OCCRP: How Cartel Bosses are Playing the U.S. Justice System

Bringing drug kingpins to face justice in the U.S. has long been seen as a key part of Washington’s anti-cartel arsenal. Behind the showy press conferences for bosses like El Chapo, experts say, lies a cottage industry of expensive lawyers and opportunistic traffickers looking for a way out.

Drug traffickers are being sent north by the hundreds, a major uptick from the early years of the War on Drugs. But many use questionable plea deals to secure reduced sentences.

OCCRP examined the cases of 37 high-level Mexican and Colombian traffickers, and found that 23 were shown to have spent 10 years or less in U.S. custody. Just two received life sentences.

While the U.S. says that treating traffickers leniently in exchange for cooperation can bring down criminal groups, others say the process denies justice to the victims of cartel violence.

Nearly 13 years and 1,300 miles removed from the violent streets of Medellín, Carlos Mario Aguilar has rebuilt his life in South Florida. The alleged Colombian crime boss known by the alias “Rogelio” has escaped his blood-soaked past, to enjoy life in a luxurious gated community and a job at a logistics company.

While the families of cartel victims seldom see justice served, Rogelio is a free man thanks to the very thing Colombian drug traffickers once feared most: facing American justice.

Drug lord Pablo Escobar famously said he would “prefer a tomb in Colombia than a jail in the United States,” but surrender and extradition are now seen by some savvy, lawyered-up cartel bosses as an expedited pass to freedom.

With President Richard Nixon’s launch of the War on Drugs now marking its 50th anniversary, Rogelio’s case offers a stark reminder that one key pillar of U.S. anti-drug policy has morphed into something unrecognizable from its original intent.

The so-called “kingpin strategy,” which took shape in the 1990s, sought to remove cartel leaders from their criminal networks, trying to hold them accountable in the U.S. since they seldom were punished at home.

Yet today the number of figures being sent north has ballooned, and traffickers have learned how to game the process, preserving some of their fortune for their families while getting lighter sentences. Some forfeited money offsets the costs of U.S. anti-drug efforts, but the home countries often see little return.

This investigation is part of An Addictive War, a collaborative cross-border journalism project on the paradoxes left by 50 years of U.S. drug policy in Latin America. It was led by the Latin American Center for Journalistic Investigation (CLIP) with participation from Dromómanos, Ponte Jornalismo (Brazil), Cerosetenta (Colombia), El Faro (El Salvador), El Universal and Quinto Elemento Lab (Mexico), IDL-Reporteros (Peru), the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Verdad Abierta (Colombia), and El Nuevo Herald/Miami Herald (United States).

An investigation by OCCRP and partners, using data collected in Colombia and Mexico, shows that extradition has become a game often stacked in favor of well-connected criminals. Meanwhile, the drug trade remains intact and thriving.

OCCRP compiled a sample of 37 separate extradition cases of mid- to top-level Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers for the period 2005-2015, data which showed how some of the world’s biggest cartel operatives have been treated sympathetically Of those 37 cases, 23 spent or will have spent 10 years or less in U.S. custody. Just two were given life sentences. The shortest periods of detention ranged from one to three years, with one high-ranking defendant spending just eight months behind bars before being deported back to Colombia for another short stint in prison.

The end result of such leniency is that falling into the hands of the Americans — decades after Escobar famously went to war with the Colombian state to avoid that very fate — is no longer something many drug lords wish to elude at all costs. Instead of waiting for the net to close, many now choose to go quietly and cooperate with U.S. authorities by providing information on their allies and enemies. Some even circumvent the extradition process entirely, surrendering in third countries and striking their own backroom deals with the U.S.

“They picked up on the formula, especially the bigger guys,” said David Zapp, a New York defense lawyer who has represented many top-level traffickers. “The word goes out that if you cooperate and help Team America, you will do very well.”

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Former high-level law enforcement officials insist that the practice of giving more lenient sentences to cooperators, even some suspected of atrocities in their home countries, can help dismantle criminal groups.

“It’s crucial, it’s critical, you could not do it without cooperation,” said Michael Nadler, a former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of Florida.

“They picked up on the formula, especially the bigger guys. The word goes out that if you cooperate and help Team America, you will do very well.”

– David Zapp

New York-based defense lawyer

But many veterans of the five-decade War on Drugs say extradition and other strategies have fallen short, as cartels have evolved into multi-layered organizations that are no longer centralized. They also traffic women, smuggle other goods, extort businesses and even fund illicit gold mines.

