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June 15, 2003
This is the prologue to the book The Bullet or the Bribe: Taking Down Colombia's Cali Drug Cartel by Ron Chepesiuk, the story of the rise of the powerful Cali Cartel and the long and often frustrating campaign that U.S. and international law enforcement waged to take it down. The book details the cartel's rise to international prominence and the lifestyles of its godfathers, its efforts to buy Colombia, its death struggle with legendary Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar, its brilliant strategy to portray itself as the kinder, gentler drug cartel from Colombia, and the mistakes that ultimately led to the crumbling of its well-oiled organization. The book will be published by Praeger, a member of the Greenwood Publishing Group, in the fall of 2003.
"It's similar to, maybe, baking a cake."
— David Karasiewski, Forensic Chemist, DEA
The call that launched the biggest drug trafficking investigation in New York State Police (NYSP) history came on April 12, 1985. Bob Sears, a DEA agent in the Albany office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), groped for the switch on the bed lamp and squinted at the alarm clock on the end table. It was a little past 2 a.m. Sears fumbled with the phone and blurted: "This better be important."
The caller was Ken Cook, a friend for years, but Cook was also an investigator assigned to the Major Crime Units of Troop Six, NYSP, and he had worked with Sears on many joint investigations. This was no social call.
"There has been an explosion at a farm house in Minden," Cook explained. "We don´t know what happened. It could be a bomb factory...a meth lab. Barrels of chemicals are all over the place. It´s a mess. Maybe the DEA needs to go out and take a look." 1
Sears yawned and rubbed his warm bed. He had a better idea. "Come on, Ken, it´s almost morning. Can´t we sleep on it ´til tomorrow?" 2
But Cook persisted. "No, we need to go out there tonight while the scene is still hot." Sears knew well what Cook meant. Often, he would go out to a crime scene only to find that some young cop fresh out of the academy had left his hoof and paw prints all over the place. 3
Sears dragged himself out of bed, got dressed and drove out to the State Police Barracks in downtown Albany to rendezvous with Cook. During the one-hour drive to the farm, Sears and Cook speculated about what had happened. A bomb explosion did not make much sense, but neither did the meth lab theory. Minden was a small, sleepy hamlet of a few thousand inhabitants in upstate New York that seldom gave law enforcement much trouble. In fact, Cook could not recall when an incident in the Minden area looked serious enough to have an officer forsake his sleep and come out in the dead of night to investigate. Yeah, it was some other kind of accident, all right, but what? 4
At the scene, the bitter smell of chemicals permeated the air and almost singed the hair in their nostrils. About 50 to 75 yards away from their car, a house or some kind of dwelling was on fire, and firemen were still trying to hose it down. It was mass confusion, and none of the professionalism they hoped to see was in evidence. The firemen, Cook and Sears learned, where volunteers from the local county. Sure enough, the cops, who looked close to auditioning for a remake of a Keystones Cops movie, had not yet secured what could be a crime scene. Meanwhile, no crime scene investigators, akin to those seen on the popular TV series "CSI" had yet arrived to find the cause of the chaos and to see if there had been any loss of life. 5
Sears and Cook began poking around for themselves. In the wooden shed adjacent to the farmhouse they saw dozens of 55-gallon drums filled with chemicals they did not recognize. They took a quick peek inside a couple of the drums. Sears pulled out a pen and began to write down the names of the labels on his notepad. Some labels said acetone; others ether. Several drums had no labels. Nearby, they found case after case of what was labeled hydrochloric acid. There were also fire extinguishers, filter paper, gas masks, and bunches of hoses. They checked around the back of the shed and spotted a forklift.
