By 1990, Chupeta was back in Colombia, running his own operation under the umbrella of the Cali cartel. According to the police, he had an extensive wholesaling network in the United States. Each office was personally overseen by Chupeta and run by deputies who were never permitted to communicate directly with one another. One of those employed by the New York money-laundering operation, procuring apartments that were used as stash houses—caletas—for drug money, was a Colombian-born Realtor: Gladys Claudio.

Demonstrating a keen eye for detail, Chupeta quickly earned a reputation as an obsessive micromanager and a remarkable innovator, devising a profit-sharing arrangement with the Mexican cartels that made him one of the top five cocaine traffickers in the world, engaged in what former DEA chief of operations Michael Braun describes as "transnational crime, in an organization that's run like a Fortune 500 company." Chupeta bought cars, motorcycles, and houses while also secreting millions of dollars in cash in caletas around Cali. Young and handsome, he was obsessed with his looks. Andrés López-López—who began work in the Cali drug labs in 1986 and has written a book about his experiences—says Chupeta began getting Botox-like injections in his face when he was in his thirties. He became renowned for his parties and his womanizing, fathering five or more children with at least four women.

Escobar's death shifted law-enforcement attention to his former rivals from Cali. In an attempt to bring the drug wars to an end, the Colombian government offered drastically reduced prison sentences to traffickers who gave themselves up, along with assurances that they would not be extradited to face charges in the United States. During the summer of 1995, six of the seven Cali bosses surrendered or were arrested, leaving Chupeta, at 32, in a position to step into the vacuum.

But in early 1996 the government intensified its anti-narcotics efforts, and Chupeta surrendered. Convicted of drug trafficking, he was given the maximum sentence, 24 years; it was reduced to 13 years and four months, and he was expected to serve as little as eight years. In June, the United States sent a formal extradition request related to 1994 drug-trafficking charges; it was denied.

MORE THAN A YEAR BEFORE THE EXTRADICTION REQUEST, Billy Ahern opened the file of a man named Vladimir Biegelman, who had been found shot dead behind a mall in Queens in December 1993. The subsequent investigation led him to a half-Colombian teenager, "Babyface," who'd gone on the hit with an assassin known as "Memo." Memo was in custody in Florida under his real name: Guillermo Benitez-Zapata. He readily confessed to killing Biegelman and Claudio on jobs given to him by his brother-in-law. He didn't know who had ordered the hits.

Using information from Memo and a DEA drug investigation in Houston, agents in redrum's drug-distribution and enforcement offices began tracing the links. Gradually, they made their way up the chain to Colombia.