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DEA agent infiltrated cartel in Colombia

5-year effort nets 20 drug arrests

By Laura J. Nelson
Globe Correspondent / June 4, 2011

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For nearly five years he traveled under a fake name, sending hundreds of millions of dollars in drug money to members of an infamous Colombian cartel. He won the trust of influential money launderers, meeting in hotel lobbies, parking lots, and bustling food courts to discuss cocaine shipments to Houston and pick up suitcases stuffed with drug money.

The Boston-based agent of the US Drug Enforcement Agency, working undercover, infiltrated a major money-laundering and drug-smuggling ring, unearthing the evidence that built the base for some 20 arrests of suspected operatives in Colombia’s largest drug cartel, La Oficina de Evigado, federal officials said this week.

The men arrested in Colombia and the United States include three suspects and one fugitive with ties to Boston. Some still face extradition to the United States, but are all slated to stand trial in Boston on charges of money laundering.

The undercover agent, a DEA financial investigator whose identity has not been released, spelled out in a lengthy affidavit released Tuesday the ring he infiltrated, outlining a complex network of contacts and couriers who allegedly transferred money from the streets of the United States to the pockets of cartel kingpins.

“You’re out there with people who live, breathe, and spend all their time on the streets,’’ said DEA special agent Chris Jakim, referring to undercover narcotics agents. “It’s just you and the bad guys. They’re armed. And they know who belongs and who doesn’t.’’

In 2007, the Boston agent began infiltrating a ring of money launderers and brokers based in Venezuela and Colombia with the help of a confidential informant.

The agent posed as a high-level money launderer and brought in other undercover agents, who were soon picking up deliveries of drug money in an array of cities across the United States, including Woburn, Revere, Somerville, and Boston. He deposited the money into DEA-controlled bank accounts in the United States, then wired the cash to broker accounts in the United States, Panama, the Caribbean, Portugal, and China, the affidavit said.

The agent documented that brokers working for the cartel paid commissions to money launderers, including the DEA agent. The brokers then funneled money through private exchange houses in Colombia or through illicit organizations like the Black Market Peso Exchange to convert dollars to other types of currency, the affidavit said.

The arrests deal a serious blow to the cartel, damaging the illegal money machine that converts drugs to cash and fuels the drug production process, authorities said. “If we can hit them in the pocket, where it hurts, we can make a significant dent,’’ US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said during a press conference Wednesday.

The bulk of the DEA undercover agent’s work involved following drug money. In Boston, he deposited money in installments of $10,000 or less into accounts controlled by banks including Wachovia, Citibank, and Bank of America. The Bank Secrecy Act, aimed at money launderers, requires a disclosure form with any deposit greater than $10,000.

The agent coordinated meetings and pickups through heavily encoded electronic messages, including texts, e-mails, and phone conversations.

In one cryptic e-mail referring to a money transfer to China, the agent told a Colombian drug kingpin, “I received your e-mail, and you understand that it takes about five days to cross the lake . . . and you know how the dragons are.’’

The agent and his contacts referred to cocaine as “fine white fabric,’’ bank accounts as “bodegas’’ and amounts like $245,000 as “245 feet.’’ Agents go through special training to learn such slang, the DEA’s Jakim said.

During a trip to Colombia in December 2010, the agent met with a drug magnate and a Colombian businessman in the lobby of a J.W. Marriott hotel in Bogota, the affidavit said. In a recorded conversation with the drug magnate, Aldo Fernando Guerrero Clavijo, also known as Rolo, the agent discussed amounts of up to $900,000 to be picked up in Puerto Rico and Guatemala, fake paperwork to throw J.P. Morgan off the scent of his deposits, and sales of up to 1,000 kilograms of cocaine at Colombia prices — significantly lower than US prices.

Guerrero later told the agent he liked his work because he took two to three days to launder the money, as opposed to the 10 to 15 days others required, the affidavit said.

Laura J. Nelson can be reached at lnelson@globe.com.