The Miami Herald
May 21, 2000

 Did DEA informants swindle drug lords?

 Millions in cash allegedly taken


 BOGOTA, Colombia -- No one disputes that Baruch Jairo Vega possesses the
 nerves of steel and savvy manner required of anyone who does business with
 international drug traffickers.

 The question is whether Vega was audacious enough, or crazy enough, to snooker
 some of Colombia's biggest drug dealers out of millions of dollars and pocket the
 money. Or -- his version -- whether he instead performed extraordinary work as
 a confidential informant for the DEA and the FBI, and maybe the CIA, bringing the
 U.S. government both sought-after drug lords and cash.

 Among those with the biggest stake in the answers are two Drug Enforcement
 Administration agents who oversaw Vega as he zigzagged between Miami and
 Panama in recent months to haggle with top Colombian drug dealers. Both
 agents are suspended with pay and under investigation.

 In the end, a federal judge hearing the case against Vega, who faces money
 laundering charges, will have to sort out the truth. But much of the improbable
 saga of the Miami Beach resident and his connections to the drug trade is
 already being told in court documents and attorneys' statements.

 It is the story of huge piles of money and possible secret deals between the U.S.
 Justice Department and Colombian drug traffickers. Some Colombian officials say
 the deals lured drug lords to get out of the narcotics business, pay huge fines,
 and rat on colleagues in exchange for lenient U.S. treatment.

 In Colombia, there is even a nickname for the group of drug barons allegedly
 involved with Vega -- the cartel de los sapos, or ''Cartel of the Snitches.''

 Although there are many unanswered questions, some Colombian authorities
 seem inclined to believe in the existence of an official, U.S.-sponsored operation.

 For one thing, they have heard numerous tales of drug lords paying millions of
 dollars to Vega for what they believed was his official role in helping confessed
 drug traffickers get their records wiped clean by striking cooperation agreements
 with U.S. prosecutors and forfeiting half their wealth.

 They also find it hard to believe that some of the world's most shrewd and most
 vicious criminals could be duped by a con man. ''Either the narcos are stupid or
 this operation had some legitimacy,'' a Colombian intelligence official said, asking
 to remain unnamed.

 Vega was the far more experienced of two Colombian-born informants who were
 arrested March 22 in South Florida. The FBI said Vega and the second man,
 Roman Suarez Lopez, conjured up ''phony cooperation deals'' with indicted and
 suspected Colombian drug lords, as DEA agents waited in adjoining hotel rooms.

 ''According to sources who have spoken with several of these drug traffickers,
 Vega and Suarez's fees have ranged from $6 million to $100 million,'' the criminal
 complaint says. It details how at least $6 million was paid to the two men by
 narco-traffickers, and says they received an additional ''several million dollars in
 drug proceeds.''


 The complaint portrays the two men as rogue snitches who became ''intermittent''
 sources of information for federal agencies. It charges them with money
 laundering and obstruction of justice.

 The two men went free on $100,000 bond May 12. Neither man would speak to
 The Herald, but their attorneys said their actions were sponsored by U.S.
 government agents.

 ''Let me tell you, whatever [Vega] did, he did with the understanding, knowledge
 and agreement of the DEA agents. This was a Baruch Vega joint venture with the
 DEA,'' said Nelson Rodriguez-Varela, his attorney.

 Suarez's lawyer, Ruben Oliva, said his client and Vega concocted a plan under
 DEA auspices to lure drug traffickers into meetings and received money with DEA

 ''If it was a scam, it was like any scam that a [confidential informant] perpetrates
 on a criminal target,'' Oliva said.

 Both in their 50s, Vega and Suarez were born in Colombia. They have lived in
 South Florida for decades.


 Baruch Vega, a professional photographer with a smooth manner, had
 long-standing ties with law enforcement agencies and even boasted of working for
 the CIA, the complaint says. He was the leader among the two men.

 ''Baruch is very slick, but he has to be,'' said an acquaintance, who noted Vega's
 frequent dealings with major Colombian drug smugglers.

 ''His whole world is deception,'' said Joseph Rosenbaum, a Miami lawyer for Larry
 E. Castillo, a DEA agent suspended with pay following Vega's arrest. Also
 suspended was Castillo's DEA supervisor, David Tinsley.

 After nearly two decades as an informant, mostly for the FBI, Vega came into his
 heyday when Colombia's Congress ended a six-year ban on extradition of drug
 traffickers in late 1997. That move paved the way for U.S. authorities to seek to
 bring more drug lords to U.S. prisons. Colombian drug traffickers fear nothing
 more than U.S. jails, and both Vega and U.S. law enforcement officials apparently
 saw an opportunity to strike cooperation deals with the narcos.

 One Colombian who reportedly reached such an agreement, art dealer Arturo
 Piza, was gunned down in Medellin early last year, apparently in retaliation for a
 cooperation pact. But a surprising number of drug traffickers has apparently
 sought to reach similar deals since then with U.S. authorities, often working
 through Vega.

 Neither the U.S. Attorney's Office in South Florida nor the DEA would talk about
 such alleged agreements or about Baruch Vega and Roman Suarez.

 ''No comment,'' said Rosa Rodriguez Mera of the U.S. Attorney's Office.


 A spark for the deals came with Operation Millennium, a massive DEA-sponsored
 raid in Colombia and Mexico in mid-October that netted 31 people, including
 Fabio Ochoa, a former leader of the Medellin Cartel. All 31 now await extradition
 to the United States.

