José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha

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José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha
Picture of Rodriguez Gacha
Born José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha
14, May 1947
Pacho, Colombia
Died December 15, 1989(1989-12-15) (aged 42)
Tolu, Colombia
Cause of death Killed by Colombian Armed Forces[1]
Nationality Colombian
Other names El Mexicano (The Mexican)
Religion Roman Catholicism
Criminal status Deceased
Children Fredy Rodriguez Celades, Daniel Ray Rodriguez

José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha (May 14, 1947 – December 15, 1989), also known by the nickname El Mexicano, was a Colombian drug lord who was one of the leaders of the notorious Medellín Cartel along with the Ochoa Brothers and Pablo Escobar. At the height of his criminal career Rodríguez was acknowledged as one of the world's most successful drug dealers. In 1988, Forbes magazine included him in their annual list of the world's billionaires.[2]

Early years[edit]

José Gonzalo Rodríguez was born in May 1947 in the small town of Vergara near Pacho in Cundinamarca. He came from a poor family of modest pig farmers, and it is said that his formal education did not extend beyond grade school. As a youth he developed a fearsome reputation while employed as a hired killer for numerous organizations. In the early 1970s, Rodríguez moved to Bogotá and linked up with Verónica Rivera de Vargas, a pioneering drug trafficker who became the first queen of cocaine by murdering the family of her main rival.[3]

Rise of the Medellín Cartel[edit]

After moving to Medellín in 1976, Rodríguez joined with the Ochoa family, Pablo Escobar, and Carlos Lehder in establishing an alliance that eventually strengthened into what would become known as the Medellín Cartel. The traffickers cooperated in the manufacturing, distribution and marketing of cocaine. During the late 1970s, Rodríguez advanced in the organizational hierarchy, pioneering new trafficking routes through Mexico and into the United States, primarily Los Angeles, California and Houston, Texas. This, coupled with his infatuation with Mexican popular culture, and his fondness for foul language, earned him the nickname El Mexicano (the Mexican). He owned a string of ranches in the Pacho area with Mexican inspired names such as Cuernavaca, Chihuahua, Sonora and Mazatlán. According to the US Justice Department, Rodríguez directed cocaine trafficking operations through Panama and the West Coast (California) of the United States. It is claimed that he helped design a Nicaraguan trafficking operation that employed pilot Barry Seal (who was murdered on February 19, 1986 after agreeing to testify against the Medellín Cartel). Rodríguez based much of his operations from Bogotá and other areas in the Cundinamarca region. It was Rodríguez who first set up Tranquilandia, one of the largest and best known of the jungle laboratories where more than two thousand people lived and worked making and packaging cocaine. ["The Accountant's Story," by Roberto Escobar]

Lara assassination[edit]

On April 30, 1984, Colombian Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara, who had crusaded against the Medellin Cartel, was assassinated by armed men on a motorcycle. In response, President Belisario Betancur, who had previously opposed extradition, made an announcement that "we will extradite Colombians." Carlos Lehder was the first to be put on the list. The crackdown forced the Ochoas, Escobar and Rodríguez to flee to Panama for several months. A few months later, Escobar was indicted for Lara's murder and Rodríguez was named as a material witness. In an attempt to handle the situation, Escobar, Rodríguez and the Ochoa brothers met with the former Colombian president Alfonso López in the Hotel Marriott in Panama City. The negotiation failed after news of it leaked to the press, provoking the open opposition of the United States to any immunity deal.[4]

Cartel-linked paramilitary groups[edit]

Paramilitary groups (or self-defense groups, autodefensas as they are frequently referred to in Colombia), were created with the support of landowners and cattle ranchers who had been under pressure from the guerrillas as well as from groups affiliated with narcotics traffickers such as the Muerte a Secuestradores movement (MAS – Death to Kidnappers). As made clear in a 2004 judgment of the Inter-American court of Human Rights,[5] numerous independent reports and from what the paramilitaries themselves have said, in at least some cases they were given support by the state itself.[6] The top leaders of the Medellín Cartel created private armies to guarantee their own security and protect the property they had acquired. According to The Washington Post, in the mid-1980s, Rodríguez and Pablo Escobar bought huge tracts of land in the Magdalena Department (as well as Puerto Boyacá, Rionegro and the Llanos) which they used to transform their self-defense groups from poorly trained peasant militias into sophisticated fighting forces.[7] By the late 1980s Medellin traffickers controlled 40 percent of the land in the Middle Magdalena, according to a Colombian military estimate, and also funded most of the paramilitary operations in the region.

