By Carlos Enrique Bayo
CAMBIO 16 No. 148
April 15 1996
Translated from the Spanish by Weekly News Update on the Americas
Since CAMBIO 16 published the lengthy Confessions of a Secret Agent last summer, revealing the DEA's dirty war in the world of drug trafficking, the scaled-up activities of the US in Colombia have turned into an open intervention against the government of [President] Ernesto Samper. As the events were taking place, Juan (a pseudonym we are using to protect the identity of our informant) was able to announce with astonishing precision each of the episodes of that drama before they happened--and CAMBIO 16 only made public some of the more notorious covert actions of the US secret services.
For example, the participation of 150 CIA agents in the hunt and capture of six of the seven top leaders of the Cali cartel, now admitted even by Gen. Rosso José Serrano--Colombia's chief of police--which our magazine revealed in an exclusive long before it was admitted by the major US media. Or the content of the declarations in Washington of cartel accountant Guillermo Pallomari, whose explosive testimony is still solely in the hands of the CIA and is not known in full even by the DEA because it compromises political allies of the US.
After the worldwide scandal provoked by the revelation in CAMBIO 16 that, according to Pallomari, the Cali cartel made contributions to the presidential campaign of the ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) in Mexico that culminated with the election of Ernesto Zedillo; and facing the possibility of legal actions against the magazine, based on the official denials of the DEA and the State Department, we had to reevaluate.
It soon became clear that we could not obtain internal documents from the DEA--let alone from the CIA--not even at the cost of putting our deep throat in serious danger. Deprived of material evidence that would corroborate what more and more circumstantial evidence was pointing to (nor did the US want to facilitate the material evidence of the complete interrogation of Pallomari), we were left with the testimony of our witness, and it was important to record it indelibly.
It took a lot to convince Juan, but he finally agreed to make his declarations before a camera, although maintaining the protection of his identity just as is done with prosecution witnesses who put their lives in danger. (In Colombia, even judges and prosecutors remain anonymous). The result was much more spectacular than we had expected.
On January 11, the Cali cartel's number three person, José Santacruz Londoño, escaped the high security prison in Bogotá known as La Picota, apparently having bribed his guards with two million dollars. The scandal shook the Samper government, and Washington immediately renewed its demands for extradition of the drug trafficking leaders (prohibited by the Colombian Constitution), claiming that the escape demonstrated that they would never be punished by Colombia. Meanwhile, a hunt for the man was undertaken on a national level and a reward was offered, also for two million dollars.
At the end of January, Juan got in contact with CAMBIO 16 to warn us that it was the CIA (US Central Intelligence Agency) which had organized the escape and that they had now located Santacruz.
The US secret services prepared the escape through two of its infiltrators, who Santacruz believed were his collaborators and whom he was paying, while they kept the agency informed of his whereabouts. The infiltrators had instructions to convince their jefe to leave for Panama or Costa Rica, countries where he would be immediately captured and transported (in this case by the DEA) to the US.
"If Santacruz insists on leaving for another country, where the CIA could lose his trail, or on remaining in Colombia, from where it will be impossible to extradite him, he is a dead man... The pertinent instructions have already been given," said Juan at that meeting.
The information was so explosive, sobering and unverifiable that it was never published. And several weeks passed as details were being confirmed from some of his other revelations, such as the departure from Colombia of the sons of Fernando Botero, the former defense minister who is now testifying against Samper from prison.
Santacruz Londoño was shot to death last March 6 in a police ambush in Medellín. According to the city's police commander, Gen. Alfredo Salgado, an "informant" revealed the whereabouts of the trafficker, who was accompanied by 11 bodyguards; the bodyguards fled in another automobile, and Santacruz died in a pitched gun battle, shooting back at his attackers while trying to flee on foot, in a patch of weeds not far from the Intercontinental hotel.
When the press arrived, Santacruz' body was on the ground next to his red Suzuki Samurai, with eight shots in his chest and a Beretta lying at his side. Not a single one of his bodyguards was captured. Not a single one of the police agents was wounded in the "shootout." Not a single police automobile had been hit by bullets, and the journalists didn't see any evidence of a shootout; not even any bullet casings.
If the drug lord was fleeing, ducking and shooting, how is it possible that he took eight consecutive bullets in the chest and none in the back or side? The televised images of the corpse showed a bruise on the right eyebrow and a cut on the lip, unlikely injuries for someone who collapsed backwards from eight gunshots in the chest. According to the daily La Prensa, the forensic pathologists who examined the body found signs on the wrists that the cartel chief was handcuffed before he died.
The time seemed to have come to talk with Juan again.
"I had already told you he was sentenced." Juan seemed offended by our incredulity. "When that gentleman escaped, the two who were accompanying him and who had planned his escape--paid by the CIA (I can't tell you more because it would compromise the identity of agents on the ground)--already had precise instructions that he had to die if he did not agree to travel to Costa Rica or Panama... Everyone in the DEA was prepared to grab him there if that pair managed to convince him, but they knew that he didn't have much rope left."
Despite everything, such a sophisticated operation still seemed fantastic even for the CIA, within Colombia.
"It's not the first time that they've organized this kind of action there, through their assets, as they call them. They have even participated in attacks like that carried out against the wife of Mr. Sarria."
Elizabeth de Sarria, the wife of drug trafficker Jesús Sarria, died from 14 gunshot wounds on Feb. 1, when she had already agreed to testify in the trial opened by Attorney General Alfonso Valdivieso on the contributions of the Cali cartel to Samper's electoral campaign. One of the most damaging pieces of evidence for the President was the recording that appeared last summer of a telephone conversation between Samper and Sarria's wife in which she offered a diamond ring for the President's wife. It has never been shown that he received it.
