Drug cartel kingpins are gaming the U.S. justice system and getting away with murder

Dec 15, 2021

By Antonio Maria Delgado , Brian Fitzpatrick, Kevin G. Hall, Lilia Saúl Rodriguez, Jay Weaver, and Verdad Abierta

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.

Carlos Mario Aguilar, alias Rogelio

While the families of cartel victims seldom see justice served, Rogelio is a free man thanks to the very thing Colombian kingpins 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 strategy of U.S. anti-drug policy has morphed into something unrecognizable from its original intent.

Early efforts were focused on disrupting drug distribution in the United States, and eventually evolved into removing all-powerful cartel bosses from their key networks, trying to hold them accountable in the United States since they often enjoyed impunity at home.

Yet today traffickers have learned how to game this 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.

An investigation by OCCRP and partners, including the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald, 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 that showed how some of the world’s biggest cartel operatives have been treated sympathetically. Of those 37 cases, 23 of the individuals 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.

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.”

American officials defend the practice of giving more lenient sentences to those who cooperate, saying that although lighter deals for major bosses — some of whom are suspected of atrocities in their home countries — may seem unpalatable, they can provide information that helps to break up 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.

Daniel ‘El Loco’ Barrera, one of Colombia’s most wanted drug traffickers, is escorted by police officers during his extradition at Simon Bolivar Airport in Caracas 2012.

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. There’s no real progress.”

At a luxurious gated community in Boca Raton, parents in luxury cars wait outside the adjoining elementary school to fetch their children. There’s little to hint that the notorious Carlos Mario Aguilar, or 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. Envigado is a town near Medellín.

During this time, Rogelio also allegedly worked with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, a 30,000-strong paramilitary death squad that 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 both the Oficina and the AUC are alleged to have disappeared hundreds of victims. “That fear remains.”

When Don Berna was extradited to the United States 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 United States, 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 boss first made his way to Argentina, before taking a commercial flight from Panama to the United States, handing himself over to the Americans while Colombian authorities were kept in the dark. “We did everything behind their back because we didn’t trust them,” the source said.

Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, just captured, is seen sitting inside a Mexican federal police helicopter at the Navy’s airstrip in Mexico City Feb. 22, 2014.

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). “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. Today, far from the Medellín drug war he oversaw, Rogelio appears to be keeping his head down in 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 with a major financial institution, a Florida driver’s license and had lived at the plush Boca Raton residence for a number of years since 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 United States. Before leaving, she had become embroiled in a public scandal over her perceived closeness to the people she was meant to be investigating, with some of this easy familiarity captured on video according to Colombian media reports.

In a past 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 capture in 2012.

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

Extraditing the ‘Friend Killer’
During the 2000-2006 presidency of Vicente Fox, the Mexican government had 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 United States on the Merida Initiative, a transnational security deal aimed at “interdicting drugs, stopping money laundering, reducing production, and dismantling criminal organizations.”

Former paramilitary Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano, also know as Don Berna, arrives for a court hearing in Medellín 2007.

As Mexico’s ambassador to the United States 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 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 its leniency, said Gerardo Rodríguez Sánchez Lara, a Mexican security analyst.

“There is an asymmetric relationship here,” he said. “If you work with someone who does not want to give information, it is really difficult.”

Although the U.S. government and local police confiscated some $50 million from Cárdenas — and federal agents were seen posing in photos with their share, $29.5 million — Mexico didn’t receive a dime.

Unlike Colombia, Mexico does not have a central fund through which criminals’ assets can be seized and shared between the sending and receiving countries in cases involving extradition. Colombia and the United States have a deal for the distribution of criminal assets seized based on the participation level of each country, according to Martinez, the country’s former deputy attorney general.

From Escobar to El Chapo Since the death of the Medellín kingpin Escobar in 1993, U.S. extradition strategy in Colombia — and, later, in Mexico — has focused on headline-grabbing capos. In recent years, the trickle of organized crime figures extradited, either after surrender or capture, has grown into a torrent.