“We destroy illicit crops, destroy laboratories, seize precursor chemicals, seize large tons of drugs,” said Wilson Martinez, a former Colombian deputy attorney general. “But we remain at the same point.”

An ‘Office’ Man Changes Jobs

At a luxurious gated community in Boca Raton, parents in BMWs and sports cars wait outside the adjoining elementary school to pick up their children. There’s little to hint that the notorious Carlos Mario Aguilar, alias Rogelio, lived for a number of years in one of the nearby million-dollar homes.

A corrupted criminal investigator from the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office’s Technical Investigations Team, known by the Spanish acronym CTI, Rogelio worked in the 1990s and 2000s with the Oficina de Envigado (the Envigado Office), the hit squad and debt collection agency of Medellín overlord Diego Murillo, alias Don Berna. During this time, Rogelio also worked with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, a 30,000-strong paramilitary death squad which partnered with the Oficina.

“Rogelio is very powerful and nobody wants to mess with him,” said one human rights defender in Medellín, asking for anonymity because the Oficina and the AUC are known to have disappeared hundreds of victims. “That fear remains.”

When Don Berna was extradited to the U.S. in May 2008, Colombian government documents show Rogelio was next in line to head the Oficina. The U.S. Justice Department says the crime group continues to specialize in “money laundering, extortion, and murder for hire.”

Rogelio’s time at the top of Medellín’s underworld didn’t last long, but that decision was his. Later in 2008 he himself surrendered to the U.S., having made a secret deal to cooperate.

This was no two-way agreement between the United States and Colombia, one source with inside knowledge of the case said. The cartel leader first made his way to Argentina, then Panama, where he took a commercial flight to the U.S. and surrendered without the knowledge of Colombian authorities.

“We did everything behind their back because we didn’t trust them,” the source said, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

A leader in the feared Oficina de Envigado, Rogelio also had close ties to the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries, with whom the Oficina was partnered.

Court documents from Colombia show that in 2005, as part of a government plan which saw combatants lay down arms in return for leniency, he stood down as a leading member of the Héroes de Granada, an AUC bloc led by his alleged criminal godfather Don Berna.

The Héroes de Granada, an urban wing of the mostly rural AUC, fought territorial wars against other paramilitary groups and leftwing guerrillas in the Medellin Valley, battling for control of drug trafficking and criminal networks.

The Héroes de Granada were involved in Operation Orion, a 2002 incursion which saw paramilitaries and the Colombian state join forces to fight leftist guerillas in a besieged Medellīn neighbourhood. The operation left hundreds of victims in its wake.

In total the Héroes de Granada were accused of more than 3,400 crimes in 29 municipalities across Colombia’s Antioquia department. The group was also linked by Colombian authorities to numerous multi-ton cocaine shipments and widespread extortion rackets.

By 2015, records show, Rogelio had been released from an American prison after serving barely more than seven years. His case file has remained a deep secret, sealed by a judge. Authorities did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Rogelio’s lenient treatment is not an anomaly, according to Michael S. Vigil, former chief of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Vigil said his case showed the trade-offs U.S. authorities often make after a key target is secured.

“The agreement, for example, [was] that he wasn’t going to do a lot of time if he cooperated — which obviously he did — and the fact that he would be allowed to remain in the United States,” said Vigil, who retired in 2004 and remains active as a consultant. Vigil added that “sending him back to Colombia would be an automatic death sentence.”

These sorts of deals are necessary, said Bonnie S. Klapper, a former federal prosecutor who now defends accused traffickers.

“If you are going to ‘cooperate’ someone, you are going to have to live up to your word and make sure that person doesn’t have to go back to their country and likely get killed,” she told OCCRP.

Far from the Medellín drug war he oversaw, Rogelio today appears to be keeping his head down in South Florida.

Legal documents obtained by OCCRP show he reported working as a service assistant at a trucking company, earning under $50,000 a year. He has a credit card from a major lender, a Florida driver’s license, and had lived at the plush Boca Raton residence for a number of years after his release from prison.

Rogelio owes much to his sister, Cruz Elena Aguilar, sources said. She was a Colombian prosecutor in the 1990s who later moved to the U.S. Before leaving, she had become embroiled in a public scandal over her perceived closeness to the people she was meant to be investigating, some of which was captured on video, according to Colombian media reports.

