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Bringing Down the Cali Cartel: “Narcos” Season 3

Still from “Narcos.”

Last December, I recommended Netflix’s “Narcos” to CounterPunch readers with the qualification that it had political problems. After having just finished watching Season Three, which deals with the Cali cartel (seasons 1 and 2 were about the hunt for Pablo Escobar), I can only repeat my endorsement for a thoroughly entertaining and frequently accurate portrayal of the attempts to bring down Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, the brothers who ran the Cali cartel.

The series is based to a large extent on William Rempel’s “At the Devil’s Table”, a 2011 book whose subtitle “The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel” refers to Jorge Salcedo who was chief of security for the Rodríguez brothers. Rempel’s book is a redemption tale as its protagonist decides to become an informer for the Colombian security forces and the DEA after seeing sicarios (hitmen) kill one of the cartel’s enemies. He was happy to keep his bosses safe from the law’s grasp through sophisticated counter-surveillance strategies, especially when the pay was very good, but drew the line at torture and murder.

Given the risks of going undercover against the cartel, much of the drama in Season Three revolves around Salcedo’s high-stakes game. His motivation was not to get a handsome reward for his efforts but to simply return to a normal life. Resignation from the cartel was not an option, especially when they relied on you for security. However, if he was ever found out, the consolation prize would be suffocation by a plastic bag wrapped tightly around his head, the preferred execution method in such circles.

The tension mounts exquisitely from episode to episode as Salcedo manages to keep one step ahead of his bosses. Although the politics of both Salcedo as an individual and of the Colombian drug wars are highly distorted, Season Three of Narcos is television at its best. In a month of trying to find an American movie worthy of a nomination for NYFCO’s best of 2017 award, I only wish that the creative team behind the Netflix series had some clout in Hollywood, especially given the artistic and gender deficits starkly on display at The Weinstein Company.

In the early 90s, there was a virtual war between the Medellin and Cali cartels that was accurately described in Seasons One and Two of Narcos. Originally aligned with Cali, Pablo Escobar broke off and started his own cartel in the same way that a corporate chief might decide to leave a company in order to start a new one to compete with the one he has left. To a degree, the Rodriguez brothers were part of that corporate world having been successful businessmen before they got into the cocaine trade. They owned a pharmacy chain in Colombia that was profitable enough to allow them to live comfortable and privileged lives but as profit-seeking entrepreneurs, the drug business was too lucrative to ignore. Were they morally deficient? Probably no more so than Joseph Kennedy whose initial fortunes were made as a bootlegger.

Season Three begins with a gathering of the Cali drug dealers and their partners in the North Valley cartel that was as infamous for its violence as the Medellin cartel. Addressing the gangsters around a long conference table, Gilberto Rodriguez urges them to surrender to the government. In exchange for a light prison sentence and an exit from the cocaine business, they would be able to retain all the money that had amassed over the years. This did not sit well with the newcomers to the trade who grumbled that the Rodriguez brothers had a much bigger nest egg.

The plot revolves around several conflicts. Salcedo’s tense cat-and-mouse games with his bosses. The North Valley bosses trying to destroy their erstwhile allies in Cali. The DEA’s turf war with the Colombian state that was committed to a peaceful resolution of the drug war even if it failed to meet American standards of criminal justice. Even worse, a good portion of the state was largely in the back pocket of the Cali cartel and protected it from arrest. In order to destroy the cartel and gain the independence that would allow him to return to civilian life, Salcedo bent every effort to track down the finances of the cartel that would condemn the leaders to life sentences and shut down their operations.

To create a satisfying drama, it is necessary to have a hero even if in following postmodernist conventions he or she is flawed. The Narcos script bends the stick too far in the heroism direction in an effort to create sympathy for Salcedo. While the series is based on former L.A. Times reporter and editor William Rempel’s gripping book, it omits key aspects that place Salcedo much more in the militaristic vein than is ever reflected in the series. If we only relied on the series, we would have no idea that he was hired by the Rodriguez brothers to organize an attack on Pablo Escobar, when he was behind bars in the prison he constructed with his own drug money. In exchange for a light prison term that would assuage the politicians, Escobar demanded a prison that served as a country club for him and his top lieutenants..