Data obtained in Colombia show drug trafficking is by far the main crime for which Colombians are extradited to the United States. Data obtained in Colombia show that 76% of all extradition requests for Colombian citizens by the United States between 2008 and 2018 involved drug-related offenses. The United States made 1,156 requests for suspected traffickers from Colombia during that decade.

Over this period, more than 98% of all extradition requests for drug cases were approved, with just a handful of requests rejected each year.

Colombian extraditions weren’t always so robust. A U.S. State Department report in 2001 said just 12 Colombians were sent to the United States between 1997 and 2001, most for drug-related offenses. Those cases came after a six-year extradition hiatus.

After a terror campaign against the Colombian state by the so-called “extraditables” — a group of people who could conceivably be extradited, led by Escobar — a new Colombian constitution in 1991 brought the extradition of Colombian nationals to a halt. A few years later, however, American pressure led Colombia to re-implement a partial extradition process.

As the hunt for Escobar neared its end in 1993, U.S. authorities began to focus on the so-called kingpin strategy, zooming in on the capture of cartel leaders and trying to dismantle the hierarchical structures of these groups, rather than their day-to-day criminal activities.

Since the early 2000s, Colombia has sent numerous high-profile narco-traffickers to the United States, perhaps the most famous being 14 paramilitary leaders from the AUC — a list that included Rogelio’s boss, Don Berna — in May 2008.

Similar data on extraditions is not available for Mexico, which is the largest transit point for narcotics coming into the United States.

A useful proxy, however, is data from the U.S. Marshals Service. It handles the majority of extradition cases, and agency data compiled by the University of San Diego show there were 770 extraditions from Mexico. between 2003 and 2016. Of those, 45% involved narcotics charges — by far the largest category of offense. Before that period, just eight people were extradited from Mexico between 1980 and 1994 under all categories of crime.

Mexico has caught up in recent years, culminating in the extradition of El Chapo in 2017. American officials bucked the trend with El Chapo, refusing to grant him any leniency and handing him a life sentence.

Kingpin or Hydra? Notwithstanding El Chapo’s conviction, some experts feel the attention on kingpins is outdated.

Yesid Reyes, a former Colombian justice minister, said criminal groups have abandoned the model of mega cartels like Medellín and Cali. Colombia now has a multiplicity of mini cartels. “We continue to use a single formula, which is the repression of all links in the drug trafficking chain,” he said, but “traffickers have changed their styles.”

Sarukhan, the former Mexican ambassador, argues that cutting off the head of an organization does little to break up the broader drug trade. That requires a strategy of reducing demand for narcotics in consuming nations, and deploying an army of skilled financial sleuths who can disrupt the financial wherewithal of these groups — much like the successful post-9-11 approach to terror financing.

Óscar Naranjo, a former police general who has also served as Colombia’s vice president, is credited with taking down a number of top-level traffickers. He feels crime groups are no longer reliant on vertical command structures, and instead operate like fragmented criminal holdings, “with many perpetrators, some of whom are invisible.”

Even when the big boss is removed, they’re often simply replaced, said Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, a lawyer and author of the book There Are No Dead Here, about cartel and paramilitary infiltration of the Colombian government. She pointed to Rogelio’s case. “He ended up being the head of the Oficina after Don Berna was extradited, and then he got extradited. But there’s still an Oficina,” she said.

A Bullet and a Break
Jair Sanchez, suspected of trafficking huge amounts of cocaine from Colombia’s Pacific coast, was in a hurry to be extradited. He’d been shot in the stomach in the western city of Cali, and believed that rumors of his intention to cooperate with U.S. authorities had put a target on his back.

He wanted to be taken by the Americans as soon as possible. Arrested at a hospital in March 2015, the former Norte del Valle Cartel boss known as “Mueble Fino,” or “Fancy Furniture,” because of his luxurious lifestyle, was soon sent to the United States. His American defense team pleaded for leniency.

