Wealthy Colombian businessman is a drug-trafficker, CIA operative alleges

Another source, a past employee, also claims narco-entrepreneur is connected to rightwing paramilitary forces

Narco News won an historic legal battle in 2001 when the New York Supreme Court dismissed a libel suit filed against the online publication by a giant Mexican bank. In the process, the court also extended critical free-press protections for the first time to Internet news sites and reporters.

Narco News publisher Al Giordano, and his longtime ally, Mexican journalist Mario Menendez, publisher of the Mexican daily Por Esto!, stood as defendants in that litigation against the powerful lender Banco Nacional de Mexico S.A.(Banamex), led and controlled at the time by banker Roberto Hernandez Ramirez.

At the heart of the litigation was the following claim:

“Plaintiff [Banamex, since acquired by New York-based Citigroup] alleges that defendants [Giordano and Menendez] made accusations that Mr. Hernandez Ramirez is involved in criminal drug trafficking and specifically, the Colombian drug trade,” states the 2001 New York Supreme Court ruling.

And now, some nine years later, a similar set of allegations have been made against another powerful businessman, this one in Colombia, who also has threatened his accuser with a defamation lawsuit.

But in this case, the accuser is a long-time CIA operative who also was involved in extensive counter-narcotics work for the FBI and DEA during the 1980s, 1990s and into the early 2000s.

That individual is Baruch Vega — a seemingly mild mannered fashion photographer who played a key role a decade ago in helping to broker plea deals between notorious Colombian narco-traffickers and representatives of the U.S. Justice system. To this day, Vega remains a well-connected individual, both in Colombia and the United States — with a book about his adventures about to be published, he says.

The businessman who threatened him with a lawsuit early last year did so after Vega appeared on a popular Colombian radio program and fingered him as an alleged narco-trafficker.

In a letter sent last April to this businessman in response to the lawsuit threat, Vega asserts the following [translated from Spanish to English]:

The [DEA and FBI] information and reports made against you continued to emerge, and you were accused of direct involvement with the North Valley Cartel especially closely linked to Wilmer Varela [a violent Colombian narco-trafficker found shot to death in a Venezuelan resort town in 2008] and protected by members of the Colombian Police in particular by Colonel Danilo Gonzalez [who was assassinated in Colombia in 2004].

Vega also claims in the letter — which was sent to the Department of Justice, the IRS, FBI and DEA — that the Colombian businessman’s brother, who runs a transportation company in Medellin, Colombia, twice put out a contract on his life. Vega alleges that this brother who ordered him killed was a member of the Medellin Cartel and in the early 1990s, along with a group of other narco-traffickers since dubbed the Dirty Dozen, “received amnesty because of their possible collaboration against [narco-trafficker] Pablo Escobar [who was gunned down in Colombia by law enforcers in 1993].”

“Also relevant is what occurs on January 24, 2003, when the FBI and the DEA notified me that they had discovered another plot to kill me,” Vega alleges in the letter. “That time I came out publicly in all the media, press, radio and television and denounced the Norte del Valle Cartel and its members as accomplices in this plot.”

Vega goes on to assert in the April 2009 letter that former Colombia National Police Col. Danilo Gonzalez decided to turn himself into U.S. authorities shortly after he became the target of a U.S. indictment charging him with narco-trafficking, money laundering and murder.

From Vega’s letter:

Danilo Gonzalez, finding himself with no other options, decides to turn himself over to the U.S. government and asks me to help him do so. During the time he was negotiating his rendition to the U.S. government, Gonzalez holds [the businessman’s brother] fully responsible and implicates him on tape (in an audio recording) in drug trafficking operations, money laundering, corruption, obstruction of justice and murder….

Gonzalez was preparing to surrender himself to U.S. authorities in the spring of 2004 when he was assassinated at the bottom of a stairwell in his attorney’s office in Bogota, according to a January 2005 report in the St. Petersburg Times.

