Book Review: How an employee betrayed major drug cartel
“At the Devil’s Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel” (Random House), by William C. Rempel
Saturday, June 25, 2011
This nonfiction thriller tells how one of the world’s biggest criminal organizations, based in Colombia, was betrayed to U.S. authorities in 1995 by a top employee.
Colombia’s Cali cocaine cartel, named for the republic’s third city, no longer exists. Its two top bosses got 30-year terms in U.S. jails.
In “At the Devil’s Table,” author William C. Rempel tells the story of Jorge Salcedo, son of a Colombian general, and a reserve officer, engineer and businessman, who became the cartel’s security boss.
It provides as full a ration of gore and excitement as any novel, and comes in such detail that it may provoke doubt among some readers about precise feelings and conversations.
Salcedo turned in his employers to U.S. authorities when his own life and family were endangered. He had served the cartel, a $7 billion annual business run by two brothers, for over six years.
When one brother was jailed in Spain, U.S. authorities tried to extradite him. The Colombian government trumped up a charge of dealing in fine cattle and extradited him itself. A Colombian judge acquitted him. That cost the cartel $1 million for its friends in the Colombian Justice Ministry, according to the book. With Salcedo’s help, U.S. efforts at extradition eventually succeeded.
Rempel, who was an investigative reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times for 36 years, sums up his idea of Salcedo’s feelings as a special U.S. plane on its way to Miami gave him a last look at his country.
“He was proud of his role bringing down the ... cartel, proud of helping save the cartel accountant’s life,” Rempel writes, “proud of leading authorities to records that exposed official corruption on a massive scale. Investigations, indictments, high-level resignations, wholesale dismissals and early signs of reform were already visible ...”
At the cartel, Salcedo had avoided contact with obvious illegal activity — murder, torture, bribery, money laundering. As an American lawyer reminded Salcedo, his job in the cartel involved him in a felony conspiracy under U.S. law, however clean he might feel his hands to be.
He and his family were swallowed into the U.S. Justice Department’s witness protection system, receiving new identities and ample funds for survival.