June 20, 2007
An excerpt from Ron Chepesiuk's Drug Lords: the Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel, chronicling how the longest running and most important investigation in DEA history began. Originally published in 2005 in paperback by Milo Books, the book has been expanded and updated to include information about the successful completion of the Cali Cartel takedown. It will be available for purchase this July (2007). For background see Crime Magazine's The Fall of the Cali Cartel by Ron Chepesiuk.
No one had ever seen 44 pounds of cocaine in New York City before.
– Ken Robinson, DEA agent
In the summer of 1978, the DEA's New York City branch office received a letter from a citizen's committee representing the Jackson Heights neighborhood in the borough of Queens. "I'm concerned about the violence in our district and the crime wave the cocaine traffic is causing," the letter read. "The DEA is the government agency responsible for investigating drugs. You need to do something about it."
As heroin was the DEA's focus at the time, the letter didn't cause a ripple. The agency, in fact, had yet to do a major cocaine trafficking investigation. "The DEA didn't want to mess with cocaine," recalled Ken Robinson, who was then a member of the New York Drug Enforcement Task Force (NYDETF). "The agency thought the drug was small time, so they turned the matter over to the NYDETF for investigation."
The NYDETF was established in 1970 as a way of better coordinating drug investigations among government and law enforcement agencies. The Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (the DEA's predecessor), the New York State Police, and the New York City Police each contributed to the Task Force, which worked closely with Department of Justice lawyers and support staff. The NYDETF started off with 43 members; one year later, it had 172.
The NYDETF was split into divisions, with each division consisting of groups. Group Five, which, along with Groups Four and Six made up one division, was given responsibility for investigating the complaint from the Jackson Heights residents. Bill Mockler supervised Group Five's seven members, which included Ken Robinson, a streetwise New York City police detective, and Rich Crawford, a young DEA agent and former Vietnam veteran.
Prosecutors for the Eastern District of New York handled most of the Task Force's cases, but according to former New York prosecutor Jessica de Grazia, they shied away from what they considered to be "kiddie dope" cases, even when a suspect was charged with possessing a kilo of cocaine. The DEA's lack of interest reflected the attitude of the government at all levels toward cocaine at the time. A drug abuse task force established by President Gerald Ford in September 1975 issued a report concluding that it was not a problem. "Cocaine," the report declared, "is not physically addictive. . . and usually does not result in serious social consequences, such as crime, hospital emergency room admissions, or both." The task force recommended that law enforcement focus on drugs such as heroin, amphetamines, and mixed barbiturates, which posed more risk.
Official statistics painted a different picture. By 1974, 5.4 million Americans had acknowledged that they tried using the drug at least once. While law enforcement continued to focus on heroin in the late 1970s, the statistics documenting cocaine use shot up; by 1979, according to one estimate, at least 20 percent of Americans had used cocaine in the past year and 7.3 percent had used it during the previous month.
When President Jimmy Carter took office in 1976, his administration also didn't view cocaine use and abuse seriously. "Cocaine. . . is the most benign of illicit drugs currently in widespread use," wrote Dr. Peter Bourne, drug advisor to President Carter and his special assistant for health issues. "Short acting, not physically addicting and acutely pleasurable, cocaine has found increasing favor at all socio-economic levels."
The government's benign attitude set the tone. "When the public heard government officials like Bourne downplay cocaine, they thought, 'Hey, cocaine is a recreational drug. I have nothing to worry about,' " said Michael Kuhlman, a DEA agent who joined the agency in 1970.
From what he had seen on the street, Ken Robinson concluded there couldn't be much of a cocaine problem in Jackson Heights either. For two years prior to joining NYDETF, Robinson had worked in Brooklyn, and he remembered how the cocaine arrived in the Brooklyn Harbor aboard a shipping line, the Grancolombiana. The cocaine would be thrown overboard and picked up by swimmers, Colombians, who brought it ashore and sold it in the bars of Jackson Heights. That's not the kind of distribution network that can cause a huge problem, Robinson figured.
