'The Snitch Cartel: Origins' True Story: Who Were the Real Gentlemen of Cali?

At the start of The Snitch Cartel: Origins, a warning is shown to explain that the story and characters that viewers are about to see are fictional.

The Colombian crime drama is based on the book El Cartel de los Sapos by Andrés López López, and focuses on brothers Leonardo (Juan Pablo Urrego) and Emanuel Villegas (Sebastian Osorio), who are running their own drug business in the city of Cali.

Having effectively taken over the city of Cali through their drug empire, a voiceover in the show declares the brothers the "Gentlemen of Cali."

And while the show may be fictional, the Gentlemen of Cali was a real nickname used for the real Cali Cartel.

Who were the real Gentlemen of Cali?

The Cali Cartel was founded by brothers Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela and José Santacruz Londoño in the 1970s.

The Gentlemen of Cali briefly co-operated with Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel, but later broke away in the 1980s and formed a four-man executive board alongside Hélmer "Pacho" Herrera.

The Cali Cartel had control of New York City and parts of the northeast in the U.S. while Escobar's Medellín Cartel had a stake in Miami and South Florida. They remained bitter rivals until the latter group was dissolved in 1993.

In the 1990s, the Cali Cartel grew into one of the most powerful international drug trafficking operations in the world, and at one point they controlled the vast majority of the cocaine market in the U.S. and Europe.

"The Snitch Cartel: Origins" production still
Juan Pablo Urrego in "The Snitch Cartel: Origins" Netflix

How did the Gentlemen of Cali operate?

The cartel had several "cells" that operated in the U.S. and Europe, with each specializing in a sector of the drug trade such as cocaine distribution and money laundering, the operation also included jobs for the transport and storage of drugs.

Unlike the Medellín Cartel, the Cali Cartel was interested in using a more business-oriented approach to their operation.

Javier Peña, a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent who worked on both the Escobar and Cali Cartel cases, said in The Cipher Brief podcast in 2017 that the Gentlemen of Cali were "more business savvy."

He explained: "What we noticed was that Cali Cartel had learned from the Medellin Cartel not to make those types of mistakes.

"For example, I call the Medellin Cartel 'wild, wild west'; Cali Cartel was more business-like. They were more organized; they had more business savvy."

Of course, the Cali Cartel was not above resorting to violence, as they are said to have ordered a number of killings and they did embark on ethnic cleansing of "desechables," or "discardables," including prostitutes, homosexuals and the homeless.

Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela in Bogota after arrest
Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, believed to be the kingpin of the Cali drug cartel, is escorted by security members at the Bogota airport after being flown from Cali where he was arrested August 6. Rodriguez was arrested at a residence during a raid by combined police and army anti-drug team. Javier Casell/AFP via Getty Images

What happened to the Gentlemen of Cali?

In the early-to-mid-1990s, the U.S. started to put pressure on the Colombian government to stop the Cali Cartel.

In 1995, a number of high-level figures in the cartel were arrested, including co-founder Santacruz on July 4.

In the summer of the same year the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers were also caught and imprisoned by police, with Gilberto getting arrested on June 9 and Miguel on August 6.

At the time, National Police Chief Jose Serrano said in an interview with RCN Radio: "The Cali cartel died today."

On January 11, 1996, Santacruz managed to escape from La Picota prison in Bogotá, He was then killed by police on 5 March.

Herrera turned himself into the Colombian National Police on September 1, 1996, but he was killed by an inmate in prison on November 4, 1998.

The Snitch Cartel: Origins, as well as Narcos and Narcos Mexico, are available to stream on Netflix now.

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts