Bogotá DEA Corruption Allegations Intersect with Covert FBI, CIA Activity in Colombia
New Document Unravels More Mysteries in Kent Memo; Narco-Trafficker, Informant Drop the Dime on Suspected DEA Foul Play
By Bill Conroy
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
March 6, 2006
In the late 1990s, Luis Hernando Gómez Bustamante, one of the leaders of Colombia’s North Valley Cartel narco-trafficking syndicate, became one of the targets of a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation called Operation Cali-Man, which was overseen by a DEA supervisor in Miami named David Tinsley.
In mid January 2000, Gómez Bustamante attended a meeting in Panama to discuss possible cooperation with the DEA. According to one of Tinsley’s informants, during the course of that meeting Gómez Bustamante revealed that a high-level DEA agent in Bogotá was on the “payroll” of a corrupt Colombian National Police colonel named Danilo Gonzalez — who was eventually indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice on narco-trafficking charges.
The informant, an individual named Ramon Suarez, later told DEA internal affairs investigators that the U.S. federal agent identified by Gómez Bustamante as being on the “payroll” was Javier Pena, who at the time was the assistant country attaché of the DEA Bogotá Country Office in Colombia.
When questioned by DEA internal affairs investigators in 2002, Pena denied the charge. However, he did concede he had a relationship with Colonel Gonzalez dating back to the early 1990s, when Colombian and U.S. law enforcers worked together to hunt down the notorious narco-outlaw Pablo Escobar.
These remarkable revelations have surfaced in a document recently obtained by Narco News. The document also includes evidence that the DEA, FBI and CIA were each operating covertly in Colombian’s narco-trafficking underworld, all using the same informant.
DEA agents in Colombia appear to have unwittingly compromised these secretive operations, to one degree or another, in an effort to divert attention away from corruption within the Bogota DEA office, according to sources and documents obtained by Narco News. As a result, there may now be no way for the U.S. government to address the alleged DEA corruption without exposing the details of the covert activities of the FBI and CIA, because they all intersect in the dark corners of the drug war in Colombia.
The document, prepared by the DEA’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR, essentially the DEA’s Internal Affairs unit), is the final report of an investigation prompted by a memo written in January 2000 by the chief of Bogotá’s DEA office, Leo Arreguin.
The OPR report, prepared in March 2002, includes summaries of numerous interviews with informants, accused narco-traffickers and federal agents.
From the DEA OPR report:
Mr. Suarez (Tinsley’s informant) also stated Mr. Gómez Bustamante claimed [Assistant Country Attaché] Javier Pena was on the “payroll,” which was paid by Colombian National Police Colonel Danilo Gonzalez.”
… Javier Pena … stated he was involved in the Pablo Escobar investigation in the early 1990s, when he met and worked closely with CNP Colonel Gonzalez. … Pena stated he had never received money or gratuities from Colonel Gonzalez.
Narco News published an exclusive story on Jan. 9 based on a leaked memo drafted by Department of Justice (DOJ) attorney Thomas M. Kent. In the memo, Kent alleges that DEA agents in Bogotá are in league with narco-traffickers and are implicated in money laundering and murder.
Kent’s memo, written in December 2004, also alleges that investigations into the alleged corruption that were carried out by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) and DEA’s OPR were derailed and whitewashed by officials within those watchdog agencies.
(The Justice Department OIG has oversight over DEA’s OPR and the right to take the lead role in investigating corruption cases within DEA.)
The first of the major allegations in Kent’s memo centers on an undercover operation launched in 1997 called Cali-Man, which targeted narco-traffickers in Colombia and was overseen by David Tinsley, a DEA group supervisor in Miami. As part of that operation, Tinsley and the agents working under him had uncovered evidence that DEA agents in Bogotá appeared to be assisting narco-traffickers in Colombia.
But in late January 2000, Bogotá DEA top gun 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.
Rainmaker, sources tell Narco News, was set up to specifically target Colombia National Police Col. Gonzalez — long before he found himself in the sights of a U.S. indictment for narco-trafficking in the spring of 2004. Ironically, Arreguin’s memo is dated Jan. 20, 2000, about a week after Gómez Bustamante reportedly made his startling allegation in Panama concerning DEA corruption in the Bogotá office.