A few weeks passed and nothing much happened with Group Five and its cocaine investigation. Then, in September, a Colombian walked unannounced into the NYDETF office with some important information. What he told the Task Force would make him one of the most important confidential informants (CIs) in New York City history. He described a big cocaine ring from Colombia that was operating in Queens but had a distribution network in other parts of the country. The ring, the CI elaborated, was well organized and had an unlimited supply. They used beepers to communicate as they moved the drugs.
Robinson was skeptical. He had listened before to CIs who came to the Task Force and spun tall tales. There was no way to corroborate his story. Besides, if the ring was so big, how come the Task Force had not heard about it? "Let us know when something is happening," Robinson told the CI.
A few days later, the CI called again with an urgent message: A drug deal was going down at 5:30 p.m. that afternoon on Queens Boulevard in Jackson Heights. The informant even described the customer: a Colombian, 6'3", 170 pounds, black hair, mustache, and wearing sunglasses. And, oh yes, the CI added, the dealer would drive a red Chevrolet and the customer would drive a white car.
Robinson rounded up three other Task Force investigators and headed for Queens. It was rush hour; the traffic was heavy, but the investigators made it to Queens Boulevard a few minutes before the deal was supposed to go down. Yes, a man fitting the CI's description pulled up in a red Chevy Impala close to where the investigators were parked. Then the white car pulled up about 100 yards away. A man stepped out of the white car with a leather jacket slung over his arm and looked around nervously. He fit the description for the customer that the CI gave. It's a warm sunny day, so why is he carrying a jacket? Robinson wondered.
The man passed Robinson's car, walked over to the driver side of the white car, took a package from inside and stuck it in his jacket. He looked around and walked quickly back toward Robinson's car. The investigators stepped out of their cars and walked slowly toward the man, hoping they wouldn't have to chase him. But he realized they were cops. Turning around quickly, the suspect bolted in the opposite direction. The agents gave chase and caught him. They opened the man's jacket and found a brown paper bag with a one-kilo brick of cocaine bound tight with masking tape. They arrested the man, whose name was Nelson Gomez, and hauled him back to the Task Force office for questioning. Meanwhile, the dealer in the red Impala fled.
The CI called again and told Robinson that the dealer had ditched his Impala. "Don't look for it," the CI advised. "You'll never find it." The dealer had escaped, but Robinson had alertly taken down the Impala's license number during the stakeout. A check of the state motor vehicle records revealed that the car's owner lived on Long Island. Robinson went to the address, but found it to be bogus. In the coming months, Group Five learned that much of what they uncovered during the course of the investigation – names, license plates, addresses – would be bogus.
Robinson was a tenacious cop, who loved the hunt as much as the catch. He never gave up on a case so long as he had a lead. In describing Robinson's relentless pursuit of criminals, one DEA agent who worked with Robinson said, "I'd hate to be a criminal and have Kenny after me." He checked the records at the Parking Violations Bureau in Manhattan to see if any summonses had been issued for the vehicle. Sure enough, there were over 50 parking violations. Robinson began to check out the places where the Chevy had been parked.
Robinson couldn't find the red Chevy, but a blue Buick parked in one of the spots where the red Chevy had been ticketed caught his attention. It, too, was parked illegally, and a stack of tickets was tucked under one of the windshield wipers. Robinson looked around. Across the street was a six-story brick building. He had a hunch and walked over to see the building superintendent.
When the superintendent came to the door, Robinson showed him his identification. Using his Irish charm, he smiled and asked in a casual manner, "Would you know who owns that blue Buick on the street?"
"Sure do," said the superintendent. "A couple of Colombians. They keep another car in the basement."
Robinson followed up. "What kind is it?"
"A red Chevy," the super said.
"Do you mind if we take a look at it?" asked Robinson the adrenalin starting to pump.
