- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 10, 2000

BOGOTA, Colombia The army has long been involved in fighting narcotics trafficking, but it is not widely known that the blurring of the drug trade with other crimes money-laundering, counterfeiting, credit-card fraud, cell-phone cloning has pulled it into law-enforcement actions far beyond the war on drugs.
An example is Operation San Martin, carried out 13 months ago in Cali, Colombia's third-largest city. There the 80-man anti-narcotics Comando Especial del Ejercito (CEE) pulled off a sting operation and arrested two suspects on charges of distributing bogus greenbacks.
This reporter accompanied CEE agents during the sting and at the moment of the arrests. The details provide a rare glimpse of how the Colombian army has integrated intelligence and operational actions in a law-enforcement role.
Roberto, 46, was a small fish, and it showed in his disheveled appearance. But the balding ex-cop boasted that his boss, nicknamed El Gordo (The Fat One), had ties to criminal operations of the late Helmer El Pacho (The Sluggard) Herrera, the last of the seven top leaders of the Cali cocaine cartel to be captured.
The Sluggard was murdered in a Colombian prison on Nov. 5, 1998, by a visitor posing as his lawyer, and Fats had gone his own way.

El Gordo needed money

He was feeling heat over money Herrera's people said he owed them, according to Roberto. But Roberto said El Gordo was not limiting himself to drug trafficking; he was also selling counterfeit U.S. dollars.
This was also the story that Fernando, not the real name of an undercover CEE operative, said he had heard from an informant. Interviewed on army ground rules of anonymity, Fernando said he informed the CEE's commander, a lieutenant colonel, about the tip.
Seeing a possible connection with drug trafficking, the colonel authorized Fernando to tell the informant he should ask Roberto to call a feigned potential buyer of counterfeit dollars named "Juano." What Roberto did not know was that Juano was in fact Fernando, a sergeant with 18 years' experience and a ranking member of the CEE's three-man communications surveillance and intercept unit called the Centro para la Recoleccion de Informacion (CRI).
Hungry for a commission from El Gordo, Roberto called "Juano." Fernando pretended interest in buying counterfeit dollars and got Roberto's phone number from caller ID, so further calls from that phone could be monitored.
Thus began the monthlong operation called San Martin.
In a climate where competition between Colombia's national police and armed forces for anti-narcotics support from Washington make unit successes and headlines important, the CEE, which reports directly to Gen. Fernando Tapias Stahelin, the armed forces chief, decided to handle the operation alone.

A 'sting' was the answer

Anything remotely connected to narcotics was within the CEE's purview, so bringing in the police and possibly sharing the credit for success was not necessary. But having a prosecutor present to carry out judicial searches was.
In September 1999, a prosecutor was not permanently attached to the CEE, though one is now. So to make a legal arrest alone, the army had to catch those committing a crime in the act. The solution was a "sting."
Two or three weeks after their first phone conversation, Fernando won Roberto's confidence enough to set up an afternoon meeting in the dusty small town of Juanchito, just outside Cali. Another CEE undercover operative posed as Fernando's taxi driver.
They met outside a seedy, palm-thatched motel near the Cauca River. Roberto showed up on foot a couple of hours late, and nervous. Fernando was dressed casually, wearing wire-rimmed eyeglasses. As Fernando later recalled, Roberto looked at his short haircut with suspicion.
Roberto told P, the agent posing as a taxi driver, that "Juano" looked like a cop. P laughed this off, telling Roberto that he had worked for "Juano" before, and that he was really a duro a hard guy.
When a police car pulled up about 200 feet away and the officers emerged to search people nearby including two soldiers in plainclothes serving as back-ups for Roberto and his driver "Juano" confirmed his hoodlum credentials by pulling a handgun from under his shirt and stashing it in a nearby tree.

Establishing confidence

The CEE backups showed the policemen their military ID cards and asked them not to let Roberto see the soldier's pistols. The cops obliged, but the later appearance of motorcycle policemen passing by spooked Roberto. He said El Gordo was waiting nearby with the counterfeit cash, aborted the meeting just before sundown and walked off, crossing the two-lane highway that runs parallel to the river.
This outcome made the CEE operatives wonder whether Roberto was really selling funny money or just bluffing.
The answer came a few days later when Roberto called "Juano" to set up another rendezvous.
On a September afternoon, a CEE intelligence captain, a corporal, a Colombian civilian shooting instructor assisting the CEE, and this reporter got into a green Chevy Blazer. We were all in civilian clothes, leaving the sprawling base of the 3rd Brigade in southern Cali.
The captain drove north along Cali's broad Quinta Street for about 15 minutes, weaving through heavy traffic, and made a right turn that took us past the Pascual Guerrero soccer stadium.
The captain dropped the corporal off in front, on the side of the street away from the stadium. Driving around the block, he dropped me off and I walked up a side street and turned a corner to where I could see the corporal.