Throughout the 1980s Rodríguez helped catalyze the Medellín Cartel's explosive rise to power by financing the importation and implementation of expensive foreign technology and expertise. According to the report by the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (Colombia's Administrative Security Department), between December 1987 and May 1988 Rodríguez hired Israeli and British mercenaries to train teams of assassins at remote training camps in Colombia. Yair Klein, a retired Israeli lieutenant colonel, acknowledged having led a team of instructors in Puerto Boyacá in early 1988.[8] It is not clear whether Klein’s mercenary activities in Colombia coincided with those of a group of British mercenaries who had allegedly trained paramilitary squads for the cocaine cartels.[9]

American fight against drugs[edit]

By 1989, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimated that 80 percent of cocaine consumed in the United States was imported from Colombia by the Medellín Cartel and its rival, the Cali Cartel. The newly elected administration of President George H.W. Bush was under considerable pressure to combat the increasing drug usage and drug-related violence plaguing scores of American cities. Much of the government strategy concentrated on restricting drug supply by extraditing Colombian cartel leaders to the United States for prosecution. On August 21, 1989, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh released a list of the twelve Colombian drug kingpins (commonly referred to as the "dirty dozen") most wanted by the United States and said the names would be shared with the Colombian government and Interpol. The list included Pablo Escobar, Jorge Luis Ochoa, and José Gonzalo Rodríguez, the leading members of the Medellín Cartel.

Financial crackdown[edit]

President Bush declared money laundering a critical target in the war on drugs, allocating $15 million to launch a counteroffensive. Only hours after Bush unveiled his antidrug offensive in September 1989, a federal task force began taking shape. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN) was designed to zero in on money launderers with computer programs capable of spotting suspicious movements of electronic money. On December 6, 1989, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh announced that authorities had frozen accounts in five countries holding $61.8 million belonging to Rodriguez Gacha. According to the Justice Department, the money represented long-term high-yield stocks and investments and was held in bank accounts in England, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg and the United States. An additional $20 million of Gacha’s drug money was suddenly transferred to Panama, where it was protected from American authorities.[10]

Rodríguez Gacha's final years[edit]

During 1989, Rodríguez became involved in an intense and violent power struggle over control of Colombia’s emerald mines, which are considered some of the richest in the world. On February 27, 1989, Rodríguez directed a group of 25 gunmen to kill emerald magnate Gilberto Molina, who was previously considered among his close associates, along with sixteen other individuals at a party in Molina's home. El Mexicano was later charged in Colombia and the United States for his involvement in a number of killings, including the assassination of the president of the leftist Patriotic Union party, Jaime Pardo Leal on October 12, 1988 in retaliation for guerrilla attacks on drug traffickers in the eastern plains area known as the "llanos orientales."[11] Both Pablo Escobar and Rodríguez were implicated in the August 18, 1989, slaying of popular presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, who was considered likely to be elected Colombia's next president.

Government crackdown and narcoterrorism[edit]

In response to a wave of drug-related assassinations, Colombian President Virgilio Barco launched an all-out offensive on the cocaine cartels and re-established extraditions with the United States. At first, the Colombian public overwhelmingly backed Barco's crackdown, which was announced hours after the assassination of Galán on August 19. The government made quick and unprecedented strides against the traffickers - seizing expensive homes, ranches, airfields, cocaine processing labs and large amounts of cash and drugs. Authorities conducted raids throughout the country and made thousands of arrests. The Medellin Cartel responded by declaring "war" on the government, and over the next four months, bombings became an almost daily occurrence and scores of people died.

By October 1989, public support for the crackdown was beginning to wane and the government decided to focus its attention on capturing either Pablo Escobar or Rodríguez. However, both men managed to stay one step ahead of law enforcement and continued to finance a campaign of retaliatory terrorism which claimed the lives of hundreds of politicians, judges and civilians. Colombian authorities said that Rodriguez Gacha and Pablo Escobar planned the December 8, 1989 bombing of the federal investigative police headquarters in Bogotá which killed 63 people and injured an estimated 1,000. The two men were also accused of involvement in the November 27, 1989 bombing of an Avianca Flight 203 outside Bogotá that killed all 107 people aboard.