Salcedo was a veteran of the Colombia military who had a degree in mechanical engineering as well as expertise in electronic surveillance that he honed as a soldier. Among the various businesses he started in civilian life was as a supplier of high-tech gadgets to the Colombia military that could be used in the war against the FARC and the ELN. After returning from a London exhibition held by military suppliers, he contacted the army about night-vision gear, encrypted radios, and surveillance devices. In a meeting with a general, he was asked about a business card in his wares that belonged to David Tomkins, one of the arms dealers who had a long history as a mercenary.

Since Salcedo was fluent in English, the general made him an offer that was hard to refuse. If he would hire Tomkins to recruit a group of trusted mercenaries for a raid on a FARC base deep within the jungle, he would get paid for his efforts. When the British commandos arrived in Colombia, they were welcomed by both the military and the Medellin cartel that was seeking to destroy the FARC. In the end, the raid was called off because it could create a political backlash. Yet Salcedo’s technical and organizational skills were not lost on both sides in the drug wars.

Salcedo was approached by the Rodriguez brothers to not only supervise their security guards, who were as well-trained and well-equipped as Secret Service in Washington but to take offensive action against Pablo Escobar—the main threat to their business and their families. Since Salcedo hated Escobar, who by 1989 had a reputation worse than Attila the Hun, he had few qualms about taking a job with the Cali cartel that was benign in comparison to Escobar. It was only after he became an eyewitness to their savagery that he decided to go undercover.

To keep you at the edge of your seats, the series introduces fictional elements that would have you believe that bullets were flying on a nonstop basis. In fact, there are almost no gun battles in Rempel’s account except for a Medellin night raid on the people attending a soccer match at the estate of Pacho Herrera, a partner to the Rodriguez brothers who was an out-of-the-closet gay man and a vicious killer. In the penultimate episode of Narcos, Salcedo has been found out and taken to Miguel Rodriguez’s stronghold where he is taking his last breath under the plastic bag wrapped around his head until Rodriguez is forced to flee to safety as the cops close in. In reality, Salcedo was fired by Rodriguez’s son, an attorney, and never had a finger laid on him, even though he was in constant danger of being murdered if found out. The series is one of those “inspired by true events” and not intended to be a documentary. I can certainly recommend a NACLA article by Steven Cohen that rips Season Three for its political deficits but as a film and TV reviewer, I have somewhat different criteria.

In the course of his investigations, Salcedo discovered that Miguel Rodriguez had a secret compartment in his desk that concealed financial records documenting payoffs to cops, the military brass, government officials and most explosively $6 million in payoffs to Colombia’s president at the time, one Ernesto Samper. After a raid on Rodriguez’s apartment in a high-rise, the agents were able to secure the documents that would ostensibly bring down the cartel and the president. The cartel did collapse, mostly as a result of the two brothers being sentenced to long prison terms but Samper stayed in office since it was only the Colombia Congress that could have removed him. As it was filled with Samper supporters, the charges were found wanting.

From the evidence of the American characters in Narcos, you would get the impression that the elimination of cocaine imports into the USA was as important to its survival in the early 90s as the war on terror is today. Seen in Orwellian terms, the presence of an external enemy is what keeps society in thrall to its ruling class. It began with the Axis during WWII and then it was the Commies; afterwards it was Manuel Noriega, Pablo Escobar and the Rodriguez brothers. Finally, we end up today with ISIS and al-Qaeda as a mortal threat to the homeland, alternating with North Korea.

The Clinton administration did take measures against Samper. It decertified his administration in 1996 and 1997 and imposed sanctions that included the suspension of 50 percent of U.S. aid and the revocation of his visa. Despite Jesse Helms practically calling for Samper’s head, the Washington Post reported the words of a senior administration official on June 30, 1996: “Our objective is not to remove the president. The options on the table are aimed at pressing the Colombian government to deliver more aggressive action [in the drug war].”