They inspected the single-wide trailer about 50 yards away and observed a pot burning on the stove. The pot was hot and the liquid inside, still steaming. Something had been cooking within the last couple of hours. When the two investigators reached the farmhouse, they found walkie-talkies, drying racks, and what looked like financial ledgers. 6
What the hell do we have here?" Sears asked Cook. "It´s time I call the lab back at headquarters to see if they can tell us what the chemicals are." Sears marched back to the car and made the call. He described the scene and read off the names from his note pad. "What is it? What are we dealing with?" he asked. The answer made Sears wish he had not left his warm bed that night: " Jesus Christ, you´re in a cocaine-processing lab! Don´t touch anything or smell anything! Get the hell out of there! You can die!" 7
Sears and Cook lived. Later in the day, the NYSP got a search warrant. During the next several days, the NYSP and DEA worked closely together and began an extensive, professional investigation. DEA lab analysts examined the hundreds of pounds of the brown, burnt sludge found in the double-wide trailer, as well as the several pounds of the white, snowy looking material made soggy by the water from the firemen's hoses. They had a pretty good idea what it was, but it always good procedure to be thorough. 8
Their conclusion stunned the two law enforcement agencies. They had uncovered a massive cocaine-processing lab right in their back yard. Based on the amount of chemicals present, the lab could process about 250 kilos of cocaine, but as David Karasiewski, supervisory chemist at the DEA Mid Atlantic Laboratory in Washington, D.C., later testified, "Ether and acetone, the organic solvents used in the cocaine manufacturing process, can be used more times or several additional times. What I mean by this... if you have the proper glassware, you can continue to recycle these organic solvents." 9
But who was responsible for the cocaine lab? Who had the nerve, the organization, the know-how, the distribution network, the criminal enterprise to radically change the way drug trafficking is done? Cocaine, after all, is processed at labs in Colombia where the big drug trafficking syndicates known as cartels operated, not in rural USA. Traffickers had set up an extensive set of labs in the plains and jungle regions of Columbia, which they used to convert cocaine base to cocaine hydrochloride, or powdered cocaine. 10 The realization that the drug traffickers, wherever they came from, had transported cocaine paste to upstate New York to manufacture cocaine was mind blowing. Don't they have it backwards? Should they not first make the cocaine in Colombia and then ship the finished product to the U.S.?
That was the way it had been traditionally done, but in 1984, as the investigation following the Minden lab explosion revealed, the Colombian drug traffickers were changing their strategy, the result of intense pressure from the Colombian and U.S. governments. Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, the Colombian justice minister, had authorized a spectacular raid on a major cocaine processing plant known as Tranquilandia, located in Colombia´s barren southeast Llanos area in the Amazon Region and run by the powerful and violent Medellin Cartel. 11 The DEA had heard of a major shipment to Colombia of ether, a solvent like acetone and one of the essential ingredients in cocaine production. They secretly attached radio transmitters to two of the drums in the shipment and followed the signal via satellite from Chicago to Tranquilandia. The raid caught the traffickers by surprise. Forty workers were arrested and 10,000 barrels of chemicals and a billion dollars worth of cocaine confiscated. Soon afterwards, the price of cocaine on the street shot up, a sweet indication that the Tranquilandia operation had hurt the drug lords. 12
The Medellin cartel leadership was furious, and it ordered sicarios, hired Colombian contract killers, to murder Lara Bonilla. Colombian President Belisario Betancourt Cuertas declared a state of siege in Colombia and a "war without quarter" on the criminals. The Medellin Cartel, with its swagger and high profile, was the obvious target of Colombian government action, but the Cali Cartel's operations were disrupted as well. The leaders of Colombia´s two biggest drug trafficking organizations went into hiding and began moving their drug processing operations to neighboring countries. The DEA received information that Jose Santacruz Londono, one of the founding members of the Cali Cartel, and, as the DEA had learned, a key figure in the cartel´s distribution network, was in Mexico, where he was trying to establish new cocaine processing laboratories. 13
The U.S. government attacked the cocaine supply by placing restrictions on the number of chemicals used in cocaine manufacturing process that could be exported outside the U.S. The Colombian drug traffickers adapted when they realized the chemicals were easier to get in the U.S. than to smuggle to Colombia. In 1985, ether was selling for approximately $400 to $600 per 55-gallon drug in the U.S. In South America, the price was somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000. The U.S., moreover, had no reporting requirements for chemicals that were manufactured in the U.S. and stayed there. U.S. businesses that made shipments to foreign countries, on the other hand, had to report them. 14
In early June 1984, the Santacruz Londono organization sent a team to the rural town of Gibsonville, N.C., about 20 miles from Greensboro, to build a cocaine-processing lab. A lab in the Eastern U.S. would work out nicely because the biggest market for cocaine was in New York City and Santacruz and his associates in Cali, Colombia, controlled the distribution in the city. Like any good businessman, Santacruz treated the Gibsonville lab project as experimental to see if it could work.
