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Murder Attempt in Cartel Hierarchy Shows Rules Have Changed

May 31, 1996

CALI, Colombia (AP) _ While politicians bicker in Bogota over whether President Ernesto Samper should be impeached, a struggle for control of the world’s cocaine trade may have begun with a machine-gun attack in Cali.

For the first time, the family that runs the most powerful drug cartel _ the same one alleged to have given $6 million to Samper’s campaign _ has been targeted by assassins.

William Rodriguez, son of jailed Cali cartel kingpin Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, was shot six times as he dined at a fancy Brazilian restaurant last week.

He was saved by a bodyguard, who took 37 bullets to shield his boss. He died, along with four other bodyguards and Miguel Rodriguez’s brother-in-law.

Who sent the hit men to the Rio D’Enero restaurant is a mystery.

Suspects run the gamut of Colombia’s armed groups: a breakaway Cali cartel faction, a smaller drug syndicate from the lush valley north of Cali, right-wing paramilitary leaders, a shadowy terrorist group calling itself ``Dignity for Colombia,″ state security forces _ or perhaps some combination.

``In Colombia, it is often hard to know who is doing the shooting,″ said Luis Fernando Pelez, the top investigator in the Cali prosecutor’s office.

``But the hit was a very direct message to the Rodriguez family that the rules of the game have changed,″ he said.

Pelez believes this could be the first volley in a war that the Cali cartel, after helping dismantle the late Pablo Escobar’s violent Medellin mafia, had so far managed to avoid.

The Cali syndicate’s chieftains, brothers Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez, have long preferred bribes over bullets.

Both were jailed nearly a year ago along with other top cartel leaders. Though U.S. officials say they still command from their Bogota cells, their hold may be slipping on the empire thought responsible for 80 percent of the world’s cocaine.

The brothers released a statement last weekend denying that a turf battle had broken out. They said they ``emphatically reject any form of violence and will never respond to aggression against ourselves or our family, however cruel or treacherous.″

But Colombia’s defense minister, Juan Carlos Esguerra, was skeptical, saying he believes the murder of five young men on a road to Cali’s airport on Thursday may have been a reprisal for the attempt on William Rodriguez.

A cartel associate told The Associated Press that cartel leaders have split, with some teaming up with drug bosses from the north Cali group in a push for control of the billion-dollar business.

``The attack on William never would have happened if his father was still in Cali,″ said the associate, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Since the Rodriguez brothers were arrested last year, drug-related violence has increased in Cali. The day before the Rio D’Enero attack, one of their alleged security chiefs, Edgar Veloza, was gunned down.

``Cartel people _ front men, hit men, traffickers, and others _ have been turning up dead. We don’t know who is doing it, but we know they are professional hits,″ Pelez said.

U.S. officials say William Rodriguez, 32, a lawyer and vice president of the Cali soccer club America, has been laundering drug money and may have been shuttling orders from his father and uncle to Cali underlings.

Among those possibly interested in targeting the family are right-wing militias angry over the Cali cartel’s increasing reliance on leftist guerrillas to protect drug crops and laboratories.

Then there is the shadowy terrorist group, ``Dignity for Colombia.″

A man saying he represented the group claimed responsibility for the restaurant attack, but a later communique denied the group was involved.

Authorities believe more than one group is using the name in taking credit for last month’s kidnapping of the younger brother of ex-President Cesar Gaviria and for political murders.

In muddled and often contradictory statements, ``Dignity for Colombia″ has demanded Samper step down. The House of Representatives began debating the president’s fate this week.

The opposition Conservative party on Friday said evidence exists showing Samper took cartel money to win the 1994 election and then covered it up, but it is widely believed Liberal Party loyalists who dominate Congress will absolve the president.

The audacity of the attempt to kill William Rodriguez was an affront to a family whose members have long been considered untouchable pillars of the cocaine world.

It ``is a watershed event that shows new forces are willing to resort to blood,″ Pelez said. ``Violence has emerged as the way of Cali’s future.″

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