Transcript

469:

Hiding in Plain Sight
Transcript

Originally aired 07.13.2012

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Morgan began taking Pilates with her mom from this woman named Mary Archbold during her sophomore year of high school. And the way the class worked, I guess, was like most Pilates classes. Mary Archbold would demonstrate poses, and they would watch her carefully. And Mary Archbold would spend a lot of the class walking around, correcting students' positioning, pushing down their shoulders and adjusting their hip alignment, standing right next to them, touching them.

And I mention that only to say Morgan and everybody else in the class got a really good look at her close up for like an hour.

Morgan

I was in her classes for about probably two times a week for a year, almost a year, until I realized that she didn't have two full arms.

Ira Glass

That seems crazy.

Morgan

Yeah.

Ira Glass

To be fair, a lot of people were fooled. Mary Archbold is very good at concealing something you would think would be hard to conceal. Her right arm is a regular, full arm. And her left arm stops at the elbow. And she does wear a prosthetic arm, but it's solid and the joints and hands don't move at all. If you actually looked at it, you would see it's obviously fake.

But in addition to teaching classes, she performs professionally as a dancer, and has figured out ways to move so that the audience cannot tell. When she auditions, directors and choreographers can't tell, and the caster. And Morgan discovered the truth about Mary's arm only when Mary outed herself. She decided to do a show on stage about the experience of having just one arm. The show is called Jazz Hand. Get it? Jazz Hand-- the woman is a professional dancer-- Jazz Hand: Tales of a One-Armed Woman. And at the time this show was going up, Morgan was away at summer camp. And her mom gave her a postcard for the show, which had the title of the show on it and a picture of Mary showing clearly that she just has one arm. And still, somehow, Morgan and her mom did not suspect the truth.

Morgan

And I hung the post card up in my room along with a bunch of other letters that people had sent me. And pretty soon, people in my cabin had started asking me. They said, "Oh, who is that?" And I said, "Oh, that's Mary. She's my Pilates teacher. She's great." And they were like, "Oh, does Mary only have one arm?" And I said, "No, Mary has two arms." And they said, "Oh, well in the postcard, she only has one arm."

And I looked at them. And I was like, "No, no. Mary definitely has two arms. They must be doing some sort of special effects for the show. You know, Mary is a dancer. She was a cheerleader. I see her do Pilates all the time. I see her twice a week all the time. I go to her classes. I mean, Mary definitely has two arms." And they said, "OK! Why did she write a show about only having one arm?" And I said, "I don't know. She's creative!"

Ira Glass

But when Morgan calls her mom on the phone, she mentions what the girls at camp had said. And her mom reassures her, "No, no, no. Don't be silly. Of course Mary has two arms. We both know that." Her mom-- Karen is her name-- told me, sure, she knew that Mary's show had that subtitle, Tales of a One-Armed Woman.

Karen

You know, I didn't really think anything of it. I thought it could have been like a metaphor for something else. Like working at a deficit, something like that.

Ira Glass

Yeah, yeah, yeah. She had one arm tied behind her back?

Karen

Right. And then you start paying attention. And you realize, oh my god!

Morgan

And then, later that summer, I got home. And my mom said, "Morgan, I have something to tell you." And I was like, "What?" And she was like, "We're such idiots, and Mary does really only have one full arm."

Ira Glass

So the fact that you went to her for an entire school year twice a week--?

Morgan

I was definitely embarrassed, and I definitely felt really, really stupid. And I know that-- I've spoken to some other women in our class about this. And they, also, they're like, "I felt so stupid." Because it's like, how do you not notice? You're spending so much time with someone. And it's just completely invisible.

Ira Glass

Yeah. What was the buzz in class? Were there are a lot of people who didn't know?

Morgan

Oh, I think barely any people knew.

Ira Glass

There's a famous quote that's attributed to an old-time magician named Harry Kellar who died back in 1922. Though as best as I can figure, nobody knows if Harry Kellar really said this. But apparently, he was such a master of misdirection, of getting an audience to look exactly where he wanted them to look and never look anywhere that he did not want them to look, that people claim that he said, quote, "A brass band playing at full blast can march openly across the stage behind me followed by a herd of elephants, yet no one will realize that they went by." Not that he ever tried that. Nobody thinks that.

Well, today on our radio show, Hiding in Plain Sight, we meet people who do what Harry Kellar never achieved-- they are the elephant on stage and the brass band. And nobody notices. We will meet this woman who demonstrates Pilates in front of people for years without them noticing her fake arm. We will meet the man who brought down the Cali drug cartel from the inside. He was their own director of security. And more from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. There's Something About Mary.

Ira Glass

Act one, There's Something About Mary. So I guess I've now put this off long enough. It is time to finally Mary Archbold, one-armed woman. She was born that way.

Mary Archbold

I can hide it. It's definitely now a lot of stuff I do subconsciously. It's inherent in the way I move.

Ira Glass

Do I have this right? You told one of our producers-- or maybe your husband told one of our producers-- that you were in a production of West Side Story, and they didn't know that you had one arm, most of the cast, until the cast party?

Mary Archbold

Yes, yes. We were about probably five weeks into a run of a three-month production. And we had a cast party, and someone pointed it out. And the majority of the people I danced with-- I mean, and these were my dance partners-- did not know.

Ira Glass

And then is that moment for you a moment of horror or a moment of pride?

Mary Archbold

Half and half. There's the horror of what reaction is it going to be?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Mary Archbold

And then there is the quiet pride that maybe you saw me as me before you saw me as an actor with a disability.