The Santacruz Londono organization put Freddie Aguilera in charge of the project, who, in turn, sent underling Carlos Gomez and his associate Pedro Canales, a car salesman at the Rosenthal Chevrolet Dealership in Alexandria, Va., to see Al Ditto, a farmer in Gibsonville in February, 1984. Julio Harold Fargas, a petty drug dealer, had introduced Canales to Gomez. In early 1983, Fargas came by the Chevy dealership to look at cars. He could not speak good English, but that was no problem. He was introduced to Pedro Enrique Canales, one of the car salesmen who spoke fluent Spanish. Canales sold Fargas a car; they chatted some more and became friends. Eventually, Fargas persuaded Canales to help him sell a "little" cocaine. Canales would give Fargas the keys to a car on the lot, and he would put the cocaine in the trunk. A customer would "test drive" the car, and the cocaine disappeared when the car was brought back to the lot.
One day, Fargas was at the dealership when a farmer named Al Ditto from North Carolina came by to see his nephew and sell a few tee-shirts, moonshine, and other odds and ends he had in his truck. Fargas began to ask a lot of questions about Ditto and the area where he lived. Is North Carolina a farming place? Did Ditto have a farm? Did he grow his own vegetables? 15
Not long after the Ditto interrogation, Fargas offered Canales $3,000 to arrange a meeting between Al Ditto and Carlos Gomez so they could discuss a business deal. Canales agreed, and in February 1984 he and Gomez hopped a plane in Washington, D.C., and headed to see Ditto. Gomez toured Ditto´s entire farm, checking every detail out thoroughly. "This is perfect for the lab, but we'll need to install an exhaust fan to carry away the fumes made by the chemicals," Gomez told Canales. 16
Gomez did not speak English, so he asked Canales to tell Ditto up front what the farm was going to be used for. "No problem," said Ditto, and he agreed to do the work that had to be done to install the fan and convert the outbuildings into a cocaine-processing lab. Aguilera paid $110,000 in cash for the property, no questions asked. Two to three weeks later, Carlos drove to Allentown, Pa., to pick up the acetone for the lab.
In the summer, Gomez, his mistress Evelyn Dubon, and Fargas, who acted as the interpreter for the group's non English-speaking members, journeyed to Gibsonville to set up the lab and do a trial run. They were joined by two other Americans: John Wesley Martin, a handyman who was hired to make improvements to the barn and outbuildings, and Thomas Warren Hall, Ditto´s brother-in-law, who had brought in seven keys of cocaine paste from Miami for processing. The lab was not sophisticated, but it could get the job done. Later, Karasiewski told a court that an elaborate lab isn't needed to manufacture cocaine. "It´s similar to, maybe, baking a cake," was how the forensic chemist described the process. 17 Once the farm was readied, the lab was set to go. Workers wrapped the processed cocaine in plastic bags and carried it to a U-haul trailer, where it was hidden behind a wooden panel. The cocaine was then moved to New York City and sold for $6,000 a kilo. 18
The amount of cocaine processed and sold was small, but the cartel knew the lab concept could work. They had caught the cops asleep. In no time they would be flooding New York with thousands of kilos of snow. By January 1985, a larger team of at least 15 workers from Colombia and the U.S. were working at the Gibsonville lab and manufacturing 200 kilos of cocaine paste that was sold in the Big Apple. 19
The Cali Cartel was now convinced the project should go big time, and Freddie Aguilera began looking for a location closer to New York City. Why not near his sister, Consuelo Donovan, who lived with her American husband, Thomas, in Amsterdam, N.Y.? Aguilera recruited Thomas Donovan, and he arranged a meeting with Aguilera´s point man, Carlos Gomez, and a local real estate agent to look at farms in the area around Amsterdam. Shortly afterwards, Gomez settled on a 220-acre farm and gave $2,000 to Dubon, instructing her to make the deal. Before the closing, Aquilera gave Gomez an additional $110,000 in cash to pay off the property. Thomas Hall would act as the front man, and the cartel officially registered the farm in his name. 20 Hall was an U.S. citizen and his ownership of the property would raise little suspicion. Besides, the arrangement would also help shield Aguilera from potential evidence against him should the operation be exposed. He planned to use the farm to raise horses, Hall told his neighbors. 21
