For some two decades, Luis Agustin Caicedo Velandia, alias “Don Lucho,” is alleged to have played a significant role in trafficking drugs out of Colombia’s prized Eastern Plains region, relying on key alliances with some of the country’s most powerful criminal players to move cocaine through Central America and the Caribbean and on to lucrative markets in the United States and Europe.
However, as a so-called “invisible” largely hidden in the shadows, his true role in Colombia’s drug trade remains uncertain.
Don Lucho reportedly entered the drug trafficking world around 1994 after leaving the Colombian Attorney General Office’s Technical Body of Investigation (Cuerpo Tecnico de Investigacion – CTI) amid a scandal regarding his alleged participation in the escape of a Puerto Rican drug trafficker. Authorities in the United States also trace his criminal career back to at least the mid- to late-1990s, eventually rising to become a key part of a criminal organization known as the El Dorado Cartel, El Cartel de Bogotá or simply the Junta, within which Don Lucho was a master of logistics.
Primarily through connections to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Revolucionarias de Colombia — FARC) and United Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia — AUC), he arranged for cocaine to be processed, produced and delivered to transportation cells on the north and west coasts of Colombia before arranging for the drugs to be transported via maritime routes to Central America and on to Mexican traffickers for importation into the United States, or through Venezuela and the Caribbean to Europe, according to US prosecutors.
Don Lucho trafficked tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of kilograms of cocaine during his tenure, allowing him to amass a fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.
Throughout the 2000s, according to Colombian authorities, Don Lucho is believed to have trafficked cocaine alongside Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias “El Loco,” who relied on a vast network of collaborators to run one of Colombia’s most formidable drug trafficking networks since the fall of Medellín Cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar. However, some US anti-drug officials believe that Don Lucho and El Loco each had their own sophisticated trafficking networks that worked beside one another while respecting each other’s operations. Like feudal kings, they knew alliances were necessary to fight off security forces and encroachments by other organized crime groups.
However, while appearing to be among the major leagues of Colombia’s drug trafficking world, Don Lucho’s name rarely figured prominently into newspaper headlines prior to his arrest. By all accounts, he was part of what InSight Crime has identified as the “invisibles,” a new generation of drug traffickers operating with a low profile and under the assumption that their best protection is total anonymity.
Whatever the case, Don Lucho managed a quite profitable drug business for years, which featured a money laundering wing that extended into Spain and washed more than $1 billion in drug proceeds between 2005 and 2009, according to Spanish police.
Don Lucho’s criminal career came to an end in June 2010. In a joint operation, US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents and Argentine security forces captured him at a shopping center in Buenos Aires. He was later extradited to the United States the following month.
Once in US custody, Don Lucho pleaded guilty to a five-count drug trafficking indictment in Florida and received a 10-year prison sentence. His sentence was later reduced down to time served in 2015 due to his cooperation. However, Don Lucho also faced an indictment in New York with El Loco and others on a money laundering conspiracy that involved more than $175 million in drug proceeds, according to prosecutors.
Don Lucho again pleaded guilty and cooperated with US authorities, so much so that prosecutors called his contributions “beyond magnificent,” adding that he helped bring down his own network and other Colombian traffickers while also aiding in the seizure of more than $100 million in assets, thousands of kilograms of cocaine and a number of go-fast boats and semi-submersibles.
On January 30, 2019, Don Lucho walked free from jail in New York, according to the US Federal Bureau of Prisons, and is presumed to have returned to Colombia.
Don Lucho was a substantial drug trafficker and money launderer who walked a fine line between two of Colombia’s most powerful criminal groups, making connections with both the FARC and AUC to facilitate his operations.
It’s clear that Don Lucho worked closely with El Loco, who would buy cocaine paste from the FARC and then process that into cocaine in his own labs in the Eastern Plains, some of which was then sold to the AUC, who used the drugs to purchase weapons and other materials, according to US prosecutors. It’s likely that Don Lucho utilized a similar strategy.
When not selling drugs to the AUC, Don Lucho relied on a variety of trafficking methods to move his product outside of Colombia, including via semi-submersibles, non-commercial airplanes, cargo, vessels and land transportation organizations that worked alongside his group, according to a special agent from the DEA.
