Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela: Colombian ‘Chess Player’ Drug Lord Dies in US Prison


The former head of Colombia’s once-powerful Cali drugs cartel has died in prison in the United States.

At one point, Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela controlled the vast majority of the world’s cocaine trade and was an arch-nemesis of Pablo Escobar.

The 83-year-old was even nicknamed the Chess Player for his skill at staying one step ahead of rivals and the law.

But in 1995 his luck ran out – he was arrested in Colombia and eventually extradited to the US in 2004.

The former cartel leader was serving a 30-year federal prison sentence in North Carolina where his family says he died of an illness on Tuesday.

At the height of his powers, Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela ran the Cali drugs cartel with his brother Miguel.

According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the pair’s Cali gang was responsible for 80% of the world’s total cocaine trade by the mid-1990s.

That monopoly was only achieved after 1993, the year Rodríguez Orejuela’s long-time arch-nemesis – Pablo Escobar, the leader of the Medellin cartel – was killed by police.

While Escobar’s Cali gang had a fearsome reputation in Colombia for violence, the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers tried to portray themselves as respectable businessmen.

They later admitted to using bribes to secure friendly treatment from powerful politicians, many of whom they were close to, and were never pursued as actively by authorities as their Medellín rivals.

Rodríguez Orejuela even preferred to describe himself as an “honest drugstore magnate” – a reference to the chain of pharmacies owned by the family.

But in practice the Cali cartel was ruthlessly violent. For years, its members battled it out with their Medellín rivals for control of lucrative cocaine markets and supply routes.

The Rodríguez Orejuela brothers deployed bombs and vigilantes – and were believed to be behind the Pepes group responsible for the deaths of more than 60 of Pablo Escobar’s relatives and associates.

Hundreds of gang members, drug dealers, and ordinary people were killed in the bloody turf conflict which gripped Colombia throughout the 1980s as a result.

The Cali cartel’s demise eventually began in 1995, when police arrested Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela at his luxury home in Cali, where he was reportedly crouching in a wardrobe.

Within a year of his arrest, some six of the cartel’s seven leaders were either dead or behind bars.

His younger brother Miguel, arrested two months after Gilberto, is currently serving a prison sentence in the US. (


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