The Hauber family, who lived in Staten Island, owned the farm and had used it as a summer home, but they were ready to sell it. Fred Hauber met with Evelyn Dubon, who claimed to be an exile from Nicaragua, and Thomas Warren Hall, who posed as her infirm gringo uncle from North Carolina. The transaction took place in the second floor office of an Amsterdam lawyer. The meeting went smoothly until it came time for Dubon to make the payment. She pulled out $110,000 out of a cheap-looking airline travel bag and stacked the small denomination bills on the lawyer´s desk. Not the brightest of ideas. "At that point everything went out of the window because it was definitely out of the ordinary for that area," Huber later explained. 22
Huber hesitated and then refused to leave with the cash, fearing he might be robbed by the group or somebody outside working for it when he was leaving the office. "Relax," Duhon said. I´ll deposit the money in an Amsterdam bank and write you (Huber) a cashier´s check." 23
The cartel could not have settled on better place to run a clandestine and illicit operation involving many Hispanic workers, almost all of whom did not speak English. The Minden locals kept to themselves, minded their own business and did not normally contact authorities, if something suspicious happened.
"I know it's kind of unusual to have people who looked Hispanic and did not speak English to show up in a small town like Minden," said Pat Hynes, a NYSP police officer, who investigated the Minden lab. "The strangers from the farm would show up at the local hardware store and nobody paid them any attention. So yes, it was a perfect place for a cocaine processing lab." 24
After the closing in December 1984, the drug traffickers rented a big Ryder truck in Burlington, N.C. They loaded it with the chemicals, instruments, equipment, the cooking racks, and some processed cocaine and took it to Minden. They built a shed to store the chemicals and a double-wide trailer to house the workers and brought 230, 55-gallon drums of ether, acetone, and other highly hazardous precursor chemicals used in cocaine manufacturing. 25 Aguilera directed his workers to buy the building supplies needed to convert the farm into a lab. He called Bralda International and World Consultants Documentation, the storage company in New York City, where the organization stored the cocaine base and huge barrels of precursor chemicals. The gang outfitted a white 1985 Chevy van with false paneling and began transporting the materials and supplies from the storage companies to the Minden farm. 26
One day Aguilera called a meeting at the New York City apartment of his mistress, Elizabeth "Nena" Andrade-Londono, and told his associates that the police had followed him on the highway on one of his trips to Minden hauling cocaine base. He was lucky not to get caught, Aquilera told the gathering. In the future, we have to be careful what we say and where we say it, he warned. Always use pay phones; the cops could be tapping our lines. 27
On April 1, 1985, the Minden lab was ready. For nine days Aguilera and his associates processed about 1,539 kilograms of cocaine, which, in 1985 value, was worth more than $100 million before being cut or otherwise diluted for street sales. DEA chemists later determined that enough chemicals remained at Minden to produce 5,000 kilograms without restocking 28
The Cali Cartel believed it had hit the drug traffickers´ pot of gold. It could be months, or even years, if ever, before law enforcement would be on to them. But they never factored in bad luck. On its tenth day of operation, an electrical short sparked a fire. The workers frantically tried to put it out, but the extinguishers failed to operate. In a panic they fled on foot into the countryside. When the fire spread to some of the precursor chemicals, the lab exploded. Luckily, only a small portion of the 230, 55-gallon drums was in the lab at any one time. Most of the chemicals were stored in a nearby shed, which the firemen managed to reach just ahead of the flames. 29
"It could have been a disaster," revealed Craig A. Benedict, assistant U.S. attorney general for the Northern District of New York. "The chemicals at the lab had the explosive power of 63, 000 sticks of dynamite. Had they exploded, the workers, firemen, and anybody else in the area would have died." 30
The police picked up three of the workers trying to flag down passing motorists for a ride. All had cocaine residue on their clothing. Gomez fled on foot to Aguilera´s sister´s house, and from there, he drove to his apartment in Queens, N.Y. Aguilera had left minutes before the fire to call his bosses in Cali and report on how well the lab was doing. Returning to the farm, he spotted the fire and immediately headed for the big city. 31
