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A $5-million offer for freedom fell flat

Major drug trafficking suspect arrested in Colombia tried to buy his way out of custody.

June 27, 2007|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Police say it was an offer that Colombian detectives could, and did, refuse: a $5-million bribe from Otto Herrera Garcia of Guatemala, a suspected drug trafficker they had just collared in the parking lot of a Bogota shopping center.

"Stop the car; let's talk about this. Let me make a phone call and we'll fix this," police say Herrera told them. "How much do you want to let me go? $2 million?"

Herrera quickly raised his offer to $5 million during the 40-minute drive last week to the headquarters of Colombia's Department of Administrative Security, or DAS.

One of biggest 'big fish'

Herrera could have afforded to offer more, according to Colombian and U.S. officials, who touted him as one of the biggest of "big fish" in drug trafficking in the Western Hemisphere.

After realizing his effort was futile, Herrera turned morose, telling the agents he "had all the money in the world" but couldn't spend any of it because he had been on the run since escaping a Mexican jail in May 2005.

Herrera hadn't seen his two daughters in the United States for seven years, he reportedly told police. "It's my time to lose. I've got to face the music," agents said he told them.

A 2003 indictment in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., alleges that Herrera annually managed the shipment of several multi-ton loads of Colombian cocaine, ferrying it by air, land or sea to U.S. markets via Central America and Mexico.

After escaping from the Mexico City jail, Herrera allegedly did anything but retire. Authorities say he became instrumental in repatriating hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit profit from Colombian drug traffickers.

Sources said that Herrera was seized while arranging for a single-engine aircraft to carry $25 million from Central America to Colombia.

A team of five DAS agents arrested Herrera at 8 p.m. June 20 while he sat in a late-model Nissan Altima in an affluent part of Bogota, the capital. He was talking to two Colombians in the car while a Colombian bodyguard stood outside.

The DAS team had Herrera under surveillance for two months after getting a tip from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that he was in Colombia.

Herrera used the alias of Diego Leon Callejas and had a Colombian passport and national identity card. Authorities did not say how long they believed Herrera had been in Colombia.

The capture of Herrera was one of the most important drug trafficking arrests in Colombia in recent years, a U.S. law enforcement official said Tuesday. Herrera is thought to have worked for various Colombian and Mexican cartels, he said.

After Herrera's arrest in Mexico in April 2004, police searching his house in Guatemala found $14 million in cash. Herrera has "many properties" in Colombia and was heavily involved in laundering the drug profits he helped bring back here, DAS detectives said.

Very deep pockets

The arresting officers said they never considered accepting the bribe, but led Herrera on to find out how high he would raise his offer.

"We do this work not for the money, but for the department, our country and to improve Colombia's image," said one of the detectives who led the operation and who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

The detective said his annual salary was about $6,000, making the final bribe offer equal to more than 800 years of work.

"I hope it shows there are some honest people in Colombia, that the honesty of DAS is not for sale," he said.

chris.kraul@latimes.com

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