The Ghost Army: the Inside Story of the ‘Super-Cartel’

    

It was a silent criminal corporation.
It was worth tens of billions of dollars.
They killed and tortured their opponents without giving any signals or clues to their existence.
They were the Super Cartel.
One of the world’s largest drug traffickers and virtually no one knew anything about them.
Welcome to CrimeWaves.

**

It was a war.
In the 1980s, Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin drug cartel in Colombia, began a military onslaught against the very state of Colombia. It began when his sicarios, the drug assassins, killed the country’s justice minister as he drove to pick up his children from their school.
The war was between Escobar’s drug cartel, which was worth tens of billions of dollars with thousands of armed fighters, and the Colombian government. It featured an attack on the Federal Congress building in Bogota, the blowing up of a commercial jetliner filled with 107 innocent passengers and crew, and the kidnapping and murder of thousands of people.

Now that conflict eventually drew in all of the Colombian military, law enforcement, police, who were aided by American communication devices and agents, and also a secretive force of paramilitary vigilantes whose bloodthirsty tactics included murdering a 12-year-old boy because he was the playmate of Pablo Escobar’s son.

They won.
Those paramilitaries did what the Colombian government could not do.
They took down the world’s most powerful drug lord.

So our story really begins on a rooftop in Medellin with Pablo Escobar lying dead from a cloud of police bullets. And the question was, who was going to replace him?

To answer this question is a star investigator, Luis Juan Sierra. He’s a legend among American law enforcement. A man of vast experience currently serving in Mexico where he helps lead the anti-money laundering operations for the US State Department. But in the 2000s, he was the US Drug Enforcement Agency or DEA agent in charge of overseeing their Colombian operations. And he began to hear rumors of a Super Cartel.
So our interview began by asking him how big was that criminal organization?

Luis Sierra

They essentially controlled, I would say, over 90% of the cocaine that was moving out of Colombia to Europe, anywhere else, Mexico, United States. And the amount of money they were laundering, obviously, we coined them, or I think the media coined them the Super Cartel.
When we first heard about this, or not particular to them, but we had heard these rumors
that organizations were moving millions, hundreds of millions of dollars in cash in maritime shipping containers.
It had been an urban legend, a myth. , we would hear snippets from informants, from intelligence, from different sources, but nothing ever concrete.

And I remember one winter, it must have been 2008, 2007, myself and some of the investigators, agents from my office, we flew to Washington and we had a we actually had a sit-down meeting at our headquarters to discuss what could we how could we get our hands around this how could we try and identify these containers because because there was and they they say there was there was traffic there was there was we’re hearing out about it but nothing and so we went back to Colombia.
, just going about our usual working on our cases with the Colombian authorities, our investigations into all types of different stuff going on.

And one of the agents in my office, an outstanding agent, came to me one day and he said, Hey, , that bulk cash in containers, in the maritime containers, there’s an informant who wants to give us all the details.”

And I said, “Yeah, I don’t know.” As an agent, an investigator we kind of become jaded or skeptical sometimes especially with with these types of urban legend type things and we’re kind of like well yeah okay maybe it’s probably just another informant pulling our leg or or nothing concrete. This agent was persistent he kept saying, “I gotta go talk to this guy. I gotta go talk to this guy.”

I remember I finally said to him, “Okay travel to to the part of Colombia he is in and meet with him and come back, let me know.”
And I didn’t, I myself, and I think even the agent in our office, we didn’t think much would come of it.
And he went down there and he came back the next day.
I remember he came into my office and he said, “Luis, this is the real deal.”
And I said, “What do you mean?”
And he said, “No, this is it. This is gonna happen. This is happening. I know all the details.”
And he explained to me, what he had been told and what information he got.
And yeah, we were all still a little skeptical.
That was probably about like March or April of that year, 2009.

Declan Hill

Luis, what are your feelings?
Be cause I presume as an experienced investigator like yourself, you’ve heard that before, but what are your thoughts as one of your agents says, Hey, I’ve got this. This is the big story.

Luis Sierra

Of course you’re hoping it’s true and you’re hoping, , that we’re going to do this, but part of you always remains a little skeptical. Part of you always thinks like, maybe it’s just not going to happen or we’re not going to get lucky. But, on the flip side, as an investigator, we got to pull, we had to pull all the threads and run it down.
I would say maybe you’re 50-50, like, hey, this could happen. Let’s give it a shot.
And the other party is like, this is just another one of those things that’s going to run into a dead end.

Declan Hill

What does he tell you? What’s the specific piece of information that he’s giving you?

Luis Sierra

So he came back and said, “Look, , they’re moving hundreds of millions of dollars.
It’s coming in maritime shipping containers from Mexico, from Europe. They have an ingenious way of concealing it in sacks of ammonium nitrate fertilizer where even through x-ray or scanning technology it can’t be detected. They’ve never had a loss and I know exactly how they’re going to put it in the container and we should be good to go in a few months and there’ll be something coming. We have the daily stuff we got to do, all the other cases were working, the office is working and you just kind of, I don’t want to say put it on a shelf, you just kind of tuck it away and wait and that’s what we did.

