At the height of the drug wars, Baruch Vega won the trust of American cops, Colombian cartel bosses, and coked-up hit men. Was he the ultimate spy or the ultimate con man?
I. THE RAID
When the FBI showed up at the door of his penthouse in Miami Beach, fashion photographer Baruch Vega was drinking merlot with a group of models, stylists, and assistants. The group had just returned from two weeks of shoots in Puerto Rico and Cancún. They were preparing for another in Jamaica the next day.
It was March 21, 2000. Vega was 50 and feeling like he’d hit his prime. Trim and tan, he owned a nine-seat Hawker jet and was a fixture at South Beach’s trendy restaurants—always wearing a tight black T-shirt and surrounded by beautiful women. He was thinking of trying to make one of them his fourth wife.
But this fabulous life was actually a cover. Although none of his four daughters or his fashion friends knew it, Vega was a freelance spy working for the U.S. government. He’d insinuated himself into the social circles of Colombia’s cocaine kingpins. And even as he provided information to the U.S., Vega was also running a con. Between photo shoots, he’d talked some of the world’s most dangerous drug traffickers—including a former gunman for Pablo Escobar— into agreeing to pay him more than $100 million.
Vega had the narcos convinced he was close with corrupt members of the all-powerful U.S. government “Blitz Committee,” an interagency task force, and could, for a price, make their legal problems go away. As far as the cartel members could tell, Vega was legit. Once they paid him, the rules of the drug war seemed not to apply. Men wanted for murder were waved through customs. Criminals and Drug Enforcement Administration agents visited strip clubs together. One known trafficker threw a party on a yacht in Miami to mark the millennium. Another went to Disney World.
Drug traffickers were such regular visitors to Vega’s penthouse, he wasn’t alarmed when one, who went by El Médico (“The Doctor”), rang his doorbell that evening. El Médico wanted to discuss the $7 million he’d paid Vega. He said the FBI knew about it and had been asking who got paid off. Vega tried to wave off the questions, saying he’d just spent the money, and El Médico left seemingly satisfied.
Vega didn’t know it, but the FBI was listening. Around 9:30 p.m., as his group was about to head out for dinner, agents showed up. Vega stayed calm, offered the FBI agents wine, and told his friends to go on and order him a veal chop.
The agents refused the wine. They ordered Vega to sit, put on latex gloves, and started searching his apartment. Vega made a show of trying to help, directing them to a camera case stuffed with more than $400,000 in cash. He said the money was part of his work for the DEA. But the agents didn’t buy it. They questioned him for hours. Early the next morning, they told him he was under arrest. He was charged with money laundering and obstruction of justice. The FBI claimed he’d taken cash from dealers and interfered with investigations. The next week, agents raided the DEA’s Miami headquarters and hauled out the computers and notebooks of anyone who had anything to do with Vega. It looked like one of the biggest scandals in the history of the drug war.
And then the case was dropped, no explanation given. Twenty years on, Vega is eager to explain why and tell his story. Like a kind of narco Forrest Gump, he recalls crossing paths with all the major players. He says he delivered drug money to Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and flirted with Escobar’s wife. He trained DEA agents to pose as his photography assistants and used models to recruit cartel members as informants. And then there was the time Medellín capo José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha threatened him by showing him two severed hands floating in a bucket of blood.
Vega was, according to Vega, one of the most successful undercover operatives of all time—a spy whose charm, cunning, and cool under pressure were matched only by his skill with the ladies. He admits to swindling traffickers, but insists he did so on behalf of the DEA.
As crazy as these claims seem, most are backed up by internal DEA documents and thousands of pages of court records from the trials of traffickers that have taken place since. In interviews, two dozen federal agents, prosecutors, and defense lawyers, as well as one very angry former cartel boss, contend that Vega did something so audacious it shouldn’t have been possible: He simultaneously conned two of the most dangerous organizations in the world, Colombia’s fearsome Norte del Valle cartel and the U.S. government.
“It became such a mess that the government as a whole just said f---ing bury this,” says Paul Craine, who was a DEA agent in Bogotá in the late ’90s. “If we try to unravel this, we’re going to have to prosecute FBI agents, DEA agents, prosecutors. It was so crazy, where do you even start?”
II. A LUCRATIVE CAREER
I found Vega through an online photo portfolio stamped with his personal logo—an intertwined B and V—and featuring page after page of pouty-lipped women in skimpy swimsuits. I wrote to ask if he might be interested in discussing his undercover years. He was. We talked for hours on the phone, then at a bar at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York.
“We were really able to dismantle the biggest drug trafficking operation in history,” he said and took a sip of wine.
Now 72, Vega stands about 5-foot-10, with buzzed gray hair and a deeply lined face. He joked that he looks like a Shar-Pei, but he’s still handsome. Within minutes of my arrival, he was hitting on the waitress. He’s also fond of superlatives: Models are “spectacularly stunning,” rich people are “mega-multibillionaires.” He was in Manhattan, he told me, to raise money for a cryptocurrency venture.
Born in Bogotá, Vega claimed he was recruited as a teenager by the CIA to infiltrate radical student groups. (The agency doesn’t reveal its informants, but two federal agents confirmed that Vega did at least some work for the CIA.) He got into photography around the same time, at first as a way to meet women. He’d approach them on the street and ask to take their picture. Once he was shooting, he’d tell them how beautiful they’d look naked. In Vega’s telling, passion would take over. “They were so ready to explode,” he told me. “For them, it was a tremendous escape.”
Vega said he quit the CIA in the mid- ’70s and moved to New York, where he started a modeling agency, Intramodel Beauty. He also befriended a crack- smoking Venezuelan hit man, Rafael Rodriguez, better known by his alias, Amilcar. Vega partied at Studio 54, jumped into Champagne-filled hot tubs at Miami’s Mutiny Hotel, and helped Amilcar’s cartel buddies launder some of their money. Drugs were everywhere. “If they did not offer you cocaine, you would say this was a low-class event,” Vega said. He added that he never partook.
He also never entirely trusted Rodriguez, and when the hit man admitted to killing some of their mutual friends as part of a turf war among Miami’s cocaine cowboys, Vega went to the police. (Rodriguez pleaded guilty to murder and died in prison.)
Vega’s new friends in law enforcement came in handy in 1985. He was in a tight spot financially—a flamboyant tax shelter promoter with two mischievous pet monkeys had scammed him out of most of the money he’d made selling the modeling agency. (The story is so outlandish, I wouldn’t have believed it, but the dispute, along with the monkeys, shows up in court records and newspaper articles from the time.) Vega’s law enforcement acquaintances proposed that he could work as a paid informant for them. That sounded exciting. And Vega’s lifestyle wasn’t cheap. Models, he said, “need private jets, mansions, major hotels. That’s the difference between a model and a regular woman.”
That was the start of Vega’s lucrative career in the drug wars. He never told his family what he was up to, not even when one of his daughters, a child actress, was preparing to star in the movie Spy Kids. “My parents can’t be spies,” her character in the movie says when she learns about their double life. “They’re not cool enough.”
III. THE DRUG TRAFFICKER RESOCIALIZATION PROGRAM
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush gave an Oval Office speech during which he held up a bag of crack and declared war on drug trafficking. America was being ravaged by drug use, he said, and in Colombia, “cocaine killers” were murdering judges and politicians with impunity. “Our message to the drug cartels is this: The rules have changed,” Bush said. He announced $2 billion in funding for international drug policing.
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