Claims of Collaboration with Drug Traffickers and Paramilitaries Sting the Country’s DAS Security Service and Support Allegations of DEA Corruption Published in Narco News
Though it has barely registered in the U.S. press, a national scandal is currently unfolding in Colombia, where a jailed high official of the Administrative Department for Security (DAS, in its Spanish initials) has been speaking freely with journalists about the extensive collaboration between the secret police agency and right-wing paramilitary groups.
Rafael García lost his post as DAS’ information technology chief after being charged with taking bribes from rightwing paramilitaries and narcos (often, one and the same). He now claims that DAS has been working for years, at least since Uribe’s 2002 election, in conjunction with the paras and their narco allies, sharing documents and intelligence to help kill and intimidate activists and unionists, help powerful drug traffickers avoid prosecution and murder informants. And investigative journalists in Colombia have verified and shed more light on a number of these claims.
Sound familiar? Narco News for the past four months has been uncovering a web of corruption linking the U.S.’s own DEA agents and other law enforcement personnel with drug traffickers and paramilitaries in Colombia. The new allegations about paramilitary and narco infiltration of the DAS make the “Kent Memo” (the internal Justice Department document claiming corruption in the DEA’s Bogotá office) all the more believable. They give a picture of a war on “drugs and terror” in Colombia that is corrupt to the core, and in which the most powerful narcos are seasoned experts at working with the same law enforcement entities charged with bringing them down.
Jorge Noguera on the cover of Cambio magazine.
The DAS is a strange beast, jumping in to many roles that in most countries would be handled by several different agencies. It handles immigration and tourist visas in the airports, provides security to important political figures, does intelligence work for the ongoing civil war (occasionally combating rebels alongside the army), and functions as a secret police force that can arrest and interrogate anyone deemed to be a security threat. What narco with half a brain wouldn’t try to infiltrate an organization that holds the keys to so many doors?
The DAS does not fall under any justice department but rather is directly controlled by the president’s office. It is small wonder, then, that such revelations about the DAS would surface under the watch of Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the narcopresidente himself. The scandal has been brewing since last fall, when a DAS chief — who received his post shortly after Uribe took office — resigned after the Bogotá newspaper El Tiempo discovered some tapes that let the cat out of the bag. As Ramón Acevedo reported for Narco News in November:
After many years of international and national pressure to abide by international human rights, the Colombian government continues to use the military and paramilitary “death squads” as main weapons against the civilian population and political opposition. For decades, the Colombian military and their paramilitary allies have enjoyed a high level of impunity from judicial processes. Most recently, on October 23rd the head of Colombia’s secret police (DAS), Jorge Noguera, resigned after the discovery of tapes discussing the agency’s alleged plans to give intelligence information to the paramilitaries. In addition, the paramilitaries have boasted many times of how they control more than 35 percent of the Colombian congress.
Until this scandal broke, Noguera had been living with his family in a luxury Bogotá penthouse that the DNE (Colombia’s drug control administration) had seized from a drug trafficker and turned over to him, with the DAS footing the bill for the hundreds of dollars a month in administration and utilities, according to Cambio magazine. The Colombian government claims it is now investigating Noguera, but Uribe quickly took him out of the spotlight by whisking him away to work at the Colombian consulate in Milan, Italy.
Semana magazine, one of the two major glossy newsmagazines in Colombia along with Cambio, published an extensive interview earlier this month with Rafael García. García spoke mainly of “Jorge 40,” one of the most powerful paramilitary chiefs in the country (and under indictment for drug trafficking in the U.S.). Semana’s journalists asked who else wielded influence over the spy agency.
SEMANA: Apart from paramilitary groups, was there also infiltration from and collaboration with known narco-traffickers?