In fact, among the allegations in Arreguin’s memo is that the meeting in Panama between Gómez Bustamante DEA special agent Lawrence Castillo (who worked together with Tinsley at the Miami office) was not coordinated properly with the Bogotá office.
From the OPR final report:
According to… Arreguin, SA Castillo [one of the agents involved in the Cali-Man investigation] was instructed to contact the Bogotá [office] before finalizing a meeting with Mr. Gómez Bustamante. … Arreguin reported it was later learned by the Bogotá [office] that SA Castillo had met with Mr. Gomez-Bustamante [sic] for two days in Panama without notifying the Bogotá [office]….
However, Tinsley and Castillo offer a different account of the meeting in Panama with Gómez Bustamante. Castillo claims the meeting with the reputed North Valley narco-boss was “unplanned,” according to the OPR final report.
Tinsley also told OPR investigators, according to the same final report, that the meeting was not planned in advanced. “[Group Supervisor] Tinsley recalled SA Castillo calling from Panama to report his interview of a ‘big player’; however, GS Tinsley could not remember if SA Castillo identified the ‘player’ as Mr. Gomez-Bustamante [sic].”
So it appears the reality of what happened is a bit more complicated than what Arreguin conveyed in his memo, assuming Arreguin, Tinsley and Castillo are all telling the truth. After all, it is difficult to report in advance an unplanned meeting.
In any event, the Arreguin memo, and subsequent reports out of the Bogotá DEA office, further alleged that Tinsley and Castillo were actually involved in a corrupt scheme with another Cali-Man informant named Baruch Vega, who was accused in Arreguin’s memo of extorting money from narco-traffickers in exchange for promises of lenient jail sentences.
The DEA Bogota chief’s memo put into motion a major criminal investigation targeting 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 informant and had authorized the “extortion scheme” – without making Tinsley and the Cali-man undercover operation aware of that fact.
The criminal probe was later taken over by the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section in Washington, D.C. The investigation not only scuttled Cali-Man and Rainmaker, but effectively thwarted Tinsley’s efforts to pursue the alleged connections between corrupt Colombian officials, narco-traffickers and DEA agents in Colombia.
However, according to the Kent memo and sources who spoke with Narco News, Arreguin wrote his memo months after Tinsley had accumulated and reported evidence that DEA agents in Bogotá were suspected of assisting narco-traffickers. That assertion is important, because the Kent memo claims that Tinsley was retaliated against after reporting suspected corruption in the DEA’s Bogotá office, which was overseen by Arreguin.
If Arreguin sent off his memo after becoming aware of Tinsley’s corruption charges, then that memo, and the investigation it spurred, could be seen as part of a strategy to silence and discredit Tinsley, which is precisely what Kent’s memo and Narco News sources allege is the case.
Arreguin retired from DEA in 2003 and now serves as a director of a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program in Lake County, Indiana. HIDTA, which operates offices across the United States, is administered by the Office of National Drug Control Policy in close cooperation with DEA and is charged with reducing drug trafficking in key areas of the United States.
Arreguin has not responded to Narco News’ request for an interview.
Tinsley’s operations were not the only investigations torpedoed by DEA agents in Colombia, according to the Kent memo.
Bogotá DEA agent Pena’s name turns up again on that score.
In his role as one of the top DEA commanders in the Bogotá DEA office between 1999 and 2001, Pena was in a position to wield a lot of control over what other DEA agents did on his turf. And he used that leverage, Narco News sources claim, to thwart an investigation being carried out by Miami DEA agent Ed Fields — another whistleblower who shows up in the Kent memo.
Fields is the DEA agent mentioned (but not named) in the Kent memo as the whistleblower who was involved in investigating a tip from informants that a drug ring in Colombia had developed an ingenious method for smuggling cocaine into the United States.
“Specifically, the narcotics traffickers in Colombia were infusing acrylic with cocaine and shaping it into any number of commercial goods,” Kent states in his memo. “The acrylic was then shipped to the United States and Europe where, during processing, the cocaine was extracted from the acrylic.”
Informants working with Fields and other Florida agents sent samples of the cocaine-laced acrylic to the DEA, but the agency’s chemists couldn’t figure out how to extract the cocaine. As a result, the Florida agents decided to have the informants come to the United States with a sample of the acrylic, so they could walk the DEA’s chemists through the extraction process.
