Bogotá Connection ’Informant’ Baruch Vega Sues U.S. Government

A key figure in exposing alleged U.S. law enforcement corruption in Colombia has just filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit that promises to be quite embarrassing for the U.S. government — and revealing to those of us who don’t quite buy our aloof leadership’s Plan Colombia vision.

In that lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., Baruch Vega claims that the U.S. government owes him $28.5 million for services he provided in an operation that helped the U.S. government net 114 Colombian narco-trafficking targets.

From Vega’s lawsuit, filed on Sept. 21:

In or about 1996 and 1997, [Vega] became a documented confidential informant for the United States of America, specifically, two federal law enforcement agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) and later, for the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”). … Mr. Vega was not a traditional informant and his methodology was anything but parochial. Mr. Vega engineered a plan/program that proved to be innovative and very successful.

Mr. Vega would play and later, in fact did play, the role of an intermediary (or broker) between Colombian drug traffickers, some then unknown (and thus, unidentified) to U.S. law enforcement, others already identified (by their real names or nicknames as “suspects”) by U.S. law enforcement and, others already indicted, for drug trafficking and/or money laundering charges in various federal districts across the United States of America.

Vega’s plan, as explained in his pleadings, involved what might best be described as an elaborate, U.S. government-sanctioned extortion scheme. Vega, “at great danger to himself,” approached Colombian narco-traffickers and convinced them to “negotiate their criminal exposure” with the U.S. government rather than waiting to be indicted, arrested and extradited,” Vega claims in his litigation.

More from Vega’s lawsuit:

Once Mr. Vega introduced … American lawyers to the Colombian targets [the narco-traffickers], the lawyers would then get retained and then take over as legal representatives for the Colombian targets and further deal with a group of United States law enforcement agents and prosecutors, hand-picked to work out deals for the Colombian targets. A particular United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida became the coordinator of this “recruiting effort.”

Vega claims in the litigation that as part of this extortion scheme, FBI and DEA agents would initially meet with the Colombian narco-trafficking targets in Panama for introductions, eventual debriefings and finally to work out the details of proposed plea agreements.

“There were many of these types of meetings in Panama over a period of several years,” Vega alleges in the lawsuit. “… The plan/program was extremely successful. All in all, Mr. Vega convinced and successfully recruited about 114 Colombian targets to enter this plan/program, about 25 of which were fugitives at the time of negotiating the deals.

”Within the past seven years alone, there were 35 such Colombian targets who reached deals with the United States.” [A list of names can be found at the end of this story.]

Big Picture

Vega’s remarkable claims in his litigation must be set against the larger context of corruption allegations that have been exposed in Narco News’ prior reporting about U.S. law enforcement operations in Colombia.

This Bogotá Connection was revealed in a series of government documents uncovered by Narco News, including an internal U.S. Justice Department document known as the Kent memo, which advances detailed allegations of a criminal conspiracy involving corrupt U.S. law enforcers who operated in league with key Colombian narco-traffickers.

Vega was very involved with some of the U.S. law enforcement operations referenced in the Kent memo. Those particular operations played out between 1997 and 2000 and sought to snare narco-traffickers with Colombia’s infamous North Valley Cartel.

Vega claims that corrupt U.S. agents that are part of the Bogotá Connection seriously compromised his role as a government asset and that a number of his informants within Colombia’s narco-trafficking underworld were assassinated as a result.

Vega also contends that he has intimate knowledge of the alleged corruption outlined in the Kent memo.

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.

The first of the major allegations in Kent’s memo centers on a DEA undercover operation launched in Colombia in 1997 called Cali-Man, which made use of Vega as an asset. The operation was overseen by David Tinsley, a DEA group supervisor in Miami.

As part of that operation, Tinsley and the agents working under him uncovered evidence that DEA agents in Bogotá appeared to be assisting narco-traffickers in Colombia.

But in late January 2000, Bogotá DEA chief Leo Arreguin shot off a memo to DEA headquarters. The charges raised in that memo led to Tinsley’s operations being shut down that same year, including Cali-Man and another investigation called Rainmaker — which was zeroing in on the alleged DEA corruption in Bogotá.

Arreguin’s memo, which was addressed to the DEA’s chief of international operations, questioned the integrity of Vega and his so-called “extortion scheme.”

The Arreguin memo prompted an internal agency investigation targeting Tinsley and one of the agents under his watch (Lawrence Castillo) who was Vega’s in-the-field handler.

As a result of the investigation prompted by Arreguin’s memo, Tinsley was suspended and eventual dismissed from his job.

The DEA Bogota chief’s memo also put into motion a major criminal investigation targeting Vega, Tinsley and Castillo. The investigation was undertaken by two green FBI agents initially in coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami. The agents, according to sources, thought they were onto something big, but had no idea that their own agency was operating Vega as an asset and had authorized the extortion scheme — without making Tinsley and the Cali-man undercover operation aware of that fact.

Vega was never criminally prosecuted for engaging in the extortion scheme, however. Instead, he was convicted on a misdemeanor charge for not paying taxes on some of the money he allegedly earned from the scheme (which he claims was conducted with the approval of and in coordination with the U.S. government) and received a four-month jail sentence.

