• Mon. Sep 25th, 2023


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Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, Colombian Drug Lord, Dies at 83

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.