Colombia Trafficker Tied to International Corruption, Money Laundering

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An investigation with ramifications across the Americas has culminated in the arrest of an old-school Colombian drug trafficker who managed to adapt to major evolutions in regional criminal dynamics, in part by following in the footsteps of other similar figures.

Colombian authorities arrested José Bayron Piedrahita Ceballos in his luxurious country home in the department of Antioquia in the early morning hours of September 29, reported El Tiempo. Piedrahita, a business tycoon and Colombian national, was charged last week with obstruction of justice and corruption in a US federal court.

The US indictment argues that Piedrahita bribed an officer from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency with cash, liquor and a sex worker during a trip to the Colombian capital Bogotá. In return, the ICE agent allegedly corrupted records and misled several other US officials from different agencies. These actions allegedly contributed to a judge’s decision to close a 1996 indictment against 18 alleged members of the Cali Cartel, including Piedrahita.

However, the respite was short-lived for the man accused of having worked for essentially all major Colombian drug trafficking groups since the Medellín Cartel. By May 2016, Piedrahita’s name was added to the US Treasury Department’s so-called “Kingpin List” for his ties to the Medellín-based Oficina de Envigado crime network.

While Colombian authorities proceeded with Piedrahita’s arrest, their Argentine counterparts executed 33 search warrants targeting a money laundering network allegedly run by Piedrahita. La Nación reported that $15 million was seized from the network, whose laundering vehicles allegedly included a trendy Buenos Aires cafe and a government railroad construction program.

InSight Crime Analysis

Piedrahita is an example of the remarkable resistance and adaptability of certain drug trafficking figures who manage to survive across criminal eras. Such actors often succeed in staying in the dangerous game of the international drug business through a mix of corruption, stealth and cunning, as was the case with Brazil’s “Cabeça Branca,” arrested earlier this year.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Money Laundering

Piedrahita is also the latest in a series of foreign capos to have sought refuge for themselves or their drug profits in Argentina. There is a long list of Colombian and Mexican drug lords who have retired in Argentina, sometimes with their families, likely due to the generally high quality of life there as well as loose protections against money laundering.

Argentina has taken some recent steps to improve its ability to detect and deter illicit financial flows, but shortcomings remain. Between 2000 and 2014, of the 90,000 reports of suspicious financial activities received by Argentina’s overarching financial regulatory agency (Unidad de Información Financiera), only 7,000 where investigated for only 18 fines, four convictions, and one prison sentence. This generalized impunity is likely one of the reasons that explains why Argentina remains one of the region’s nations most at risk of money laundering, according to a recent report by the Basel Institute for Governance.

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