R.G.: Giancarlo (Auqué, a former DAS intelligence director) and Jorge Norguera passed privileged information to Diego Montoya, and the idea wasn’t for him to hide but to warn him that there was a snitch in his organization who was reporting his location. Giancarlo himself told me this while he was working as intelligence director. Giancarlo told me that an intelligence report had arrived that said “Don Diego” was being pursued around the Cimitarra valley, and that we had to find a way to warn him because there was a snitch inside of his organization. If it was someone from the DAS, the police or the attorney general’s office, I don’t know. But we had to help him so that he could locate the informant. Jorge Noguera used Jimmy Nassar (one of his advisors) as his messenger because it was Nasser who had direct relations with the North Valley Cartel.
Wílber Alirio Varela
Photo: State Department
García is not the only one who has talked. DAS sub-director José Miguel Narváez turned on his boss, Noguera, last fall and was one of the main forces behind Noguera’s downfall. In September, Carlos Moreno, an agent who claimed he had been fired unfairly came to complain to Narváez, who recorded their conversation. Cambio obtained a copy of the recording and revealed its contents two weeks ago. According to that story:
The conversation’s content is hair-raising, and refers to extrajudicial killings apparently ordered by DAS’ Intelligence Directorate, deaths of informants that were no longer useful or represented some danger because they had too much information; theft of files from the Fiscalía (attorney general’s office) which mentioned DAS officials, such as files on drug trafficker Wílber Alirio Varela, alias “Jabón,” and the theft of reports from intelligence files on paramilitary boss Martín Llanos in return for huge payments.
Moreno says on tape that he personally stole files from the Fiscalía and believes that Varela requested this.
Damage Control: Attacking the Messenger
With just weeks to go in Colombia’s presidential race, in which Uribe stands for reelection on May 28, the DAS scandal threatens to tarnish his golden-boy image and dent his popularity, often seen by supporters and demoralized opponents as invincible.
Former DAS information chief Rafael García, for one, doesn’t buy Uribe’s cries of innocence. From his interview with Semana:
SEMANA: On several occasions you accompanied Noguera to the Palacio de Nariño (Colombia’s White House). How much did President Álvaro Uribe know about all this?
RG: I can’t answer that for you. I will tell the Fiscalía or a foreign government after I know my family is protected.
What I would say to the public is, could it be that (Peruvian president) Fujimori didn’t know what Vladimiro Montesinos was doing? I don’t know how someone could have done so many things without his superior finding out. What I am saying is the truth. If I have to pay with my life for daring to tell the truth, I will assume the consequences.
Predictably, both Noguera and Uribe have responded by lashing out at their critics in the press. Instead of any substantial reply to their questions or response to García’s claims, Cambio’s reporters received these answers when they contacted Noguera by phone at his bunker in Milan:
“I don’t care what a delinquent like Rafael García says about me.”
“García is capable of selling his own mother to get away with what he’s done. His claims are the product of an old grudge.”
“His words should have the same credibility as Pablo Escobar’s did in his time.”
“For a long time I have asked the Fiscalía to take my statement in order to definitively close this chapter.”
“I don’t trust the journalists of Colombia because they have done me a lot of damage. They publish whatever they want.”
Intimidating the press is certainly nothing new to DAS, though it is usually done more subtly. Last June, journalist and friend of Narco News César Jérez of Prensa Rural, who with his all-volunteer staff fearlessly reports on rural struggles in Colombia, especially around the paramilitary-infested oil town of Barrancabermeja and the Cimitarra valley, found himself being followed through the streets of that city by DAS agents.
And President Uribe has lived up to his reputation of total intolerance toward any criticism from civil society. In a recent interview with RCN radio, he said:
…You see, I am very respectful of the media and never take any action against them. But the media cannot hope to, they have to decide if they are serious or if they practice yellow journalism. If they are media that are part of a the democratic rule of law, or if they are media that stand in for the justice system. If they are media that respect instructions and exercise their right to the free press within those, or if they stand in for the justice system. If they are media that respect the Constitution, that respect people’s basic rights such as the right to their own dignity, or if they are media that commit any act of responsibility just to make sales.