“Agents contacted the Bogotá [DEA] Country Office to discuss the informants’ planned travel and their bringing cocaine out of Colombia infused in acrylic,” the Kent memo alleges. “They were advised that the best tact was for the informants to carry it out themselves.”
But when the informants got to the airport to leave for the U.S., they were arrested. A DEA agent in Bogotá, it turns out, had told Colombian officials to “lock them [the informants] up and throw away the key,” according to the Kent memo. The Bogotá agent then claimed that he had no idea the Florida agents had given the informants permission to transport the cocaine.
Kent’s memo does not name the Bogotá agent allegedly responsible for double-crossing the Florida agents and their informants.
But Narco News sources claim Pena is that agent.
“His [Pena’s] misrepresentations were backed by another agent in Bogotá,” Kent alleges in his memo. “The informants were imprisoned for nine months while the accusations flew back and forth. Once it was determined that the agents in Bogotá were lying, the informants were released. One of the informants was kidnapped and murdered in Bogotá where he had gone into hiding.”
In an effort to back up his claims about being deceived by the Bogotá agents, Fields took a polygraph and passed, indicating that he was telling the truth about his version of the events, according to the Kent memo.
“A representative of the Department of Justice reviewed the allegations and found that the reporting agent [Fields] had been telling the truth…,” the Kent memo claims.
Pena, who is now the chief of DEA’s operations in San Francisco, has not responded to Narco News’ request for an interview.
Fields may have been prevented by DEA agents in Bogota from getting his narco informants out of Colombia in the acrylic case, but agents in the Bogota DEA office apparently had no problem leaking information to narco-traffickers in Colomiba, according to the Kent memo and Narco News sources.
One of the cooperating sources in Tinsley’s Cali-Man operation was a nacro-trafficker named Juan Nicolas Bergonzoli, who was a close associate of Carlos Castano — also an accused narco-trafficker and the former leader of Colombia’s murderous right-wing paramilitary group known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC in its Spanish initials).
(The AUC is widely recognized to be involved in narco-trafficking and arms dealing at the highest levels. Working closely with various sectors of the Colombian military, it has fielded death squads responsible for murdering thousands of Colombians.)
Bergonzoli, it turns out, provided Tinsley’s group with U.S. government documents he said were leaked to narco-traffickers in Colombia by corrupt DEA agents in the Bogotá office, Narco News sources claim.
Kent’s memo refers to documents being leaked in the same manner (and subsequently turned over to OPR). It is not clear whether Bergonzoli is the same individual referenced in the Kent memo. But DEA’s OPR should have the records to answer that question.
Unfortunately, according to Kent’s memo OPR helped to block the investigation into the Bogotá corruption allegations.
Bergonzoli was recruited as a cooperating source in the Cali-Man investigation by Vega, who had also recruited another narco named Julio Correa. Both Bergonzoli and Correa worked with Vega in advancing the “extortion scheme” to hook other narcos into plea deals with the U.S. government.
The FBI originally brought Correa in as a cooperating witness around 1997, according to the OPR final report of investigation obtained by Narco News. Tinsley’s group was using Correa and Bergonzoli to help advance the Cali-Man sting. However, Tinsley’s group was not aware of Vega’s extortion scheme, Tinsley claims in the OPR report.
The FBI had authorized Vega to use the extortion scheme beginning in the 1980s under an operation called Gambit, the OPR document indicates. But according to numerous FBI agents interviewed by OPR investigators, the bureau had supposedly put a stop to that ploy by at least 1990.
Narco News obtained an internal DEA PowerPoint presentation outlining the agency’s investigation into Vega’s supposed extortion scheme. The computer-generated slideshow described Gambit as follows:
In an effort to gather intelligence in 1987, a FBI Special Agent was introduced as a corrupt FBI agent to Colombian Cartel traffickers by FBI confidential source Baruch Vega. The intent was to convince Cartel leadership that the “corrupt” agent could effect the early release of key Cartel members [light sentences] who would be incarcerated in the U.S.
