Facebook Twitter



In more prosperous days, drug traffickers hosted village festivals, providing food and liquor to peasants who toiled on their ranches in the lush countryside north of Cali.

Small planes stuffed with cocaine skidded off dirt airstrips hidden in sugarcane fields. Bodies of murder victims washed up on riverbanks. Police took bribes and kept quiet.Police raids, launched under pressure from Washington, changed all that. Six old-line leaders of the Cali drug cartel have been arrested or surrendered since June. Others are in hiding.

But authorities say a new breed of drug kingpins is emerging to take their place, many of them only in their 20s, already millionaires and ready to kill anyone who gets in their way.

"These are the violent ones. They control the hitmen, they're well-armed and they're not interested in turning themselves in," said Lt. Col. Addon Aldana, chief of police in Armenia, a city north of Cali.

While the names of the Cali cartel leaders - the brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, Jose Santacruz Londono - are well-known, the emerging second tier of leaders aren't.

Prosecutors are now building cases against some of them:

- Juan Carlos Ramirez, a reputed trafficker in his late 20s whose nickname is "Chupeta" (Lollipop), learned English while dealing drugs in the United States for several years, said a cartel associate who requested anonymity. Ramirez is wanted on illegal enrichment charges.

- Arturo de Jesus Herrera, nicknamed "Banana," has been linked to the massacre of 13 farmworkers in October 1993.

After the six Cali cartel leaders were arrested, President Ernesto Samper declared the Cali cartel dead. The cartel supplied 80 percent of the world's cocaine and a large share of heroin trafficking.

Samper, accused of using Cali cartel money to win last year's elections, went after the drug kingpins amid threats from Washington that aid to Colombia would be cut unless some of the major traffickers were arrested.

U.S. and some Colombian officials now worry that Samper is taking the pressure off prematurely. Units of an elite security force that hunted Cali traffickers are already transferring to Bogota to fight common crime.

"There's a second tier and a third tier and a fourth tier and these guys must be arrested to dismantle the (cartel) superstructure," said Thomas Constantine, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

While raids are continuing, it's not clear how long they will last.

Last week, a convoy of police trucks rumbled up a palm tree-lined drive to a luxurious farmhouse in the fertile North Valley near Cali. On the lawn were cages filled with parrots, rare jungle cats and pedigree dogs.

Police, carrying automatic rifles and with ammunition belts slung over their shoulders, searched the grounds but found only farm workers.

"I could stay here all day," joked Maj. Carlos Sotelo, cradling his M-16 rifle near the swimming pool.

Pressured by the raids, many drug traffickers are shifting their home base and refining labs, at least temporarily, to the Caribbean coast and the eastern plains, according to police and local residents, interviewed on condition of anonymity.

However some drug dealers still venture out for a little pageantry.

Ranchers, some with beepers and gold wristwatches, rode in a horse parade last week in the town of Bugalagrande. Among them was Arcangel de Jesus Henao, a suspected trafficker.

Surrounded by mounted bodyguards, Henao greeted spectators as his horse pranced into the town square.

U.S. drug agents believe the arrests of the six Cali cartel leaders signals an end to its power to corrupt virtually all government levels. The ones emerging to take their place lack the sophistication of the imprisoned Cali cartel leaders, who forged links to business and government.

But law enforcement officials fear the imprisoned kingpins can make a comeback by corrupting officials to conduct business from jail.

Despite the crackdown, there has been little effect on the flow of cocaine entering the United States, said Sergio Uribe, a researcher at the University of the Andes in Bogota.

Traffickers were prepared, he said, and had stockpiled tons of cocaine in Mexico and Central America.

"There seems to be a great amount of cocaine sitting there just for this type of emergency," said Uribe, who is researching drug production for the United Nations.