Declan Hill

And what was the specific, what was the specific information you’re going to move on?

Luis Sierra

Well, we were just waiting for that informant who had met with our agent to to let them know there was a container or containers inbound to Colombia with cash. We were just waiting for the green light for the signal. And that’s what we did. And look what happened.

Declan Hill

Tell us what happened.

Luis Sierra

A few months later, I think four or five months later, I remember very distinctly, I was back in Washington, D.C. for meetings, not about this, just routine meetings with our headquarters.
I got a message from the agent and he said, “Hey, this is going to happen.
This is really going to happen in the next day or two.”

And I said, “You think so?”

He said, “Absolutely.”

And I remember where it was, the information was that these containers were going to come into the port of Buenaventura, Colombia, which is on the Pacific coast.

I said, “Okay, let’s deploy, , some agents over there to work with the Colombian police and wait for them.
We sent the team over there and they were waited.
I remember I was sitting in a meeting in Washington.
I got a message from one of the agents that was in Buenaventura and he said, “This is happening.”
And I stepped out of the, it still gives me goosebumps remembering that.
I stepped out of the meeting and the agent called me.
He said, “I’m standing right here and we’re unloading the containers.”
And you could hear everybody cheering and screaming.
And there it was.

Declan Hill

What did they find in the containers?

Luis Sierra

So it was containers of, just like the informant said, ammonium, big sacks of ammonium nitrate.
these sacks weigh maybe a ton each. Each stack had a block of neatly packaged, vacuum-sealed cash, , between 800 to a million dollars per block.
In that particular afternoon there was they seized 28 million that afternoon in cash everybody was just dumbfounded it was it was amazing and then that same afternoon through work that our agency did HSI they were able to identify another container that was about to leave Mexico and they stopped it.

The Mexican authorities working with our agents in Mexico seized another $11 or $12 million that would have left. And so we hit them for, we seized $41 million in the span of four or five days.

Declan Hill

Let’s just take a step back and what was the essential nature of the enterprise these guys were running? Because it just seems a long way from drug trafficking for bags of fertilizers and containers and cash. What was actually going on here?

Luis Sierra

So yeah, what was unique about this particular at that time we weren’t looking at per se a cartel, a drug trafficking organization. We didn’t really know what we were looking at.
Obviously, we knew it was the money we were seizing was proceeds of narcotics trafficking.
in that amount, we didn’t know who was running the cartel or who really anybody was.
We just knew we were looking at an organization that were experts, the masters at moving cash from different parts of the world back into Colombia, proceeds of drug trafficking.

What we determined later found through our investigation was that this particular group, these guys didn’t traffic drugs. They provided a service to various cartels who needed their cash brought back into Colombia from Europe, from the United States, from Mexico, from other points.

They had cornered the market and become so good at it that everybody relied on them and that’s all they did.

Declan Hill

When you talk about money laundering, people think it’s Swiss bank accounts and glamorous visits to Zurich or Geneva or wherever. But you’re talking about the back of the Buenaventura Pacific port in Colombia with a container.
Why are they transporting cash?
Surely cash is like the 19th century.
Why are they bringing stacks of banknotes?

Luis Sierra

So of course, I mean, money laundering always has that, I don’t want to say glamorous because it’s not glamorous, but yeah, people think offshore accounts, Switzerland, et cetera.
I’m not bad mouthing Switzerland or any other or Panama or any of those places and jets and executives, but, and that exists, that’s part of it.

But I’ll always make the argument cash is king, especially for organized crime.
They need cash.
That’s how you operate.
That’s how you pay people.
You have in running really any type of sophisticated organization that has numerous operations or moving parts, you need cash.
You’re not going to pay a truck driver to drive across a port of entry in Mexico to the United States with a bank transfer of $500.
You’re not going to pay an airplane pilot
You’re not going to pay a hitman with cryptocurrency or a bank transfer or Western Union per se.
Well, I’m sure that’s happened.
It’s point being cash is thing.
They need it to run operations.
And I remember in this particular case, later when we, we cooperated a lot of the higher level heads of this organization.
And I remember, we asked one of them, like,
like so much cash like why so much and he said, “It made us powerful it made us the most powerful because if another organization was looking at going against us or challenging us or they knew we had hundreds of millions cash and we could win any kind of war if we needed to because we just had so much reserve.”

I thought that answer was pretty interesting but yeah, cash is still king.

Declan Hill

Even now with cyber and all these digital currencies, cash still reigns?

Luis Sierra

Yeah, obviously virtual currencies and the crypto market that’s being exploited massively by criminals to conduct criminal activity and launder money.
But it’s not a feasible or easy way to run an organization when you have funds tied up in these virtual accounts and when you take into account a lot of the economies and in in Latin America south of the border Mexico Central South America and others people are still you get out of the major metropolitan areas people aren’t even using plastic.

