Mayor German Villegas fell mute when asked about his city's powerful cocaine cartel. Fifteen seconds of awkward silence passed before he opened his mouth - to talk about something else.
Villegas' reaction was typical in Cali, where many of the 1 million residents prefer to remain silent about drug traffickers.The city government officially opposes drug trafficking. However, most cocaine seizures and raids on drug labs are carried out by anti-narcotics police officers from other parts of the country.
"That way my men are not contaminated by narco-traffickers," said Col. Luis E. Gilibert, the police commander for the Valle province, where Cali is the capital.
In August 1989 the government declared "total war" on the drug cartel in the city of Medellin. Since then, the rival Cali group has increased its cocaine output, expanded smuggling routes and taken over key drug markets in the United States and Europe, international police officials say.
From 70 percent to 80 percent of cocaine entering the New York City area comes from the Cali cartel, according to Mary Cooper, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in New York.
The rise of the Cali cartel during the crackdown in Medellin has made officials wonder whether Colombia's drug trade can be eradicated.
Two years ago, Cali traffickers accounted for about a third of the cocaine from the Colombian connection, a U.S. anti-narcotics official said.
Today, Cali's worldwide cocaine share is equal to or bigger than Medellin's, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
An estimated 550 to 770 tons of cocaine are smuggled out of Colombia annually, producing vast profits for traffickers. In Japan, for example, cocaine sells for $180,000 a pound, according to drug enforcement officials.
The rise of the Cali cartel, with its accompanying increase in violence, moves Colombia one step closer to social disintegration.
Cali is being dragged down by the same kind of violence that plagues Medellin.
Each week bullet-riddled cadavers, usually blindfolded and bound, float down the Cauca River on the city's outskirts. Multiple homicides are becoming more common.
In Cali, the latest casualties were four prisoners in a city jail, killed last week when other inmates hurled a hand grenade into their cell. The victims were suspected of being Medellin cartel hitmen who participated in the massacre of 19 Cali traffickers at a soccer field last September.
At least 212 members of the two cartels have been killed in the cocaine war. The Medellin cartel has bombed 47 drugstores and five radio stations belonging to reputed drug boss Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, authorities say.
The Cali drug cartel was once a closely knit management group led by Orejuela.