Informant weighs in on U.S. law enforcement corruption in Colombia

Baruch Vega claims he was used by multiple U.S. law enforcement agencies simultaneously in the late 1990s to infiltrate and flip key figures in Colombia’s North Valley Cartel narco-trafficking syndicate.

As a result, Vega contends that he has intimate knowledge of the alleged corruption outlined in the “Kent memo,” an internal Department of Justice document that was leaked to Narco News earlier this year and has prompted a barrage of media attention over the past few months.

Justice Department attorney Thomas M. Kent wrote the memo in late 2004 in an effort to draw attention to alleged serious corruption within the U.S. Embassy in Colombia. In the memo, Kent alleges that DEA agents in Bogotá assisted narco-traffickers, engaged in money laundering, and conspired to murder informants.

Vega told Narco News that between 1997 and 2000, the FBI and DEA each employed him as an informant in separate investigations focused on the North Valley Cartel leadership. At the same time, Vega claims, he also worked as a foreign counterintelligence source for the CIA.

During the course of those DEA and FBI investigations, Vega claims he discovered the operations were being compromised by corrupt players within both DEA and U.S. Customs — a federal law enforcement agency whose investigative arm has since become U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. ICE is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

U.S. Customs, too, was involved in targeting Colombian narco-traffickers during the same period that Vega was working with the FBI, DEA and CIA in Colombia. Vega claims that ICE did have access, at one point, to much of the information about the informants and cooperating sources within the North Valley organization that had been cultivated through the separate FBI and DEA investigations.

Vega alleges that agents in the DEA office in Bogotá as well as someone within U.S. Customs were leaking information about ongoing U.S. law enforcement investigations to key players in the Colombian National Police (CNP). Vega says those CNP officials were aligned with North Valley narco-traffickers. In the wake of the information being leaked, there was a bloodbath, Vega says, with numerous informants and cooperating sources being assassinated in the aftermath. Similar allegations are made in the Kent memo.

“I have had three contracts on my life …,” Vega told Narco News. “I am one of the few survivors in this whole ordeal. Almost all of the people in my group (cooperating sources and other informants) are now dead.”

Vega says the many pieces of this dark mystery make it appear very complicated to unravel.

“But, if they are lined up in the right way, it becomes easy to understand,” he adds. “It’s a matter of putting the right players in the right place.”

The way things lined up, according to Vega, involved what amounts to the perfect narco-trafficking organization, which he describes as the “Devil’s Cartel.”

This so-called Devil’s Cartel was an alliance of North Valley traffickers, many of them former Colombian National Police officials, along with active members of the Colombian National Police under the direction of a corrupt Colombian National Police colonel named Danilo Gonzalez.

Paramilitary forces under the leadership of Carlos Castaño,  who headed the murderous United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (the AUC), provided the muscle and protection for this Devil’s Cartel and its operations, Vega contends.

The U.S. government indicted Castaño in 2002 on narco-trafficking charges. Two years later, Castaño disappeared, after a reported attempt on his life in Colombia. He is presumed dead, although his body was never found.

The intelligence arm of this Devil’s Cartel, Vega claims, was composed of corrupt U.S. federal agents with DEA and U.S. Customs.

The goal of the Devil’s Cartel alliance was to protect its narco-trafficking business, which grew out of the ashes of the Pablo Escobar narco-empire, and to neutralize rival drug traffickers. Among the chief organized rivals at the time was the Cali Cartel, which eventually was overshadowed by the North Valley cartel.

Meeting in Aruba

All of this may seem fantastic, and even suspect, as it is based on the word of an informant, but Vega’s allegations do mirror closely the corruption charges raised in the Kent memo. In addition, law enforcement sources tell Narco News that Vega was in a position to know a lot of things, which is precisely why so many U.S. agencies relied on him as an informant.

And Vega does contend he has evidence of the DEA and Customs corruption — evidence he says also is in the hands of the FBI. However, to date, Vega claims the U.S. government has failed to act on that evidence; a similar charge is made in the Kent memo.

Part of that evidence, Vega says, resulted from an April 2003 meeting he had with CNP Colonel Gonzalez in Aruba. That meeting was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Justice, according to Vega.

At the time, Gonzalez was in the sights of the U.S. government for his corrupt activities and was willing to discuss cooperating with U.S. law enforcers. His meeting with Vega was an effort to test those waters.