Declan Hill

Let’s take a step back for one second because you guys have uncovered this network of transportation of cash for some of the biggest cartels in the world.
But let’s talk a little bit about who those cartels guys are because really the story begins on a rooftop in Medellin, Colombia on December 2nd, 1993 with the death of the most famous drug guy of that time, Juan Pablo Escobar.
Tell us a little bit about who filled in the vacuum of his death.
Who were these guys?
How were they operating after he died?

Luis Sierra
Yeah, so, I mean, as everybody knows or who follows Cartel activity and the progression of their history, Pablo was killed in Medellin. He was public enemy number one for Colombian authorities and in the United States. The Cali Cartel, as extensively documented, was also behind that as Pablo, the head of Medellin Cartel, was their direct competitor and they wanted him out.

So, the next step was Cali Cartel became big.
They controlled everything for a long time.
And then they, obviously, were taken down.
They were arrested, some of their members killed, and out of them sprung a cartel known as the Norte Valle Cartel, the North Valley Cartel, which was some of the leftovers of the Cali Cartel.
They, again, all of them, captured, killed, in prison, dismantled.
This group came about, what they call the Super Cartel, or other names.
They were born out of the remnants and some of the pieces of the leftover Norte Valle Cartel.

Declan Hill

But they’re working differently than, I mean, when you think, or excuse me, when many of our listeners think about the Colombian drug cartels, they think of, , glamor and they think of, , these big soccer stadiums and all this kind of lifestyle, but these guys were operating in a different style, different way, were they not?

Luis Sierra

Yeah, so obviously with Pablo, Escobar and his organization, that was a very over-the-top, , he lived a public life and his organization lived a public life, , he became a politician in Colombia, , and that’s the stereotypical, , ranches, , exotic animals as, , Colombia is still dealing with the hippopotamus that Colombia that Pablo imported into Colombia and now have become a native species and causing environmental damage and issues, but that’s a whole other story.

But yeah, the point being, this is someone who brought giraffe and hippopotamus and flew airplanes and had a successful soccer team.

Yeah, they became almost like Robin Hood figures. Obviously did this in furtherance of trying to insulate themselves from authorities but building soccer stadiums in poor neighborhoods sponsoring teams and etc.

They were over-the-top public figures and living with all these obvious luxuries and Cali Cartel a little bit of that maybe to a lesser extent I think they learned from Pablo they learned
You gotta live a little more under the radar, not to say they didn’t have amazing huge ranches and palaces and lived like that.

But I think what we were seeing is the evolution. Cartels and criminals were learning, like, we can’t live this public life. We can’t roll up to restaurants in Ferraris and dress over the top they they were learning we need to start going underground and start being anonymous.

What we saw with with the Super Cartel was the manifestation of that i mean this we had never seen anything like it. They were driving Hyundais and not to say anything bad about Hyundais with great car. but they’re a dime a dozen in major cities.

They would take taxis. I remember they would use public transportation and take taxis and these are people who have hundreds and hundreds of, I would say billions in cash could do whatever they want uh we’re living this completely anonymous lifestyle and and that was that was by order.

Declan Hill

I remember in doing the research our producer, our student producer sent me a whole bunch of photos of some of the Super Cartel guys and they literally look like men that you would, , at best having a cup of coffee in a corner bar but they’re certainly not dressed in suits.

It’s one of the issues, as I was talking to my students about, is that we have, as people unconnected with this world, a kind of view, because most of the time we’re watching Hollywood movies or TV series or Netflix or whatever about these drug guys and they’re played by Johnny Depp or Pacino or whoever.

Our first reaction is, oh, head of the drug guy, my gosh, he’s gotta be so handsome.
And then you actually see the photos of these guys and they look utterly mundane and utterly normal.

And you’re saying this was a deliberate express strategy on their part?

Luis Sierra

Yeah, this organization could add anything they wanted in the world, anything, from properties to vehicles, to planes, to travel.

But their discipline was such that they lived in anonymous apartments, drove anonymous vehicles, wore regular suits.

They could be on the subway in New York City. You wouldn’t notice anything different about them. Just a regular commuter going to their office building.

And this was part of their success, was based on this discipline and this is the way they they conducted themselves.

Declan Hill

How did they run their actual organization? Were they as bloodthirsty as Escobar was?

Luis Sierra

Obviously what Escobar and his organization did was horrible. Especially, the killing and targeting of police officers. And putting rewards out for anybody to kill any police officer.

This organization saw murder as just a business, a part of the business. I don’t think they, from what they told us, they didn’t seek, , the less murders or bloodletting, the better.

But of course they were willing more than able when needed to eliminate rivals or people who would cause them problems.

Declan Hill

Presumably their hitmen and their torturers and all their usual apparatus of organized crime. But were they organized professionally? Like a corporation?

Luis Sierra

It was the most sophisticated drug cartel. They ran it like a very sophisticated business. You could say this was like a very sophisticated business that ran drugs and laundered money, as a profit center. That’s how well they were structured as an organization.