The thing is that they are making hasty accusations here. Who knows what kind of political manipulation is behind journalism to create scandals or produce yellow journalism. These media outlets, like the one you cite [referring to Semana magazine], to make money, without daring to look at the other side, take people down and condemn them without even listening to them. They attack the good names of people and institutions if they feel like it, without listening to them…
This is Uribe’s favorite tactic: to separate his critics, be they human rights groups or commercial journalists, into “bad guys” and “good guys.” It reminds one of Joe McCarthy’s flailing in the face of Ed Murrow’s journalism, answering serious charges supported by evidence with accusations of subversion and communism.
That arrogant contempt for the press, for honest, independent investigation of elected officials, was eventually McCarthy’s downfall.
Overlap with Alleged DEA Corruption
Drug warriors will point to cases such as this one as proof that the U.S. needs to be involved in Colombia, as a sort of check to the corruption of local law enforcement. But the DAS is not the only law enforcement agency now accused of outing informants to help drug-trafficking allies.
Among the claims in the Kent memo is the allegation that corrupt Bogotá DEA agents leaked the name of one of their informants as part of their work protecting an unnamed narco-trafficker. The informant, former North Valley Cartel leader Jose Nelson Urrego, was trying to help Miami DEA agents investigate the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and their supposed involvement in the drug trade. But the Bogotá agents put as many obstacles in the Miami agents’ path as possible, eventually revealing him as an informant. As Bill Conroy reported in February:
Not only was Urrego in a position to reveal intimate details about the operations of Colombian drug traffickers, including possibly any links they might have to the allegedly corrupt DEA agents in Colombia, but he also could have opened up a can of worms with respect to narco-financing of Colombian political candidates.
In any event, the efforts by Fields and his fellow DEA agents in Miami to bring Urrego in-house as an informant came to an abrupt end, according to the Kent memo, when someone sent a document to Urrego containing confidential DEA information that revealed he was cooperating with the DEA. Whoever sent this document to Urrego was essentially threatening Urrego’s life, as being pointed out as a DEA collaborator can be a death sentence in the drug underworld.
A narco-trafficker alleged to be the source of that fax later took a lie detector test and told investigators he had received internal documents from DEA agents. Though he passed the polygraph, sources told Conroy, the results were covered up.
Other informants for the Florida agents also mysteriously ended up dead after running up against the allegedly corrupt Bogotá agents. From Conroy’s original story:
During the course of an investigation into a Colombian narco-trafficking operation, a group of DEA agents in Florida had zeroed in on several targets, with the help of several Colombian informants. Once the targets were identified as being part of the drug ring, they began to cooperate with the Florida-based agents.
“… They made startling revelations concerning DEA agents in Bogotá,” Kent writes. “They alleged that they were assisted in their narcotics activities by the [Bogotá] agents. Specifically, they alleged that the agents provided them with information on investigations and other law enforcement activities in Colombia.”
The traffickers eventually gave the Florida agents copies of confidential DEA reports, which the Bogotá agents allegedly had handed over to the traffickers. After the Florida agents turned these documents over to the OPR and OIG, one of them was put on “administrative leave” — the first sign that a cover-up was underway.
While the Florida agent was out on leave, the Bogotá agents set up a meeting with one of the informants.
“As the informant left that meeting, he was murdered,” Kent states. “Other informants … who also worked with the DEA group in Florida were also murdered. Each murder was preceded by a request for their identity by an agent in Bogotá.”
Beyond the similarity in the DEA and DAS agents’ alleged behavior — both outing informants to protect narcos — the names of the narco-traffickers involved also overlap.
David Tinsley, a supervisor with the DEA’s Miami office, oversaw “Operation Cali-Man,” and a follow-up operation called “Rainmaker.” Both were undercover operations targeting Colombian drug traffickers. Rainmaker, though, focused in part on corrupt Colombian law enforcers. It was just when Cali-Man was wrapping up and Rainmaker was beginning that Bogotá agents, including Leo Arreguin who was at the time in charge of the DEA’s Bogotá office, complained to headquarters about the operations and eventually convinced Washington to shut them down and place Tinsley on administrative leave. (Arreguin accused Tinsley of corruption involving one of his informants, Baruch Vega.) Several of the major traffickers that Tinsley had made cases against in Cali-Man were not indicted or prosecuted for years due to the charges against him.
