Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, the notorious former leader of Colombia’s drug trafficking Cali Cartel, has died in a US prison at the age of 83, his lawyer has said.
Rodriguez Orejuela was serving time at a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina.
Sometimes known by his alias “the chess player”, he was considered to be one of the world’s biggest drug lords following the 1993 death of Pablo Escobar, the leader of the rival Medellin Cartel.
Along with his younger brother Miguel – who is also imprisoned in the United States – Rodriguez Orejuela ran the Cali Cartel out of the western Colombian city of the same name.
After his capture in 1995, Rodriguez Orejuela was sentenced to 15 years in prison in Colombia, but was released after only seven.
He was then arrested again in 2003 and held in a Colombian prison until being extradited to the United States in December 2004.
“We were very sad to learn about his passing last night. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time,” his lawyer David Oscar Markus said on Wednesday.
Rodríguez Orejuela and his brother, Miguel, built a huge criminal enterprise that succeeded the Medellin Cartel once run by drug lord Pablo Escobar. Both operations used violence and killings extensively for intimidation and enforcement.
The Rodríguez Orejuela brothers were captured in 1995 and imprisoned in Colombia. At that point, Colombian law prohibited the extradition of its nationals. But under pressure from the US, Colombia lifted that ban in 1997.
The brothers were found to have been continuing to traffic from prison and criminal charges were filed in Miami and New York. In 2004, Gilberto was extradited; Miguel was extradited the next year.
Under a 2006 plea deal that the brothers reached with federal prosecutors in Miami, more than two dozen family members were removed from a US Treasury Department list designating them as part of the Cali Cartel. That spared some of them from prosecution for obstruction of justice or money laundering and also allowed legitimate family businesses in Colombia to continue operating.
Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela’s prison release date had been scheduled for February 9, 2030. His younger brother is serving his sentence at a Pennsylvania prison.
Perhaps the biggest legacy of the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers was their ability to quietly corrupt Colombian politics, delivering shoeboxes of cash to Liberal Party President Ernesto Samper’s campaign prior to his 1994 election as president and buying off much of Congress.
The Cali Cartel once controlled 80 percent of the global cocaine market, according to a contemporary report from the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
While painted in the popular press as less violent than Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel, the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers were later accused of paying off journalists to suppress news of Cali Cartel-related killings.