In addition, Tinsley and Castillo were cleared of all criminal charges with respect to Vega’s use of the so-called extortion scheme. Tinsley also brought a claim of wrongful termination before a U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) judge, who, in April 2004, ruled in his favor and ordered the DEA to reinstate him — with back pay, plus interest.

Sources tell Narco News those facts demonstrate that the extortion scheme was sanctioned by the government, which Vega also now asserts in his litigation.

The judge’s ruling in Tinsley’s MSPB case includes some very specific details about the activities of Vega, who in his other life was a high-profile fashion photographer. Those details confirm that the DEA, FBI as well as the CIA all were utilizing Vega in operations targeting narco-traffickers in Colombia.

From the MSPB judge’s ruling:

… The appellant [Tinsley] testified that, at the request of the FBI, he wanted the bare minimum of a paper trail for Mr. Vega. Both the DEA and FBI used Vega as a confidential source. The FBI specified that Vega would be a "non-testifier.” That is, he would never be used to testify in criminal trials. This status was necessary because Vega was called a “FCI-CI” or Foreign Counterintelligence Service Confidential Informant, who had been brought in by the CIA. As the appellant [Tinsley] put it, “I'm having my agents cut him out every chance they can. I don't want him documented. I don't want him in our Case File any more than we have to."

The trips to Panama at issue here were confidential source recruiting trips. The plan was for Mr. Vega to “introduce” SA Castillo [a DEA agent working under Tinsley] to drug traffickers and then to get out of there, so he would be in no position to have to testify regarding what conversations, if any, took place. For that reason, it was the appellant's [Tinsley's] judgment that few DEA-6s [reports] were required regarding Mr. Vega because Vega was a non-testifier, and, moreover, his activities did not yield investigative leads. And, as stated previously, at least one classified DEA-6 was prepared and was kept under lock and key in the Miami SAC's [special agent in charge’s] safe in order to safeguard the information contained therein….

The Cover-up

After Narco News exposed the Kent memo in a story published on  Jan. 9, 2006, DEA reacted by describing the corruption allegations in that memo as “extremely serious.”

However, some nine days later, after Semana, a popular weekly magazine in Colombia, published a story about the Kent memo, DEA issued another public statement describing the corruption allegations as “unfounded.”

The U.S. mainstream media has been silent about the Kent memo, and the Bogotá Connection, since that time.

But Vega now appears to be forcing both the government and the compliant agenda-setting media to confront the Bogotá Connection through the U.S. court system.

From Vega’s lawsuit:

The economic (and non-economic) benefits to the United States in bringing all of the Colombian targets to justice is mind boggling. The United States obtained over a hundred federal drug convictions. Much of the cooperation of the Colombian targets itself resulted in other investigations, prosecutions and convictions — something akin to a “domino effect.” In varying degrees, these targets forfeited cash, real estate, jewelry and art in an estimated total amount somewhere between $250 million and $500 million.

… Accordingly, Mr. Vega seeks a $250,000 payment for each of the 114 cases he made for the United States and therefore, seeks a total sum of $28,500,000.

That’s a lot of money on the line for the U.S. government — in reality, the U.S. taxpayers’ money collected via the so-called war on drugs.

U.S. government attorneys can always choose to duke it out in court with Vega and prove that his allegations are “unfounded.”

However, by engaging Vega in that legal battle, the U.S. government also takes the risk that his “extremely serious” allegations are, in fact, true and that even more of the Bogotá Connection will be exposed to the sanitizing heat of sunlight.

The government has until Nov. 23 to file an answer to Vega’s legal complaint.

Vega, for his part, appears quite ready to play this game of roulette with the U.S. government. As he told Narco News previously: “It’s all a wheel … eventually my side will be up.”

Oh, and here’s that promised list — filed as an exhibit in Vega’s lawsuit, which can be found at this link:

List of Drug traffickers surrendered and cooperating sources recruited between 1997 to 2000

FBI

1.    Arturo Piza
2.    Oscar Grisales
3.    Julio Fierro
4.    John Castro (Jimmy Aloja “Mijares”)
5.    Jairo
6.    Luz Stella Ossa
7.    Armando Ballestas

DEA

1.    Herman Arboleda
2.    Gustavo Gallego
3.    Nelly Gallego
4.    Attorney Enrique Mancera
5.    Jose Guillermo Gallon
6.    Pedro Gallon
7.    Nicolas Bergonzoli
8.    Orlando Sanchez-Christancho
9.    Milton Perlaza aka “Javier Valencia” aka “Pele” — for Jorge Eliecer Asprilla Perea
10.    Carlos Ramon-Zapata
11.    Oscar Campuzano
12.    Gustavo Usuga
13.    Juan Gabriel Usuga
14.    Bernardo Sanchez-Norena
15.    Maria Elena Londono for Hector Mario Londono-Vasquez “Negro Yuca”
16.    Jorge Orrego for Yvonne Maria Scaff de Saldarriaga
17.    The Tascon sisters for Alfredo Tascon-Aguirre
18.    Bernal’s wife for Alejandro Bernal-Madrigal “Juvenal”
19.    Attorney Roberto Uribe

Stay tuned….

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