Dedication of this article is to SORFEP brother Gabriel Ruiz
Ding dong the wicked Pablo Escobar was dead, and with his departure went his infamous Medellin Cartel as well. But the air around that sudden void swirled and rushed to fill the vacuum. Somebody was certainly going to fill that tremendous gap in the South American drug trafficking industry. Oh yes, an industry it most certainly was, and still is today.
So it’s not like Colombia held elections to put a man in that position. It’s an absolute power grab, and when the music stops, the last man to be sitting in the last chair is the winner, in this case it was two men, two brothers from Santiago de Cali, a city just as far south of Santa Fe de Bogota, as Medellin is north of Bogota. The brothers: Gilberto Rodriguez and Miguel Rodriquez Orejuela.
Top left is Gilberto and to his right is his brother Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela
There in the jungle just on the outskirts of Cali was a polvorina, or essentially a powder keg, It was storage for conventional industrial explosives, namely ammonium nitrate. Yeah, well I hated that neighborhood, but that was where I was living for some nine months with a Colombian assault force of approximately 20 pipe-hitters “hand-picked” from Colombia’s elite special forces ranks.
Now, when I say elite, I mean elite for Colombia. I personally would hold them in no higher regard than a contract security force from the U.S. In the background I came from, “Selection is an on-going process.” Meaning just because you made it through the Selections and Assessment process you were a made man, not as such, no. The Colombians were all about stringing a hammock from their laurels and enjoying the life-long moniker ‘Elite Commando.’
In the polvorina, was a company-sized unit of Colombian regular army types that provided a guard force to protect the ammonium nitrate bunkers. They stayed on one end of the polvorina, and our assault force stayed at the other end next to a charming rolling-rock creek. We lived in open-air pavilions so, while we did have overhead cover from rain, we were subject to the heat, humidity, and insects of the jungle.
There were no complaints to be had though, as the regulars who guarded the polvorina lived underground in tunnels, dugouts, and caves. The Sergeant of the guard of the regulars had white skin and red hair, looking every bit more so like a gringo than most of the rest of us gringos. His nickname, of course, was well-established as “Canelo” (cinnamon) for the cinnamon color of his red hair. A famous present-day example is the current Mexican middleweight Santos Saúl Álvarez Barragán, popularly known as “Canelo”.
Where I came from, every man wanted to train every day in everything all day long. The issue was which subjects would we train in with just a few hours in the day. The assault force at the polvorina just wanted to take off as many days in a row as possible. We, two-three gringos, were quite lucky to get them to engage in one event per week, and that was usually flat range fire at known-distance. That means you just stand there like a lump and plink at paper targets for a couple of hours.
Our flat range was a soccer field. We could get the boys to engage in at least one soccer game a week for exercise, ah but horseshoes… they would play horseshoes all day long. The trouble with that is you don’t really get an aerobic burn from slinging three horseshoes once every 10 minutes or so. You don’t get an aerobic anything from playing horseshoes.
We tried once to swap the light gauge pony shoes out with some heavy draught horseshoes… but the Colombians could tell the weight difference and bitched until be gave them back their Goddam pony shoes.
“It’s like being in charge of kids at summer camp, you know?” confided one of my brothers.
“Yeah, I’m tracking… this mission has become more like baby sitting than hunting kingpins,” said I.
Our speed bump was the fact that our commando force fell under a brigade commander, Colonel Rodriquez. stationed about 800 meters from us as the crow flew, but more like five road miles through the city. He owned the intelligence mechanism. We had some gringo analysts in the embassy back in Bogota, but all they could do was push intelligence products to Colonel Rodriquez in Cali, which he gingerly propped his fat ass upon and sat day after day doing nothing.
The whole process moved like Winnebagos in Wisconsin in Winter.
We had CIA and cell phone voice intercepters way across town, living in safe houses like human beings on Marcos Fidel Suarez Air Force Base… like human beings—the nerve of those people!
I basically hated their guts.
I didn’t hate them because they lived like humans or because they were beautiful… I hated them because they were cowards and liars: One of my trips back to Bogota was to bring 9mm ammunition for the assault force. I brought 9,000 rounds on this trip. I pulled the ammo out of the CIA Twin Otter (9-seater propeller-driven airplane with two engines) and lay it on the tarmac while I backed up my jeep to it.
About that time a sedan rolled up and a bunch of gringos from the safe houses piled out. They started grabbing the crates of ammo. “Wow!” I thought, “how brotherly love of them,” But the most remarkable thing happened, and I caution you that this is a bit challenging to process… each person lifted a crate and then set it back on the ground. Each did it one time and they went back to their sedan and drove off.
“Jesus Paste, what in the name of dog $hit was that all about?” I wailed to the flight crew. One man offered: “Oh if they touch a weapon or ammunition while deployed away from Bogota they get some kind of special hazard pay once per month; must have been that time of the month for them.” THIS… you cannot make up.
There is one more reason why I hated them:
We sent a message over to the safe house requesting to come over to do some laundry, after all, we were living under field conditions. They declined, indicating that their intercepters were conduction missions and we couldn’t be there. Whatever.
Some weeks later they received a death threat delivered right to their front door in the form of a headless rabbit hanging from the doorknob. We promptly received an invitation from them to come over to do laundry, knowing that we always traveled heavy with weapons, and didn’t mind using them.
so those are the two reasons why that gaggle disgusted me.
True, we were reduced to being low-cost butlers to this snot-nosed platoon of punks who thought far too highly of themselves to train. It didn’t really seem possible that the operations tempo could really be as slow as it was. There had to be a reason why Colonel Rodriguez was unwilling to apply any pressure to the cartel. There was a reason, and we were about to find out why.
We took to traveling to the brigade headquarters to get face-to-face with the colonel and put some pressure on him to act. When we traveled there, we were wary of the press that liked to stake out and watch for the gringos who they were sure were involved in actions against the cartel. For that reason, we had to apply essential counter-surveillance skills to detect their presence and try to lose them prior to arrival at the brigade HQ.
To be photographed by the press would have been a disaster, and probably a trip back to Bragg. For that reason, on a particular day, the press showed up outside the colonel’s office building while we were inside conferring with him. We could not leave, and they would not leave, so it was a Colombian standoff. We ended up sleeping on the floor there all night waiting for them to leave. They finally did and we were free to high-tail it back to the polvorina.
“Good heavens what a ghastly night, Ricardo!” I joked on the ride back. Ricardo was in a foul mood from a night on concrete. “Yeah… back to the Goddam polvorina. I’m sick of those guys blasting their cassette players all Goddam day. We should take those players away from them. Can’t they find any other tapes to play… I swear to God if I ever meet Gloria Estefan, I’m going to punch her in the mouth, and she ain’t going to have any idea who I am or why I just socked her in the mouth.”
Ricardo had everything to do with my morale. He just kept me in laugh mode all day long. We ate very little food and there was no meat. We smoked Marlboro Lights instead of eating meals. We vowed to live like our Colombian counterparts did, and accepted no special favors. Something Ricardo would do every now and then that always made me laugh: he would come dragging ass over to me, cigarette handing out of his mouth, and he would rapp:
“Goin’ back to Cali
Goin’ back to Cali
I don’t think so”
To be continued…
Featured image: painting by Fernando Botero of the death of Escobar
By God and with honor,