Setting up the arrest

Monitoring and coordinating by radio, the captain drove around, several blocks away. Meanwhile, a white Mitsubishi van holding a squad of CEE commandos in camouflage fatigues parked out of sight a few blocks away.
After about 20 minutes, the clunky yellow taxi driven by P came into view, slowly following Fernando and Roberto walking downhill along the street in front of the stadium. Fernando had left the cab up the hill to join Roberto on the sidewalk.
The two men crossed the street and entered a cheap restaurant called Video Cafe on the ground floor of an orange-brick, two-story building on the street corner. P parked at the curb about 75 feet past the restaurant. The area stank of food fried in rank grease.
Fernando and Roberto sat at a table in back, away from a clutch of noisy patrons, but they remained in view from the street because there was no front wall.
Fernando was a little nervous, he later recalled, but he covered it up by taking a domineering stance. He had told Roberto he would bring 10 million Colombian pesos (about $5,000) for the transaction.

Maneuvering the end game

When Roberto asked him for the money, Fernando replied: "What money? Show me yours first. What I bring is real money. What you bring me is paper."
The deal the two had struck was that Fernando would pay 14,000 Colombian pesos (about $7) for each counterfeit $100 bill, and 5,000 pesos for each counterfeit $50 bill.
Roberto then shrugged at a tall, dark fellow standing near a street vendor at the corner.
"That man is El Gordo, but he is very nervous," Roberto replied when Fernando asked.
El Gordo beckoned to Roberto, who joined the big guy near a double-parked red Hyundai Excel. El Gordo wore a simple white plaid shirt, but it looked elegant in contrast to Roberto's green T-shirt and old jeans.
El Gordo slid into the driver's seat, started the Hyundai's engine and drove forward a bit. He handed a blue-and-white plastic bag to Roberto through the front passenger window.
Roberto walked back to sit with Fernando and pushed the bag toward him.
"Get that away from me," Fernando snapped. "Let's go to the taxi to do this."
There they met P, who was standing beside the cab. Fernando took a peek inside the bag and saw the counterfeit greenbacks.
Roberto was getting edgy. "Here is yours," he said, lifting the plastic bag. "Where is mine? In the bag in the taxi, right?"

Calling in the troops

Roberto was referring to a blue shoulder bag Fernando and P had put in the back seat of the taxi to create that impression. But Fernando replied that the money was in another car and said he would call his bagman, Jorge, to bring it.
Fernando dialed a number on his cell phone and handed it to P. "Bring the money," P told "Jorge," really a CEE sergeant. Those words were the signal for soldiers to move in.
Within 30 seconds, the commandos drove up and a there was a commotion. Fernando and P had drawn their 9 mm pistols. Roberto tried to run. Clutching his pistol with two hands, Fernando aimed at Roberto, ordering him to freeze.
Commandos armed with U.S.-made M-16 A-2 rifles were pouring out of the van, fanning out among stunned patrons at the cafe's sidewalk tables to secure the area. Noises of confusion rose from the crowd.
"It's him, it's him," Roberto shouted to the commandos, pointing at Fernando as he tried to escape. But the commandos had choreographed the arrest with Fernando, and they seized Roberto without a struggle.
During the capture of Roberto, El Gordo backed the Hyundai around the corner and tried to drive away, but P ran over, stepped in front of the car and aimed his pistol at him.

Anticlimax but a precedent

The CEE plainclothes corporal, some of the commandos, their lieutenant and another plainclothes CEE intelligence captain who had arrived separately swarmed to the red Hyundai.
El Gordo got out of the car. No one was hurt. Soldiers examined his papers and those of a number of people on the street corner.
El Gordo denied having anything to do with the bag of counterfeit cash. But he and Roberto were hauled off to a detention room at the CEE compound on the Third Brigade base. The red Hyundai was also taken there and impounded.
At the military base offices, the CEE men counted $81,450 in counterfeit 100s and 50s. The bills were hard to spot as fake with the naked eye, but their texture seemed too smooth.
The arrests were a fleeting victory for the CEE.
El Gordo was released from jail after a few weeks, and Roberto apparently walked free not long afterward.
However, the CEE's success in coordinating intelligence and operational actions to carry out police-style work has had a lasting impact on military anti-narcotics operations and seems to promise more.

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