The car was a red Chevy all right, but something didn't fit. The license plate on the Chevy in the garage belonged to the Buick in front of the building. Robinson looked at the Chevy's VIN, the unique identification number affixed to the dashboard, and got on the phone. He found out that the blue Buick was associated with the license of the red Chevy that had delivered the cocaine on September 28.
Robinson ran checks on the license plates of the blue car on the street and the red Chevy in the garage. Bingo! It all fit now. The Chevy's plates were registered to the blue Buick in the street, and the Buick's plates belonged to a third, unknown car. The red Chevy had not been abandoned as the CI had said. Rather, the driver had gotten rid of its plates and replaced them with the Buick plates.
The investigation began in earnest. For several months, Group Five conducted round-the-clock surveillance on the red Chevy and blue Buick. Robinson began to spend much of his time in Queens, and he could see the cocaine problem that the Jackson Heights citizen's committee had written about. Dealers prowled the streets, and showed no fear of being busted. Indeed, many sold cocaine directly from their cars.
Despite the problem, the Task Force's brass was still unwilling to allocate resources to the case, and the investigators had to work on it on their own time. They didn't complain because they felt they were on to something big. Finally the long hours and chilly nights spent on stakeout began to pay off. In October, Group Five seized six pounds of cocaine and some financial ledgers. The investigators had their first inkling of the size of the trafficking organization they were up against. It was pulling in at least a $1 million a month. The investigators were stunned. Criminals made that kind of money trafficking heroin, not cocaine.
Group Five continued its surveillance. In January 1979 they identified a man named Jose Patino as a major player in the organization, and tailed him out to John F. Kennedy International Airport. There, he met a stocky man with thick black hair and flaky patches of skin on his face, who had arrived on a flight from Colombia. The well-dressed man left the airport and the detectives stopped him in the parking lot. He produced a passport. His name was Jose Santacruz Londono. The detectives let him go.
The investigators followed the two men to a penthouse apartment in Queens and staked it out for several days. They tailed Patino and his associate to the airport in Farmingdale, Long Island, where Santacruz took a private plane to Philadelphia.
In July Robinson identified one of the apartments Patino was using on Union Street in Flushing, Queens. He befriended the superintendent, an Eastern European immigrant, who let him use the empty apartment facing Patino's for surveillance. The blinds on the apartment's windows were shuttered noon and night and Patino never appeared. Robinson continued to stake out the place, but he had other work to do. He left his card with the superintendent and asked him to call if Patino showed.
One day, Robinson's phone rang. "The man you're looking for is in the apartment right now," said the superintendent. Robinson and Mockler rushed over to Patino's place and stopped him as he was leaving the apartment. The two investigators showed Patino their badges and asked for his identification. "What you got in the bag?" Robinson asked. The bag was black leather and slung over Patino's shoulder.
"Could we search your apartment?" Mockler asked. Incredibly, Patino shrugged his shoulders to indicate, why not? Ignorant of his First Amendment rights, Patino didn't even ask if the investigators had a search warrant. Inside the apartment, the detectives opened the bag. "What's this electric money counter for?" They pulled out a bunch of rubber bands. "Why are there so many of them? What are you going to use them for?"
The phone rang. When they picked it up, they heard a loud, excited voice speaking in Spanish. "Pepe, what's happening? Call me! Call me!" A call-back number appeared on the screen, but the two detectives already had enough to do without trying to trace the call. Robinson figured that the guy who called was expecting Patino to bring him the money-counting machine.
They found a series of rent receipts for a number of apartments. Mockler and Robinson took Patino first to an apartment on Roosevelt Avenue and 82nd Street. When they entered the lobby, Patino began sweating and turned pale. The detectives woke up the superintendent. When Patino saw him, he blurted: "This is where I live, right? Tell them this is where I live." The verbal barrage confused and frightened the super, but he whispered to one of the agents, "No, he doesn't."