In a broadcast on Colombia’s W Radio, Cruz Elena admitted helping the Medellín drug lord Don Berna — her brother’s one-time boss — find an American lawyer. American legal sources acknowledge that Cruz Elena has worked as a facilitator for traffickers who have been captured and face extradition, or wish to surrender.

While Cruz Elena declined requests for comment, the prosecutor-turned-defense attorney Klapper offered a sympathetic view, insisting Cruz Elena’s work is above board.

“I trust her completely. I have never seen her cross the line, and I would not be working with her if this were the case,” said Klapper, who helped break up Colombia’s Norte del Valle Cartel. “No case is worth my reputation.”

Today, Cruz Elena works as an American paralegal. Her U.S.-raised daughter, Daniela Posada, is a member of the Florida Bar and has worked defense cases involving high-profile traffickers, including Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias “El Loco,” who lorded over Colombia’s eastern plains before his capture in 2012.

Carlos Mario Aguilar, aka Rogelio, did not answer requests for comment, made by email and via legal channels.

Extraditing the ‘Friend Killer’

During the 2000-2006 presidency of Vicente Fox, the Mexican government repeatedly balked at extraditing traffickers to the United States because of the possibility that defendants could face the death penalty, outlawed under Mexico’s constitution.

Felipe Calderón succeeded Fox in 2006 and declared his own war on drug trafficking. By 2008, he had partnered with the U.S. on the Merida Initiative, a transnational security deal aimed at “interdicting drugs, stopping money laundering, reducing production, and dismantling criminal organizations.”

As Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2007 and 2013, Arturo Sarukhan signed off on numerous extraditions as part of a strategy to remove capos from cartels whose tentacles extended into Mexican prisons.

“Structural weaknesses and corruption in Mexico’s penitentiary system allowed them to continue operating from jail,” Sarukhan said in an interview in Washington, D.C. “By extraditing them, you degraded that capability. I’d rather have them up here.”

In a gesture to show Mexico took the Merida Initiative seriously, Calderón extradited more than a dozen traffickers in a single swoop before the deal was even inked. These included Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, who headed Mexico’s notorious Gulf Cartel, which sprung from the eastern border state of Tamaulipas.

Cárdenas earned the nickname “El Mata Amigos,” or “The Friend Killer,” for allegedly murdering a cartel partner. He created the brutal Los Zetas, the Gulf Cartel’s military-trained enforcement wing. Looking past the Gulf Cartel’s trail of violence, the U.S. government decided to negotiate.

In exchange for relevant information, Cárdenas was extradited in 2007. In 2010 he was sentenced to a 25-year term and forfeited $50 million in money and property. He’s set to be released in 2024.

Not only did Cárdenas enjoy lenient treatment, his family kept its privileged lifestyle in Mexico. His daughters’ social-media photos later showed trips on private jets to foreign countries. In 2018, Cárdenas’ son was arrested for brandishing a gun at a Texas bar while waving a U.S. District Attorney’s badge.

Word that Osiel, after extradition, snitched on colleagues led the Zetas to break off from the Gulf Cartel, with catastrophic consequences.

“That created the fracture of the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, created more violence and this violence spread throughout Mexico,” said Arturo Fontes, a security consultant who retired after 28 years in the FBI combating cartels. “And a lot of people died on both sides of the border.”

That view was seconded by Mexican security expert Alejandro Hope, who argued the Gulf Cartel leader’s extradition had a “detonating” effect that sparked the flames of violence.

The saga of the Arellano Felix clan, also known as the Tijuana Cartel depicted in the hit Netflix series Narcos, highlights the tradeoff between cooperation and leniency.

The exact details of Cárdenas case — much like the case of the Colombian, Rogelio — remain largely a mystery.

Felix Jimenez, a former DEA official who led the New York office, insisted that plea deals such as the one extended to the Gulf Cartel leader have helped weaken criminal organizations.

Extradition has been an “extremely useful strategy” against traffickers who are “terrified” of being sent north, Jimenez said, and thus offer insider information for reduced sentences.

A U.S. lawyer who represents both Cárdenas and his son Osiel, Jr., told OCCRP by email that the family doesn’t respond to media questions.

Even if Mexico wanted to build a case at home against traffickers such as Cárdenas, U.S. law enforcement is unlikely to share what they’ve gotten in exchange for leniency, said Gerardo Rodríguez Sánchez Lara, a Mexican security analyst.

Karina Shedrofsky (OCCRP ID), Will Neal (OCCRP), and Laura Sánchez Ley contributed reporting.