Pubdate: Thu, 07 Dec 2000
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2000 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Contact:  200 Liberty Street, New York, NY 10281
Fax: (212) 416-2658
Author: Jose De Cordoba, Staff Reporter Of The Wall Street Journal


MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- For years, fashion photographer Baruch Vega jetted 
from Miami to Milan, shooting the industry's top models.

Few knew of Mr. Vega's off-the-books job, one that was far more lucrative 
- -- and dangerous. When he wasn't snapping collections for Versace or 
Valentino, Mr. Vega, a Colombian by birth and an engineer by training, was 
covertly meeting with some of the world's most-powerful drug traffickers, 
trying to persuade them to surrender to U.S. lawmen.

By most accounts, he was a star operative. "We regarded Vega as our 
principal weapon" in the battle against Colombia's drug cartels, says one 
former U.S. agent. "I think he was very successful," agrees retired cocaine 
kingpin Jorge Luis Ochoa, speaking by cell phone from Colombia, where he 
recently completed a six-year prison term. "A lot of people got into his 
program and cooperated with him, and he with them."

So many, in fact, that a meeting brokered by Mr. Vega last year in a Panama 
hotel drew more than two dozen drug dealers or their representatives, 
according to Mr. Vega and the lawyer for one of the suspects. Rattled by a 
new Colombian policy permitting traffickers to be extradited to the U.S., 
they met in marathon sessions with Drug Enforcement Administration agents, 
negotiating plea agreements that would potentially net them reduced jail 
terms in exchange for providing information on drug shipments by other 

But in March, Mr. Vega's secret life unraveled. As he was unpacking from a 
photo shoot, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation burst into his 
penthouse and arrested him on money-laundering and obstruction-of-justice 
charges. In a criminal complaint filed in Miami federal court, the 
government accused him of receiving million-dollar fees from drug lords, in 
return for promising to use his influence with U.S. agents -- and even 
bribes -- to help them with their legal problems. The name he gave the 
operation, according to the complaint: "The Narcotics Traffickers 
Rehabilitation Program."

Mr. Vega, a trim 53-year-old who favors black T-shirts, readily admits he 
accepted the traffickers' money, which he says totaled about $4 million, 
but which others familiar with his midwifery put at as much as $40 million. 
Mr. Vega says he took the payments as part of his undercover persona, and 
that his law-enforcement handlers knew it. He also denies paying any 
bribes. "The agents I worked with used to joke: 'Baruch, we trained to put 
people in jail, but with you, we get them out,' " he says.

However the case sorts out, Mr. Vega's story offers a rare look into the 
twilight world of the narcotics informant -- and into the questionable 
relationships and accommodations U.S. authorities sometimes enter into as 
they pursue the global war on drugs. Already, it is proving an acute 
embarrassment to the DEA, which has placed two agents on paid leave pending 
an internal investigation of their relationship with Mr. Vega. And it comes 
at a delicate time, just as the U.S. government begins to implement a $1.3 
billion program to fight the narcotics trade underpinning Colombia's bloody 
civil war.

Because of the highly secretive nature of undercover operations -- and law 
enforcement's reluctance to disclose the details of cooperation agreements 
with drug suspects -- it's impossible to answer the central question of 
whether traffickers who paid fees to Mr. Vega received special treatment 
from the U.S. justice system. No evidence has been presented that any 
agents accepted bribes. But what can be pieced together, through court 
documents and interviews with Mr. Vega and others involved in his career, 
suggests at the very least a highly unorthodox operation that took on a 
life of its own, fueled by piles of underworld cash.

Red Faces at DEA

In a brief statement, the DEA says it is "very concerned about the 
allegations ... concerning the conduct of certain DEA agents." It declines 
to comment further, citing a continuing investigation. The Justice 
Department also declines to comment.

Mr. Vega became a law enforcement go-between almost by accident. He was 
working in New York City in 1976 as a structural engineer when a neighbor 
and fellow Colombian was arrested in a police raid. The neighbor's wife 
tearfully sought Mr. Vega's help. Mr. Vega, who was studying law at night, 
had befriended a fellow student then working at the FBI. According to Mr. 
Vega, his friend said the case against the neighbor appeared weak, and 
charges would probably be dropped soon. They were.

The grateful neighbor, who was indeed involved in the cocaine trade, gave 
Mr. Vega $20,000 for what he believed was a successful intervention. Word 
of Mr. Vega's supposed clout began to spread, and he soon met many of the 
future capos of Colombia's drug cartels, most of whom who were then living 
in New York.

By 1978, Mr. Vega was dividing his time between New York and Miami, which 
was immersed in the violence and decadence later made famous by the 
television show "Miami Vice." "There were the beautiful people, cocaine, 
models, the fast life," says Sgt. June Hawkins, now a supervisor in the 
homicide unit of the Miami-Dade police department. There were also lots of 
unsolved murders involving Colombians with false names. "They were 
who-isits, not who-dunnits," says Sgt. Hawkins.