They outsourced everything.
They had very little contact with anybody who actually worked for them.
Nobody knew who the bosses was.
You didn’t get to meet with these people.
They didn’t have these large meetings or discussions.
You may be a hit man for this organization killing someone, but you had no idea
who you were killing for or why you were killing that person.

It was the same with their drug smuggling operations. You have been driving two tons of cocaine from the Pacific coast of Colombia to Central America or Mexico, and you didn’t know really whose cocaine it was who you were delivering it to. Or who owned it. You had a job to do and that was move it you didn’t you didn’t get to meet these people or talk to them on the phone.

They had insulated themselves and structured and outsourced the whole enterprise through many layers and it worked incredibly well for them.

Declan Hill

And now to come back to you you’re sitting in your office in Washington you’ve just heard in five days you’ve picked up 41 million dollars you’ve got a string attached and really the investigation kicks off. What happens next?

Luis Sierra

We couldn’t believe it still.
It was amazing.
Our whole agency from our director down, pledged unlimited support in terms of personnel and funding we needed for travel, etc. to work this organization, because we had never seen anything like it.

And we knew it was probably the most important case we were gonna work right then as an agency.

So we dedicated everybody and everything to it.

And that’s really where we started unraveling who this organization was and what they were doing and started identifying the leadership and working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office
in the Eastern District of New York to start indicting people as we identified them.
Declan Hill

And who were these guys? Tell us a little bit about the three leaders of the Super Cartel.

Luis Sierra

Well, through the course of investigation, we started with the money and then we made it back to the leaders of the organization who were in control of all the drug smuggling.

In control of the whole organization, there was one guy named Don Lucho.
There was another Don Julio.
Those were essentially the two heads of the organization.
To a lesser extent, there was a guy named Don Claudio.

Declan HIll

What was Don Lucho’s job?

Luis Sierra

He was the absolute boss.
He made all the decisions, ran everything.
He ran the organization through his deputies and his underlings, who communicated outwards to everybody else.

Declan Hill

The other guys were involved with the violence or they were involved with the financing and the corporate structure?

Luis Sierra

So I would say none of the leaders were, , they never had their hands on the violence or, , these were guys who never got their hands bloody or smuggled drugs themselves.
They just made decisions over the phone or via emails or chat applications.

**

Declan Hill

It’s Declan. We’re doing an interview with Luis Sierra, the DEA agent who was instrumental in bringing down the Ghost Army. That’s the Super Cartel of criminals from Colombia that were exporting billions of dollars in cocaine around the world.

They were so well organized that virtually no one in law enforcement knew anything about them.
We rejoin the interview now.

**

My paradigm for this is always Escobar, who essentially declares civil war against the Colombian state or nation. He kicks off by killing the Minister of Justice in a very high profile assassination and really corrupts a significant section of Colombian society.

Not the majority. The Colombians are deeply involved in the fight to clean up there and become non-corrupt.

Were these guys able to do the same thing as the Cali and Medellin guys?
Were they able to corrupt politicians and influence the system as well?

Luis Sierra

No, I think, this organization saw it as better business and more efficient to, obviously, first not to target politicians or high-level government officials, and to fly under the radar, to be anonymous.
That being said, obviously, to operate any organization like this and on this scale, you need corrupt officials or officials that are on your payroll to facilitate the movement of money, the movement of drugs, , in order to provide intelligence or information.

So obviously that, yeah, that was a part of their organization.
But they, , they did everything, , as under the radar or anonymously or to the least amount necessary to ensure their organization ran smoothly.

Declan Hill

How did you investigate those guys? I mean, it started with that tip off with the $41 million in cash, but what do you do next?

Luis Sierra

Yeah, so I would add to your previous, what we were talking about, I would say, going back to that, they were so anonymous and so under the radar.
They didn’t need to pay officials off not to pursue them.
Nobody was pursuing them.
Nobody was after them.

That wasn’t like an operating expense or necessity for them because, unlike Pablo Escobar or the Cali Cartel, when they were on the government’s radar, both U.S. and Colombian and others, they were running an operation, they were avoiding being arrested.

So they had to pay tons of money to bribe officials to help them escape capture and give them information. This organization didn’t have that need.

Declan Hill

Because it would just so under the radar.

You told us in a conversation before the interview started about Spanish lessons.
Tell us that story, please.
Luis Sierra

Yeah, so as the investigative team, we started working on identifying, via informants and people who were cooperating with us. one of the heads of the organization.

I remember, one of them told us, “Yeah, we’ve met with that person a lot to coordinate stuff we were doing. We would meet with him and at a cafe or wherever in Bolita.”

Of course as investigators our first question was, “What’s his name?”

A lot of times someone will tell you, “I have no idea. We just know his nickname. We know his age and I think he was born in this area or town in Colombia.”

And we’re like, “It’s not gonna get us anywhere. As investigators we kept saying, “Tell us something else! Give us something we can run with.”

They said, “Okay I remember, we would have coffee and he always said, ‘He had to leave because he was taking language lessons at a school, a language school in Bogota’.”

And that was the only thing we had to run on.

And so what did we do?

