COLOMBIAN police have captured the "chess player" of the Cali cocaine cartel, Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, but they remain unsure just how much his giant empire will go on without him.
The most wanted man in the world was caught Friday as he cowered inside a closet in a house in his hometown of Cali. "Don't kill me! I'm a man of peace," he reportedly begged police as they opened the door to a hidden compartment behind a television.
About 1,000 police were involved in the operation, including armed helicopters. Acting on a tip-off, they took Rodriguez Orejuela and his four bodyguards by surprise. The grand strategist of a drug trade that commands most of the world's cocaine flow was then flown straight to Bogota, Colombia's capital, where he was interrogated by antinarcotics police and put under tight security.
A carnival atmosphere filled the main hall of police headquarters with police staff packing surrounding balconies, showering streamers and confetti down on top police commanders. Amid wild cheering, like a barbarian being shown at a Roman circus, the cartel kingpin was eventually exhibited before the media looking tired and bewildered.
As boss of the Cali cartel, Rodriguez Orejuela dropped out of sight in the late 1980s after his involvement in drug trafficking became clear to officials. But in recent months, the Colombian government - under pressure from the United States government - has stepped up its chase for Rodriguez Orejuela, his brother, Miguel, and the five other bosses of the cartel.
US Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics Matters Robert Gelbard said in a recent visit to Colombia that future US aid to Colombia would be dependent on the capture of the heads of the Cali cartel.
Under this threat, the Colombian government beefed up its special police task force, the "bloque de busqueda" (search squad), which was set up originally to capture Pablo Escobar, the former chief of the Medellin cocaine cartel who was killed in December, 1993, by police.
About 2,000 officers make up the search squad, which has carried out raids on properties owned by front-men of the cocaine cartel. Information found in these police raids led to the opening of a Supreme Court investigation in April into possible cartel funding of the political campaigns of eight members of Colombia's Congress.
In the last month and a half, the government has also published posters of the seven bosses with rewards of $1.2 million for the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers and $600,000 each for the remaining leaders.
President Ernesto Samper, beleaguered since he won the election last June with accusations that his campaign received funds from the Cali cartel, puffed out his chest and said late Friday night, "This is the beginning of the end of the Cali cartel."
Coming four days after the indictments against the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers and 60 other cartel-related defendants in a Miami court, the dramatic arrest in Cali tightens the noose further around the necks of the cartel.
A severe blow this may be, but the battle is far from over. "Just because the big boss disappears, the others don't disappear, neither do the economic interests, nor the problems the illegal business generates," pointed out Dr. Rodrigo Losada Lora, professor of political science at the Javeriana University in Bogota.
The Cali cartel supplies 80 percent of the world's cocaine, and last year made $7 billion in profits, according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
"I've always feared that when they capture or kill these big bosses, those that follow will be worse," said Gabriel De Vega, head of the Colombian government'sNational Drugs Council.
Mr. De Vega points out that smaller, more sophisticated drug traffickers have set up in Antioquia state, where Medellin is the capital. No one knows who these people are, and they are not pressured by government security forces.
But what many Colombians fear is that as the circle closes around the Cali cartel, it will react violently, as happened with the Medellin cartel in the late 1980s.
"Around 1989 and 1990 it was a terrible time," said Leonor Martinez, a typist in Bogota.
"You had to pray every time you left your house because you didn't know if you would make it back home."
The Medellin cartel let off car bombs and assassinated politicians, judges, lawyers, and journalists in a bloody campaign in intimidate the state.
"But the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers have a reputation for looking for solutions to problems by making bribes rather than using violent methods," said Losada.
The irony is that Gilbreto Rodriguez Orejuela is thought to be the most moderate member of the cartel, and with him taken out of the game, the more violent members of the cartel could take control.
On Wednesday, before Rodriguez Orejuela was captured, a senior antinarcotics police officer was assassinated in a town near Cali. The police believe he was killed by assassins hired by the Cali cartel.