Ira Glass

Do you feel like those two things are contradictory?

Mary Archbold

Yes.

Ira Glass

Yeah, I'm not sure I understand that. It's like you're saying you want them to see you.

Mary Archbold

Mm-hm.

Ira Glass

But "you" includes the fact that you have only one full arm.

Mary Archbold

True, but it's not my leading characteristic. And oftentimes when people find it out first, that's sort of how they describe me. I'm like categorized, one-arm Mary.

Ira Glass

But everyone, when you see them, you see something, some superficial thing in their hair or the way they're dressed, or their age, or whatever it is, or their race, just whatever it is.

Mary Archbold

Right.

Ira Glass

And they get classified.

Mary Archbold

And I'd be happy to be classified among any other things. You can call me the short girl. You can call me the brunette girl, the blue-eyed girl, whatever you want to say, just not the disabled girl. And it's funny. At home, with my family, with my son, with my husband, I never wear my arm. I'm a lot more functional without it. I can chop. I can do everything much easier without it. So maybe it's a vain thing that I go through all of this.

Ira Glass

A vanity thing?

Mary Archbold

Yeah, absolutely. And because I am a performer, it's sort of a professional necessity because otherwise, the only role I'll be called in for is wounded vet who just came home from Afghanistan. And this way, I get called in for housewife. I get called in for mom.

Ira Glass

As for her techniques, for how she manages to misdirect people from noticing her hand, they are all startlingly simple. They're so simple that hearing them makes you realize how easily tricked we all are, how unobservant we are in so many situations.

There are the basics. She always wears long sleeves to cover her prosthesis, so only the hand shows. Though the hand is a giveaway. It's worn down so the skin is shiny and doesn't look like skin.

When she goes out on auditions for choreographers, she does big gestures and expressions. And it's over so quick, they actually never get a chance to notice that her wrist doesn't bend and her fingers don't move. When she needs to demonstrate poses in Pilates class that would expose the hand and arm and give her away, she just uses one of the students as a model.

And in every situation, professional and personal--

Mary Archbold

I stand on a certain side so that they really only see my real arm. It's all about misdirection. If you're looking very busily at my right side, you won't notice that my left side's not doing much.

Ira Glass

What about where you put your hand? Would you consciously keep it below people's sight line?

Mary Archbold

Oh, yes. Like at a party, I will not hold a drink in my hand. I will take a sip and put it back down, because if I meet somebody, they're going to want to shake my hand.

Ira Glass

Oh, I see. And if you had a drink in your hand, you would have to put the drink down to shake your hand.

Mary Archbold

Right, I wouldn't just--

Ira Glass

And that would be unnatural.

Mary Archbold

Right.

Ira Glass

Because normally, what you would do is you'd switch from one hand to the other--

Mary Archbold

And then shake hands.

Ira Glass

And then shake. But you can't do that. So you--

Mary Archbold

So I always put a drink down on a table.

Ira Glass

What else?

Mary Archbold

If someone comes at me-- and these are the people, oh, drives me crazy-- where they take both hands. The handholders when they meet people, and they're like, "Oh, it's so nice to meet you!" And they shake your hands, these people scare the hell out of me. So I'll how often cut them off at the pass. If they're going to reach out for my hands, I'll grab a hand and pretend to spin into them and spin out, like we're dancing. Or I say, "I'm a hugger. Give me a hug!"

Ira Glass

But isn't a hug kind of a dangerous thing, too? Because if they feel your left arm against them, then--

Mary Archbold

It won't touch them.

Ira Glass

It won't touch them?

Mary Archbold

Yes, only my right arm will.

Ira Glass

Is it true that before you were with your husband, you would go out on dates with boys. And you wouldn't let them know originally? Like when they first were going out with you, you didn't let them know? That wasn't the first thing you would say?

Mary Archbold

No, absolutely not.

Ira Glass

So how far would it get?

Mary Archbold

Depends on the guy. I would get physical with certain guys, and we would get a certain amount. And they still wouldn't know.

Ira Glass

But you have your shirt still on, right?

Mary Archbold

Yes.

Ira Glass

OK.

Mary Archbold

But if the shirt came off, funnily, the left sleeve would stay on. So the rest of the shirt could come off, but I would leave the left sleeve on.

Ira Glass

Wait, and they wouldn't notice anything weird?

Mary Archbold

I mean, you were a college guy once. I mean, were you concerned about the left sleeve? If there was a shirt open, are you going to be looking? "Let me check out her elbow joint and see what that looks like."

Ira Glass

But when you're that close to somebody, at some point, your hand touches their left arm, right? Like--

Mary Archbold

Not if it's under a pillow!

Ira Glass

Because it's made of silicon-- not if it's under a pillow?

Mary Archbold

Yes, I would wrap my arm underneath a pillow that would be under their head so that they wouldn't realize that my hard arm is underneath them.

Ira Glass

And then, with those boys, would there come a point with some of them where you would have to reveal, "Oh, by the way, just one arm?"

Mary Archbold

There was one guy that I actually really did like. And we went out on three dates. And on the fourth date-- and we had smoochy-smooched up until then, nothing too much-- but I felt like I needed to come clean with him. And I did at dinner. And he didn't take it so well.

He came back at me with, "Why do you think so little of me that I would care?"

Ira Glass

That's a good question. What did you say?

Mary Archbold

I said, "I don't think so little of you." At the time, I said, "Maybe I think so little of me that you wouldn't want me with a prosthetic arm."

