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Since their extradition to Miami, the heads of the powerful Cali, Colombia, cocaine cartel were steadfast in their resistance in plea negotiations with federal prosecutors. So what finally persuaded Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela to cut a deal that essentially will keep them in prison for the rest of their lives? Government sources and discovery documents point to one good reason: The government was preparing a case against six Rodriguez-Orejuela family members. To save them � and to ensure that nearly two dozen others would be removed from an economic blacklist � the brothers agreed to sacrifice their freedom forever. All along, a major stumbling block appeared to be the fate of 28 Rodriguez-Orejuela family members, all of whom were placed on a list of narcotics and terrorism suspects maintained by the U.S. government’s Office of Foreign Asset Control. Individuals on the list are barred from dealing with financial institutions and traveling to the United States. According to defense attorneys, the government was never able to assure immunity for the family members. Conversely, with a trial date looming in November, the government faced an uphill battle, defense lawyers say. A federal magistrate judge had ruled that crimes committed by the cartel before 1997 could not be counted among the criminal charges against the brothers. So a deal was cut. “This process was extremely difficult,” said Marc Seitles, who represented the family members in Colombia and made four trips to that country in the last three months. “Working out the details was arduous.” The sexagenarian brothers pleaded guilty to conspiring to smuggle tons of cocaine into the United States, as well as to a separate federal indictment in New York that charged them with conspiring to launder drug money. A former Miami lawyer for one of the kingpins said he was surprised that his ex-client, Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela, 67, and his brother, Miguel, 62, accepted a deal that resulted in 30-year sentences for each. Attorney Jose Qui�on, Gilberto’s former attorney, said he was surprised by the deal � which involves a 30-year sentence for each of the brothers and forfeiture of $2.1 billion in assets � because it only covered charges for crimes they committed after 1997. Yet much of the government’s evidence covered crimes allegedly committed before then. Before that year, the Colombian government banned extradition of its nationals to the United States, so the brothers could not face American justice. But in 1997, the two countries signed a treaty lifting the ban. Still, according to the treaty, the cocaine lords could not be charged with any crimes committed earlier in the 1990s. Qui�on said U.S. prosecutors would have had a difficult time making their case for the post-1997 charges, since the bulk of the evidence covered pre-1997 allegations. “There was very little evidence showing crimes committed after 1997,” Qui�on said. “I was surprised they accepted such enormous sentences.” In exchange for the guilty pleas, the governments of both the United States and Colombia agreed not to prosecute 28 of the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers’ relatives in Colombia for money laundering or obstruction of justice. They can still, however, be charged with drug trafficking. The deal also called for the relatives � the children, nieces and nephews of the brothers � to be taken off the OFAC list. ICE agent’s triumph The plea agreement, which culminated in the brothers being sentenced by U.S. District Judge Federico A. Moreno last Tuesday, marks an end to the U.S. government’s 17-year fight to put the cocaine kingpins behind bars. The prosecution of the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers was the biggest drug trade and money laundering case ever in Miami. Their Cali cartel was estimated to earn annual profits of $8 billion. At one time, it was responsible for 80 percent of the cocaine sold in the United States in the 1990s. The Rodriguez-Orejuela case was largely driven by Ed Kacerosky, the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement special agent who devoted 11 years to prosecuting the Rodriguez-Orejuelas. Kacerosky, who declined an interview, combed through U.S. prisons in search of witnesses to testify against the brothers, according to defense attorneys. “The happiest person in all this is Ed Kacerosky,” Quinon said. “Now he can retire and open a new life for himself. If you’re a mountain climber, you want Mount Everest. If you’re an agent, this is the case you want.” The Department of Justice also was pleased with the outcome. U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales held a news conference in Washington last Tuesday to announce the pleas. “These guilty pleas deal a final and fatal blow to the Cali Cartel, a violent drug-trafficking organization that once operated outside the law,” Gonzales said. “But as drug traffickers and kingpins around the world now know, they are not beyond the reach of justice in the United States. The Cali Cartel has been dismantled and the brothers now face years in American prisons.” But the Miami defense attorneys for the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers called them honorable men who sacrificed themselves despite sparse evidence to save their families. “They did the honorable thing,” said David Markus, who represented Gilberto. “They have never been and never will be snitches. They fell on their sword to save their families.” The plea deal was in the works for months and required approval of the defendants and their families, the U.S. attorney’s office in New York � which had a case in the works against family members � the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami, the Colombian government and ICE. Getting around treaty The Rodriguez-Orejuelas founded the Cali Cartel in the 1970s. Unlike the rival Medellin Cartel, the Cali Cartel was reputed to use bribery rather than violence and made friends at the top levels of the Colombian government. Police reportedly referred to the Cali Cartel as gentlemen and the