Vega was allowed by FBI agents to keep “corruption scheme” fees that were collected from the traffickers. An important feature of this operation was that Vega’s expenses were funded by the traffickers, which defrayed the FBI’s investigative expenses. According to Vega, the element of substantial bribes enhanced the credibility of the “corruption scheme.”
Vega was never criminally prosecuted for engaging in the “extortion scheme.” Instead, he was convicted on a misdemeanor charge for not paying taxes on some of the money he earned from the scam 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.
Sources tell Narco News those facts demonstrate that the extortion scheme was sanctioned by the government at some level. They also contend that it is likely that the FBI’s Gambit operation was still up and running — using Vega as an informant — at the same time Vega was being used as a DEA informant in Cali-Man. In fact, the sources allege that Vega was active as an FBI informant for some 15 years, until 2000, when he was deactivated in the wake of the controversy caused by the Arreguin memo.
If that is the case, a September 2005 report by the Justice Department’s OIG indicates that it is quite possible that Vega’s FBI handlers allowed him to use the extortion scheme without first obtaining the proper approvals — including that of a U.S. prosecutor.
The OIG report explains that under Justice Department guidelines, FBI informants are allowed to engage in criminal activity, but only under very strict rules, which in most cases require that both an FBI field office commander and a U.S. prosecutor approve such missions in advance for specified short periods of time. The types of criminal activity allowed — referred to as “otherwise illegal activity,” or OIA — are divided into two categories.
The most serious is Tier 1 activity, described in the OIG report as “any activity that … involves the commission or the significant risk of the commission of certain offenses, including acts of violence; corrupt conduct by senior federal, state, or local public officials; or the manufacture, importing, exporting, possession, or trafficking in controlled substances of certain quantities.” Tier 2 encompasses other criminal activities that are less serious, which can be authorized without the approval of a U.S. prosecutor.
The OIG conducted a field study for the report in which it examined actual case files in FBI offices around the country to gauge compliance with the informant guidelines.
From the OIG report:
We reviewed 25 informant files in which OIA was authorized, of which 2 included Tier 1 OIA and 23 were exclusively Tier 2 OIA.
… We found that 15 of the 25 files, or 60 percent, reflected compliance deficiencies. The deficiencies included OIA authorizations for sources who had not yet been registered as CIs [confidential informants], retroactive authorizations of OIA, authorizations of Tier 2 OIA that should have been denominated as Tier 1 and therefore required DOJ approval, insufficiently specific descriptions of OIA, failures to obtain the CI’s written acknowledgment of instructions regarding the limits of OIA activities, and failures to provide required instructions.
… We also identified two instances in which the FBI failed to obtain proper authorization from the U.S. Attorney with respect to Tier 1 OIA. Both matters originated in the same field office, and the OIA in question was treated as Tier 2. In the first case, the FBI’s authorization included conspiracy to commit robbery, a crime of violence. In the second case, the risk of violence justified the Tier 1 status.
So, it appears very possible that Vega’s handlers at the FBI could have told him the extortion scheme was authorized, which undoubtedly would have required the approval of a U.S. prosecutor, but then failed to obtain the proper authorization for Vega’s criminal activity. They also could have chosen to simply classify the extortion scheme in the paperwork as Tier 2 activity to get around the need for a U.S. prosecutor to sign off on the activity.
It is even possible that Vega was working for both the FBI and DEA at the same time, as an informant for Gambit and Cali-Man, with neither agency being aware of his dual role.
Emanuel Johnson Jr., a retired FBI supervisory special agent, told Narco News that there is no central law-enforcement database of informants, and agencies don’t like to share information on their informants because of the risks that might pose to an undercover operation. As a result, he says a cunning informant, interested in making some extra money, could conceivably take advantage of the cracks in the system.
“The FBI tells its informants not to work as an informant for another agency, but there is no way to stop an informant from lying and doing it,” Johnson says. “So it’s very possible it could happen.”
The AUC-connected narco Bergonzoli was working with Tinsley’s group in Cali-Man as a cooperating source in order to assure a reduced sentence for himself. Sometime between 1998 and early 2000, drawing on his strong connections to Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary force, he attempted to set up a meeting between one of Tinsley’s agents (Castillo) and AUC leader Carlos Castaño.