 As a result, Colombian drug criminals were forced to consider whether they might
 someday face extradition themselves -- their worst nightmare. Enter Vega.

 According to flight records, he flew between 10 and 12 times from South Florida
 to Panama to hold meetings with Colombian drug traffickers -- mainly from the
 Northern Valley Cartel and from remnants of the Medellin Cartel -- to seek alleged
 cooperation agreements, several sources close to Vega said.

 On those trips, Vega and Suarez were usually accompanied by a coterie of DEA
 agents, local police officers, South Florida criminal lawyers -- and a fashion model
 or two.

 Panamanian aviation records seen by The Herald indicate that Miami-based DEA
 agent Castillo was nearly always along. Also joining the group on occasion were
 Bill Gomez, a Miami-Dade Police Department narcotics officer; Daniel Forman, a
 criminal defense attorney in Miami; and Carlos Ramon Zapata, a 34-year-old
 suspected Colombian cocaine trafficker who apparently has struck a deal with
 U.S. prosecutors that leaves him enjoying his freedom at a high-rise on the
 southern tip of Miami Beach.

 Ramon and Gomez could not be located for comment. Forman did not return
 repeated messages left at his office. Castillo declined through his attorney to
 speak to a Herald reporter.


 Just two weeks after the Operation Millennium arrests, on Nov. 1, Vega and
 Suarez hosted a meeting at the Panama City hotel with a drug trafficker who is a
 cooperating witness in an ongoing drug probe in Colombia, the complaint says.

 ''Vega told the [cooperating witness] that he had U.S. officials in the hotel room
 next door and arranged for the [cooperating witness] to meet with them,'' it says.
 ''The [cooperating witness] then met with four DEA agents and a Miami police

 According to the complaint, Vega and Suarez told visiting drug lords that they had
 the clout to bribe Justice Department officials, set up phony cooperation
 agreements and arrange for the drug barons to ''not serve a single day in jail'' -- in
 exchange for huge sums of money.

 One alleged drug lord, Carlos Julio Correa, lured other traffickers to Vega and
 Suarez, vouching for their legitimacy and showing off the U.S. visa he had
 reportedly obtained through them.

 ''When he began to enter and leave the United States without any problems, the
 other narcos saw this and got interested,'' the Colombian intelligence official said,
 noting that Vega and Suarez appeared to have great clout.

 Adding spice to the frequent flights Vega made to Panama were some of
 Colombia's most alluring models.


 On a flight Dec. 8 between Panama City's Tocumen International Airport and
 South Florida, Suarez and Vega were joined by Natalia Paris, Colombia's most
 widely known fashion model, flight records show.

 Between drinks and socializing, Vega and Suarez reeled in some of the major
 smugglers of the Northern Valley and Medellin cartels, including Juan Usuga,
 Oscar Eduardo Campuzano and others, their attorneys said.

 ''[Vega] brought in Orlando Sanchez Cristancho. He brought in the Usugas. He
 brought in El Medico,'' said Rodriguez-Varela, Vega's attorney, referring to the
 nickname used by Carlos Ramon. ''He was in the process of working a number of

 If such traffickers genuinely collaborated with U.S. prosecutors, it would be a
 major coup against the Colombian cocaine trade, Colombian officials say.

 In what has been interpreted as a sign that deals for cooperation are being struck,
 U.S. prosecutors have allowed several accused major traffickers to go free on
 bond in South Florida after their capture. Those alleged Colombian traffickers
 include Juan Usuga, Carlos Ramon and Carlos Julio Correa. Others in the
 so-called ''Cartel of the Snitches'' remain in Colombia, protected by the
 8,000-man, right-wing army run by Carlos Castaño, who has declared all-out war
 against leftist guerrillas.


 Both the guerrillas and Castaño's militias receive financing from farmers of coca,
 the raw ingredient in cocaine, although Castaño says he is now actively trying to
 help the U.S. counterdrug effort. In an e-mail to a Herald reporter last month,
 Castaño touched on the issue of narcotics traffickers cooperating with the U.S.
 justice system.

 ''Drug traffickers are surrendering voluntarily to U.S. justice. As long as this
 doesn't lead to impunity, it is the best way to end narco-trafficking without
 violence,'' Castaño wrote.

 In a follow-up e-mail, Castaño said through an intermediary that he is pressuring
 traffickers to strike deals with U.S. prosecutors, and that he will seek eradication
 of coca once his combatants rout leftist guerrillas.

 The issue now is whether Vega and Suarez struck up a private scheme on the
 side to defraud drug traffickers of huge sums of money.

 According to the complaint against the two men, they collected one payment of
 $1 million ''near the Miami International Airport'' in early January, and Vega
 received $3 million in New York City a month earlier.

 In a separate instance, one of Colombia's biggest alleged drug traffickers,
 Hernando Gomez, who is known as ''Rasguño,'' or ''Scratch,'' paid $5 million to
 Vega, the intelligence official said.


 Vega's attorney denies that his client scammed narcos.

 ''He didn't make millions of dollars,'' Rodriguez-Varela said, adding that much of
 the money went to finance DEA operations that resulted in ''bringing in these
 heavyweights,'' referring to narcotics traffickers.

 Vega and Suarez were under DEA supervision, he said.

 ''They should not blame Baruch Vega for actions of agents who may have been
 overzealous,'' he said.

 The attorney for Castillo, the suspended DEA agent, differs sharply on what the
 two Colombian-born informants did.

 ''They used their position as confidential informants . . . to enrich themselves
 without the knowledge of the agents,'' Rosenbaum said.