Apparently, in taking stock of Samper’s importance to their investments in Colombia, American big business decided that it was better off with the devil they knew. Washington accomplished its main goals in the drug war, however. Samper put a U.S.-supported cop in charge of the national police, strengthened money-laundering laws and reinstated extradition, something that drug-lords dreaded. He also stepped up coca eradication in FARC-controlled areas, hoping to kill two birds with one stone.

Some elements of the Colombia bourgeoisie sought Samper’s ouster since news of the Cali cartel bribes undermined his legitimacy to such a degree that it would endanger the country’s stock market and dissuade foreign investors. More than a 1,000 businessmen rallied in Medellin in 1996 calling for his resignation. There was even talk of a general strike by the bourgeoisie to topple Samper. When their delegates approached the American ambassador for American support in a military coup, he refused. Unlike Venezuela today or Honduras during Obama’s first term, Samper was simply too key to imperialist interests to overthrow.

President Clinton’s sanctions cut deeply but not so deep as to impact American investments in one of the most neoliberal countries in all of Latin America. Almost 60 U.S.-based transnationals were based in Colombia in 1996. (This finding and those that follow below can be found in William Avilés’s article “The Democratic-Peace Thesis and U.S. Relations with Colombia and Venezuela”. He is the author of “Global Capitalism, Democracy, and Civil-Military Relations in Colombia”, a work that argues that changes in the world economy necessitated a smaller military footprint in Colombia and other countries that were being transformed by a globalized economy.)

Exxon spent more than $7.66 million on lobbying for the status quo in Colombia. As part of the U.S.-Colombia Business partnership that included Occidental, Enron, BP, and Colgate-Palmolive, Rex Tillerson’s company preferred stability above all else. A military coup might unleash social unrest that would jeopardize a well-oiled profit-making enterprise.

To give you an idea of the preference for capitalist order rather than shock-provoking coups, Bill Clinton’s VP Al Gore probably advised the White House against a Panama-type resolution of the crisis in Colombia. In 1996, Gore controlled $250,000 of Occidental stock and must have been grateful to the company for the $500,000 it contributed to his campaign and the Democratic Party combined between 1992 and 2000.

In a 2000 Nation Magazine article, Ken Silverstein reported on the close ties to the Gore family and Occidental that sought drilling rights on land belonging to the U’Wa, an Indigenous group that had clashed with the FARC, but whose biggest problems were with oil companies, at one point threatening mass suicide over incursions from Occidental or any other oil company. Ken wrote:

On February 15 an Occidental vice president, Lawrence Meriage, testified before a House subcommittee in favor of the package, saying that Colombia’s military “lack mobility, equipment and, perhaps most serious, they lack the intelligence-gathering capabilities afforded to their better-funded adversaries.” Meriage took the opportunity to denounce opposition to his company’s Samore project, which he said is limited to “extremists” in Colombia and “several fringe nongovernmental organizations in the US.” The latter–which Meriage didn’t name but which include the Rainforest Action Network and Project Underground–are “de facto allies of the subversive forces that are attacking oil installations, electric power stations and other legitimate business enterprises,” the Occidental executive said.

The Clinton Administration’s cozy relationship with Occidental stands in sharp contrast to its posture toward the U’was. Robert Perez of the U’was met with a number of members of Congress during his April visit but failed, despite repeated requests, to gain an audience with Gore. The same thing happened in 1997, when Gore stiffed Roberto Cobaria, a tribal official then visiting the capital. “We can generally get meetings with the Administration, but it’s a question of who comes to the meetings,” says David Rothschild of Amazon Alliance, who accompanied Cobaria during his 1997 Washington trip. “We rarely get anyone other than low-ranking officials. That gives you an idea of the level of interest the Administration has in the issue.”

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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