Ira Glass

Of course, that was long ago. She's performed that whole Jazz Hand show about her experience as a one-armed person and invited her students and all kinds of people she'd been fooling to come and see it. At her wedding, because she had a sleeveless gown, she got opera gloves to conceal her arm. And she actually had them specially made to be long enough to cover her prosthesis. And then, in the end, she realized that everybody at the wedding already knew the truth. They already knew and accepted her, and she didn't wear the gloves.

Act Two. Objects May Be Closer Than They Appear.

Ira Glass

Act two, Objects May be Closer Than They Appear. Anton DiSclafani has this story of a person, a human being, who is completely visible, in plain sight, close, nearby, but utterly, confusingly, confoundingly, frustratingly unreachable.

Anton Disclafani

This February, my husband, Matt, found a wallet on the front steps of our apartment. He was walking our dog. The wallet looked custom-made, brown leather with braided edges and a Celtic design embossed on the front along with the initials, JJV. It had $300 inside and a license-- Julian Vinegas, which listed a St. Louis address a street away.

"Was it stolen?" I asked my husband.

"Stolen by someone not interested in cash?"

It was a little bit of a mystery how a fully intact wallet came true reside, literally, on our front steps. It went without saying that we would return the wallet and cash to Julian Vinegas. I floated the idea of going to the police, but my husband rejected it. "The Wire," was all he said. Most of Matt's knowledge of the police comes from watching The Wire, and the cops on The Wire would've definitely stolen the money.

I looked for Julian Vinegas on Facebook. He came up on my first search-- Julian Vinegas, St. Louis, Missouri. His security settings wouldn't let me post on his wall, so I sent him a message. This was so easy. But why stop there?

My husband and I went to Julian's apartment. I pushed the buzzer, and after a couple of long minutes of waiting, a window raised above us. "Yeah?" a distinctly unfriendly voice called.

"Are you Julian Vinegas?" He was not. Julian Vinegas had apparently moved, and he didn't leave a forwarding address.

When we got home, I checked Facebook. There was no message from Julian, but there was a post on his wall about a concert he'd been to the night before. "Jane's Addiction was a blast last night. However, I somehow made it home without my phone, keys, and wallet. I never lose things! WTF. Anybody got any leads?"

"I have a lead!" I shouted at the computer. "Check your messages!" A little while later, another post.

"I'm starting to feel like maybe I stashed them in the house somewhere, but I've checked everywhere-- including the back of the toilet, the oven, and the freezer."

"Check your messages!"

Then I remember that Facebook puts all the messages sent you by people who aren't friends into a folder labeled "other," which many people don't know exists. I couldn't friend Julian because of his privacy settings. But I could see his friend list, so I friended several of his friends and messaged them. And I emailed Julian at likely Gmail addresses-- julianvinegas@gmail.com, julian.vinegas@gmail.com. No response.

"You're getting obsessed," my husband said. But I was just getting started. There were other leads in Julian's wallet-- three frequent buyer cards from Smoothie King, a coupon card labelled Passport Club that promised 20% off hats at various hat stores, a business card for an attorney, a Sur la Table gift card, a FedEx gift card, a ticket voucher to a local movie theater, a receipt from a record store called Vintage Vinyl, where he bought season six of Weeds, a very faded student ID from the University of Puget Sound.

I called the University of Puget Sound. The woman who answered was certain she would be able to give me Julian's info. She said the University of Puget Sound kept very good track of its alumni. But there was no Julian Vinegas in their databases.

I called Vintage Vinyl, but they'd never heard of Julian Vinegas and had no record of him. I called the number on the attorney's business card. But the woman who answered refused to give out any information. I called Smoothie King, where Julian had amassed three punch cards. The woman there said she had not heard of him, but that I could leave the wallet at the store. And if he came back, they'd return it, which seemed like a poor way of doing things for various reasons.

I still hadn't gotten a reply on Facebook. On Julian's wall, I saw that he went to something called Metal Mondays at a St. Louis bar called [? Limits ?]. I called the bar and left a message. I thought surely somebody would get back to me-- one of his friends or the bar. They did not.

I read his wall a dozen times a day. A week passed, and then another. He seemed to have given up on the wallet, mentioned it less and less. I got to know Julian Vinegas.

I learned that he hung out with friends a lot. He partied a lot. He liked music a lot. He didn't seem to particularly care about punctuation. And though I had so much access to his thoughts, to his whereabouts, I was unable to let him know I existed. I felt like a stalker. I felt like a ghost.

And then, Julian posted that he was going to a Raekwon concert at the Gargoyle. "This is it!" I thought. "If he's not there, I'll turn over the wallet to the police, crooked cops be damned." Matt, who had become my unwilling accomplice, sat with me at the bottom of the stairs at the Gargoyle. I knew exactly what Julian looked like, because I had looked at dozens of his pictures. But just to be safe, I asked men if they were Julian even when they only vaguely resembled him. One guy told me, "No." And his friend yelled out, "But he could be!"

We waited. The concert was going to start soon, and I didn't have any proof that Julian was going to be there except a Facebook post from a few days before. And he had been out since 3:31 AM last night, so I thought maybe he was tired?

Then, he walked down the stairs. I recognized him immediately.

"Are you Julian Vinegas?" I asked. Before he could even confirm that he was Julian Vinegas, I handed him his wallet. "Wow," he said. Immediately, he tried to give me $40, which I didn't take. He seemed happy to see his wallet, but not euphoric. This moment, a complete stranger not only finding his wallet but going to such great lengths to return it, somehow did not seem as improbable to him as to me.

We chatted for a few minutes. It was kind of like meeting a celebrity. You think it will just be so incredible that your mind won't be able to handle actually meeting someone who you know so much about. And then it's like, yeah, your mind does handle it.

