Cali KGB: Cartel Counterintelligence

Counterintelligence is a vital part of the spectrum of intelligence. Simply put, it is the means by which groups prevent intelligence operations from occurring against them. The Cali Cartel in the 1990s is a prime example of its tenets in action. In the words of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, 

“The term ‘counterintelligence’ means information gathered and activities conducted to protect against espionage, other intelligence activities, sabotage, or assassinations conducted by or on behalf of foreign governments or elements thereof, foreign organizations, or foreign persons, or international terrorist activities.”


Governments, and companies with close ties to governments, traditionally handle this area of intelligence. However, the availability of advanced technological capabilities has greatly extended this purview. One understudied application of counterintelligence with this framework has been the criminal underground. 

This article examines this aspect of intelligence through the lens of the Cali Cartel. Depictions of cartels from popular media forms the basis for most peoples’ understanding of cartels. Chief among these is the Netflix series Narcos. The show presents the Cali Cartel as sophisticated criminals, but still criminals. Certainly a threat, but with all the connotations that the “criminal” label denotes. In reality, the Cali Cartel was much more than a criminal syndicate; it was a veritable corporation operating a “state-like counterintelligence apparatus” (source). 

1.0: The Cali Cartel

A partnership of several marijuana traffickers in and around the Colombian city of Cali formed the Cali Cartel in the 1970s (source). They stuck to this line of work for the first few years of their existence. However, as the War on Drugs ramped up and American demand for harder drugs grew, the Cartel began to tap into the cocaine and, later, heroin markets (source). By the 1990s, “the Cali Cartel was running its criminal empire more on the model of a multinational corporation than a criminal enterprise” (source). Indeed, the Cali Cartel “pos[ed] as businessmen, just carrying out their professional obligations” (source). The syndicate regularly used Boeing 727s to transport products to Mexico for distribution in the US (source). They hired competitively, employed sophisticated market strategies, and treated members of the cartel as would a legitimate corporation treat employees (source). This included having prospective members fill out application forms. The Cartel even offered vacations (source). 

The structure of the Cartel was highly centralised, which was necessary to maintain its huge drug empire (source). The Cali Cartel earned billions of dollars per year; in 1993, the Colombian Justice Ministry estimated its revenue to be $7 billion (source). This vast empire came with the means and motive to establish means to protect it. 

2.0: The Mainframe

In 1994, a counter-narcotics task force raided an upscale condominium in the Colombian city of Cali. The building’s owner, José Santacruz Londono, was a known associate of the Cali Cartel (source). Instead of drugs or weapons, the task force found an IBM AS/400 mainframe valued at $1.5 million (source). The AS/400 at the time was one of the most complex computers available commercially and usually used for business operations (source). So, when the IBM AS/400 was discovered, American and Colombian authorities assumed it carried information on underworld financial transactions. While certainly useful, it would be nothing novel (source). However, this was not the case. 

The American Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) took possession of the computer and immediately began decryption efforts (source). It took a month before their efforts bore fruit. Financial transactions were certainly on the computer. The AS/400 had a list of bribes paid by the cartel to Colombians in return for support or feigned ignorance regarding Cartel activities (source). Such financial support to the community was central to the Cali Cartel’s counterintelligence initiative. The Cartel had correctly identified popular support as the foundation of its power within Cali, and sought to maintain that monopoly. They invested in infrastructure projects, employed thousands, gave favourable loans to businesses, and uplifted poor neighbourhoods. By 1990, the Cali Cartel was involved in an estimated 40 per cent of the city’s commercial development (source). 

2.1: The Cali KGB

More importantly and certainly more unexpectedly, the computer contained telephone records and Colombia’s entire motor vehicle records (source). Such a vast amount of information stunned DEA analysts. What’s worse, the Cartel was in the process of conducting an intricate counterintelligence operation using these records. 

Sources within the Cartel had illegally purchased phone records from a commercial telephone company based in Cali, containing the call history of the region from 1992 to 1994 (source). Using this information, the four to six technicians stationed at the mainframe around the clock traced calls made to numbers identified as belonging to Americans, including diplomats and DEA agents (source). Cartel analysts tagged these numbers as suspicious. Using data-mining software not unlike that available to intelligence agencies, it could document further communications between these numbers (source). If this occurred, the Cali Cartel assumed that the caller was an informant (source). They would proceed to tap into this individual’s phone lines to confirm the charge and, if successful, would assassinate the target. By the time of the computer’s discovery, the Cali Cartel had killed over a dozen informants through intelligence derived from the AS/400 (source).