A fire, an explosion and cops crawling around their former cocaine lab was not going to deter the Cali Cartel. Go ahead and find a good place for another lab, Santacruz instructed Aguilera. The lieutenant gathered the remnants of his Minden team and met in Gomez´s apartment. He paid off the members and began making plans for another lab. He directed Fargas to find a new farm. Within two-and-half-weeks of the Minden disaster, Aguilera had bought another site in rural Orange County, Va., for $160,000 under the name of an American, Robert Michael Cadiz. As with the Gibsonville and Minden farms, the traffickers made renovations on the Virginia property. This time workers installed sophisticated surveillance cameras at the farm´s entrance, as well as cut exhaust fans into the barn´s roof to release the ether and acetone fumes. They installed a large metal building to store the 55-gallon chemical drums. 32
From mid May to mid January, the Virginia lab ran smoothly, producing about 3,864 kilos of cocaine, but now the authorities were hot on Aguilera´s trail. The traffickers left plenty of evidence behind at Gibsonville and Minden for the authorities to analyze. Investigators found Santacruz Londono´s Cali phone number in the records. 33 They had confiscated record books and computer disks containing the names and addresses of dealers and customers and revealed how the product was being distributed. Evidence at Minden led authorities to Gibsonville. In analyzing the evidence found at the two places, the authorities were able to deduce that another lab was being built somewhere in Orange County, Va. 34
The DEA and the NYSP tipped off police in Orange County, telling them to look for Colombian individuals who had bought a farm in their county between the time period of May and early June, 1985, probably in the name of an American. Local police investigated and quickly discovered that a farm fitting the profile had been sold on May 22. They checked out court records to determine who had bought the property and flew over the property to take photographs. They found changes had been made to the property. It looked as if the new property owners had installed two air vents on the roof of the large metal shed.
The police set up surveillance from a fire tower close to the farm and began using binoculars and 30 and 60-power spottoscopes to observe activity on and about the farmhouse and metal shed. One day, they spotted workers taking boxes out of the shed and putting them in the back of a pick up truck.
The police had seen enough. On July 1, they obtained a search warrant and the next morning raided the farm. A Virginia State Police armored vehicle sped up to the farmhouse, police men jumped out and everyone in the house was ordered to get out. When only three people obeyed the order, police used tear gas to force out three others. The police later learned that one person escaped. Inside, police found a computer, telephone, typing equipment, weapons, including a shot gun, MM-1 rifle, a .9mm pistol, a 25-automatic pistol, and a telescope pointed in the direction of the farm´s front entrance. In the shed they discovered 86 barrels of ether and acetone, more than 55 pounds of cocaine base, and a small amount of processed cocaine. Police later learned that shortly before the raid, the most recent batch of processed cocaine — about 1000 pounds, had been delivered to Aguilera. 35
As the investigation continued, the authorities discovered other processing labs. Two days later, they arrested 10 Colombian nationals in clandestine cocaine labs in New York State and Virginia: a 47-acre tract at 6805 Sound Avenue in Baiting Hollow, Long Island; a 66-acre site in Fly Creek, N.Y., which is located about 90 miles west of Albany; and another property in Gordonsville, Va. The labs all fit the same pattern, and the authorities seized another pile of records, 147 pounds of cocaine, 100 pounds of cocaine base, more than 5,000 gallons of chemicals, and sophisticated equipment criminals use to monitor DEA and police activities. All 10 suspects were charged with conspiracy to import and sell cocaine and faced a maximum of 15 years in prison. 36
