hiding, Mr. Rodríguez was arrested in 1995, discovered in a secret compartment behind a TV in one of his houses.

“You won,” he told the officers as he crawled out. “I surrender. Calm, boys. Don’t kill me. I am a man of peace.”

He and his brother, who was arrested soon after, were convicted of drug trafficking but given light sentences. They were then incarcerated in the same prison wing as many of their associates, allowing them to continue running their cartel.

After their release on a technicality in 2002, the United States demanded they be rearrested on new charges, then won their extradition. In 2006, the brothers pleaded guilty in a federal court in Miami to conspiracy to import cocaine and conspiracy to launder money, and each was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

“At one time, the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers oversaw one of the world’s most powerful criminal organizations,” Julie Myers, assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said after their conviction. “Today, these brothers rank as arguably the highest-level trafficking figures to ever occupy U.S. jail cells.”

Mr. Rodríguez after he was arrested in Colombia in 1995. Convicted, he was given a light sentence and released on a technicality in 2002.Credit… Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters

Gilberto Jose Rodríguez Orejuela was born on Jan. 31, 1939, in Mariquita, about 70 miles southeast of Bogotá, the Colombian capital. When he was a child his family moved to Cali, about 230 miles further south, where his father, Carlos Rodríguez, a painter, sought work. His mother, Ana Rita Orejuela, was a homemaker.

After leaving high school at 15, Gilberto took a job as a drugstore clerk. He was soon a manager, and at 25 he opened his own store. Along the way, he became involved in Cali’s criminal underworld, joining a kidnapping gang and entering the drug trade.

In the 1970s he and his brother helped organize a loose confederation of drug gangs into what came to be known as the Cali cartel. Less authoritarian than Mr. Escobar’s Medellín cartel, the Cali confederation cooperated on processing, shipments and distribution but otherwise gave its member gangs significant autonomy.

Still, as the most successful members, the Rodríguez brothers were first among equals. Miguel acted as a sort of chief executive for the cartel, overseeing day-to-day operations, while Gilberto was the strategic visionary. They also set the tone for the organization: no flashy parties, no flamboyant displays of wealth, and above all no unnecessary violence.

Mr. Rodríguez was likewise responsible for running the cartel’s legitimate business interests. It owned a chain of 400 drugstores, a pharmaceutical lab, ranches, a radio network and America, a soccer club in Cali; Mr. Rodríguez sat on bank boards and mingled with Colombia’s financial elite.

At first, he and Mr. Escobar got along; Jorge Ochoa Vázquez, a Medellín chief, accompanied Mr. Rodríguez n a 1984 trip to Europe, where they sought to open new markets. (They were arrested in Spain for trafficking and extradited to Colombia, but Mr. Rodríguez was found not guilty.)

Soon, though, the relationship between the two cartels soured. Aside from rivalries over North American markets, they disagreed over how to fight back when, in the late 1980s, the Colombian government undertook a campaign to stamp out the drug trade.

Mr. Escobar preferred war, and over a five-year period killed hundreds of police officers, politicians, lawyers and reporters. Mr. Rodríguez demurred, preferring to watch from the sidelines as his two major threats tore into each other.

Cali was not completely unscathed. According to Mr. Rodríguez, Mr. Escobar told him, “Whoever is not with us is against us,” and proceeded to attack Cali-owned businesses. Between 1987 and 1989 some 85 of Mr. Rodríguez’s drugstores were bombed, resulting in 27 deaths.

After Mr. Escobar’s death, Mr. Rodríguez told associates that he wanted to get out of the drug business, and even considered turning himself in for a lighter sentence. He seemed relieved when he was finally arrested.

“Nobody can put up with so much pressure,” he told prosecutors.

Along with his brother, who is incarcerated in a prison in Pennsylvania, Mr. Rodríguez is survived by his wife, Myriam Ramirez; his sisters, Rafaela Rodríguez and Amparo Rodríguez; seven children; and several grandchildren.

Mr. Rodríguez’s health declined in prison. He suffered two heart attacks and bouts with colon and prostate cancer, and he contracted Covid in 2021. He appealed for compassionate release in 2020, but a judge denied his request.

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