Tracking Narcos’ Cali Cartel with Intellectual Property Records

Patrick Hernandez

Tracking Narcos’ Cali Cartel with Intellectual Property Records

Narcos, the Cali Cartel, and IP

If you’re one of the 27 million viewers who watched the third season of the Netflix show Narcos, you’re familiar with Colombia’s Cali Cartel. The drug trafficking group was founded and principally led by brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela. By the early 1990s, they had taken advantage of the decline of Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel to supply 80% of the world’s cocaine.

The cartel collapsed in the mid-2000s, due in part to 11 different sanctions designations by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The Rodriguez Orejuela brothers remain on OFAC’s sanctions list. They are currently serving 30-year prison sentences in the United States.

Given this, the Cali Cartel might not seem like an ideal candidate for conducting open source research in 2019. Surprisingly, there is a great deal of information available from one particular source: intellectual property (IP) filings. Analysts can use IP records to gain insight into the cartel and track the plot of Narcos along the way.

IP Records and Narcos Prison Operations

The Rodriguez Orejuela brothers got their start in the drug trade—the legal kind. Gilberto worked as a pharmacy courier in his youth. After he entered the narcotics trade in 1975, he created a chain of retail drug stores called Drogas La Rebaja. Pablo Escobar targeted this chain with multiple bombings, as you may remember from Narcos’ second season.

The brothers’ involvement in the pharmaceutical trade generated a long paper trail. Colombian IP records show that Gilberto and Miguel applied for some 12 pharmaceutical and sanitary trademarks between 1971 and 1986, using their real names. Most featured names similar to those of established medicines, prompting legal opposition from pharmaceutical manufacturers from New Jersey to Italy.

Buried in the filings for a medicine called Trical is a telling detail. In 1984, Gilberto signed a document from prison in Madrid granting his brother power of attorney (see Fig. 1 below). His arrest occurred during a routine business trip to expand his cocaine empire into Europe.

Trical trademark filing excerpt
Fig. 1. The text reads, “Don Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, of legal age, of Colombian nationality, married, entrepreneur and with accidental residence in the Carabanchel Men’s Penitentiary Center (Madrid).”

This detail mirrors the plot of Narcos, which features numerous scenes in which the brothers operate their organization from prison. This drives home the impunity the pair enjoyed during the early 1990s.

Narcos covers the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers’s operations from prison in Colombia, but this document suggests prior experience running operations from behind bars during Gilberto’s stint in Madrid.

IP Records and Narcos Front Companies

The trademark filings also provide visibility into the evolution of the Cali Cartel over time. After OFAC sanctioned the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers in 1995, the cartel continued operating through a new group of front companies.

Among these front companies was Servifar, a Colombian pharmaceutical company that OFAC sanctioned from 1999 to 2014. Servifar appears in numerous IP filings, taking over trademarks that the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers had controlled since the 1970s and 1980s (see Fig. 2).

These documents expose the cartel’s corporate machinations designed to evade U.S. sanctions.

Servifar trademark transfer document excerpt

Fig. 2. This passage shows the transfer of the pharmaceutical trademarks Bencelin, Hemivin, and Acelifen from Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela to Servifar.

Although Netflix appears to have invented the character of Gilberto’s son “Nicolas” for Narcos, Gilberto did have two sons involved with the cartel. Both were sanctioned in the 1990s. One appears in the paragraph above with another former cartel operator; the second son appears in another, nearly identical trademark filing. All three men later were removed from Treasury’s sanctions list.

Narcos arguably exaggerates several elements of the Cali Cartel’s story in the spirit of entertainment. But its portrayal of the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers managing their drug empire through a complex web of retail holdings and well-heeled associates is largely true to life, as these documents show.

How else can investigators use IP records?

The Cali Cartel’s trademark filings provide just one example of how to use IP filings to track criminal actors. We have found them particularly valuable in cases that involve:

– Sanctions evasion and other efforts to conduct business while avoiding detection by law enforcement, as demonstrated here

– Trade-based money laundering—disguising the proceeds of crime and moving value through trade transactions to try to legitimize their illicit origins

– Smuggling, where the rights to sell, distribute, or advertise particular types of goods may be disclosed in public trademark applications or usage agreements

The Cali Cartel was active decades ago and collapsed after high-profile sanctions and other actions. Journalists have covered its rise and fall—and now, so has Netflix. But, even so, public records hold valuable insights into their operations. What else might these records tell us about less well-known subjects?


Intellectual property records, and other public records from around the world, are available through Sayari Search! If you’re curious how this data could drive insights for your team, please reach out here.

Image Source: U.S. Treasury OFAC