Julian had moved two blocks away from me to another apartment. He'd lost the same exact wallet twice before. "Really?" I asked.

"Yes," he said, "and it always gets returned to me like a boomerang." I wanted to say, "No, it is not like a boomerang. It got returned to you because the wallet became my problem, and I focused my obsessive mind on it and went to lengths that most people would not." But I didn't say that.

We saw things differently, he and I. And I realized, standing there, that I didn't know Julian Vinegas at all. I thought I did. But I didn't.

Ira Glass

Anton DiSclafani. Her book, The Yonahlossee Writing Camp for Girls, comes out next summer. Coming up, Coke Brothers. And by that, of course, I mean guys who sell cocaine for a living and how a guy who they knew and trusted sent them to prison. Car-tel Talk in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Seven Year Snitch.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Hiding in Plain Sight, stories of people doing just that.

We've arrived at act three of our show. Act three, The Seven Year Snitch. At its height in the early '90s, the Cali drug cartel controlled 80% of all the cocaine in the world. It was a $7 billion a year international business.

But the cartel collapsed. Its former leaders went to prison, mostly because of one man, a high-ranking cartel insider who decided that he wanted out, and he went to the authorities. Though I have to say that "going to the authorities" is nothing like a guy in Jersey ratting out a mafia boss here in the United States. This was Columbia, a country with no functioning judicial system. The cartel had bought off Colombian cops, prosecutors, politicians, judges. Karen Lowe tells the story of the man who stood up to all of that while staying and working right under the noses of the Cali godfathers.

Karen Lowe

The man who took down the Cali cartel was named Jorge Salcedo. He's in witness protection in the US now. In order to talk to him, my producer and I met him at a hotel near the beach in Southern California. Jorge was a little nervous around the mic.

Jorge Salcedo

Is it going to be that close all the time?

Producer

It will be that close, yeah, yeah. Yeah,

Jorge Salcedo

You're going to be tired.

Producer

I will get tired. That's true.

Karen Lowe

Jorge Salcedo is a greying, soft-spoken engineer who loves literature and tinkering with things. And that's who he was before all this started. He was doing well in Colombia. He ran an assembly line that made car batteries. He was designing a way to recycle motor oil.

And he was bored. Jorge's father had been a high ranking member of the military. And now, in his 40s, Jorge wanted that kind of prestige and adventure. So he joined the Colombian Army Reserves, became a surveillance and intelligence specialist. And then, one day in 1989, Jorge was working at his battery factory in Bogota when he got a visit from an old friend.

The guy's name was Mario del Basto. Mario had recently quit the military, and he had a request for Jorge. Here's how Jorge recalls it.

Jorge Salcedo

He just came to my office. And he was very secretive about what was going to happen. He told me, "You need to come with me to Cali." I said, "Where are we going?" "I'll tell you later. Just come, don't ask me." I trusted him so much that I said, "I don't see anything bad."

And he said, "We're going to go to The Intercontinental Hotel, and they're going to be calling us. And just wait for what they're going to tell us, because frankly, I don't know what it is."

Karen Lowe

The people who were going to be calling were members of the Cali cartel. Since leaving the military, Mario had gone to work for the cartel, and Jorge knew that. But he got on the plane with Mario anyhow. I asked Jorge why. Jorge said he suspected that he might be meeting with some mid-level Cali guys, and that seemed OK with him.

It intrigued him. He thought it might even be a business opportunity. I kept asking Jorge to clarify. Do you think it was OK to do business with the drug cartel?

Jorge Salcedo

You're asking me? I see that your questions go to, "How can he accept something like this?" to, "How corrupt is he already?" But when you are a Colombian, you get used to something that is not conceivable other ways.

Our country has never been in peace. I have been all the time living under violent circumstances.

Karen Lowe

When he got to Cali, Jorge was surprised to find that his meeting was not with some mid-level guys, but with the cartel's four godfathers. And what they wanted from him was equally surprising. They wanted help in their war with the Medellin cartel. You've probably heard of Pablo Escobar, the ruthless leader of the Medellin cartel. They wanted Jorge to help them kill him.

Jorge Salcedo

I was introduced by Mario who just said, "Gentlemen, here is Jorge Salcedo, the person whom I told you about." And the first sentences ever pronounced, "Well, we have been told about your connections with a group of mercenaries in England."

Karen Lowe

This is why they reached out to Jorge. While he was in the Army Reserves, Jorge had come in contact with a group of British mercenaries, a crew of about a dozen men who ran secretive, off-the-books missions. Jorge was their primary contact in Colombia, and the cartel knew that.

They wanted to hire these British mercenaries to kill Escobar. They told Jorge--

Jorge Salcedo

"As you know, we've been attacked by Pablo Escobar. And we're very worried for our families." And then, they were very explicit with their plans. They got very much in detail. They said, "We're going to get him in this place." It was already a plan that they had developed. So when I was told, "This is what we're going to do," at that moment, I knew they had made me aware of a big secret. And I had no way out.

Karen Lowe

No way out. I know, this is the way it always happens in the movies, right? But it's true. The cartel had just laid out a plan to kill Escobar in a very detailed way. And now Jorge knew.

Jorge says at that moment the conversation in his head went something like this. "I'll help take down Escobar, but I won't be involved in any drug trafficking or anything dirty. Once Escobar's gone, I'll take my money, leave, maybe start my own security business."