Vega’s letter continues:

… For its part, the U.S. government had over many year s put together reports implicating [the brother] and by extension, you [the businessman], as a front man for [the brother], through several of its judicial arms. I am fully aware of this, because I personally had access to this information during the time that I was part of these government agencies.

Vega first came to the attention of Narco News in early 2006, shortly after the “Kent Memo” surfaced. The memo alleges that U.S. federal agents in the U.S. Embassy in Bogota were on the payroll of drug traffickers, complicit in the murders of informants who knew too much, and assisting Colombia’s infamous rightwing paramilitary death squads in laundering money. 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 Bogota, Colombia — exposed by Narco News in a series of investigative stories called the Bogota Connection.

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 Bogota 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.

Again, from Vega’s April 2009 letter to the Colombian businessman:

In late 1996 I was placed in a combined FBI and DEA group to resume previous activities looking for drug submissions and cooperation and in an operation whose purpose was to uncover possible corruption by Colombian judicial officials, with groups of drug dealers as well as possibly members of the U.S. government operating through the U.S. Embassy in Bogota.

… At that time … the FBI and the DEA both prepared reports where the names of [the businessman and his brother] began to turn up again as direct participants in narco-trafficking and money laundering operations….

Family Businessmen

The individual whom Vega sent the letter to last April is Juan Gonzalo Angel Restrepo, the current president and CEO of GlobalMedia, which operates Cable Noticias, a 24-hour cable TV news channel in Colombia. Angel also is the past owner of Cablepacifico SA, a major cable TV operator in Colombia that was acquired by Mexican telecom giant Telmex in 2007.

Juan Gonzalo Angel’s brother, also the subject of accusations in Vega’s letter, is Luis Guillermo Angel Restrepo (known as “Guillo”), who controls the Medellin-based transport company called Helicargo SA.

In an October 2008 story in the Colombian publication El Tiempo, Guillo claims that he has no economic interest in any of the businesses operated by his brother Juan Gonzalo. Guillo also states in the article that any allegations accusing him of participating in illegal activities (such as “Narcoparamilitarism") are untrue and defamatory. He adds that he has “certifications” from judicial authorities indicating that he has never been the subject of a criminal investigation on the national or international level.

Juan Gonzalo Angel also contends that accusations claiming he is involved in criminal activity are baseless and asserts specifically that Vega’s charges are simply not true.

“Baruch Vega made everything up,” Juan Gonzalo Angel told the Colombian news publication El Espectador in an interview published on July 25, 2009. “… Why didn’t they [Colombian officials] extradite me or charge me? Does it seem right to you that he [Vega] would make these accusations 20 years after the fact.”

Vega told Narco News that since Juan Gonzalo Angel threatened him with a defamation lawsuit last year, he has heard nothing from him, nor has he yet been served with any papers. Vega also contends that among the reasons Colombian authorities have not pursued the Angel brothers more vigorously is because they are wealthy businessmen who are friends of current Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

Vega’s claim concerning the Angel brothers and their close relationship to the president of Colombia may seem the stuff of conspiracy theories. Still, it’s not the first time that Uribe, who hails originally from Medellin, has been accused of having ties to the narco-trafficking business — a charge he has consistently denied. In fact, a controversial 1991 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency document declassified in 2004 revealed the following about Uribe, based on information from an anonymous source:

A Colombian politician and senator dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin cartel at high government levels. Uribe was linked to a business involved in narcotics activities in the U.S. His father was murdered in Colombia for his connection with the narcotraffickers. [Uribe claims left-wing FARC guerillas were responsible.] Uribe has worked for the Medellin cartel and is a close personal friend of Pablo Escobar Gaviria. He has participated in Escobar’s political campaign to win the position of assistant parliamentarian to Jorge (Ortega). Uribe has been one of the politicians, from the Senate, who has attacked all forms of the extradition treaty.

Security Breach

Although the claims and counterclaims being bandied back and forth between Vega and Angel may not be sorted out short of a court showdown someday, it appears Vega is not alone in denouncing the business practices of Juan Gonzalo Angel.

