For more than 20 years, the Cali cartel saturated U.S. streets with cocaine, ruining neighborhoods and lives while reaping millions in cash. Efforts to combat the influx of drugs from Colombia were often stymied by the careful organization and execution of the drug trade. Through the use of bribery, terrorist structures, and legitimate business practices, the cartel rose to become a serious threat to Colombian society’s fragile stability, while providing over 70% of the world’s cocaine to various markets. It took more than two decades and a global effort, spearheaded by U.S. law enforcement, to topple this notorious criminal organization.
The rise and fall of one of Colombia’s most notorious drug cartels is a story of how organized crime can function at the most sophisticated levels, yet still be taken down by the very forces it seeks to evade. This book vividly examines the Cali Cartel, providing unique insight into the history of international trafficking, organized crime, and U.S. drug policy. Relying on first hand accounts, interviews, and DEA records, The author brings the story to life, illustrating how drug traffickers operate and why they are so difficult to stop. In detailing law enforcement’s biggest takedown, this book describes how such transnational criminal organizations must be dismantled, and why drug trafficking continues to be an important problem in the United States. The fall of the cartel also provides lessons for law enforcement efforts to combat terrorists and other formidable criminal organizations.
It’s similar to baking a cake. – David Karasiewski, forensic chemist, DEA
THE CALL CAME in the dead of night. Bob Sears groped for the switch on his bed lamp and squinted at the alarm clock on the end table. It was just past 2 A.M. As an agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Albany, New York State, Sears was used to irregular hours, but that didn’t make it any easier. He fumbled with the telephone and blurted, “This better be important.” The caller was Ken Cook, a longtime friend and investigator assigned to the Major Crime Unit of Troop Six, the New York State Police (NYSP). He had worked with Searson many joint investigations.
This was no social call. “There has been an explosion at a farmhouse in Minden,” said Cook. “We don’t know what happened. It could be a bomb factory or 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.”
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 till tomorrow?” 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. So in the early hours of 12 April 1985, Sears dragged himself out of bed, got dressed, and drove out to the state police barracks in downtown Albany to rendezvous with Cook. He had no inkling that he was heading into the biggest drug trafficking investigation in New York State Police history.
During the one-hour drive to the farm, the two men 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, about sixty miles from Albany. It 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? At the scene, the bitter smell of chemicals permeated the air and almost singed the hair in their nostrils.
About fifty 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 evident. The firemen, Cook and Sears learned, were volunteers from the local county. Sure enough, the cops, who seemed to be auditioning for a remake of a Keystone Cops movie, had not yet secured what could be a crime scene. Meanwhile no crime scene investigators – the kind 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.
Sears and Cook began poking around for themselves. In a wooden shed adjacent to the farmhouse they saw dozens of fifty-five-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 also inspected a double-wide trailer about fifty yards away and observed a pot burning on the stove. The pot was hot and the liquid inside was 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. “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 notepad. “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.”