I asked him over and over again about this. And he kept saying, "You pretty much have to be a Colombian to understand." Escobar was out of control, murdering people on a scale that was shocking, even for a drug lord. One notorious incident, he blew up an airliner with 107 people on it because he wanted to kill one man, a presidential candidate who, it turned out, wasn't even on the plane.

Escobar was terrorizing the country. So Jorge did want Escobar dead. Nearly everyone did.

Over the next four years, with the help of the British mercenaries, the cartel tried twice to kill Pablo Escobar. But they didn't succeed. Eventually, Escobar was killed in a shootout with Colombian authorities in 1993.

Meanwhile, Jorge had risen to chief of security for the Cali cartel. Now his job was to protect the head godfather, Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, his four wives, and all their children.

Jorge Salcedo

My presence was required every time that he was going to move. He would tell me in advance what sort of movements were expected.

Karen Lowe

Jorge was actually into the work. It gave him a way to indulge his military and technical skills. But he was originally hired to help kill Escobar. So the day after the authorities shot him, Jorge asked to speak with Miguel, the head of the cartel.

Jorge Salcedo

And basically, the conversation was, "My mission is over. I'm happy to see that nothing happened to your family, to yourself. But it is the time for me to retake the original life that I had years ago."

And he said, "No, no, no, Jorge. You're very valuable to us. Don't even think about it. Much better times are coming." They had some sort of gratitude for what I had done, but on the other hand, it may be that gratitude was that if he leaves, he knows too much and I have to do something else. I didn't look at that under that perspective.

Karen Lowe

Really? In all that time, it didn't occur to you that you had too much knowledge to leave?

Jorge Salcedo

I was, in a way, a little too naive.

Karen Lowe

However he justified his role-- for instance, Jorge says he never saw drugs, he didn't touch a gram of the stuff-- there was no way he could escape the violence. He heard about grisly murders and cartel assassins.

Once, he was at a hacienda as four suspected snitches in other rooms were strangled and then disemboweled.

Jorge Salcedo

And I just said, "Next is me, maybe in this very night." So that was a time where also I said, "Oh my god, I don't belong here. This is not my world. What am I doing here?"

Karen Lowe

Jorge was stuck in a cartel that was growing quickly. With Escobar gone and his organization in disarray, the Cali cartel soaked up Medellin's drug business. A US Justice Department official told Congress that, at its peak, the cartel was, quote, "The most prolific and successful criminal enterprise in history."

But there was one way the cartel was still vulnerable. If you could get cartel members extradited to the United States, then they could be prosecuted for bringing drugs into the country. And while Colombia was notoriously soft on the cartels, the US had no problem handing down tough sentences.

But in the early 1990s, the cartels found a way around that, too. Colombia outlawed extradition, made it unconstitutional. Cali cartel attorneys had actually helped craft the law's language. But the extradition ban didn't cover everyone in the cartel. There was a kind of loophole.

William Rempel is a reporter who spent more than 10 years reporting Jorge's story for a book he wrote called At the Devil's Table.

William Rempel

There's a technicality, and the law also included the fact that this protection extended only to Colombians-- Colombian citizens. So anybody in the Cali cartel-- and they employed Guatemalans, Cubans, Chileans, Argentinians-- all of those members of the cartel were still subject to extradition. And some of those people had risen to high places.

Karen Lowe

First among these people in high places was the cartel's accountant, Guillermo Pallomari. Pallomari was Chilean, which meant he could be extradited. He also had intimate knowledge and computerized records of all the cartel's transactions, including bribes to officials. If the authorities nabbed Pallomari, they'd have a blueprint of nearly every act of corruption the cartel was involved in.

He presented such a risk to the cartel that they asked him to go into hiding. The Cali godfather, Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, wasn't one to accept risks like this. Miguel was a no-nonsense kind of guy dubbed The Lemon because of his sour disposition. And even though Miguel liked Pallomari, Miguel knew something had to be done. So he talked to Jorge.

Jorge Salcedo

Miguel tells me, very sadly, "You know, Pallomari has served us very much. But we have agreed that he needs to die. So there is a killer with the name of Yusti. And it's your task to coordinate with this killer that he kills him." At that particular moment, I was praying. I was saying, "Oh my God, you work it out so I will not do this. Just help me. I'm not going to do it."

On the other side, I was just being a candidate for an Oscar Award by my performance. I said, "No problem. I'll take care of the thing."

Karen Lowe

Jorge actually kind of hated Guillermo Pallomari. The accountant had been behind some business decisions for the cartel that he disagreed with, and he thought Pallomari had a tendency to be sloppy. But still, Jorge says he never ordered anyone to be killed.

Going after Escobar was one thing. He was a national menace. But this was different. So he says he made up his mind. He wasn't going to kill Pallomari.

That left him two options. He could leave or, reporter William Rempel says, he could take down the entire Cali drug cartel. He choose option number two.

William Rempel

And the only way to bring down the cartel would be to actually save the life of the accountant who could deliver such a terrible blow to the inner secrets of the cartel, and to help the United States and the Colombian government capture Miguel, the boss of the bosses.

Karen Lowe

How was Jorge going to do this? He couldn't trust anyone in Colombia. There was no way to know who might be working for the cartel. And so Jorge did the only thing he could think of, the same thing you or I or the average seventh grader might think of if we needed help taking down an international crime syndicate. Jorge went to a phone booth he knew wasn't tapped and called the CIA.

He didn't know anyone at the CIA, of course, so he called the main number for CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. He got the front desk.