The Colombian Government finally caught a break from an unlikely source when Rodríguez Gacha's son Fredy Rodriguez Celades (b. 1972) unwittingly led more than 1,000 Colombian National Police and Colombian Marines to his father. Fredy was arrested during an army raid of one of Rodriguez Gacha's ranches north of Bogotá. His alleged crime, possession of illegal weapons, was relatively minor, but police held Fredy longer than most unindicted prisoners, hoping to put pressure on Rodríguez.

When no signs of fatherly concern emerged, the police released Fredy and waited. Just as they anticipated, Fredy eventually headed for his father, unaware that police were tailing him. Police spotted José Gonzalo Rodríguez in Cartagena and followed the fleeing drug lord to a small ranch in Tolu. On Friday, December 15, 1989, Fredy, Gilberto Rendon (the alleged No. 8 man in the Medellín Cartel) and a bodyguard were killed in a bloody shootout with Colombian military personnel aboard two helicopters. José Gonzalo Rodríguez was first wounded in the leg, then killed by a bullet to the face from one of the helicopter-mounted machine guns. Neighbors deduced from the sound of grenades and the damage to his face that El Mexicano had committed suicide by detonating a grenade against his head. Police confirmed that he had in fact died from a bullet, citing the destructive effect of a large-caliber bullet and the fact that El Mexicano's hands were not damaged which would have been the case if had detonated a grenade.[12]


Thousands of mourners thronged the streets of the town of Pacho for Rodriguez Gacha's funeral on Sunday, December 17, 1989. Residents of Pacho said he donated money to renovate buildings, and some viewed him as a public benefactor. About 3,000 people surrounded the cemetery because access to the funeral was limited to relatives. A newspaper estimated the number of mourners as high as 15,000.[13]

Popular culture[edit]

In the TV series Escobar, el Patrón del Mal, Rodriguez Gacha is portrayed by the Colombian actor Juan Carlos Arango as the character Gustavo Ramirez "El Mariachi".

In the 2015 TV drama/action, mini-series, Narcos, produced by Netflix, Rodriguez Gacha is portrayed by Luis Guzmán. Narcos follows drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (played by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura), as well as the ruthless Medellín Cartel.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "EL FIN DE "EL MEXICANO"". (in Spanish). PUBLICACIONES SEMANA S.A. Retrieved 4 October 2015. 
  2. ^ U.S. Congress, Office of Technology AssessmentInformation Technologies for the Control of Money Laundering OTA-ITC-630, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, September 1995
  3. ^ 'Drug Kingpin 'El Mexicano' Is Violent Empire-Builder : 40-Year-Old a Symbol of Cocaine Wealth'. The Washington Post, November 14, 1987
  4. ^ Alonso Salazar J, La Parábola de Pablo: Auge y caída de un gran capo del narcotráfico (Santafé de Bogotá: Editorial Planeta, 2001), pp. 129-31.
  5. ^ See the Judgement of the Court of July 5, 2004 in the Case of 19 Merchants, paragraphs, 84a-84d
  6. ^ In the speech, the Magdalena Medio commander present at the Congress of the Republic on July 28, 2004, he said: “we went to Base Calderón, now the Barbula battalion, we stated what we wished to do and they helped us with 8 shotguns and munitions…and then on February 18, 1978 the now Peasant Self Defence of the Magdalena Medio Antioqueno were both.”
  7. ^ Doug Farah, "Massacres Imperil U.S. Aid to Colombia Paramilitary Groups Linked to Army, The Washington Post, January 31, 1999, A01
  8. ^ Colombian Security Alleges Mercenary Aid to Cartels. August 29, 1989, Washington Post Foreign Service
  9. ^ Tony Thompson, ‘High-tech Crime of the Future Will be all Mod Cons’, The Observer, October 3, 1999, The Omega Foundation (Manchester, UK) carried out a study of new security technologies for the Scientific and Technological Options Assessment Panel at the request of the Committee on Civil Liberties and Internal Affairs of European Parliament in January 1998
  10. ^ Jonathan Beaty and Richard Hornik, 'A Torrent of Dirty Dollars', TIME magazine, Posted June 24, 2001
  11. ^ Drug Kingpin 'El Mexicano' Is Violent Empire-Builder: 40-Year-Old a Symbol of Cocaine Wealth, November 14, 1987, The Washington Post
  12. ^ "La cacería final contra Rodríguez Gacha" (in Spanish). Editorial El Tiempo. 17 December 1989. Retrieved 4 October 2015. 
  13. ^ 'Hometown Mourns Colombian Drug Dealer'. December 19, 1989 The New York Times