Jesús Sarria has accused the Samper government of having carried out the attack against his wife. Likewise, Santacruz' lawyer, Guillermo Villa Alzate, claims that the murder of his client was a "police execution, a crime of the state," because even though the drug lord was traveling alone with his chauffeur that night-- unarmed and without bodyguards--the police didn't try to capture him alive.
While we were attributing attacks to the CIA, we had to ask Juan about the one suffered by Samper's lawyer Antonio José Cancino, in which he was injured and his two bodyguards were killed. On that same day, September 27, Colombian interior minister Horacio Serpa Uribe (now also being tried) hinted that the US was involved, responding "Sounds right to me" to a question about whether the DEA could have had something to do with that terrorist act.
Juan assured us that the DEA didn't even know about it:
"They only tell us something when we can no longer compromise the operations in progress, and only so that we stay quiet. It's like this: our superiors demand explanations and the CIA people answer them halfway. Afterwards, they try to keep us quiet by telling us another little part, so that we don't get demoralized or get our feelings hurt. For example, they tell us that in the end those narcos are going to pay up equally, even though they have forced us to interrupt investigations we've been carrying out for many years and in which many special agents have risked their lives. So, they have to lift our spirits, because they see that we're frustrated to the point that we might reveal what the company [CIA] is going to do."
According to an official communiqué from the Presidency of the Republic of Colombia, the attack against Cancino was a product of "forces of a conspiracy in progress... prompted by national and foreign interests."
According to Juan, "the hand of the CIA was also there." Months earlier, our deep throat had already warned us that "they're going for Serpa and the only thing that worries them is that they don't have any evidence against him for drug trafficking."
Now, Juan says:
"The same day that Mr. Serpa started trouble with his statements, my immediate boss blurted out that he's "a son of... his mother," more than anything because he was responding to the government of the United States on an equal level."
Juan didn't want to give us details of how he knew that the CIA acted in the shadow of those attacks, because he claims that if he reveals how he knew (such information is not in computers or documents) it will identify him immediately. But he did want to let us know what the CIA was inclined to attempt.
"One of the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers [leaders of the Cali Cartel] is going to be attacked soon within the prison, and a family member of one of the two is also going to be attacked in the streets of Colombia," says Juan, "to scare them so much that finally they themselves will ask to be taken to the US in exchange for security for themselves and their families.
"Since extradition is not constitutionally possible (and I already told you earlier that the US wants to get rid of Samper because he isn't capable of forcing the Senate to change the Constitution), it is necessary to force the Cali traffickers to reach a negotiated agreement. It is precisely to scare them so that they agree to surrender to the US courts in exchange for the lives of their family members and for holding on to part of their fortune... guarantees not only of personal security but also of economic tranquility."
Why is there so much interest in taking the Cali cartel leaders to the US?
"Because with the information that Pallomari has provided, the billions of dollars in fortunes have already been located, and to be able to confiscate them legally it is much less costly and time-consuming, legally, if the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers and the others of the Cali cartel are in US territory. If they make a deal in the US, plead guilty and cut a deal with the prosecutors in exchange for reduction of sentences and other benefits, the confiscation of all those assets and properties is automatic. Otherwise, a judicial proceeding could take five, ten or even twenty years.
"In addition," continues Juan, "in the exchange they will have to reveal all the details of the drug trafficking and money laundering networks that they control in the US, and that will bring the Treasury many more billions. Immense quantities are at stake, comparable to the public deficit of the US."
Even so, to carry out attacks within the Colombian prisons, or against family members of the traffickers, seems excessive.
"At this moment they are pressuring Samper to relax the security of those prisons, because the Cali drug lords have something like a bodyguard service 24 hours a day and it's very difficult to threaten them. The way they have the operations planned, they're going to give them a good scare inside their own cells, but for that the Colombian authorities have to lower their guard."
Juan insists that "the United States still doesn't have convincing evidence that [Samper] was directly linked to receiving the drug trafficker money that ended up in the Liberal Party campaign, nor to its distribution." But campaign treasurer Santiago Medina, just like his closest collaborator, ex-defense minister Fernando Botero, are testifying against him, accusing him of links with the Cali cartel and of organizing the political use of the drug money.
"What Botero is saying is information that comes directly from Washington," says Juan. "Of course he and Medina are in a very delicate situation, because they are the ones who handled the finances of the campaign and they know how everything went. That's why in the month of January an emissary from the embassy spoke with Botero and warned him that unless he collaborates, he will be tried in the US, he will become extraditable, because of the bank account opened in New York with drug money.
"Botero arrived at an agreement with the US," continued Juan, "so that he will not be tried here, and protection will be guaranteed for his family in exchange for his testimony against Samper. Above all, he demands the security of his family, especially of his children, and they pass into the US federal witness protection program... I can't say more than that they are safe and far from Colombia. From that moment, Botero says what Washington wants him to say, including things he hasn't seen, although I'm not going to say they might not be true."
That is, that he's not telling the truth?
"Yes, yes, that he tells the truth. But not what he knows, just what they send him from Washington for him to say, information coming from CIA or DEA informants that could be correct but wouldn't be believable if it didn't come from his mouth... Much of what he says is truthful, but many other things have been cooked up here so that when he says them (despite the fact that he doesn't know if they are true) they will serve the interests of the United States."
The definitive question is: now that Washington has decertified Colombia, why have they done it?
"It's a big lie. Since César Gaviria, Colombia has been collaborating fully with the US in the war on drugs. During the Samper presidency, that collaboration has not only been maintained but has even increased up to a certain point. At no moment has that cooperation decreased with us, as agents, nor with any of the official agencies of the US--including the CIA, so that it could enter with carte blanche against the Cali traffickers."
"Because it serves the interests of the US. I am not at a high enough level to answer that question."