Jorge Salcedo

Let me tell you what I said. I said, "I am calling from Cali, Columbia. And I just have very valuable information about the head of the Cali cartel, and I--"

Karen Lowe

The operator asked him for the name of the person he wanted to talk to. He explained he didn't have that. "How about an extension?" she said. Well, no. He didn't have that either. Again, William Rempel.

William Rempel

It ended with her saying, "Well, maybe you should call back when you know who you want to talk to."

Jorge Salcedo

I walk across the square. And then again, I was myself praying, help me, God. I'm totally alone. There's nothing I can do.

Karen Lowe

Then, Jorge stumbled on one another long-shot solution. He knew a lawyer in Florida who had done some work for the cartel, and Jorge happened to read in the newspaper that US authorities were after the lawyer.

So Jorge contacted the attorney with a pretty simple proposition. Put me in touch with American authorities, and I'll talk. And they'll be so grateful to you, it'll get you leniency.

This worked. The lawyer knew someone in US Customs in Miami. That person knew someone in the Drug Enforcement Administration. Soon, Jorge was on the phone with two DEA agents, David Mitchell and Chris Feistl, who were already on the ground in Colombia. They agreed to meet in a cane field 45 minutes outside of Cali. But Chris says Jorge had a few demands. Jorge was scared of any Colombians, because they might be collaborating with the cartel.

Chris Feistl

Well, before we got there, Jorge said on the phone that he had two conditions to us meeting. One was he said you have to come alone. And I said, "There's no way I'm coming alone. I'm coming with my partner. We don't go anywhere by ourselves in Cali." And he said, "OK, that was fine." But then, he also said, "I don't want to see anybody who's Colombian. If you bring a Colombian with you or someone who even appears to be Colombian, the deal's off."

And I told him, "Jorge, don't worry. When you see us, you won't be disappointed."

Karen Lowe

Both agents were blond, both over 6' tall.

Chris Feistl

And when Jorge arrived and he started walking up to us, and my partner, Dave, said, "Hey, Jorge, are we American enough looking for you?" And that kind of broke the ice, because it was obviously a tension-filled moment for him as well as for us. And Jorge smiled, and he laughed a little bit. And we got down to business.

Karen Lowe

First, they went after Miguel. Other cartel members had recently been nabbed, and Miguel was getting paranoid-- so paranoid that he didn't let his own security chief, Jorge, know which apartment he was staying in. Jorge knew the building, but nothing more.

But Jorge told the agents that Miguel liked to work very late. They did some nighttime surveillance and noticed that the lights stayed on in only two apartments-- one on the fourth floor and one on the eighth floor.

So one night, Jorge calls Miguel's driver. The lights flick on. It's the fourth floor. They had him.

Three days later on the morning of July 15, 1995, the two DEA agents rolled into the neighborhood with dozens of hidden Colombian National Police-- hidden, Chris says, the only way they could think of.

Chris Feistl

We wanted to get something that would kind of fit in at that hour of the morning. And the best thing that we could come up with would be chicken trucks. It was a pretty messy situation, and some of the troops were not very happy. I don't think it was a very comfortable ride for them.

Karen Lowe

Jorge didn't go on the raid. He kept his distance to maintain his cover and waited for his phone to ring. The first call he got was from one of his security guys in the cartel.

Jorge Salcedo

I got an early call from somebody saying they had penetrated the area and they're going to be searching the apartment.

Karen Lowe

So although he initiated the raid on the apartment, Jorge was still the cartel security chief. And he had a job to do. He told his men to get out of there, it was too late. They couldn't save Miguel.

Jorge Salcedo

And my instruction was everybody leave the area. I don't want anybody arrested for any reason. I was warning my people, but I was more than warning. I was covering up myself. I was just playing the charade.

Karen Lowe

And then, a problem. The DEA had kept the target of the raid a secret from Colombian authorities till the last minute. And now, a Colombian prosecutor met them at the building and told the DEA they didn't have the right paperwork to raid Miguel's apartment. For 90 minutes, the DEA waited, frustrated.

Once the paperwork was finally fixed and the DEA made it into the apartment, three people were there-- two housekeepers and Miguel's driver. Jorge had told the DEA, if you see the driver, Miguel is there. The driver was always with Miguel.

Chris Feistl

I turned to my partner, Dave, and I said, "We're in the right place. He's here. Now, we just need to find him."

Karen Lowe

They searched all the rooms and grilled Miguel's driver. Nothing. Meanwhile, across town, Jorge was hanging out with the cartel members at a bakery, trying to look like the security boss while also picking up clues to feed the agents. He walked over to Miguel's son to demonstrate his concern.

Jorge Salcedo

I just came to ask, "Is there anything you know?" He said, "No, nothing. He's inside there, but hopefully he will go into his vault." And I said, "Does he have a vault?" "Oh, yeah, he does." "OK, so let's pray for the best and wait. There's nothing we can do about that." And at that time, a beeper started sounding coming from the agents.

Karen Lowe

He goes to a pay phone and contacts the agents. Again here's Chris.

Chris Feistl

And then, after hours of Jorge sitting there and hearing different bits of information, we were able to learn that there was a secret compartment in the apartment, and that it may have been in one of the bathrooms. And once concealed inside that secret compartment, it would be very difficult for us to find.

Karen Lowe

So they checked the bathrooms. Again, nothing. Hours passed. The Colombians involved in the raid got so bored that they started watching soccer on one of Miguel's big screen TVs. But Jorge managed to give the agents one additional clue. Jorge told them to compare Miguel's apartment with the others in the building, see if any differences stood out. Chris noticed one of the bathrooms wasn't like the others. It was smaller. And one of the cabinet doors seemed off. It hit the toilet when you tried to open it.