3.0: Additional Technical Means

Throughout the late 20th century, the world increasingly relied on electronics to communicate over distances (source). Correctly, the counterintelligence division within the Cali Cartel recognized this as a vulnerability in dire need of addressing. Close-range communication was provided by Motorola walkie-talkies using low-power transmitters. These proved incredibly difficult to track because the Cartel mimicked legitimate 24-hour radio signals expected from a city; emergency services, manufacturing, logistics and the like (source). 

Most interestingly, the Cali Cartel modified a Cessna 210M with SIGINT equipment (source). Regular flights over Cali located rival cartel assassins, largely sent by the Medellin Cartel (source). This asset reportedly aided in the hunt for Escobar (source).

3.1: Phones and Phone Lines

Burner phones provided communications over longer distances, with an average use time of under a week. Court-ordered tapping required a warrant, which normally took a week to fill out; hence the sub-week lifespan of the burner phones (source). Additionally, the Cartel could clone cell phones and use “calling cards” to present the caller as a legitimate number (source). Agents within the Cali Telephone Company, which provided the call logs used in the AS/400, rerouted calls to make communications from Cartel bosses appear in locations they were, in reality, far from (source). 

The Cali Cartel also widely employed phoneline taps. The previously mentioned relationship with the Cali Telephone Company was instrumental in this effort. Hundreds of lines were observed throughout the programme’s operation. A disconcerting proportion belonged to authority figures (source). Politicians and police officers alike were the targets of the Cali Cartel’s tapping programme (source). Because of this, the Cartel avoided police raids, gauged political opposition, and kept informed of initiatives to stifle their power.

4.0: Human Sources

Technical sophistication was just one of the ways in which the Cali Cartel operated an extensive counterintelligence programme. Human sources of information were, and remain, an essential aspect of intelligence work. The Cartel turned law enforcement and intelligence officers into assets. An average of $25,000 a month was spent on bribing police officers. Senior local figures in control of Cartel neighbourhoods could expect $192 monthly (source). The Cartel paid the local director of Colombia’s National Intelligence Service $1,280 monthly (source). An estimated one-third of all police officers within Bogata, Cali, and Medellin were on Cartel payrolls by 1993 (source). The Search Bloc, akin to the American FBI, was successfully infiltrated to the point where bug-sweepers, employed to find Cartel listening devices, were in fact, on the Cartel’s payroll (source). 

The Cali Cartel also used ample non-police agents to keep informed. 5,000 taxi drivers were in the employment by the Cartel (source). Agents of the Cartel covertly monitored the airport and bus depots 24/7 (source).

4.1: Internal Measures

In addition to working extensively with the population of Cali, the Cartel developed comprehensive internal security measures. Recruits were exclusively from Cali and its surrounding areas (source). This ensured the loyalty of its employees from the get-go. Once employed, the Cartel would gradually grant recruits more responsibility and carefully watch to see how they responded. Only those deemed trustworthy could continue ascending the ranks (source). Recruits were advised to “alter routines, vary travel routes, remain unpredictable, and set up early warning systems and tripwires to alert them to attacks” (source). The Cartel routinely interviewed employees and encouraged them to report anything odd that may not have made enough of an impression immediate notification (source). 

5.0: The Collapse of the Cali Cartel

As can be seen, the Cali Cartel operated a highly sophisticated and incredibly ambitious counterintelligence operation. At its peak, its capabilities could rival governments. Such a system allowed the cartel to dominate the drug trade, becoming even more dominant after Escobar’s death in 1993. 

However, this prestige was not to last. The Cali Cartel became public enemy number one following Escobar’s death. American and Columbian authorities analyzed their security practices and developed their own countermeasures. The Cartel’s insistence on recruiting solely from Cali weeded out potential informants in high-ranking positions (source). Its paranoia about internal security led to regular purges of qualified personnel, which whittled down the quality of counterintelligence conducted by the Cartel (source).

The captured equipment, such as the AS/400 mainframe, contained sensitive data on Cartel activities that were used against it (source). With the writing on the wall, key figures began to defect to the authorities, hastening the destruction of the Cali KGB (source). The most notable among these defectors was the head of Cali Security, Jorge Salcedo. Within months of his defection, the major bosses of the Cali Cartel were arrested, and the formidable criminal enterprise was no more (source).

The hierarchical structure of the Cali Cartel was a formidable strength but also a weakness that the governments of the US and Colombia exploited. With the arrest of the leaders, the group disintegrated. 

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