After finding Mr. Vega's name and number in the phone book of one victim, 
police discovered he was often able to identify the who-isits. At the time, 
Mr. Vega was married to the daughter of a real-estate tycoon who counted 
among his properties the Mutiny Hotel, then a favorite watering hole for 
many of the city's most-notorious characters.

A Yacht Named Abby Sue

Mr. Vega lived the Miami lifestyle, with a mansion off Miami Beach and a 
78-foot yacht named the Abby Sue. "He was a real charmer," remembers Sgt. 
Hawkins, then a member of Centac 26, a joint federal, state and local 
police antidrug task force. "A wheeler-dealer extraordinaire who could sell 
snow to the Eskimos."

Mr. Vega's charm was enhanced by his willingness to fund his own 
activities, a welcome contrast to most informants, whom police tend to view 
as money-grubbing low-lifes. Former Centac commander Raul Diaz says Mr. 
Vega aided in one of the unit's biggest cases ever, at great personal risk, 
and "didn't get any money from us for his help."

By 1985, the Miami police introduced Mr. Vega to the FBI, where agents 
determined to make use of his access to the highest echelons of Colombia's 
drug circles. Mr. Vega -- who prefers to be called a "mediator" rather than 
an informant -- was perfect for the job of double agent. He had turned a 
lifelong interest in photography into a career as a fashion photographer 
and producer of fashion shows. That gave him access to the beautiful women 
and glamorous social circles that dazzled drug traffickers.

Meanwhile, a former U.S. official says federal agents helped concoct Mr. 
Vega's cover: a jet-setting playboy who for a price would exert his 
influence with U.S. law-enforcement agencies. To aid Mr. Vega's deception, 
the former official says, agents would make leniency recommendations to 
prosecuting attorneys and judges in the cases of drug traffickers working 
with Mr. Vega. The result: Colombia's drug barons believed Mr. Vega could 
do anything.

Appearance of Impropriety

The official insists that defendants received no special favors, but that 
they truly rendered assistance in investigations and that prosecutors, 
using their broad discretion, argued for sentence reductions commensurate 
with the level of cooperation. This official and Mr. Vega add that the 
appearance of impropriety was part of the act -- that hardened criminals 
were much more likely to take the first step toward cooperating if they 
thought the U.S. system was rigged in their favor.

Nevertheless, a senior federal agent familiar with the case says such an 
arrangement would likely have violated Justice Department guidelines. 
Allowing Mr. Vega to represent himself as someone with influence over U.S. 
prosecutors and other officials "is totally unacceptable," he says. He adds 
that informants shouldn't be in a position to accept cash from drug 
traffickers without supervision -- although he allows that such oversight 
is hard to maintain when the case involves work in dangerous foreign countries.

Among the people Mr. Vega says he helped is Luis Javier Castano Ochoa, now 
a federal deputy in Colombia's Congress. In 1988, Mr. Castano Ochoa pleaded 
guilty to U.S. money laundering and drug charges and was sentenced to 16 
years. But three years later, the same Miami judge who sentenced him let 
him off with time served. Mr. Vega says he met with Mr. Castano Ochoa in 
prison, charging him $40,000 to help him work out a cooperation agreement 
with the government.

Reached by telephone in Bogota, Mr. Castano Ochoa says he never paid Mr. 
Vega a cent, but knew him as a lawyer who visited prison "to ask Colombians 
for money to advise us." Mr. Castano Ochoa says he never cooperated with 
the U.S. government, and says he was freed because the judge "realized 
there was nothing against me."

That the drug dealers were paying Mr. Vega for his purported services was 
an open secret among the U.S. agents working with him, says one former 
official. Indeed, some saw it as a plus, given their tight budget. "The 
drug traffickers paid him to be their representative," says the former 
official. "We didn't have to spend any government funds; we never could 
have afforded the level he was spending."

In any case, Mr. Vega's results seem to have outweighed any misgivings. In 
1987, when cartel hit men almost killed a former Colombian attorney 
general, Mr. Vega was able to learn the names of the would-be assassins, 
says the former official. In 1989, the FBI asked Mr. Vega to look into 
reports that drug dealers were planning to blow up President George Bush's 
plane during a trip to Colombia, says the former U.S. official. The 
feedback: The hit was off.

Playing a Horse Rancher

Mr. Vega even lived the life of a country squire, courtesy of the U.S. 
government, which set him up from 1988 to 1991 in a fancy ranch in Eustis, 
Fla., that had been confiscated from a drug dealer. Renamed "El Lago," the 
ranch boasted Paso Fino show horses, highly prized as status symbols among 
Colombian drug dealers. In fact, the operation was really an undercover 
sting conducted by a task force composed of members of the Internal Revenue 
Service, the FBI and the Lake County Police Department.

