Did DEA informants swindle drug lords?
Millions in cash allegedly taken
BY TIM JOHNSON
BOGOTA, Colombia -- No one disputes that Baruch Jairo Vega possesses
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The complaint portrays the two men as rogue snitches who became
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
The Herald, but their attorneys said their actions were sponsored by U.S.
''Let me tell you, whatever [Vega] did, he did with the understanding,
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
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.
LINKS TO AGENCIES
Baruch Vega, a professional photographer with a smooth manner,
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
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
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.
31 SEIZED IN RAID
A spark for the deals came with Operation Millennium, a massive
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
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
Panamanian aviation records seen by The Herald indicate that Miami-based
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
repeated messages left at his office. Castillo declined through his attorney to
speak to a Herald reporter.
MEETING IN PANAMA
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
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
Colombia's most alluring models.
On a flight Dec. 8 between Panama City's Tocumen International
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.
''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
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
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
without the knowledge of the agents,'' Rosenbaum said.