We were working with the prosecutors in Colombia and with the Colombian police team we were working with. We literally got the records for thousands of students registered at these language schools. The three or four language schools in the area and combed through them.

It took a month or two of combing through these thousands of records before we narrowed it down to 10 or 15 people who fit the age range, the geographic location of where they said the person was born and the description.

And Bingo! We had our guy. We had one of the leaders and that’s how we identified them.

Declan Hill

How do you put together an investigation like this? Because it just sounds you’ve got the informants on one hand meeting these people. You are talking to your agents but you’re also having to deal with the Colombians you’re also having to deal in Mexico, Colombia, America, Miami, Washington.

How do you do that?

Luis Sierra

Yeah, obviously this case was so big and complex.
It becomes a very big investigative team.
We had the U.S. Attorneys in Eastern District of New York and Brooklyn guiding the team on the legal process and helping us secure indictments and working with informants and co-operators.
We had Colombian prosecutors, because this was a massive bilateral, well, I would say multilateral because we had Spain, Morocco, Netherlands, Belgium. We had dozens of international judicial authorities, police authorities, Colombian authorities.

We had DEA, FBI, and several different actually districts in the United States.
Tampa, which is the middle district of Florida, eastern district of New York, I think there may have been, D.C.

And so, there’s numerous agents, numerous prosecutors, investigators cooperating, witnesses, and, it’s like managing a big orchestra coordinating all the activities.

I was managing the Colombia end of it for my agency, but there’s all these moving parts and all the agents, everybody had to coordinate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There were so many moving parts.

Declan Hill

There were so many moving parts because the drug and money shipments and flow were going across that many different places.

Luis Sierra

Yeah, once we, all the agents and everybody identified everything that was going on, because, the organization kept running after, obviously, after the money seizure, , and through what we were doing, we were able to see all the different activities the organization had going on throughout the world, with money movements, with drug movements, and at the same time.

We’re working to identify everybody and secure indictments with the U.S. Attorney’s offices.

We’re coordinating in real time the interdiction of drugs and arrest of people and seizure of money in dozens of countries.

Declan Hill

I’ve got a whole bunch of questions, but one is, ‘Okay, you’re building this army of law enforcement in the Netherlands and Morocco and Spain, Tampa and Miami and Washington and Colombia and Mexico.

But how do you keep, even just in the Colombia branch, how do you keep
information and confidentiality and that question of when do you share important stuff?

I’d be paranoid in your shoes, like, who’s going to betray us?
Who is going to tip off these guys?

How do you deal with that issue of control of information on such a multinational investigation?

Luis Sierra

There’s a finite time to wrap up the investigation and impact the organization. And we are thinking, ‘If we do A, , will B happen? If we arrest X person, how will this affect the rest? Will everybody know that law enforcement is now involved in the organization, that we’re onto them?’

So you’re calculating risk, evaluating the impact and constantly juggling these things to try and maximize the impact of the investigation and how far you can go.

Declan Hill

What was the thing that surprised you the most about it?

Luis Sierra

Just the size of the organization, the scope of what they were doing, the volume of cocaine they were moving, , their international reach throughout the world.

And there was really nowhere in the world that they didn’t have operations going.

On top of that, the fact that they had essentially been completely anonymous and operated essentially with impunity and under the radar for so many years, it was amazing to realize that they had been this effective.

Declan Hill

You had a really interesting story about you finally arrest the guy who was organizing the transshipment of the $41 million. Tell us about that, please.

Luis Sierra

Yeah, so as we moved along in the investigation, obviously, we were identifying people.
Some of them were willing to cooperate with the U.S. government, and part of that cooperation involves them talking to us.

So we talked with them and they are required to disclose the extent of their activities and etc.
and how they operated and I remember we were discussing with one of the guys who had was orchestrating or had orchestrated the movement of the bulk cash all these years and yeah we started the case our end of the case with the initial seizure of $41 million dollars and

And we asked him months later, “So that week, we took $41 million from you. We seized, that’s a huge amount of money. How did you survive? Did you have to go into hiding? How did you explain that to the owners of that money?”

Because he didn’t per se own that money. He was just moving it as a service.

And we said, “Didn’t they want to kill you? Did you run for your life?”

Declan Hill

Because owing money to the mob is a short life sentence.

Luis Sierra

Right, you either pay or you’re going to pay with your life.
And we’re not talking $50,000, we’re talking $41 million.
And, we asked him that because we were curious.

And he said, “I don’t understand your question. What? What do you mean?”

And we asked him again, “How did you survive that? How did you overcome that?”

And he kept saying, “I don’t really know why you’re asking that or what do you mean by that?”

And finally, we said, “Weren’t you going to get killed?”

And he said, “No, at any given time, I had about $250 million cash in my stash house.
I just covered it out on my end. There was no problem. There was no hiccup. And nobody asked me anything. Obviously it made the media, but nobody even knew that was my containers. I paid that 41 million just exactly on time. No problem.”

Declan Hill

So essentially he took this out of his petty cash. And this is the biggest seizure of money in a maritime shipping ever. Wow.