During those years, Mr. Vega entertained a long stream of drug capos at El 
Lago. "Drug dealers used to drop off their horses and say, 'Train them for 
me, Baruch,' " says an active U.S. law-enforcement official. The task force 
mostly gathered intelligence, and Mr. Vega helped induce an important money 
launderer to cooperate with U.S. authorities, says a federal 
law-enforcement official.

"Baruch is a brave man," says retired Lake County Police Capt. Fred 
Johnson. "I think the world of this guy."

He was also industrious. Under Mr. Vega's management, the El Lago facility 
became one of the largest Paso Fino ranches in the U.S. The ranch remained 
government property, but Mr. Vega says he paid for numerous capital 
improvements, including new corrals and stables. During this time, Mr. Vega 
says he did receive about $70,000 as his percentage of the haul from 
money-laundering stings, but added that he also continued to receive fees 
from drug traffickers.

In 1997, Mr. Vega's work came to the attention of David Tinsley, a senior 
supervisor at the DEA's Miami office. People who know Mr. Tinsley describe 
the 27-year veteran of law enforcement to be a hyperkinetic, dedicated and 
sometimes zealous agent. With Mr. Tinsley, an expert on drug-money 
laundering, Mr. Vega's work picked up considerably -- especially so after a 
Miami federal grand jury indicted 31 Colombian drug traffickers in October 
last year.

A Stampede of Colombians

Billed as an enormous blow to Colombia's drug cartels, the so-called 
Millennium indictment came at a time of great confusion in the narcotics 
trade. Colombia's congress had recently changed the law to allow drug 
traffickers to be extradited to the U.S., where they couldn't readily pay 
off judges. A stampede of Colombians arrived at Mr. Vega's door; some had 
already been indicted and others feared they could be next. All sought the 
sort of edge that Mr. Vega purported to offer.

"There were 200 drug dealers who wanted to surrender to American justice 
and make a deal," says Mr. Vega.

For the DEA's Mr. Tinsley, the panic was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity 
to strike a crushing blow against the drug trade, says Richard Sharpstein, 
his lawyer. "Tinsley believed they had the highest-level drug dealers in 
the world willing to cooperate at a level never seen before," says Mr. 

In the following months, Mr. Vega was constantly on an airplane, shuttling 
between Panama and Miami, brokering meetings between DEA agents and drug 
traffickers anxious to make their peace with the U.S., according to 
interviews with meeting participants and statements by lawyers for drug 
dealers submitted to the FBI. He was such a frequent flier that last 
November, he plunked down $250,000 toward the lease-purchase of a 
seven-passenger Hawker jet, Mr. Vega says.

Panamanian flight manifests show that on many occasions he was accompanied 
on his jet by DEA agent Larry Castillo of the agency's Miami office. Mr. 
Castillo has been placed on administrative leave with pay, pending the 
result of an internal DEA probe, along with Mr. Tinsley. Mr. Castillo's 
lawyer declines to comment.

The FBI complaint says that soon after the Millennium indictment, Mr. Vega 
orchestrated a meeting at Panama's Miramar Intercontinental Hotel between 
an alleged drug dealer and U.S. agents. "Vega told the CW [confidential 
witness] that he had U.S. officials in the hotel room next door and 
arranged for the CW to meet with them. The CW then met with four DEA agents 
and a Miami police officer."

During the meeting, the confidential witness -- whom Mr. Vega and several 
other individuals familiar with the case say is Carlos Ramon, an alleged 
drug trafficker known as "the Doctor" -- discussed with the agents the 
procedures for his possible surrender, the complaint says.

Mr. Ramon, under indictment in Miami for conspiracy to import and 
distribute cocaine, wasn't alone. More than two dozen Colombian traffickers 
or their representatives were locked in similar marathon meetings in a 
suite of rooms rented by Mr. Vega on various floors of the Miramar, 
according to meeting participants.

Four months later, Mr. Ramon surrendered to authorities in Miami, but only 
after a farewell dinner at the trendy China Grill, for which Mr. Vega says 
he picked up the $1,000 tab. After spending a month in jail, Mr. Ramon, who 
is cooperating with U.S. authorities, posted bail. He now lives in Miami 
Beach's luxury Portofino Tower, according to court papers.

Federal investigators are now trying to trace the path of the money Mr. 
Vega generated from traffickers. Mr. Vega says more than $5 million wound 
up with Daniel Forman, a well-respected Miami defense lawyer, as legal fees 
to represent Mr. Ramon and 18 other accused traffickers.