Authorities continued to search for Aguilera and Gomez. Ten months later, DEA agents spotted Carlos Gomez and Elizabeth Dubon during surveillance in the Whitestone area of Queens. Using a search warrant, they arrested the two in their home at 1905 Clintonville Street. Inside the house, they found 33 pounds of cocaine, which the police later gave a street value of $20,250,000, a wing-master shotgun, equipment for making bricks of cocaine, a machine gun threaded with a silencer, a short-barrel shotgun labeled "law enforcement use only," a New York City police lieutenant´s badge, and fake passports and drivers licenses. 37
In January 1987, Gomez and Dubon pleaded guilty in the Eastern District of New York to distributing and manufacturing narcotics. The following May, Gomez pleaded guilty to the same charge in the Middle District Court of Eastern District of New York. Fred Aguilera, the Colombian mastermind of the biggest cocaine lab manufacturing operation ever uncovered in the U.S., fled and became a fugitive. 38
In busting the labs and keeping thousands of kilos of cocaine off the streets, U.S. law enforcement had won a victory in the War on Drugs. Aguilera and Gomez, however, were two small, irreplaceable parts of a well-oiled criminal enterprise. Jose Santacruz Londono, the mastermind of the labs, would find new foot soldiers and new ways of getting his product to the streets of America. Meanwhile, law enforcement had another unsettling glimpse of the enemy that authorities were now calling the Cali Cartel. By now, many of the veteran investigators tracking the cartel had concluded it was unlike any criminal organization they had investigated: one combining the best management and marketing strategies of multinational corporations with a Mafia's ruthlessness and a terrorist organization's secrecy and compartmentalization.
"Minden reinforced our belief that cocaine was overrunning New York State," said Tom Constantine, who served as director of the NYSP from 1985-1992 and later as DEA Administrator from 1994 to 1997. "The Cali Cartel was running their operation like a legitimate business — getting as close to the market as possible. We stepped up our efforts to go after the cartel." 39
The labs opened everybody´s eyes," said Bill Mante, a former NYSP detective who worked on the post-Minden investigation. "Here they are now right on top of us," Mante recalled. "The balls. We felt the Cali Cartel had a good 10-year start on us. We saw a huge potential for disaster if we didn´t hit them hard and aggressively." 40
During the next decade, law enforcement would use everything in its arsenal to take down this powerful and enterprising Mafia. Indeed, the Cali Cartel would prove to be the most formidable adversary in the history of international drug trafficking.
How is cocaine processed? First, the drug traffickers buy coca plants from coca growers in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia, pick the flowers and buds off the plant, which is then mashed and ground into a thick mesh. The paste is extracted and taken to special hidden processing labs, such as the ones at Minden and Fly Creek, where the mesh is combined with other chemicals and cooked until it becomes the highly potent white power known as cocaine. During the process, the paste is dissolved in a solvent like acetone and ether, and a precipitate, such as hydrochloric acid is added, which causes the cocaine to crystallize and fall out of solution. Heat fans and microwave ovens are used to dry the precipitant. After the cocaine is processed, it is turned into large bricks called kilos. One brick is equal to 1000 grams of cocaine. See also, Jack Riley, Snow Job: The War Against International Drug Trafficking, ibid. , p.185.
Editor's Note: The prologue appearing on Crime Magazine is an uncorrected proof of the prologue that will appear when the book is published. As a result, this version of the prologue may differ slightly from the printed version.
About the Author
Ron Chepesiuk, a Rock Hill, S.C., freelance journalist, has been reporting on international drug trafficking since 1987. He is the author of Hard Target; The U.S.'s War on International Drug Trafficking , 1992-1997 (McFarland, 1998) and The War on Drugs: An International Encyclopedia, ABC--CLIO, 1999), which contains a forward by former Colombian President (1998-2002), Andres Pastrana Arango. He is the author of 16 other books and more than 2,700 articles that have appeared in such publications as USA Today, The National Review, New York Times Syndicate and Woman' World. In 2003, Chepesiuk was a Fulbright Scholar and visiting professor at Chittagong University in Chittagong, Bangladesh.
Click here for the Greenwood Publishing Group's page on The Bullet or the Bribe: Taking Down Colombia's Cali Drug Cartel by Ron Chepesiuk.