When not departing Colombia directly from key Pacific port cities like Tumaco, Don Lucho also moved his cocaine through Venezuela and the Caribbean en route to Europe, or via Central America and Mexico to the United States. He even seems to have operated from Argentina, where he was eventually arrested.
US authorities alleged Don Lucho had connections to some of the most significant drug money launderers in Colombia that dealt with hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in drug proceeds, some of whom Don Lucho himself allegedly helped bring down.
For his part, Don Lucho still holds the record for having the world’s largest known drug money laundering operation estimated at more than $1.5 billion, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Don Lucho operated primarily in the Eastern Plains region of Colombia, but was also linked to the country’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts, as well as to drugs departing from El Dorado International Airport in the capital, Bogotá. But the tentacles of his criminal organization didn’t stop there, but rather extended throughout the region. From across the border in Venezuela, to Honduras in Central America, Haiti in the Caribbean and also Mexico, Don Lucho’s network touched every key point in the drug trafficking chain for coca cultivation and cocaine production on up to vital departure and transshipment points, according to information cited in court documents.
On the money laundering side, Don Lucho’s network set up a substantial operation headed by his wife in Spain in order to launder drug proceeds from Colombia, Mexico and Panama. One of the fake companies set up to launder the money also allegedly bought gold and pawned jewels.
Allies and Enemies
In Colombia, Don Lucho’s primarily alliance was with El Loco, but he also relied on connections with members of the FARC and AUC throughout the 2000s. One of his key points of contact within the FARC’s ranks was Tomas Molina Caracas, alias “Negro Acacio,” who was the head of the rebels’ 16th Front in Vichada department. Until his death in 2007, Negro Acacio funded the FARC’s Eastern Bloc primarily through drug proceeds.
In addition to the 16th Front, Don Lucho also enjoyed protection from the FARC’s 1st and 43rd Fronts. Outside of the FARC and AUC, the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (Ejército Revolucionario Popular Antiterrorista Colombiano – ERPAC), led by Pedro Oliverio Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo,” also guarded Don Lucho’s operations and drug processing centers in Meta, Guaviare and Vichada departments, according to Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office.
Don Lucho was also tied to a number of other Colombian capos. This included Julio Alberto Lozano Pirateque, who under the facade of being a prosperous emerald merchant laundered money through various companies and properties, as well as Claudio Javier Silva Otálora, alias “Patrón,” who rose through the drug trafficking ranks with the help of former Norte del Valle head Wílber Varela, alias “Jabón.” Otálora and Pirateque were both indicted with Don Lucho in the Eastern District of New York in 2010 in connection to a money laundering conspiracy. Colombian authorities reportedly seized some $28 million of money linked to the men in the Pacific coast port city of Buenaventura in 2010.
Outside of Colombia, Don Lucho had a close criminal relationship with Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, which relied on his network that extended through Colombia and Venezuela and into Central America and the Caribbean in order to obtain the cocaine the group moved into the United States. In fact, authorities in May 2010 reportedly intercepted a submarine Don Lucho had sent from Colombia stuffed with more than a ton of cocaine for Sinaloa Cartel kingpins Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo.”
After his arrest in 2010 in Buenos Aires, Don Lucho made quite a few enemies after providing US prosecutors with a treasure trove of information on members of his own organization, as well as other rival traffickers. He informed US law enforcement about drug trafficking routes, disclosed where associates were hiding, identified at least 126 individuals for federal prosecutors, recorded phone conversations with traffickers and was set to be a witness in several trials.
His cooperation almost certainly aided Colombian authorities in the capture of El Loco Barrera in September 2012. However, many of the enemies Don Lucho made are likely behind bars or dead.
All the evidence suggests that Don Lucho was likely one of Colombia’s most powerful and sophisticated drug traffickers, just without all the public notoriety. He amassed considerable power and wealth hidden in the shadows behind El Loco as an “invisible,” and InSight Crime sources say there’s some indication he may have even jumped back into the business after returning to Colombia following his release from jail in January 2019.
Although Don Lucho sang like a bird for US prosecutors, many of those he implicated are either dead or jailed, and it’s unlikely anyone is actively seeking to take him out at the moment. Even if they were, Don Lucho grew accustomed to successfully operating below the surface amid threats to his life.
The criminal landscape that he has returned to is filled with criminal players who likely are not concerned about those he wronged in the past, but rather may want to use him for the intimate knowledge and successful drug trafficking career he once had outside of the limelight.