Chris Feistl

And I got down on the floor. And first of all, I noticed that the floor was wet, that someone had urinated on the floor. And I thought, "Well, either they were just being sloppy or that was a sign that they didn't want anybody to really get down on the ground and start looking around." So I got down on the floor.

And as I was looking under one of the cabinets, I was able to see a very thin tube, like a plastic tube, coming out of the wall under the cabinet and up under the sink. And I thought, that's really strange. If he's anywhere, it has to be behind that wall.

Karen Lowe

The agents brought in sledge hammers and drills and started boring into the cement walls. By now, though, the cartel had called in some [? chits ?]. A regional Attorney General showed up and ordered the agents out of the building. They tried to argue, but it was over. Chris called Jorge and told him the news.

Jorge Salcedo

I felt devastated. I learned what my fate was going to be.

Karen Lowe

Jorge had put everything on the line for this raid, and they'd failed. And now the cartel was trying to figure out who snitched. Who led the authorities to Miguel's apartment?

Jorge Salcedo

I said, "Well, so far, nobody has pinpointed me. And nothing was going to link me." I quickly saw the thing. I've never been at the apartment. There's no way I can be blamed for knowing about the vault, so I'm clear.

Karen Lowe

Not exactly. Jorge knew that if he was going to avoid suspicion, he had to amp up his performance as security chief. So his next move was to urgently find out who fed information about Miguel to authorities-- to essentially investigate himself.

Jorge's plan was to cast doubt on others. First up, Miguel's driver, Castillo. Castillo had been in the apartment during the DEA raid, so maybe he'd be able to pinpoint the leaker. Miguel's son told Jorge to meet Castillo someplace 45 minutes outside of Cali. Along for the ride were two other cartel members. They left at 5:00 AM with Jorge at the wheel. One sat next to him. The other sat behind him.

Karen Lowe

Were you afraid that you were being set up to be killed?

Jorge Salcedo

Absolutely. I was just concerned that I have somebody behind me who could just put a rope on my neck, and you're over.

Karen Lowe

When they met with the driver, the only information he offered was that the agents kept calling their informant Patricia. That was true.

Any time the agents got on the phone with their informant-- who, of course, was Jorge-- they called him Patricia. When Jorge heard the driver, Castillo, bring up his raid code name, he jumped at the opportunity it provided.

Jorge Salcedo

And I just moved the conversation to, "That's very good news because we can now establish our whole investigation towards women that had been in the apartment. It's going to be about 5% of visitors. So how many women have been there?" So I started exploiting the situation, trying to derail the investigation in a way that was favorable to me.

Karen Lowe

Rerunning that scene in his head as they rode back, Jorge worried that he appeared a bit too enthusiastic about the tidbit Castillo gave. Of course they would know Patricia was a code name. The DEA wouldn't be stupid enough to use an informant's real name. Jorge had to find out what the cartel guys knew.

Jorge Salcedo

So I quickly got to Cali. And then, I said, "I need to stop here in a bank." The person who runs the bank is a lady friend of mine. I need to talk to her just a minute." So I step out of the car about five minutes. And the minute I started on, they started talking again.

Karen Lowe

How did Jorge know they started talking again? Because he'd been recording them the whole time. He'd stashed a little tape recorder in a compartment of the driver's side door.

Jorge Salcedo

Too easy. I just had to pull my left hand down. I knew where the record button is. Click it, leave it. And I was careful, very careful, to touch the record and not the play button. You can imagine.

[MEN SPEAKING IN SPANISH]

Jorge Salcedo

In the tape, there was a point where they make a comment, [SPEAKING SPANISH]. "Do you notice how he became after I mentioned Patricia?" And he said, "Well, he's acting funny. Definitely, he's kind of nervous." That was the conversation between these two guys.

[MEN SPEAKING IN SPANISH]

Karen Lowe

While they were talking, Jorge was in the bank pretending to visit a woman. The guys in the car suddenly hear this buzz.

[VIBRATION AUDIBLE]

It was Jorge's DEA beeper.

Jorge Salcedo

I had the beeper that I had been using with Chris and David on vibration mode in the trunk of the car. So they were talking. And there it goes, brrp, brrp, this beep. And I think they were listening to music some. But they were having a conversation about, it has to be me.

[BEEPER BUZZES]

Jorge Salcedo

And then, there was a third one that [INAUDIBLE] it, brrp, brrp. And all of a sudden, they say, "Oh my god, what's that? It's a microphone!"

[BEEPING SOUND]

Jorge Salcedo

It's a stupid thing because microphones don't sound. They produce no sound. But these guys were-- and I was precisely coming out of there. So what this guy does is turns the switch, the air conditioning starts shhh uhhh to cover up, to make noise to cover up. And he said, "He's coming. He's coming."

Karen Lowe

When Jorge listened to the whole tape later, his chest caved. Now he knew for sure he was under suspicion. He and his family were in grave danger. Plus, there was still a hit out on Pallomari the accountant. And Miguel was still at large in a new safehouse. Jorge couldn't risk any more. It was time to call in the agents, Chris and Dave.

Again, they met in the cane field outside of Cali. Just like the raid on Miguel's house and the two attempts to kill Pablo Escobar, the meeting quickly turned into a fiasco. Instead of the empty field they expected, the place was swarmed with taxis and police cars. Turns out a taxi driver had been murdered in the field the night before. Chris says it wasn't long before a police officer asked what they were doing there.