Vega claims that during that meeting, Gonzalez laid out the entire backbone of the Devil’s Cartel, naming names, including the allegedly corrupt U.S. law enforcers with DEA and Customs who were assisting the narco-traffickers with a variety of tasks — such as leaking information about U.S. law enforcement operations that were targeting members of the North Valley cartel.

Vega says all of the information from that meeting with Gonzalez was turned over to the FBI. However, he suspects no action has been taken on the corruption charges against the DEA and Customs law enforcers because those same agents also helped to make cases against key narco-traffickers from narco-organizations who competed against the North Valley syndicate. Vega says some of those cases are still pending in the U.S. court system, such as the case in Miami against the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers, alleged founders of the Cali Cartel.

Gonzalez eventually became the target of a U.S. indictment charging him with narco-trafficking, money laundering and murder. He was assassinated in Colombia while preparing to surrender to the U.S. government.

If the allegedly corrupt DEA and Customs law enforcers were now exposed, Vega contends, the cases they helped make against narco-traffickers could be threatened, because defense attorneys could claim testimony and evidence were tainted.

CIA file

Vega played a key role in a DEA operation known as Cali-Man, which ran from 1997-2000 and was headed by DEA supervisor David Tinsley. As part of Cali-Man, Vega claims he recruited a cooperating source named Juan Nicolas Bergonzoli, who was a close associate of AUC leader Castaño. It was Bergonzoli who initially told Vega and his DEA handlers about the leaks out of the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, according to Vega.

Vega claims Tinsley wanted evidence of the leaks. So, Vega asserts, Bergonzoli in 1999 arranged to purchase information from the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá through CNP Colonel Gonzalez. He says Gonzalez obtained the information through his DEA contacts at the embassy and turned it over to Bergonzoli, who in turn brought it to DEA’s Tinsley.

The file provided to Bergonzoli, Vega alleges, was a record of all the intelligence gathered by the CIA in Colombia on some 200 narco-traffickers.

“It was the original file,” Vega claims. “I think it was a record of all the investigations of the CIA over the (prior) six months.”

Vega says the file contained detailed information on the narco-traffickers, including phone numbers, addresses, family trees and photographs.

The Kent memo also alleges that corrupt DEA agents in Bogotá were leaking classified information to narco traffickers and asserts that a number of informants were murdered as a result of the leaks.

“… They made startling revelations concerning DEA agents in Bogotá,” Kent writes in the memo. “They alleged that they were assisted in their narcotics activities by the [Bogotá] agents. Specifically, they alleged that the agents provided them with information on investigations and other law enforcement activities in Colombia.”

Law enforcement sources who spoke with Narco News also confirmed that a U.S. Embassy file was leaked to Bergonzoli. However, those sources could not confirm that it was a CIA file.

Unraveling truth

Can we believe Vega? That is a question only time will answer, as more evidence in this dark tale surfaces.

Some may contend that his tale is a tall story concocted by the mind of an individual who makes his living through deception. After all, in the wake of carrying out his informant work for the U.S. government, that same government accused Vega of taking millions of dollars from narco-traffickers in exchange for promising to help them negotiate lighter prison sentences.

So who can trust what Vega says?

Then again, the Kent memo makes essentially the same allegations about corruption within the ranks of U.S. law enforcement that Vega is now bringing forward. The DEA agents, including Tinsley, who sought to expose that alleged corruption, also were accused of being corrupt – charges that have since been dismissed.

Vega, too, was never convicted of a high crime for his alleged “corruption scheme,” which it turns out was a U.S. government-sanctioned cover story. Rather, the government was only able to stick Vega with a nitpicking misdemeanor charge for failing to file his 1998 tax return on time.

So, in time, we may also find that Vega is not the corrupt deceiver the government would like us to believe, but that, in fact, he is simply telling us a truth that the U.S. government doesn’t want us to know.

Vega, for his part, sees it this way: “It’s all a wheel … eventually my side will be up.”

Stay tuned ….

Prior stories in this series:

Bogotá DEA Corruption Allegations Intersect with Covert FBI, CIA Activity in Colombia

New Documents Shed More Light on Alleged DEA Corruption in Colombia

Leaked Memo: Corrupt DEA Agents in Colombia Help Narcos and Paramilitaries

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