One court document cited mitigating factors such as the allegedly “minor” role he played in a deal involving at least 450 kilograms (992 pounds) of cocaine, and the fact that he had “actually requested an expedited extradition.” That same document shows the defense conceded that information Mueble Fino provided to authorities was “stale.”

Ultimately, with U.S. authorities having agreed to avoid the maximum life sentence, and sentencing guidelines left to the consideration of the court once he pleaded guilty and cooperated, Mueble Fino was sent back to Colombia in March 2019, having served less than four years.

Back home, he joined another criminal organization called La Gran Alianza, according to authorities. He was re-captured in 2021 and charged with homicide and kidnapping.

The days of people like Escobar choosing death over extradition seem long ago, and the cases of Mueble Fino and Rogelio demonstrate how a well-timed self-surrender or extradition can benefit top bosses. “Many times they tell us stuff we already know, which does very little in terms of impacting ongoing operations,” said Jack Riley, a former acting DEA administrator who led efforts to capture Mexico’s El Chapo.

“I don’t want to hear historical stuff. I want to hear actionable things that we can do now to disrupt or dismantle these organizations. Extradition has become its own cottage industry of opportunist traffickers, lawyers with dollar signs in their eyes, and snitches looking to gain favor, said Riley.

“You have literally thousands of informants who trawl [the criminals] who the U.S. wants, and work on providing information on them for us,” he said. “That’s important because we need that information … but it’s kind of spawned its own dark-side economy for extradition.”

Laura Borbolla, a Mexican prosecutor in charge of extradition during the Calderón era, said the United States has “very easy rules” to abide by: plead guilty, return profits, and you’ll do alright. “If, in addition to this, you give me information on your collaborators, so that I can combat this type of behavior in my country, then I can allow you to keep [certain] properties,” she added.

Results in Question
U.S. deals like the one extended to Rogelio complicate efforts to pursue justice for victims in Colombia. For example, a number of his CTI investigative colleagues in Medellín were killed in the late 1990s while fighting the same crime groups he ended up working for.

“I think Colombian investigators should have many questions for him about the killings in the late 1990s,” said McFarland, the lawyer and author. “I think Rogelio has a lot of questions to answer around that. This is just one example of truth-telling that’s not possible once you’ve [sent] somebody to the U.S.”

Five decades into the War on Drugs, the battlefield has changed little. Tougher U.S. sentences initially encouraged traffickers to seek deals. Yet production and consumption have not been dented, and legal experts feel the sentencing guidelines have become overly malleable.

“Production has grown, consumption has grown, violence associated with drug trafficking and production has grown, corruption has grown,” said Police Gen. Naranjo. Data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said yearly potential cocaine production in Colombia hit 1,228 metric tons in 2020, up from 695 metric tons in 2000.

Sarukhan, the former Mexican ambassador to the United States, said traffickers must be attacked at the structural level: the accountants and money launderers, or those that hire and train hitmen. The scant amount the DEA spends on the financial sleuths who follow the money electronically amounts to “a sparrow’s fart in a typhoon.”

His advice? “Put money laundering at the top of the tool kit.” Vigil, the former DEA international operations boss, says a constant strategy of attacking the top of the tree will continue to yield incomplete results.

“I don’t refer to it as the war on drugs. I call it the permanent campaign on drugs,” he said, adding that there will always be a supplying country as long as a strong market persists. “Unless we dampen demand for drugs, then if it’s not Mexico or it’s not Colombia, it will be another country,” said Vigil.

The Addictive War series is a collaborative and cross-border journalism project on the paradoxes left by 50 years of drug policy in Latin America by the Miami Heraald and el Nuevo Herald (United States), the Latin American Center for Journalistic Investigation (CLIP), Dromómanos, Ponte Jornalismo (Brazil), Cerosetenta (Colombia), El Faro (El Salvador), El Universal and Quinto Elemento Lab (Mexico), IDL-Reporteros (Peru), Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Verdad Abierta (Colombia).

Credit: The Miami Herald