Chris Feistl

And the routine questioning led to asking for ID. And we assured him that we weren't doing anything. So my partner, Dave Mitchell, had a lot of Colombian pesos. And we basically went to the police officials and said, "Here, take this money. Leave us alone. We're not doing anything wrong." and his response was, "If you're not doing anything wrong, why are you giving me some money?"

It was a good question, because I didn't have an answer for it at that point. And finally, Jorge just said--

Jorge Salcedo

Well, this is embarrassing to say. But this is the thing. These gentlemen here, they're foreigners. And we're gay. We're just doing some gay stuff.

Chris Feistl

And we all had a laugh at that. And the police officials had a laugh at it, too. And they left us alone. So we were able to continue our conversation and continue with our strategizing and plotting of the next raid.

Karen Lowe

This time, they knew where to go thanks to a slip-up by a low level cartel worker. A messenger for Miguel's wife had openly talked in front of Jorge about where Miguel's new hideout was. They nailed everything down ahead of time, did all the paperwork and hand-picked a prosecutor.

They were working with the Colombian Navy, which Jorge was pretty sure wasn't compromised. The apartment building was near a mountain, so instead of driving up to the front door, 35 guys descended down extremely difficult terrain to the building. But only five made it into the building in time for the raid. The rest got tangled on the mountainside.

They broke open Miguel's door with a sledgehammer and raced through the apartment. Here's Chris.

Chris Feistl

And with the commotion as we continued to make our way through the apartment, I heard one of the Colombian Navy officials say, "I got him, I got him!" And I was like, "OK, well, that's good news." And I was able to run in the back down the hallway and into the master bedroom and into the closet area. And I saw the Colombian Navy official holding Miguel by the shoulder on his shirt. And he grabbed him right as he was trying to access the secret compartment. So had we been another five minutes or so, we probably wouldn't have apprehended him.

Karen Lowe

The Colombian officials were jubilant and took turns taking trophy pictures of themselves with Miguel. But Jorge wasn't so happy. He wouldn't be safe until the DEA got him and Pallomari out of the country.

Next, the DEA struck a deal with Pallomari. He would testify against the cartel in exchange for safe passage to the United States-- which had an unfortunate side effect. It meant Jorge would have to wait to get out. The DEA was tied up transferring Pallomari and his family.

Having to wait for days, Jorge was terrified. And he knew it was time to confess the truth to his wife, to let her know their lives were about to change completely and permanently. She knew he worked for the Cali cartel, but had no idea he was working with the DEA to bring them down.

Jorge Salcedo

It was like three days before leaving that I said, "I need to talk to you." And I told her, "We need to talk. And I don't want it to happen here in our house." So I took her out to a field close to the house. All I remember is we were sitting on the grass. And very flatly, I just said, "I need you to know this. I am the person behind the capture of Miguel Rodriguez. And what we need to do is get out of everything we have here. We need to abandon what we have. We need to leave the city, the country." It was such a big shock to her.

Karen Lowe

How did she react?

Jorge Salcedo

SIlent for about 30 seconds, staring at me. And there were tears from both of us. We just grabbed our hands strongly. And she said, "OK, I understand what you have done. So let's face it. It's a fact. When are we leaving?" I said, "I don't know."

Karen Lowe

10 days after he went into hiding and 7 and 1/2 years since he joined the cartel, Jorge Salcedo boarded a plane in Bogota bound for Miami.

Jorge Salcedo

It was already checked, ready to go. The engines were started already inside the hanger. They opened the doors and we were cleared to take off. When we took off, I just said, "Thank God I'm out." That's it.

Chris Feistl

I'd put him right up there with one of the best assets that we've ever had.

Karen Lowe

Again, DEA agent Chris Feistl.

Chris Feistl

I've told him before, I don't know how you did what you did, because I don't know if I would have the courage or the guts to do what you did, to take that chance and to put it all on the line to try to do the right thing. So I had great admiration for him for that.

Karen Lowe

In 1997, Columbia lifted its ban on extradition. Jorge and Guillermo Pallomari, both safe in the States, provided testimony that led to the conviction of many of Colombia's top drug bosses and their enforcers. Scores of police and legislators were fired or sent to prison. The Cali godfathers, Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, are currently serving 30-year prison sentences in Miami for international drug trafficking.

Jorge lives in witness protection in the US. He says his conscience is clear and he's at peace with what he did. Wherever he lives, none of his neighbors or coworkers know anything about his past, but Jorge knows.

During our interview, a helicopter flew overhead and he had to stop. Jorge told me he's flown lots of helicopters.

Jorge Salcedo

I love flying helicopters.

Karen Lowe

Another time when a chopper flew by, Jorge was even able to identify the manufacturer. It was a Bell, American made. The guy knows his stuff. He knows what he did. He just can't talk about it anymore-- the most important thing about his life, the biggest thing he ever accomplished, and no one has a clue.

Ira Glass

Karen Lowe in California. Thanks to William Rempel, whose book about Jorge Salcedo, At the Devil's Table, was so helpful to us in putting together this story. Though both William Rempel and Karen Lowe have interviewed Salcedo, neither has any idea where he lives, what city or state.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Brian Reed with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our office manager. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddes. Production help from [? Tariq Fudha ?] and Matt Kielty. This is our last show with Matt. He is off to work with our colleagues at Radio Lab. We wish him the very, very best. We hope maybe he'll teach those slackers how to mix or something.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, my nephew was visiting on college break this week. He came by the office, dropped by. We saw Torey. Torey took the kid's jacket, ripped off one of the sleeves, turned to me, and said,

Mary Archbold

I mean, you were a college guy once. I mean, were you concerned about the left sleeve?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

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