From the OPR final report of investigation:
According to Mr. [Nicholas] Bergonzoli, he is a close associate of Carlos Castano [sic] and because of this relationship, SA Castillo requested Mr. Bergonzoli’s assistance in arranging a meeting with Mr. Castano. (Note: Mr. Castano is the leader of the paramilitary group identified as the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia. Mr. Castano has admitted to a series of high-profile assassinations, including the killing of a Colombian presidential candidate.) Mr. Bergonzoli acknowledged he delivered a letter and a copy of an e-mail message to SA Castillo on behalf of Mr. Castano, which expressed his willingness to meet with (DEA Special Agent) SA Castillo.
The attempt to set up the meeting with Castaño, who apparently was seeking to cut a deal with the DEA in exchange for cooperating with the Cali-Man narco-trafficking investigation, didn’t pan out — for reasons that are not completely clear.
For his part, Tinsley confirms “he expressed an interest in the possible cooperation of Mr. Castano [sic],” the OPR final report states, “but denied initiating contact with Mr. Castano.”
“GS Tinsley reported SA Castillo’s receipt of the letters from Mr. Castano was unsolicited and Mr. Castano’s cooperation was not pursued,” the report states.
The failed effort to recruit Castaño is of interest because the Kent memo alleges that “one of the corrupt agents” from the Bogotá DEA office was caught sometime in 2004 on a wiretap discussing criminal activity related to AUC.
Kent contends that during the wiretap, the corrupt Bogotá DEA agent “discusses his involvement in laundering money for the AUC.” But despite being caught on tape admitting to helping the most murderous political force in the hemisphere today to launder the money from its extensive drug trafficking operations, the agent faced no punishment. In fact, says Kent, the agent was essentially promoted: “That call has been documented by the DEA and that agent is now in charge of numerous narcotics and money laundering investigations.”
The U.S. government indicted Castaño in 2002 on narco-trafficking charges. Two years later, Castano disappeared, after a reported attempt on his life in Colombia. He is presumed dead, although his body was never found.
Castano’s fate remains a mystery, much like the path he walked in life, which included dark dealings with high-level Colombian officials, ruthless paramilitary killers, narcos and even the CIA. In fact, it seems the CIA, Bogotá DEA agent Pena, Col. Gonzalez and Castaño all likely ran across each other’s paths in the hunt to take down the infamous Pablo Escobar.
“In 1993, while working for the Cali Cartel, he [Castano] collaborated with the CIA and the Colombian police to bring down the fugitive drug baron, Pablo Escobar,” the Irish Times reported in an August 2000 story penned by Ana Carrigan.
The OPR final report on the investigation does reveal that the CIA was concerned that Tinsley’s Cali-Man operation was starting to bump up against the intelligence agency’s business. The document is not clear about precisely what that business might be; however.
From the OPR final report:
[DEA Miami Division Special Agent] SA Vasquez … stated between June and December 1999, he received a complaint from unknown CIA personnel concerning GS Tinsley. According to SA Vasquez, the information he received was vague and pertained to GS Tinsley’s unexpected arrival in Panama [where the informant Vega often arranged meetings with high-level Colombian narco-traffickers as part of Cali-Man], and the fact that he [Tinsley] was somehow interfering with CIA operations. SA Vasquez was unable to recall the exact time frame of the incident.
Vega does have a history of working as a CIA asset, according to Narco News sources and court records.
Due to the fall-out from the Arreguin memo, Tinsley and Castillo were put on administrative leave for some three years and eventually fired from their jobs. However, both fought to get their jobs back through the legal system and were reinstated in 2004.
The judge who ordered that Tinsley be reinstated at the DEA alludes to Vega’s CIA connections in his April 20, 2004 ruling in that case:
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 [a] “FCI-CI,” or foreign counterintelligence service-confidential informant, who had been brought in by the CIA.
Is it possible that on top of FBI’s Gambit and DEA’s Cali-Man, Vega was also working simultaneously as an asset for the CIA, with none of those agencies realizing it? Given the turf rivalries that exist between the FBI, CIA and DEA, maybe an informant like Vega could pull that off without revealing his cards. But it seems highly improbable.
Another possible reason why Tinsley’s Cali-Man operation started to give U.S. intelligence officials heartburn might be that the CIA and FBI were involved in a joint intelligence-related operation in Colombia that also was utilizing Vega as an asset. Such a covert operation would have been exempt from many normal rules involving the use of informants due to the cover of “national security.”
