Jorge Salcedo Cabrera: The Cali Cartel's Secret Spy Currently In Witness Protection

Colombia is at the heart of the international cocaine trade since the late 1970s. According to Guinness Book of World Records, the country produces 70% of cocaine in the world, and the number increases year after year. The South American country also leads in the number of coca plantations, the drug's base product, and most of them are in national parks and indigenous reserves. Currently, four Mexican drug cartels buy most drugs produced in Colombia and sell them to the United States (via Reuters).

The history of drug cartels in Colombia has inspired multiple movies and TV shows, such as "Narcos," "Blow," and "Infiltrator." It is easy to understand the fascination for it. Behind the illegal business, there is a well-organized and well-financed structure created by the infamous Pablo Escobar. The multimillionaire business also triggered the rivalry between drug cartels and set up betrayals. Spies worked as informants for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Jorge Salcedo Cabrera was one of them, and he helped bring down a whole cartel in Colombia in the 1990s.

The rivalry between drug cartels in Colombia

In the 1970s, Colombian dealers started selling small amounts of cocaine to the United States. As the demand increased, they had to find new ways to smuggle cocaine inside the country. Traffickers invested in sophisticated laboratories and in private airplanes to deliver their drugs overseas. It was the beginning of the Medellin Cartel, created by Pablo Escobar, which became the major drug cartel in Colombia (via Britannica).

In the late 1980s, Escobar had to deal with competition in his business: the Cali cartel, founded by the Rodriguez  brothers and Santacruz, known as "Los Caballeros de Cali" ("The Gentlemen of Cali"). The Medellin and the Cali cartels had different approaches. Escobar had a reputation for being extremely violent, extravagant and enjoying the spotlight. The Cali cartel invested their money in multiple legal businesses, made political alliances, and worked quietly.

In the early 1990s, the Cali cartel controlled 90% of the cocaine supply in the world. "While everyone was focused on Pablo, this other approach to drug trafficking was forming, which is more corporate, more secretive," "Narcos" executive producer Peter Friedlander said (via France 24).

Aiming to undermine the Medellin cartel and avoid being arrested, some Cali cartel members helped the DEA track down Escobar, who was killed in 1993. The Orejuela brothers were arrested in 1995. Other cartels filled the void left by the drug lords, but they could never match them in power and influence.

Jorge Salcedo became an informant for the DEA

Jorge Salcedo is a Colombian civil engineer who worked in the Army during the 1980s. In 1989, he was summoned by the Carli cartel to a meeting. "I had to go. It was not an invitation I could refuse," he said. "In Colombia, even honest people have to deal with the cartels." (via Seattle Times). During the meeting, the Orejuela brothers (Gilberto is pictured above) revealed that Escobar threatened their families, and they wanted to bring him down. Salcedo had to protect their families and help to destroy Escobar.

Salcedo led a team of 150 people, who were responsible for protecting the drug lord's families. He also planned assaults against Escobar and his family. The most ambitious of them was when he tried to bomb the prison when Escobar was arrested in El Salvador.

According to Salcedo, things got worse after Escobar's death. The Orejuela brothers started to believe everyone was a traitor and became extremely violent. In 1994, Salcedo saw Miguel strangle four people, and that was when things changed for him. Salcedo called the CIA using a public phone and started working as an informant to the DEA.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government increased the pressure on the Colombian government to arrest the billionaire drug lords. The Orejuela brothers were difficult to track, and only 10 people knew their location. When the cartel said that Salcedo had to kill Guillermo Pallomari, the cartel's chief accountant and a close friend, he had to make a bold move.

Jorge Salcedo is in the witness protection program

Instead of killing Pallomari, Salcedo called the federal police and told them where Miguel Orejuela was. The drug lord was not there, but the police found 30,000 checks that were supposed to be sent to police officers, reporters and 150 politicians (via Seattle Times).

Salcedo kept working as a spy for the DEA, and Miguel was arrested four weeks after the failed raid. Salcedo and his family are now under the witness protection program, and they received new identities, and few people know where they are. Years later, he was a consultant for "Narcos" and worked closely with the showrunner Eric Newman. He was portrayed in the series by Matias Varela (above).

In a rare interview, Salcedo said starting a new life in the U.S. was not easy. "I was already in my late 40s. So even though I am an engineer and I have a degree and all that, it was in my name — my old name. So I realized I couldn't use any of those to get a job with any experience that I could show — in order to eliminate all sources of being found. So I had to give up" (via Entertainment Weekly).

Salcedo, who is now in his late 60s, said that he had the means to start his own engineering company. The former cartel member says he is not proud of his former job, but he is proud of helping to arrest Miguel and bringing down the cartel.