Once heir to one of the most feared criminal organizations in the world, William Rodriguez-Abadia has come full circle to open a window for the world on the history of Colombia's drug wars.
Rodriguez-Abadia, son of Cali Cartel kingpin Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, has just penned “I Am the Son of the Cali Cartel,” an autobiographical account of his days growing up amid organized crime to become the cartel's legal counsel.
“I decided to write because I got tired of other people writing my story. I appear in more than eight books, my dad is in over 15, and what they have done is to turn this into a myth,” Rodriguez-Abadia said in a recent interview with Tampa Media Group.
After serving five years in federal prison — his sentence was reduced from 20 years because he cooperated with federal investigators — Rodriguez-Abadia, 48, now lives in Weston, in suburban Broward County. He has decided to “put everything in black and white” to gain some peace of mind.
“My book is not about excuses. Its purpose is to accept responsibility. I was 30 when I decided to take the reins of the organization, in political and financial affairs, and I could've said no,” Rodriguez-Abadia said. “But I didn't. I wanted the power.”
His metamorphosis started one afternoon in May 1996, when, while having lunch with friends at a restaurant in Cali, Colombia, his party was showered with bullets. Six people died. A wounded Rodriguez-Abadia was saved by a another victim's pool of blood, which led one of the hired assassins to believe he had finished the job.
“Three friends died near me and it was so hard to talk with three mothers face to face and say, 'It was my fault that your children died,'” he recalled.
Rodriguez-Abadia said that in his youth, he was not aware of his father's criminal activities. As far as he knew, brothers Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela were successful entrepreneurs. He had his first suspicions when, as a child, his mother took him to live in Chicago. He returned to Colombia when he was 12 and chose to live with an aunt because his father already had another home.
“I was a good boy, a rich kid,” he said. “I had everything, but the affection part was missed because since I was very young, I left my mom and I was never close to my dad.”
His innocence vanished when news came from Europe that his uncle had disappeared.
“In 1984 we realized the double life they led. My uncle was captured in Spain. At that moment the world knew that Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela was a drug trafficker,” he said. “Our only obligation at the beginning was to study, and then work in companies that they had founded.”
Slowly but surely, Rodriguez-Abadia learned the corporate ropes of the Cali Cartel's legitimate empire. In 1995, when his father was captured, he took over the family business.
“Someone had to take the flag, so I assumed the legal and political battle that we had and that's when I got involved,” he said.
Rodriguez-Abadia insisted he never ordered murders and “I never had to send drugs, because my father handled that part.”
The cartel's legitimate holdings were substantial, he said.
“We had a company worth $300 million; I was never involved in murders because they did not have me for that. My dad wanted me to be a lawyer, and that was my role — a lawyer and lobbyist within the organization.”
Part of the empire was a chain of pharmacies, Drogas la Rebaja, with hundreds of branches throughout Colombia.
The pharmacies became the target of another crime organization, the Medellin Cartel led by the infamous Pablo Escobar.
“There are no excuses for that war. Situations were presented at a historic moment in the country where a man named Pablo Escobar wanted supreme power and even wanted to be president,” Rodriguez- Abadia said.
Escobar had no qualms about throwing bombs, Rodriguez-Abadia said.
“He completely lost his sanity and turned the entire world into his military objective. Pablo Escobar blew up more than 50 local pharmacies and killed many of our employees. We were fighting against the greatest Latin American criminal in history. When you are in a war and conflict, unfortunately, there are casualties on both sides.”
By the early 2000s, Rodriguez-Abadia was targeted for assassination. On several occasions, he went into hiding — not only to evade his would-be killers but to avoid extradition to the United States after he was indicted here in 2002.
In a 2006 news release, at the time Rodriguez-Abadia surrendered to U.S. authorities, the Drug Enforcement Administration said he was responsible for arranging and ensuring the payment of bribes and payoffs to incarcerated cartel employees and their families.
The agency said the payments were made to hush potential witnesses against his father and uncle.
In the end, Rodriguez-Abadia provided testimony to reduce his sentence to five years. He served his time in a South Carolina prison.
His father and uncle are serving 30 years and more than $2.1 billion in narcotics-related assets were confiscated from the organization.
Few of his relatives welcomed publication of his book, which is not yet available in English.
But Rodriguez-Abadia said he had to set the record straight.
“I do not have much support from my family about it because the family wants to handle it the old way, with silence and with fear, and I think that in the end that yields no results.
“In a life of crime, you always end up in one of two places: in prison or in a tomb.”