Medellin men as hoodlums. Gilberto, the head of the operation, was nicknamed “The Chess Player” for his knack in outwitting the authorities. Miguel holds a law degree. The U.S. government’s case began in 1995 when Gilberto was arrested by Colombian police. Miguel was captured a year later. They were sentenced to 28 years in prison in their homeland, but expected to serve a third of the time. But it was widely believed that they continued to run their drug operation behind bars. It was Kacerosky’s mission to have the Rodriguez-Orejuelas extradited and prosecuted in the United States � no easy feat since extradition to this country was at the time prohibited by Colombian law. The brothers were first indicted by federal prosecutors in New Orleans in 1989, and later federal prosecutors in Miami in 1995, for the illegal importation of more than 200,000 kilograms of cocaine starting in 1985. In late 2004, the brothers were extradited to Miami following yet another indictment by a Miami grand jury. They were charged with crimes that occurred before 1997, and defense attorneys and the Colombian government protested vigorously. Miami defense attorney Roy Kahn, who represented Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela, filed a motion to require the government to redact its indictment, which alleged that the drug conspiracy began in 1990, and to make sure that at trial the government would only be allowed to introduce evidence that pertained to events that took place after December 1997. The government, he said, agreed to strike the obstruction of justice count, which the brothers were not extradited on, from the indictment. But federal prosecutors did not want to alter the conspiracy count and argued before U.S. Magistrate Theodore Klein that the conspiracy was an ongoing crime that started in 1990. Klein, who died last week, declined to change the date in the indictment to conform to the extradition order. But he held that all pre-1997 evidence would be subject to Rule of Evidence 404b, Kahn said. It meant, Kahn said, the government was not going to be able to use any pre-1997 evidence to prove its case-in-chief. “I don’t think any good judge would have allowed the government to prove 85 percent of its case by extraneous 404b evidence,” he said. The ruling “basically wiped out 75 to 80 percent of their case,” Kahn added. The government appealed Klein’s ruling to Judge Moreno and a hearing was scheduled for last Thursday. But the issue became moot after the brothers finalized their plea deal with the government. Since the U.S.-Colombian treaty barred prosecutors from charging anyone for crimes committed before 1997, Kacerosky searched for evidence of crimes committed by the brothers after then. Kahn said Kacerosky began combing federal prisons across the country to find drug defendants who had worked with the Orejuelas and would flip. Noose tightens on relatives As the November trial date for the Rodriguez-Orejuelas approached, the noose tightened on their relatives back home. Twenty eight children, nephews and nieces were placed on the OFAC list. That meant they had difficulty earning a living and running their businesses. “They were stigmatized in Colombia,” said Seitles, a Miami lawyer who was hired three months ago to represent the relatives in the negotiations. In addition, the U.S. attorney’s office in New York was working on an indictment against some of the Rodriguez-Orejuelas’ children, according to Kahn. “The Southern District of New York wanted a piece of the pie,” Kahn said. “They have always been very competitive with the Southern District of Florida.” Further pressure was placed on the brothers when Miguel’s son, William Rodriguez-Abadia, agreed several months ago to testify against his father and uncle. Prosecutors alleged that Abadia had taken over the family cocaine business. The brothers’ attitude toward accepting a deal changed. Intense negotiations began about three months ago. Kacerosky worked hard to convince the New York prosecutors not to press charges against the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers’ relatives. Seitles flew to Colombia four times to meet with Colombian government officials to negotiate arrangements with them. But the federal prosecutors in Miami, Matthew Axelrod and Richard Gregorie, as well as Kacerosky, were onboard. Attorney fees from book The final agreement called for the relatives to renounce their interest in some 300 mostly Colombian companies that may be linked to the brothers. Most of the companies have already been forfeited to the Colombian government. But the relatives get to keep their residences and will receive “some reasonable assets from the Colombian government to start over again,” Seitles said. Those negotiations are continuing. In addition, the agreement stipulates that six relatives who were being investigated by U.S. prosecutors cannot be charged for obstruction of justice and money laundering. The agreement, however, does not preclude them from being charged with narcotics trafficking. None of the 28 can be prosecuted in Colombia. “This allows them to escape from the black cloud they were under for years,” Seitles said. Kahn said he has already been paid attorney fees, from a publisher’s advance for a book written by the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers. Seitles and Markus declined to say whether they have been paid. U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta’s office would not comment on whether it will examine the source of the attorney fees to determine if they are tainted. Quinon had quit the case out of fear of being prosecuted for money laundering in connection with accepting fees from Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela. The Rodriguez-Orejuelas will probably serve their sentences in a federal prison in Orlando, where convicted Medellin narcotics kingpin Fabio Ochoa, also convicted in Miami, is confined. “They can have tea time with Fabio,” Kahn cracked. Daniel Ostrovsky provided additional reporting for this article. Julie Kay can be reached at [email protected] or at (954) 468-2622.

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