The detectives showed the super a photo. "Yeah, that's Victor Crespo," he confirmed. "I've seen him and the guy you're with together. They sure keep strange hours, but they don't cause any problems." The super directed the two detectives to the ground floor apartment, where they found a fake passport in the name of Victor Crespo and discovered he had been receiving mail there. Group Five had hit a home run.
When investigators got to the apartment on Burns Court, they had to kick down the door. The sickly smell of cocaine in the apartment almost knocked them out. The windows were barred and the agents couldn't open them. Some of them left the apartment to get some air. The rugs were infested with coke and the bathtub was crammed with kilo packages of white powder.
The occupants had fled, but the investigators hit another home run. They found 44 pounds of cocaine in a huge safe, machine guns, thousands of rounds of ammunition, bullet-proof vests, drivers' licenses, business cards, an aircraft registration, an automobile registration, coded customer lists, and more financial records.26 Group Five seized books and manuals that explained how to use firearms, including a Marine Corps manual entitled Destruction by Demolition, Incendiaries and Sabotage. "Nobody had ever seen 44 pounds of cocaine in New York City before," Robinson recalled.
John Fallon, the DEA's Northeast regional director, said the weapons collection was the largest ever taken by authorities in a coke bust. Fallon publicly worried that a war for dominance of the Big Apple's cocaine market, similar to the one going on Miami, would break out among local criminal gangs.
The publicity generated by the Burns Court bust was a wake-up call. "The DEA brass in New York City sent the Washington headquarters information providing evidence that cocaine was becoming a problem, not just in Miami but also New York City," Crawford recalled. "The DEA started to take the drug seriously. It began assigning more agents to cocaine investigations."
While Burns Court was being inspected, Rich Crawford and another investigator checked out The Towers, a high-rise apartment overlooking Long Island Sound in Bayside, Queens. There, they found Santacruz's authentic Colombian passport. And all along they had thought Victor Crespo was Santacruz's real name. The detectives also found bank records of Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez connecting them directly to drug sales in New York.
Inside the safe houses and stash pads, the detectives found a mountain of evidence: adding machines, money wrappers, coded customer lists, counterfeit bill detection equipment, and adding machine tape with a total of $700,740. Group Five could now begin an in-depth financial investigation of the organization. The investigators hauled the evidence back to headquarters, where they split it up and spent several months going through every scrap of paper, tracing bank records, breaking codes and trying to see what other stashes they could uncover.
When Group Five investigators finally decoded the financial records, they found it hard to comprehend the amount of money involved. In three weeks, Patino had collected $6,932,000 from just 13 customers, and the organization had made 47 cash deliveries to money couriers. The amounts of cash delivered were staggering: $824,000, $722,000, $798,000, and in one instance $1,721,000. And where was the money going? All over the globe, to safe havens in Colombia, Panama, and Peru, as well as banking institutions in Europe, Asia, and the Bahamas.
The investigation uncovered some gold nuggets. The agents had seen a photo of Victor Crespo. He was the man they had stopped in the parking lot at JFK airport. When Crespo's name was put through the DEA's Naddis computer system, routine details of the life of mystery trafficker Jose Santacruz began to emerge. He was an unmarried, 35-year-old Puerto Rican whom the Argentine Interpol had connected to an attempted murder. Authorities also tied Santacruz to another rising drug trafficker named Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, who was making quite a name for himself in his native Cali as an entrepreneur, banker and businessman.
The group went back through some of the old cases and began to make connections as early as 1976. For instance, they pulled up a file providing details about the police seizure of 280 kilograms of cocaine paste and a Lodestar aircraft and the arrest of nine members of the Victor Crespo organization. Most important for later in the investigation, the records revealed a stamp for the T.E.A. Manufacturing Company and deposits in the name of a company named Sandra Ana S.A., registered in Panama. T.E.A., it turned out, was the front company, while Sandra Ana S.A. was merely used as a post office box for receiving bank balances. The sole owner? Jose Santacruz.
