How some Colombian 'drug barons' spent their earnings in the '80s

Operating an above-board pharmacy chain and a popular soccer team were part of the "quiet style" of cocaine traffickers in Cali, Colombia, in 1989.

Cocaine traffickers in Cali, Colombia, invested in 'front operations' in 1989

The CBC's Terry Milewski visits Cali, Colombia, where cocaine cartels have invested their profits in legitimate businesses. 2:41

As a drug war raged in Colombia in September 1989, reporter Terry Milewski discovered that some "cocaine kings" in the city of Cali had seemingly managed to keep a lower profile than their notorious counterparts in Medellín and Bogota.

"You would never know that there was a war on drugs in Cali," began Milewski. His report followed news of the bombing by suspected drug traffickers of a newspaper office in Medellín that injured 84 people.

Cali, the third-largest city in Colombia, was "home to some of the nation's wealthiest cocaine kings," said Milewski.

"And yet, as the bombs go off in Medellín and Bogota, Cali is strangely quiet," added the reporter.

'Front operations'

Unlike the Colombian cities of Medellin and Bogota, Cali had largely escaped cartel-related violence. (The National/CBC Archives)

Of the top 10 Colombian traffickers named by an American government "blacklist," four were from Cali.

Diego Martinez, a local newspaper reporter, told Milewski there was "no war" in his city.

"There is no drug war here because the Cali cartel has not provoked the government with the brutal tactics of Medellín," said Milewski.

Instead, they had "quietly sunk their profits into the local economy" with dozens of "front operations" like banks, real estate, and a drugstore chain.

"It's a very good company," said a pharmacy manager, paraphrased by Milewski. "It pays very well. We get social security."

Another enterprise for the "Cali cartel" was ownership of a soccer team that Milewski said was "famous all over Colombia."

And it would "not go over" for the government to shut down the popular and successful team, said Milewski.

Economic integration

The mayor of Cali, Carlos Trujillo, said the traffickers were gone, even if their businesses remained. (The National/CBC Archives)

Some residents were frustrated by the government's lack of action against the drug traffickers.

"The army just stands by with arms crossed," said a man interviewed in his car. "They don't do anything, and the authorities won't let them."

Even the mayor acknowledged that much of the local economy was underpinned by cartel money.

"Whether it's drugstores or soccer teams, the quiet style of the Cali cartel is working," concluded Milewski.