Luis Sierra

Yeah. They didn’t break a sweat.

Declan Hill

Incredible.

Let’s get back to Don Lucho. Tell us a little bit more about him and his personality and who he was, the man running this Super Cartel.

Luis Sierra

So Don Lucho was, through the investigation and he had been not per se identified, but he was a target of an older investigation for cocaine smuggling by DEA in Tampa, a great case.
But he was still a ghost.
He was still missing in action and had kind of dropped off the radar.
And, he came back up to the surface on this case.
We realized he was the head of this organization.
He was a former Colombian intelligence agent.
He worked for the now defunct DAS, which was kind of like a Colombian intelligence agency.
He worked for them and in the early 2000s had worked his way up and created this Super Cartel and became the leader.

They supplied most of the cocaine, I’d say over 90% to the Mexican cartels.

Declan Hill

So Lucho had started as a Colombian intelligence officer and then switched to the bad side?

Luis Sierra

Yeah he worked for an agency called DAS and that agency was disbanded 15-20 years ago. I think he resigned long before the agency was disbanded but and then obviously went to the other side and got involved in in running this cartel creating and running this cartel.

Declan Hill

So very much like Los Zetas in Mexico, who were originally the quote, elements of the elite anti-drug squad who flipped and started running their own cartel.

Luis Sierra

Yeah, I wouldn’t necessarily say like the Zetas who obviously took their special operations skills and applied it to horrific violence in running a cartel.

I don’t think we ever determined that, he per se used his skills that he applied from his former life into running this cartel.

Declan Hill

It sounds like he did. I mean, the theme of this conversation has been about how undercover, how discreet they were.

That sounds very much like he took his modus operandi from the intelligence agency and just brought it to the drug cartels.

Luis Sierra

To an extent, I’m sure what he learned helped him in some facets, but I don’t think the way that agency functioned. He wasn’t a high level official.

It’s not like he was a spy master or a law enforcement operative that had all these special skills that he then translated into. I’m sure he had some takeaways, obviously, but he wasn’t like a career official who had specialized skills that You really apply.
I think, he just had a penchant for business.

He was a very skilled businessman who maybe in another life or another setting could have really run a successful, I’m not saying this in a way to give him credit, but like anything, maybe he could have had a successful, legitimate business career.

Declan Hill

Yeah, we do regular interviews on this podcast with Michael Francis, the former capo of the Colombo crime family in New York.
And it’s very clear when you meet him, when you speak to him, that he could very easily have run a Fortune 500 company. That sense of an intelligence that understands both the business deal, but also the water that he’s particularly swimming in and how it operates.

Luis Sierra

This applies to Don Lucho too, and a lot of the people who ran this organization.

I think maybe going back to what you asked before, we were talking about Pablo Escobar.
I don’t think Pablo Escobar or his crew were particularly educated or brilliant people.

Obviously, he had a penchant for doing business, but in this group, the Super Cartel, we found that a lot of them were, , well-educated, well-mannered from good families and very capable.

Could have been very capable and in any other facet, or thing they chose to do in their with their lives.

Declan Hill

Was that true for Don Lucho’s partner Don Claudio?

Luis Sierra

Don Claudio no. He was more like a rancher type. I don’t want to say not as sophisticated just not as astute or business-wise.

Declan Hill

So what were the skills that he brought to this group?

Luis Sierra

Don Claudio, I would say some more of the logistics, the day-to-day operations, ground operations, coordinating activities.

He wasn’t an equal, but more of a deputy who assisted with stuff. Don Lucho had fled Colombia years before. Don Claudio and Don Julio and others were the ones that remained on the ground doing some of the day-to-day, face-to-face stuff that required doing.

Don Lucho was in the wind. He had left Colombia a long time ago

Declan Hill

Where was he at this time? Was he in Panama or one of those places?

Luis Sierra

No, through the investigation that everybody did, they finally figured out he was in Buenos Aires. He was living by himself in Buenos Aires and that’s where, the U.S. government, all the agencies working with the Argentinian authorities finally arrested him right in the heart of Buenos Aires.

Declan Hill

So let’s talk about those arrests because you’ve got Don Lutro living as a ghost in the wind, to use your expressions. You’ve got Don Claudio, Don Julio. How do you bust them?
Tell us those stories, please.

Luis Sierra

We didn’t identify them right away.

Months into the investigation, we identified them, working with the prosecutors in New York. and other districts in Florida.
We’re doing that English language investigation and things like that.

Doing what we do as investigators, identifying them, confirming their identification, , and then obviously once we had enough evidence to get the indictment, working with the prosecutors to secure them. Sll the while trying to figure out where they are. Some of them were harder than others.

Colombian authorities did a great job and found Don Claudio. He was arrested at a ranch outside of Bogota where he was partying.

Again, not by any means a luxurious ranch, actually rather a ramshackle, rundown ranch.

Don Julio too.

And then the big fish was Don Lucho. We were working with Argentine authorities. Identifying and confirming that he was in Buenos Aires and then coordinating with them an operation to arrest him.

