By the Blouin News Politics staff

Big sanctions delisting sign of moribund Cali Cartel?

by in Americas.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On June 19 the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced that it had removed 308 “individuals and entities from the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list (SDN List)” – people and groups that were regarded as affiliated with the Cali Cartel, a Colombian drug trafficking organization. This is the largest single delisting (as Treasury’s release points out) in the history of the Treasury Department’s sanctions programs.

The reason for the delisting? According to Treasury, the Cali Cartel has suffered a financial collapse.

A quick overview of this world-famous criminal entity is in order. The cartel emerged during the 1980s, obtaining its name due to its origins in Cali, a city in Western Colombia. At the height of its power, the syndicate was a strong opponent to the Medellin Cartel, led by the infamous Pablo Escobar. (See this August 1988 report from El Pais). Print media from the late 1980s and early 1990s also recount the influence of this dangerous organization. In 1995, the U.S. government declared that the Cali Cartel was responsible for 80% of the cocaine being trafficked into the country.

But over the next decade, the Cali Cartel suffered various defeats, both at the hands of rival criminal groups and operations by the U.S.-backed Colombian security agencies. Extradition hurt the group as well: in December 2004, Cartel boss Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela (AKA “The Chess Player”) was extradited to the U.S. This was a significant development: Orejuela was the biggest Colombian drug player extradited up until that point in time — he was wanted by the U.S. on charges of cocaine trafficking and money laundering. In 2006, Gilberto and his brother Miguel, who had also been extradited, declared themselves guilty of trafficking cocaine in a Miami court. They were sentenced to 30 years in prison. (I would recommend reading Los Rodriguez Orejuela: El Cartel de Cali y Sus Amigos for more information about the life and crimes of the Orejuela family and the Cali Cartel).

The Colombian media has been quick to report the decision of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to remove the 308 names from its sanctions list. The renowned Colombian magazine Semana has extensively discussed the cartel’s historical influence in the South American country. It explains that the cartel had a “spider web” of enterprises under its control, such as investment firms and a chain of drug stores called Drogas La Rebaja. Even more, the popular Colombian football team America de Cali was also placed in OFAC’s list of sanctions in 1997, when U.S. officials demonstrated that the club was a conduit in the cartel’s money laundering operations — it was controlled by the aforementioned Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, who had purchased the team in the early 1980s. The club spent 16 years on OFAC’s list and was finally removed in 2013.

It is important to note how the removal of these 308 names from OFAC’s list is being reported. Understandably, the Treasury press release has an optimistic tone, arguing “the primary goal for sanctions is behavioral change; the people and entities delisted today credibly showed that they have stopped engaging in sanctionable activities.” On the other hand, a Semana commentary is more ironic, stating that the “paradox” of the end of the Cali Cartel is that while Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, along with five of their children, are now in prison, the enterprises that were founded with drug-money and utilized for criminal ventures “are now in ‘liberty.’”

Ultimately, the legacy of the apparently defunct cartel will be one of violence. A December 2013 report in El Pais discusses the scars that that city of Cali still has to live with due to the cartel wars in the 1980s and 1990s. Namely, the article mentions the explosion of a car bomb in Cali on May 13, 1990, allegedly carried out by the Medellin Cartel during its turf war with the Cali Cartel. The attack killed nine and injury 45 people.

It is debatable to what extent OFAC is correct in removing those 308 names from its list of sanctioned entities and persons, particularly as the Colombian media hints that they profited from drug-money. We will have to trust that the OFAC’s sources are reliable and those involved are no longer associated with illicit activities. Stranger things have happened.