Another who has stepped into that fray is Carlos Alberto Pinilla Ochoa, who provided security services to Juan Gonzalo Angel in the late 1990s, according to a recent story in Colombia’s El Espectador. Vega tells Narco News that Pinilla was actually the head of security for both Juan Gonzalo Angel and his brother Guillo and, as a result, has intimate knowledge of their business and personal doings.

Pinilla, according to El Espectator, was the target of an assassination attempt in August 2002 by “unknown assailants.”

Vega alleges that Pinilla — whom he says is also a former Colombian military officer — has been the target of multiple assassination plots since leaving the service of the Angel brothers. Vega also claims Pinilla is currently in hiding and seeking to cooperate with U.S. authorities in an effort to share what he purportedly knows about the Angel brothers and their operations.

Narco News could not confirm that claim independently, but then such matters are rarely discussed by the parties involved. However, Narco News was able to obtain pleadings filed by Pinilla with the Colombian judicial system that include some very serious allegations against the Angel brothers and their alleged associates.

Following is a sample of some of those allegations (translated from Spanish to English) from Pinilla’s Colombian legal pleadings:

From a June 14, 2009, complaint:

I [Pinilla] was to receive on loan a sum of money, without a cosigner, unsecured, with an extremely long repayment term and at zero interest. The brief drafted by the attorney [claiming to represent Juan Gonzalo Angel Restrepo, then, according to Pinilla, allegedly a shareholder in Telmex Hogar S.A.] said that when that I would receive the money from the person [Juan Gonzalo Angel Restrepo] who, in his capacity as president of Cablepacifico S.A. (today Telmex Hogar S.A.), ordered me killed, and by whose hand I am now a victim of displacement [exile] and they still want to take my life.

On December 20, 2008, [the attorney], on a flight from Medellin, called to tell me that he was bringing the money and asked if I already had readied and authenticated the briefs he sent, so we could meet. My response was clear, I did not receive money on loan or any other way because I did not need it and much less from the person who had ordered my execution, I had not retracted [my statements] and that, on the contrary, I asserted that in the name of Cablepacífico SA crimes against humanity had been committed and that my dignity was not for sale and as far as the contracts in force with that same company I would collect them myself directly and by legal means if necessary.

From a July 4, 2009, petition:

Clearly, I also have made known to Telmex Hogar SA that I am one of the victims of the paramilitary barbarism that ruled in Cablepacífico SA and which today continues to keep an eye on me so that I remain silent.

… In reference to my accusations of violation of International Humanitarian Law by Cablepacífico S.A.: I accept responsibility for proving them before whichever body you deem appropriate.

From a July 6, 2009, filing:

I respectfully address myself to your office to offer documentary proof of records that I have in my possession in my capacity as a victim of Narcopara-entrepreneurs. I have established myself in a new office located at Telmex Hogar SA, which purchased the company shares of Cablepacífico SA. [in 2007]. I am requesting my contractual rights which have been denied me and are impossible for me to demand through administrative means, as my victimizers have at a distinct legal and security disadvantage, taking into account that I am one of the many people affected by violations of human rights by this company and the Metro Bloc of the AUC [a unit of the right-wing paramilitary death-squad organization known as the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia in English].

From a June 14, 2009 filing:

1. My complaint against Mr. Juan Gonzalo Angel Restrepo (aka, Plata Limpia [meaning Clean Silver]), Luis Guillermo Angel Restrepo (aka, Guillo) and Hugo Albeiro Quintero Restrepo (aka,El Patron de Bello), is not about threats but Attempted Aggravated Murder, Aggravated Murder, Forced Displacement, Expropriation, Narco-paramilitarism, and crimes against humanity and not specifically for threats.

2. My complaint with the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions is for Human Rights violations crimes, committed by these three people with the help of state security agencies and therefore the competence of a unit specializing in this area is important in supporting the activities of the Prosecutor 241 Sectional.

