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Busted: The Fed in Cahoots With a Colombian Drug Lord

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CALI, Colombia—Ever wonder how much it takes for a powerful drug lord to buy off a U.S. federal agent?

The answer, based on recent evidence, seems to be: not much at all.

Christopher Ciccione, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), pleaded guilty in a Miami courtroom on Nov. 30 to conspiring to commit “deceit, craft and trickery” against Uncle Sam for what would appear to be no more than a few centavos on the dollar. Ciccione, 52, now faces up to five years in prison for aiding and abetting a Colombian capo linked to four major cartels.

What’s the going rate for selling out your country? The court records say that in 2010 Ciccione and another as yet unnamed HSI agent received from an infamous crime boss wanted in one of the nation’s biggest 🤬 smuggling incidents about $17,700 in cash, along with an all-inclusive long weekend of wining, dining, and high-end call girls at a luxury hotel in Bogotá.

As Faustian bargains go it’s a fairly paltry sum for which to put one’s soul—or at least one’s government career and pension—at hazard. And the Ciccione case also highlights a worrisome trend of U.S. law enforcement officers breaking bad in service of the cartels or to traffic narcotics on their own.

Deal With El Diablo

The 🤬 -running Mephistopheles who brought down Agent Ciccione was a former Colombian army lieutenant named José Bayron Piedrahíta Ceballos, aka “Montanero.” The officer-turned-assassin, money launderer, and international smuggler started his criminal career working with Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel. Piedrahíta, 58, eventually became a top boss with the Cali Cartel. That’s when he first crossed paths with Agent Ciccione.

In the early 2000s, Ciccione was a feared figure among the Colombian underworld. The Justice Department describes him as “the case agent for Operation Cornerstone, a large-scale Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force” based out of Miami. In that role, the Pennsylvania native and his team brought charges against more than a hundred mobsters affiliated with the Cali Cartel, including Piedrahíta.

But the wily crime lord—who owns land in Argentina and Panama, and is known for bribing prominent politicians—managed to evade capture for almost two decades. It was during that span that something seems to have snapped in Ciccione, causing him to trade in his white hat for a black one.

According to the indictment (PDF), Ciccione “began his federal service in 2001 with the United States Customs Service,” which was folded into the Department of Homeland Security after the World Trade Center attacks. Around February of 2010 he began communicating with a Colombian double agent named Juan Velasco, a former member of the Cali Cartel who had flipped to become a U.S. informant. Velasco helped arrange a bribery deal between Ciccione and Piedrahíta that saw the HSI investigator start to undo the long list of indictments he himself had brought against the mafia leader.

Ciccione doctored Department of Justice (DOJ) reports to make it seem as though El Montanero’s “cooperation [with the Cali Cartel] had no real value” and that he was “a suspect in a closed investigation” as opposed to one of Colombia’s most wanted men. He even went so far as to lobby the State Department to give the cartel jefe an open visa for himself and his family to live in the U.S.

As part of his guilty plea the former agent confessed that he “falsified official records and lied to his supervisors and the U.S. Attorney’s Office” to get the charges against Piedrahíta dropped.

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