Two Colombian brothers who built the world's largest cocaine smuggling empire have pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges Tuesday in federal court in Miami. The guilty plea was the culmination of a federal investigation that spanned two decades.
Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela and his brother Miguel founded the Cali cartel, named after their home city in the South American country of Colombia. They pleaded guilty to conspiring to smuggle more than 200,000 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. The brothers, both in their mid-sixties, were sentenced to 30 years in prison, under a deal that spares several of their relatives from prosecution. One of the brothers' defense attorneys, Roy Kahn, said they sacrificed for their families:
"The brothers are happy that their families are taken care of and to them, whether it's 30 years, 20 years or 15 years, to them it's going to be a lifetime in jail. But they are willing to do that for their families' future and their families' welfare," he said.
The plea agreement will allow the families to keep some of their wealth that was not tainted by drug profits, such as real estate in Spain. But the brothers agreed to forfeit more than $2 billion of assets bough with illicit drug money.
The brothers insisted they would not "snitch," or cooperate with authorities on other Colombian drug-trafficking investigations.
John McKenna, a special agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said the sentencing of the Cali brothers has tremendous significance: "The impact of this plea agreement and also the subsequent sentencing is that justice is served to the founders of one of the largest and most powerful drug organizations the world has ever seen. The Cali cartel, as we once have known it, is out of business for good," he said.
Prosecutors said the Cali cartel found creative ways to smuggle cocaine into the United States and other countries. They hid the drugs in hollowed-out concrete posts, in ceramic tile, and even in coffee and frozen vegetables. At the height of their empire in the 1990's, they were the world's top supplier of cocaine.