Declan Hill

I have a weird question for you because here you have these three guys who are head of the Super Cartel that are trans-shipping billions of dollars – and we’ve mentioned Spain, Morocco, Netherlands, Argentina. all these places around the world on these different continents – but they’re living in these somewhat modest circumstances. They’re driving small cars. They’ve eschewed that lifestyle.

Did you ever figure out what made them happy? They must have had all this money in the banks what were they doing?

Luis Sierra

I’m sure there’s some successfully retired drug traffickers and mafia members with their money.

But, with these guys, so much money and so much, it was more they could ever spend in a lifetime. I remember they asked Don Lucho, “Why so much money?”

I think his answer was the power and I think he also said he just really enjoyed running a business.

He was good at it.
That’s what he liked doing.
It was his passion.

It doesn’t make sense.
They had hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars stashed in Colombia and invested in properties and yet they just kept going with every year with hundreds of millions.

Declan Hill

Yeah, you think at some point they’d just take 50 million and just say, “Right, that’s me and we’re giving up now.”

Let’s cut to the end.
What happened to these three guys?
What was their eventual fate?

Luis Sierra

Don Lucho, he did his time.
He returned to Colombia.
He was murdered, I believe, a year ago, year and a half ago.
It was all over the news.

We assumed he couldn’t stay away from the business.

A DEA agent who worked this case put it well, “We hoped he would learn his lesson. We hoped that being in jail for X amount of years would put him on the straight and narrow.”

But someone like Lucho… He said, “No, he’s going to go back to business.”

It looks like when he returned to Colombia, he probably went back to business and someone else got angry at him, who knows, but he was murdered.

Don Claudio was murdered too, about a year ago, I believe.
Declan Hill

Same reasons, he was pissing off the wrong people by being, getting back into it?

Luis Sierra

Yeah, I think like anything in any criminal world, probably they were gone for a stretch and others come up just as powerful as them or more powerful, to create their new organizations.

Just like we saw the succession of Medellin with Pablo, to Cali, to Norte Valle, to these guys. It’s someone else’s time to be at the top.

And then you have these old school guys coming in who are powerful and they want to muscle their way back into the business and they rub somebody the wrong way.

Looks like that’s probably what happened and that’s the way the underworld works in Colombia.

Declan Hill

Again, I go back to that question about what makes you happy. Why don’t they just take the cash, a small section of this billions of dollars, and live even a slightly richer lifestyle in some small forgotten section of the world and just do it that way.

Let’s turn away from this story for one second because CrimeWaves podcast is specifically set up to celebrate investigations by and for investigators.

What’s a skill, an important skill?

I don’t want to ask the cliche question, what’s the most important because there are many skills, but what is one important skill that this investigation revealed to you and you wish more investigators would have or would pursue?

Luis Sierra

Yeah, I don’t think there’s one [skill] per se.

Declan Hill

Sorry, it’s a bit of a general question, but just give us one sense, because there’s a lot of young people who listen. There’s a lot of people who aren’t actually investigators, but would like to have that sense of how one goes about that business of investigation.

Luis Sierra

So I guess one thing is when you’re doing any type of large scale, complex, big investigation, whether it’s like this into a major cartel, it’s into, , like they used to organize crime in New York, even serial killer type investigations or massive fraud is, , as an investigator,

This is not a 9-to-5 job.

An investigator has to be willing to almost work 24-7.

Remember these cartels, organized crime, fraudsters, serial killers don’t stop.

They’re not turning off their phones at 5 o’clock.
They’re not vacationing much.
They’re not stopping.
For them it’s 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year activity and and to pursue them we have to put in the long hours.

We have to work non-stop and not give them a break.
We have to constantly be on top of them.
It’s non-stop.

Declan Hill

How does that work with family life then?

Luis Sierra

It’s really hard to strike a balance. I think any of us who’ve worked these types of cases, including myself, the family has suffered, unfortunately, due to absences and travel and distraction.

Unfortunately, it can be hard to find a work-life balance when you’re passionate about investigations and when you’re wrapped up in these super important or large cases.
It’s hard.

You have to try and do that, but nonetheless, being an investigator is not a 9-to-5 job.

Declan Hill

I remember talking to Joe Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco’s wife, who was a fantastic woman in that
The pain of having her husband not only doing a dangerous job but doing a dangerous job where she wouldn’t speak to him for days, weeks, months.

He would disappear and then he’d return and there’d be this kind of person who would come in that she was desperately in love with but it had become a stranger to her in those ways and that cost of the investigation is so high.

A general question.

Again, on the podcast, we spoke to Robert Mazur, another incredible undercover agent that fought against the Medellin and Cali Cartels during the 80s and 90s.

And his thesis is, “Look, if we’re ever going to beat these guys, we’ve got to stop going after the product. We’ve got to stop going after the drugs and turn our attention as an investigation community, as a society, into the money, into pursuing the cash in these transactions.”
What’s your sense of that?
Do you agree with Robert?

