Bloomberg Businessweek

KING OF THE SNITCHES

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

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