Page last updated at 09:27 GMT, Saturday, 4 December 2004

Profile: Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela

Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, once one of the world's most powerful criminals, has been extradited to the US to face drug smuggling and money-laundering charges.

The BBC News website looks back at the life of crime of a Colombian sought for more than a decade by Washington.

An officer (left) removes Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela's handcuffs as he is put on a US-bound plane
Gilberto (right) was once worth billions of dollars
Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela - together with his younger brother Miguel - led the Cali drugs cartel, at its height believed to be responsible for 80% of the global cocaine trade.

He earned his nickname, the Chess Player, for his ability to stay ahead of his rivals and outwit the authorities.

But his luck ran out in 1995, when police swooped on his luxury apartment in Cali and reportedly found him crouching in a wardrobe.

At the time, extradition was banned in Colombia and Rodriguez Orejuela probably believed he would serve his time and then walk free.

In fact, freedom came earlier than expected when a Colombian judge decided to release him in 2002 for good behaviour. This provoked outrage in Colombia and the authorities re-arrested him four months later on new drug trafficking charges.

As well as his cunning, Rodriguez Orejuela was known for his smooth manners - bribery rather than violence was his preferred method of operation.

This did not stop his organisation from engaging in bloody turf wars with rivals in the drug trade, particularly Pablo Escobar's Medellin cartel.

Financial success

Rodriguez Orejuela founded the cartel in the 1970s with Jose Santacruz-Londono, who was shot dead by police in 1996.

While their Medellin rivals gained a reputation for their violent methods, the Cali men posed as businessmen, earning public respect in the region.

They invested money from the drugs trade in legitimate businesses in Colombia and the US, and Rodriguez Orejuela liked to describe himself as an "honest drugstore magnate", a reference to the chain of chemists owned by the family.

Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela in a file photo
Brother Miguel is in a Colombian jail
Of the two brothers, Gilberto was known to be the more cerebral, with a passion for Colombian poetry and football and with friends in high places.

He was said to be responsible for the strategic, long-term planning of the organisation. Miguel, known as the Master, ran the day-to-day operations.

The operation was without doubt very successful. In 1995, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimated they had annual profits of $8bn.


Rather than fight the government of the day, the Cali cartel established good relations with it and was not as actively pursued as its Medellin rival.

Bribes secured friends in very high places - even a president was accused of receiving campaign money from the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers.

President Ernesto Samper was later cleared by Congress, but his campaign manager and defence minister was convicted in connection with the case.

The police, for their part, are said to have referred to the Cali traffickers as the "gentlemen" because of their style, dubbing the Medellin operatives "the hoodlums".

The Rodriguez Orejuela brothers are also said to have gained the respect of other traffickers, who always used the honorific Don when addressing them.

However, relations with rival groups were often far from friendly.


In the early 1980s, the Cali and Medellin cartels decided to work together to fight kidnappings by guerrilla groups.

They were also reported to have agreed to divide up the lucrative US market for their cocaine.

But relations between the two cartels soon broke down.

Dozens of drug dealers, gang members and ordinary citizens were killed in bloody turf wars in the 1980s.

The Rodriguez Orejuela brothers were widely believed to be behind the group known as Pepes - or People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar - responsible for the deaths of more than 60 of the drug baron's relatives and associates.

It was Escobar's death in 1993 that gave the Cali traffickers the monopoly of the world drug market.

By 1995, the DEA believed them to be responsible for 80% of the world's cocaine trade. They were also thought to be making inroads into the heroin trade.

But Gilberto's arrest in 1995 marked the beginning of the end. Miguel was caught a year later and by 1996 the cartel's seven leaders were dead or behind bars.

Gilberto, now a grey-haired 65-year-old, has become the highest profile criminal ever extradited from Colombia to the US.

Colombian drug baron extradited
04 Dec 04 |  Americas
US goes after Cali cocaine bosses
24 Dec 03 |  Americas

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