There is a precedent for the CIA and FBI working together overseas prior to 9/11. Starting in the mid-1980s, FBI agent Lok Lau went undercover for some six years, during which he managed to penetrate China’s intelligence service by working through the back door of the black-market economy.
Lau was so successful in gaining the confidence of his targets that he eventually traveled to China, posing as a “businessman,” to carry out counterintelligence in that country.
Lau’s mission appears to have been sanctioned by Executive Order 12333, which was signed by President Reagan in the early 1980s. The executive order authorizes the FBI to “conduct counterintelligence activities outside the United States in coordination with the CIA.” That means, in the case of Lau, the FBI was either acting illegally, or it was conducting an overseas covert counterintelligence operation in “coordination” with the CIA.
Gary Webb, in a story he wrote for the Asia Times in 2003, provides the following insight into Lau’s covert mission:
Asked why he thinks the FBI wants to keep his highly lauded achievements secret after so many years, Lau replied that in the world of counterintelligence, there is often no such thing as “too“ long ago. ”Counterintelligence work takes time to produce results. It is like wine sometimes. The longer it ages,” he said, “the more valuable it becomes.” Sometimes, Lau suggested, double agents recruited at a young age eventually end up as influential policymakers or military officials.
There may be other reasons for the Bureau’s squeamishness about Lau’s career becoming public: it is likely he was committing crimes as part of his undercover role, crimes the FBI would have authorized Lau to commit.
“From a reading of the record, it is not difficult to discern that Lau was involved in espionage activities, kidnappings, trading in human slavery, illegal immigration, murder, torture, extortion, hostage-taking and any number of other criminal activities that involved crimes against humanity,” claims a partially classified brief filed in support of Lau by the League of United Latin American Citizens. “Lau penetrated the Chinese Triads, the Tong, and other Chinese Organized Crime Organizations that trade in all of these things as a way of life … For six years Lau had to be on his guard and had to participate in whatever these hostile forces demanded of him.”
Lau would neither confirm nor deny that. “I’m not going to discuss that issue without immunity,” he said flatly. But he asked if it made sense to imagine that an FBI undercover agent could gain the trust of a hostile foreign power by “just walking into some country and saying, ‘Hi, I’m Lok Lau and I’d like to be your friend.’ It doesn’t work like that.”
Again, there is no conclusive evidence that a joint CIA/FBI operation was being conducted in Colombia at the time of Cali-man — or currently. But it does appear clear that the informant Vega, at one time or another, was put into play as an opening gambit in a number of high-risk operations run by multiple U.S. agencies in the netherworld of the drug war in Colombia.
But unlike Vega, who today is alive and well, living in North America, Col. Gonzalez did not fair as well in that underworld.
Gonzalez eventually became the target of a U.S. indictment charging him with narco-trafficking, money laundering and murder. He 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 Bogotá, according to a January 2005 report in the St. Petersburg Times.
“The killer was allegedly another retired police captain, Pedro ‘Pretty Boy’ Pineda, alias ‘Pispis,’ according to a police investigation,” the newspaper reported.
Another Puzzle Piece
To date, it appears that no serious investigation has been launched by the Justice Department into the corruption allegations outlined in the Kent memo. The DEA initially described the allegations as “extremely serious” after the memo became public in January. Nine days later, the agency issued a statement describing them as “unfounded.”
Meanwhile, the watchdog agencies charged with investigating the corruption — DOJ’s OIG and DEA’s OPR — are sitting on a mound of evidence that supports the allegations, according to the Kent memo.
Despite the U.S. Justice Department’s apparent willingness to ignore the Kent memo and the charges of corruption in the DEA Bogotá office (possibly to avoid exposing the details of clandestine FBI and CIA operations in Colombia), evidence continues to surface that connects more of the dots in this unraveling mystery. The most recent example of that fact is the OPR’s final investigation report obtained by Narco News.
That document, along with the DEA PowerPoint presentation and the Arreguin memo, all are included as exhibits in litigation filed in federal court in Miami by Sandalio Gonzalez, a former high-ranking supervisor in DEA’s Miami office.