3. That if it is true that Dr. Fabio Humar, Prosecutor, Sectional 241, is advancing the investigation because of my complaint, and surely I will set up a time to testify to my claims, but only about my complaint as victim, not including the other victims like me who have had their human rights violated by these three gentlemen in financial complicity with companies like Cablepacífico SA, Telmex Hogar SA, Transportes Bellanita S.A. and Helicargo SA.

4. That to this day I have expressed concerns for my own and my family’s safety and I have not been offered protection by the Attorney, despite asking for this assistance, forcing me to remain displaced and vulnerable to another attack. [It is because of this] that my elaboration and the testimony of victims cannot be expressed freely.

6. Similarly, I ask that you tell me how I can get a lawyer to represent me during the trial, as those professionals that I have contacted, once they discover that these people are linked to Narcoparamilitarism and formerly to the PEPES [a paramilitary group, allegedly backed by the U.S. government, that was formed to hunt down Pablo Escobar], choose to withdraw or propose to charge me a fee that is out of my reach.

It is not clear if Colombian authorities are seriously investigating Pinilla’s claims, though one document on file with a government office there does confirm Pinilla’s complaints, at least in part, are winding through the back rooms of the bureaucracy:

From the Division of Registration and Control and Correspondence [again, translated from Spanish into English]:

I wish to inform you that your communication based on the Correspondence Group of this entity, No. 198115 2009, was forwarded to PUBLIC MINISTRY Delegate (PROCURADURIA DELEG MINISTERIO PUBLICO) No130344 by official letter dated July 09, 2009.

The final proceedings will be conducted in accordance with the terms established by the Act 734 of 2002 C.U.D.

The Attorney General's Office appreciates your participation and collaboration that makes a positive contribution to the fight against corruption.

Where’s the Money?

Whether these various, quite serious charges against the Angel brothers should be believed or not, kind readers, is up to you. The same can be said of the charges raised some nine years ago against Mexican banker Hernandez Ramirez.

But regardless, the New York Supreme Court’s ruling in the dismissed Narco News libel case merits mentioning again in the context of these new allegations against the Angel brothers in Colombia:

The nature of the articles printed on the [Narco News] website … constitute matters of public concern because the information disseminated relates to the drug trade and its affect on people living in this hemisphere.

And in places like Juarez, in this “hemisphere,” as a consequence of the relentless drug war, people are being murdered by the thousands. Regularly, in the media, the blame for that carnage is put at the feet of notorious criminal narco-cartoon-like characters, such as Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman or Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, who seem to possess seemingly mythic powers.

To be sure, they are cunning men with a ruthless drive to survive and advance their power, but they are only men nonetheless. They, too, have to serve somebody.

In light of the allegations raised by individuals like Vega, Pinilla and the past claims (based on hardnosed investigative reporting) advanced by journalists like Giordano and Menendez, maybe its time to reconsider the conventional mainstream media meme on the drug war — and the cast of narco-cartoon characters set up as its sinister scapegoats, those shadowy figures who pack pearl-handled pistols and are able to drive around untouched in Mexico behind the tinted glass of armored SUVs made in America.

Maybe there’s another cast of bad guys behind the drug-trafficking menace who are not the usual suspects, but rather, due to society’s pretenses, are individuals deemed beyond suspicion — such as well-heeled bankers, chamber-of-commerce businessmen and career government servants).

Who knows?

One thing is certain, though: The dead of Juarez, and elsewhere along the front lines of the drug war, tell no tales. But their bones do provide a vivid reminder that all this carnage isn’t about some Mickey Mouse cartoon show.

“Colombia exports $100 billion or more in drugs each year and everyone that has been arrested accounts for only a very small amount of that retrieved [by the authorities],” Vega claims. “And they [the Colombian narco-traffickers now in control] have been working for 10 to 15 years making $100 billion a year, so where is all that money?”

Stay tuned….

Links to source documents

Baruch Vega’s April 13, 2009, letter to Juan Gonzalo Angel Restrepo [in the original Spanish and translated into English]

Carlos Alberto Pinilla Ochoa’s filings with the Colombian judicial system [in the original Spanish and translated into English]

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