The surveillance, long hours, digging and persistence had paid off. They had finally uncovered the organization responsible for the growing cocaine problem in New York City. It was based in Cali and its leaders were Jose Santacruz and Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez. They headed a complex international criminal enterprise, reaching from the coca fields in Peru and Bolivia to the processing labs in Colombia to the streets of New York and other U.S. cities.
As the investigation continued, Robinson, who knew no Spanish, joked that he was getting punch-drunk with all the Spanish surnames swirling around in his head. To add to the confusion, some of the bad guys had more code names than CIA spies in a major intelligence operation. Robinson and Crawford normally didn't have a problem finding confidential informants to further their investigations, but the Colombians didn't trust outsiders, so the investigators had to gather most of their evidence the time-consuming, old-fashioned way: through surveillance.
Group Five continued to make arrests, but they didn't seem to make a dent in the organization's supply of available people. Those arrested and convicted kept their mouths shut and went to jail for 10-to-15 years, ignoring offers of lighter sentences in return for cooperation. Even if they'd wanted to sing, they really couldn't tell much. "The organization operated through independent cells, and the members of each cell didn't know each other," Robinson explained. "When we arrested someone, he would say, 'I don't know anything. I've just been dealing with one guy.'"
If suspects made bail, Group Five never saw them again, and this would drive Robinson nuts. The Colombians were flight risks and menaces to society, Robinson would tell the judges. They shouldn't be allowed bail. "It took them [the judges] about a year after we began the investigation to realize this," Robinson recalled. "We named the arrangement 'the Colombian Acquittal Bail.' The bail was automatic acquittal for any member of the organization because they would flee to Colombia."
Arranging the bail for the organization was a group of American attorneys who, beginning in the late 1970s, had no problem taking drug dollars for their services as the Colombian version of house counsel for the mob. In 1979, one attorney met with Santacruz in Miami to discuss a trial in progress in New York City involving Santacruz's men. Santacruz asked the attorney to gather information for him about the arrest of one of his distributors in the city. The two discussed and agreed a fee for the work. This same attorney, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Eastern District of New York, was usually the first to be concerned about any potential names of informants and statements during pre-trial discussions with the U.S. Attorney's Office. Four years later, an informant told law enforcement that this same attorney was providing Santacruz with trial and hearing information after gang members were arrested. The lawyers wanted their clients from the Cali organization to go to trial so they could find out during the discovery phase what kind of evidence the prosecutors had.
Agents had to be creative in their investigative techniques, given the limitations of the technology of the day. The NYDETF, for example, didn't have ways of wiretapping public telephones. "You could give us a number and we could tell you it's a pay phone, but we didn't have any technology for it," said Robinson. Group Five made extensive use of pen registers. "We didn't need a court order for a pen register as we did for a wire tap," Crawford said. "We would see that a call was being made and then the person would leave the apartment. We would follow them, get the information off the phone records, check them, and find out where the call was going to."
The organization was clever, to be sure, but it also could be as ruthless as it needed to be. One Colombian suspected of talking to the police returned to her apartment to find her babysitter gone and her three children in the cellar, stabbed to death. Later the Group Five investigation learned that prospective employees had to give the names of relatives in Colombia. There was no doubt that if you betrayed the bosses of Cali, someone in your family was going to pay dearly.
The organization was cocky, too. In September Group Five investigators followed Fernando Carmona and some of his associates to JFK airport, but the Colombians spotted the detectives and in turn began following them. Then they took photos. Robinson's jaw dropped; one of them even had a video camera. It wouldn't be the last time that would happen. "They had no respect for law enforcement, so at times they got sloppy and made mistakes and that gave us a chance to catch up to them," Crawford said.
Over time, the investigators discerned a pattern to the organization's modus operandi, but in its sophistication it was unlike any they had seen in their professional careers. The Colombians used a seemingly endless supply of false passports, they changed phones and residences as often as changing their underwear, and they maintained separate apartments and stash houses for drugs, money and weapons.