After Bogotá DEA chief Arreguin fired off his memo about the Vega “extortion scheme,” Gonzalez also was made a target of the ensuing criminal investigation launched against Tinsley, Castillo and Gonzalez’ immediate subordinate, Assistant Special Agent in Charge Ernesto Perez.
Gonzalez was the associate special agent in charge in Miami at the time of the Cali-Man operation, but was far up the chain of command from Tinsley and not mentioned in Arreguin’s memo. Gonzalez was targeted, he claims, in retaliation for raising questions about a separate incident of suspected corruption in the Miami DEA field office.
“They made me a target to retaliated against me,” Gonzalez says. “There is no document anywhere that says I did anything wrong, yet there I was, the target of a criminal investigation.”
The case that Gonzalez says inflamed DEA’s ire against him involved a large quantity of cocaine that turned up missing following a November 1998 search of a suburban Miami house by a joint DEA/Miami-Dade police team. In the aftermath of that search, evidence surfaced that indicated the law enforcers involved in the raid might have been involved in the disappearance of 10 kilos of cocaine.
After he began pushing for an investigation into the missing coke, Gonzalez found himself the target of a series of actions by his superiors that he claims were designed to intimidate, embarrass and ultimately silence him. Gonzalez subsequently filed Equal Employment Opportunity claims against his superiors for their actions and ultimately took his case into federal district court in Miami.
In addition to suffering retaliation and discrimination designed to “harass and humiliate (him) and slander his character and damage his reputation,” Gonzalez asserts in his lawsuit that in January 2001 he was transferred involuntarily to the less prestigious post of special agent in charge of the El Paso, Texas Field Division. Gonzalez also claims that he and other Hispanics at the DEA must contend, to this day, with a glass ceiling in terms of promotions due to the agency’s culture of discrimination.
“The prohibited actions cited … were undertaken by the Department of Justice-Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida personnel, all sanctioned and encouraged by management officials of the DEA, who also participated in the prohibited actions, and furthered an entrenched DEA policy or philosophy of racial profiling and retaliatory actions against minorities, specifically Hispanics,” Gonzalez alleges in his lawsuit.
The criminal case launched as a result of Arreguin’s memo against Gonzalez, Perez, Tinsley and Castillo went nowhere. That’s because Vega’s extortion scheme was not a criminal plot, but actually turned out to be part of a government-sanctioned cover story.
Vega collected up to $100 million from narcos by some estimates, though he claims it was far less, according to media reports. At any rate, when he was brought up on tax charges, the government found only about $1.5 million in his bank accounts. If he did haul in $100 million, or more, it is not clear what happened to the rest of the money.
Maybe the CIA or FBI can gather some intelligence on that question.
After the criminal probe in the Vega case was shut down, DEA’s OPR continued to pursue Gonzalez, Castillo, Tinsley and several of the agents under his command through an internal administrative investigation. However, that probe, too, turned up zilch on Gonzalez, and DEA was forced to issue him a letter of clearance in March 2003.
That internal investigation also led to agents Tinsley and Castillo — the latter Vega’s DEA handler — being suspended and later fired by DEA. They were reinstated in 2004 after a lengthy legal fight and are both still working as DEA agents today. In Tinsley’s case, a judge ordered the DEA to put him back on the job with back pay plus interest.
Gonzalez’ discrimination lawsuit against the DEA is currently pending in federal court in Miami, where the documents related to Cali-Man and the Vega investigation are filed as evidence of the DEA’s efforts to retaliate against the former high-ranking DEA agent.
Gonzalez was transferred to El Paso in 2001. He served as the chief of DEA’s field office in that border town until early 2005, when he decided to take an early retirement after again facing retaliation for attempting to address law enforcement corruption.
In that case, a U.S. Attorney in San Antonio, Johnny Sutton, and DEA Administrator Karen Tandy conspired to silence Gonzalez. That cover-up was hatched after Gonzalez informed Sutton that federal agents and a U.S. prosecutor in El Paso were complicit in allowing a dozen people to be tortured and murdered in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez — a drug-war tragedy that has become known as the House of Death.
Links to Documents
The Arreguin memo
Second memo on Vega case
DEA OPR final report of investigation
Letter of clearance
DEA PowerPoint presentation
The Kent memo
Click here for more from Narco News on “The Bogotá Connection”
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