Mr. Forman appears to have played an important role in Mr. Vega's final 
months as an informant. The defense attorney was brought into the case at 
the insistence of the DEA's Mr. Tinsley, who needed someone who would move 
the plea negotiations along without raising a lot of objections, according 
to Mr. Vega. The informant says he quickly became "50-50 partners" with the 
defense attorney, with Mr. Vega herding in clients and splitting the fees 
with Mr. Forman. Flight manifests show that Mr. Forman flew several times 
from Panama to Florida in the company of Messrs. Vega and Castillo.

Mr. Forman, in an e-mail, strongly denied that Mr. Vega relayed legal fees 
to him, adding that "Mr. Vega is not, and has never been, my partner in any 
sense of the word." He declines to comment on his clients, except to say 
that the government didn't attempt to interfere with his representation of 

Mr. Tinsley's lawyer, Mr. Sharpstein, says his client brought Mr. Forman 
into the case because he had worked with Mr. Forman when the latter was a 
federal prosecutor and then as a defense attorney. "He trusts Forman and 
still believes in him," says Mr. Sharpstein.

As for the financial arrangements, Mr. Sharpstein says Mr. Tinsley had no 
idea Mr. Vega was receiving money from traffickers, and wouldn't have 
allowed it had he known. Mr. Tinsley's understanding was that Mr. Vega 
would receive a percentage of the value of assets seized by law 
enforcement, a more-traditional method of compensating informants, says Mr. 
Sharpstein. "Unfortunately," he adds, "it's not in writing."

Apart from the controversy over money, Mr. Vega's wheeling and dealing 
caused rising tension in the law-enforcement community. Under a 10-year-old 
program, all cooperation agreements with major drug traffickers are 
supposed to be cleared through the Justice Department's secretive "Blitz 
Committee" to ensure that criminals don't pit one agency or prosecutor 
against another in search of the best deal. A senior committee member 
declines to comment on Mr. Vega.

But federal agents outside Mr. Tinsley's small DEA group grew increasingly 
upset as Mr. Vega breezed through their turf. One was Ed Kacerosky, a 
driven and highly decorated U.S. Customs agent known for his work leading 
to the 1997 indictment of the Cali cocaine cartel.

$60 Million for Visas

Now a supervisor in the agency's Miami office, Mr. Kacerosky didn't take it 
well when Mr. Vega tried to help the daughter of late Cali drug lord Jose 
Santacruz obtain U.S. resident visas for her family. At a meeting brokered 
by Mr. Vega and attended by Mr. Kacerosky and other U.S. officials, Sandra 
Santacruz offered to give the U.S. half of some $120 million her family 
held in accounts around the world in exchange for the visas, say U.S. 
officials. The U.S. turned down the offer.

Last year, Mr. Kacerosky became enraged upon learning that Mr. Vega had 
approached Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, a former leader of the Cali cartel, 
in a Colombian prison. People familiar with the matter say Mr. Vega offered 
to help Mr. Rodriguez Orejuela's son William -- under indictment in Miami 
on U.S. drug charges -- in return for information on possible high-level 
Colombian police corruption.

Mr. Kacerosky, these people say, blames William Rodriguez for the brutal 
1995 torture and killing of the wife of a key informant. After the prison 
meeting, these people say, Mr. Kacerosky wrote an eight-page memo to his 
superiors sparking the investigation of Mr. Vega.

Mr. Vega's activities also played into a growing feud between the DEA's 
Bogota detachment and Mr. Tinsley's Miami-based crew. The Colombia-based 
agents largely responsible for last year's Millennium indictment were 
unhappy that the alleged criminals they had long been stalking were working 
out deals with Miami-based agents appearing to poach on their turf with Mr. 
Vega's help.

Hearing on Oct. 21, 1999, that Bogota-based DEA agents were heading for 
Panama to crash the Miramar dealer summit, Mr. Vega says he and Mr. Tinsley 
cleared the traffickers out of the hotel for fear of their arrest.

"There's a common distrust between DEA Bogota and DEA Miami," says Mr. 
Sharpstein, Mr. Tinsley's lawyer. "The Bogota agents were jealous of Miami 
agents racking up these cases."

Today, Mr. Vega is officially off limits to U.S. law enforcement. When the 
FBI charged him in March, authorities froze a Miami bank account in his 
name containing $1.5 million. Though most condemn Mr. Vega's alleged 
illegal enrichment, some agents believe his fall is undeserved after such a 
long career in a world whose common coin is often a violent death.

As fear and controversy swirl around him, Mr. Vega sits in his Miami Beach 
penthouse, wearing an ankle monitoring device and fielding phone calls from 
models in Greece and designers in Paris. "I will be in Miami for the rest 
of the season. Same place, same apartment," he tells a model who calls to 
commiserate. "I have a bunch of pictures for you. They used the one with 
the bathing suit. It looks very nice."
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