By tracing telephone numbers in the records seized in the Patino bust, Group Five was able to connect the airline registration for T.E.A. Manufacturing to a Tulio E. Ayerbe. Further investigation of the airline registration revealed that the plane had been modified for what looked like drug transportation: short runways and long-range flights. Further digging revealed that Ayerbe, under the name of Juan Baez, had bought a Lockheed Lodestar that had been seized in Peru with 192 pounds of cocaine paste. The follow-up police investigation connected the airplane to a Victor Crespo.
Meanwhile, Group Five put Ayerbe under surveillance and hooked a pen register on his telephone. He was making a lot of calls to a condominium complex on Grove Island on the South Florida coast near Miami. In February 1980, Group Five agents went to Miami to follow up. When shown a photo of Jose Santacruz (aka Victor Crespo), the superintendent said, yes, he was with Mr. Fernando Guiterrez, the man who rented the apartment when he signed the papers. Crawford pulled out another photo. "Yes, that's Mister Guiterrez," the super confirmed. Mr. Guiterrez was none other than Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela.
Group Five was now on a roll. The investigators uncovered another Ayerbe apartment in Hallendale, Fla., under a phony name. They connected Ayerbe to the purchase and delivery of two safes to a warehouse near a private airfield in Opa-Locka, a rural community close to Miami Beach. Twenty-six days after arriving from New York, Robinson and other Group Five investigators raided the warehouse. The hits just kept getting better – 285 kilos of cocaine valued at $7.5 million was seized, the biggest bust ever at that time.
Gilberto Rodriguez realized he had a serious problem and decided to move his operation to a much quieter place. He ordered his subordinate Jaime Munera to pay $800,000 for a 622-acre cattle ranch in Hope Hull, Alabama. Munera built a 3,600-foot airstrip on the Bar-J Ranch, but he blew his cover by doing a stupid thing: buying 200 head of cattle for cash and at a price well above the herd's market value. The man who sold Munera the cattle mentioned the sale to his cousin, who just happened to work for the Alabama Bureau of Investigation. A computer check revealed that the DEA was investigating Munera, so Alabama police notified the NYDETF, and once again Group Five detectives left New York City for long hours, boring nights, and no extra pay to help their colleagues in Alabama pursue the Colombian connection.
In September 1981, authorities seized the ranch, charging that the property had been bought with money generated by a multi-million-dollar Colombian drug trafficking gang and was intended to serve as a base for shipping cocaine. The seizure included machinery, equipment, livestock, a private plane, and the proceeds of two bank accounts belonging to Munera. The property was valued at $1 million.
Group Five had much to show for its hard work: an impressive list of successful inroads into the cartel's drug operations. Since September 1978, NYDETF had been responsible for seizing $2 million in cash, 70 weapons, and more than 430 pounds of cocaine with a street value of $50 million. Law enforcement officers had identified some 40 members of the organization and prosecutors had convicted many of them on cocaine trafficking charges. Group Five had exposed a drug ring with the organization, resources and nerve to turn their city into Cocaine Central of the United States. The three major godfathers – Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez and Jose Santacruz – had been identified and their carefully woven cover was blown.
But three years after Group Five had followed up on the confidential informant's lead that took them to Nelson Gomez and the red Chevy Impala, the reality was this – they had stung the men from Cali but not crippled them.
Note: This article is an excerpt from Ron Chepesiuk's Drug Lords: the Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel, chronicling how the longest running and most important investigation in DEA history began. Originally published in 2005 in paperback by Milo Books, the book has been expanded and updated to include information about the successful completion of the Cali Cartel takedown. It will be available for purchase this July (2007). For background see Crime Magazine's The Fall of the Cali Cartel by Ron Chepesiuk.
Ron Chepesiuk (www.ronchepesiuk.com) is also the author of Gangsters of Harlem (www.gangstersofharlem.com) and Black Gangsters of Chicago (www.blackgangstersofchicago.com), to be published this August (2007).