Luis Sierra

Absolutely, I agree with Robert 100%.
I admire him greatly and everything he’s done and I think he’s absolutely correct.
There’s more cocaine flowing around the world than ever before.
How long have we been at this game?
Decades now.
I don’t want to say we should stop. Of course we have to interdict drugs.
We have to stop the flow for the best we can.
But it’s almost like a hamster on a hamster wheel.
It’s just going to keep coming.
, in organizations, especially drug smuggling, they can recover from a thousand kilos lost, two thousand.
To them, that’s, a small price of doing business.
Where you hit organized crime and not only cartels, where you really cripple their operations is when you take away their ability to launder their money.

And that can be working with bank accounts, working with the financial industry, but it goes beyond that too, to real estate investments, into money remitting houses, all the different ways they move organized crime moves their funds.

until I don’t want to say until we because of course there’s governments around the world are constantly trying to put greater controls on and regulations on financial industry and compliance programs but that’s the only way we really make them hurt or or make them make it difficult for them to operate.

I always say, in my current job, I serve as a subject matter expert for the United States State Department and advise in money laundering to Mexican government officials.

And when I speak, , I like saying that, , all crimes, except maybe crimes of passion, the end goal is to make money.

There’s very few crimes. around the world, that end goal isn’t to make money.

And criminal organizations have to launder money.
They have to launder their money.
They have to legitimize and move it.
That’s their end goal.

I agree with Robert, we are, our focus needs to be on that. We need to increase our focus and make that a priority.

Declan Hill

My personal theory, Luis, is that until a series of well-dressed bankers are pulled out of their corporate headquarters and made to do the perp walk in handcuffs, it’s going to go on.

I just think we’ve got to start arresting high-level bankers.

Thank you for your work.

I really appreciate both your work and taking the time to do this.

It’s been a real honor to speak to you today.

Luis Sierra

Thank you, and your guys.

I love your show.
I listen to it all the time and love talking about this case.
It’s been an honor and a pleasure to talk about this and remember all the particulars of this case, which in our careers, I think all agents, whatever type of crime, serial killers or organized mafia in New York, I was watching the other night a new series about Gotti, and seeing those agents work that case, and one agent in particular from the FBI, it was great talking about that case.

These cases change you.
They change you as a person.
They change who you are.
They affect you.
Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but they’re career-defining and
That’s why we’re agents.

It’s incredible.
I’m happy to share it with you guys.

Thank you.

Declan Hill

Thank you.

**

So after the interview with Luis Sierra, we’re trying a new segment now, which is a production meeting. And that’s a discussion between myself and the student producer.

Today, it’s the brilliant Alexander Klein about his thoughts, observations on the interview and on the story of the Ghost Army.

So Alex, having listened to this, having listened and met Louis Sierra for the first time, what were your thoughts on the case?

Alexander Klein

I believe the case changed every agent involved.
It changed who they are fundamentally as people and as agents and investigators.

Declan Hill

How do you mean?

Alexander Klein

This case seemed to be a very small case, and as further investigations continued, they found out this was a super Colombian drug cartel.
These were big-time players, and they were living under the radar as ghosts.

Declan Hill

Yeah, and what struck me was that exact contrast between Pablo Escobar, who my understanding is that you’ve already spoken to a number of people who were neighbors of Juan Pablo Escobar, lived in his community, and the difference between a man like that kind of larger than life and the guys that took over.
Tell the audience if you don’t mind just a little bit about your research interviews with people in Colombia.

Alexander Klein

The people that I spoke to in Colombia view Pablo Escobar as kind of like a hero for the community, that he aided and helped them in any way that he could.
They seemed to give the response that he wanted to help and give back to his community that he was involved in. His own neighborhood, he would throw parties, he would give money, he would give food to people, he would give shelter, he would buy homes for them.
So he was more of a neighbor, a friend, and even a family member to strangers in the Medellin area in Colombia.

Declan Hill
So even 30 years later, people in Medellin or certain parts of Medellin still regard Escobar as a hero to their community as opposed to a drug lord.

Alexander Klein

Yes, of course they did understand, , the atrocities and they understand how evil and cruel he was, but their personal perspective of him when they met him in their interactions, they viewed him as kind of a hero triumphing for the community to help them out.

Declan Hill

Interesting. And listen, thank you very much for doing that research.
Again, the Escobar case isn’t directly on what we were talking with Luis Sierra on, but it’s brilliant to work with a student like you, who’s doing this background research.
Listeners, thank you so much for your attention today.
We really, really value you guys.
We know you put considerable time and effort and investment sitting with us, listening to this work, so we really appreciate that.
If you can, rate, review, subscribe, pass on this information.
It really helps us grow.
We are, considering who we’re up against here in the top 5% of all podcasts,
We’re considerably under-resourced, but we’re trying to give you the best and most intelligent true crime podcast there is.
So thank you, and we’ll see you next week for another great episode of CrimeWaves podcast.

    The Ghost Army: the Inside Story of the World’s Largest Drug Cartel

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