A source in the DEA familiar with operations Cali-Man and Rainmaker has confirmed to Narco News that the same North Valley Cartel leaders that infiltrated the DAS — Diego Montoya and Wílber Varela — were Tinsley’s targets with Cali-Man. Conroy’s investigations have suggested that the Bogotá agents did everything possible to shut down Rainmaker, Cali-Man and other operations run by the Florida office, either to protect allies in organized crime or to protect themselves from the revelation of embarrassing information.
Former FBI, DEA and CIA informant Baruch Vega told Narco News that Wílber Varela and Diego Montoya were both players in what he calls the “Devil’s Cartel.” As Bill Conroy reported on March 18:
Vega says the many pieces of this dark mystery make it appear very complicated to unravel.
“But, if they are lined up in the right way, it becomes easy to understand,” he adds. “It’s a matter of putting the right players in the right place.”
The way things lined up, according to Vega, involved what amounts to the perfect narco-trafficking organization, which he describes as the “Devil’s Cartel.”
This so-called Devil’s Cartel was an alliance of North Valley traffickers, many of them former Colombian National Police officials, along with active members of the Colombian National Police under the direction of a corrupt Colombian National Police colonel named Danilo Gonzalez.
Paramilitary forces under the leadership of Carlos Castaño, who headed the murderous United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (the AUC), provided the muscle and protection for this Devil’s Cartel and its operations, Vega contends.
The U.S. government indicted Castaño in 2002 on narco-trafficking charges. Two years later, Castaño disappeared, after a reported attempt on his life in Colombia. He is presumed dead, although his body was never found.
The intelligence arm of this Devil’s Cartel, Vega claims, was composed of corrupt U.S. federal agents with DEA and U.S. Customs.
Read the full story for more background on Vega. Not all of his claims can be independently verified, but as more and more comes out about the DAS scandal, what Vega says sounds more and more plausible.
It’s also difficult to imagine that DEA and CIA agents in Colombia haven’t worked with Noguera and other DAS officials named in the scandal at some point. In fact, early in the tape obtained by Cambio, Carlos Moreno, the fired DAS agent, refers to a CIA agent that worked with alleged DAS hitmen:
AGENT THAT ACCOMPANIED MORENO: Look, doctor (Narváez), the thing is that they had this boy here, Carlos… as a hit man. Ariza [then chief of intellegence] told him that he had to do it. They bought him the motorcycle, the gun, all that, and they went around knocking people off, throwing them (in the garbage). That’s the truth.
MORENO: Yes, that is the truth, doctor.
JOSÉ MIGUEL NARVÁEZ: But how did it work? Tell me more…
MORENO: When Enrique Ariza was approved as chief of intelligence, they called me to have me meet with some guys that are in a little group that works with Scott. I know Scott, he’s from the CIA. At that time there was a group forming, out of DAS people themselves, to do “limpieza” [literally, “cleansing”]. Many times, I did the job of killing informants. They ordered me to do it, so I did it.
OTHER AGENT: Yes, he has done this for the institution… They are looking for him in order to kill him, and he doesn’t deserve to be left out in the cold, doctor…
No further information has come out regarding this supposed CIA agent. Nor is it clear in the transcript what exactly is meant by “cleansing” — whether this meant cleansing the DAS of agents that were somehow problematic, or something more sinister such as eliminating informants and witnesses.
Narco News continues to dig deeper into the DEA and other U.S. agencies’ corruption and involvement with narco-traffickers, trying to flesh out the connections, separate the fact from the fiction, the truth from the spin. Hopefully, the few honest reporters among the Colombian media — usually as bought and sold as their U.S. counterparts — will continue to reveal the depths to which the DAS and other Colombian state entities have sunk. Uribe may well survive this scandal and win his reelection… with the usual help from his DAS, narco and paramilitary allies, along with his friends in Washington. Either way, how much longer will people in Colombia and the U.S. put up with life in the crossfire of a war on drugs in which the two sides have become so indistinguishable?
By Dan Feder
April 29, 2006