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Danilo's war

The story of one officer's rise and fall in Colombia's drug wars illustrates the challenges police face.

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
Published January 3, 2005

BOGOTA, Colombia - On a chilly and overcast day in late March, mourners gathered at a police force chapel in the Colombian capital to bid goodbye to a fallen officer.

The ceremony was short and awkward. Despite Col. Danilo Gonzalez's highly decorated career stretching over two decades, there were no official police honors.

Only a handful of former colleagues turned out for the event. His family was not even allowed to speak.

Gunned down a few days earlier by a hitman, Gonzalez, 50, was once one of Colombia's top police intelligence officers.

He enjoyed unparalleled success in penetrating the drug trafficking underworld, working mostly in secret and often in close collaboration with U.S. law enforcement agents.

But the drug war eventually got the better of him, according to law enforcement officials in both countries. In May, federal prosecutors in New York named Gonzalez in one of the largest drug trafficking indictments in U.S. history.

Behind Gonzalez's fall is the story of how Colombia's war on drugs, backed by billions of U.S. dollars, has plunged this South American nation's ill-equipped and poorly-paid police into a whirlpool of corruption.

Gonzalez spent his career working in the shadows. Details of his police work began to trickle out only after his death, with many unanswered questions. Even today, U.S. and Colombian officials are reluctant to speak publicly about his record.

He tried to meet with U.S. officials to defend his actions.

"Certain circumstances led to what happened," he told one intermediary in a taped conversation. "I am certain that any authority will understand them perfectly."

But he died before he got that chance.

* * *

Born into a large, coffee farming family of modest means, Gonzalez grew up in the Cauca Valley, southwest of the Colombian capital, Bogota.

The valley's industrial-size plantations of sugar cane and neatly ordered plots of tropical fruits give it an innocuous look.

But over the years this verdant landscape has also been the scene of intense criminal activity, accompanied by horrific violence.

The Cauca Valley serves as a major smuggling route for drugs headed to the scrappy western port of Buenaventura, as well as north to the border with Panama.

The youngest of eight brothers and sisters, Gonzalez became the idol - and chief breadwinner - of his family after graduating at the top of his class from police cadet training school in 1977.

A handsome man of moderate height and lean physique, relatives speak of him in adoring tones.

Photos show him happily dancing at family gatherings, where he was always the center of attention.

By contrast, at work he shunned the public spotlight. Unlike the traffickers he is alleged to have associated with, he did not lead a lavish lifestyle. Colleagues describe him as reserved and unfailingly polite.

His life was full of such contradictions. That he ever joined the police was a surprise to the family. His father was a vocal leftist on the local municipal council. He was murdered in a land dispute when Danilo was only 5. The young man took after him, voraciously reading communist literature.

"We were revolutionary dreamers," said his sister, Gladys Gonzalez, a 53-year-old school principal. "We read a lot of Marx and Lenin."

Some of his friends would take up arms against the state, but Gonzalez turned down college and chose instead to join the police. "He wanted to learn how to use a gun," his sister said, believing at the time that he still planned the life of a revolutionary.

To everyone's surprise he returned home from two years of police training in Bogota a staunchly conservative law-and-order advocate.

In his early career he served in various stations around the country, including a stint in Cali, where he is alleged to have made his first contacts in the drug world.

By the time the Colombian government was confronting its first major drug cartel battle in the early 1990s, Gonzalez was already a major and a rising star in the intelligence field. He was chosen to join an elite police intelligence unit. The target was Pablo Escobar, the most feared capo of the Medellin Cartel.

* * *

To avoid extradition to the United States where he faced drug charges, Escobar had declared war on the state. The Osama bin Laden of his day, Escobar's men targeted politicians, judges and police, terrorizing major cities with car bombs.

In response, the United States sent in its own experts to back up a Colombian police "Bloque de Busqueda," or Search Unit. The U.S. contingent included the military's elite Delta Force, U.S. Navy Seals, as well as a secret U.S. Army spy team.

Gonzalez ran a network of informants for the Search Unit. Colleagues recall him as studious and cool under pressure; his guarded manner inspired confidence and loyalty in his men.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents recall Gonzalez as a gutsy officer. "He collaborated with us very closely," said Joe Toft, who headed the DEA office in Colombia. "He was definitely one of the best."

It was Gonzalez who made the first big breakthrough against Escobar's organization. Through his contacts he persuaded a group of traffickers - later dubbed "the Dirty Dozen" - to collaborate with police agents against Escobar. Eventually, other traffickers joined them, creating their own vigilante group that operated parallel to the joint U.S.-Colombian manhunt. They were a ruthless mix of paramilitary outlaws, cartel hitmen and white collar drug traffickers who called themselves "Los Pepes," a Spanish acronym for "Persecuted by Pablo Escobar."

U.S. officials were instructed to keep a distance from Los Pepes. The vigilante muscle came in handy, but U.S. rules prohibited the use of lethal force.

But U.S. officials worried that the Colombian police were running joint operations with Los Pepes. Money and information changed hands. Gonzalez was allegedly in the thick of it.

"There's a belief that a lot of money got to him," said Toft. "I think that was probably the turning point for him, unfortunately."

Allowing drug traffickers to have a hand in the manhunt for Escobar cemented the alliance between the police and the rival cartels that would go on to dominate the drug trade for the next decade.

Gonzalez's family defends him, rejecting any suggestion that he was corrupted by narco wealth.

"He did what was asked of him," said his sister, Gladys. "They needed someone to befriend the traffickers and get in-depth information on them. But he never became one of them."

Gonzalez drove a bullet-proof Land Cruiser and lived in a middle-class Bogota apartment with his wife, Luz Marina, and their four children. His brothers and sisters are now mostly retired and living on modest pensions from their careers. But counter-drug agents allege he quietly amassed a fortune in real estate, including several farms, and stashed his money in overseas accounts.

To be sure, it doesn't take much to corrupt a Colombian policeman. Salaries of $100-$200 a month make them especially vulnerable to temptation. Yet they share the burden, and risks, of the drug war with the better trained and equipped military. Before long traffickers were cutting in police officers on drug loads. Drug money flowed through the institution.

When Escobar was gunned down by Colombian police Dec. 2, 1993, Gonzalez was among several intelligence officers showered with awards.

"Because of your selfless dedication and willing sacrifices, the world's most sought-after criminal was located and killed," reads his DEA commendation. The certificate came complete with an autographed fingerprint of Escobar at the bottom.

* * *

Gonzalez was further rewarded with what one U.S. official described as "advanced investigative training."

After the fall of Escobar, Washington pressured the Colombian government to go after the Cali cartel. A new police chief had taken the helm in Colombia, Gen. Jose Serrano. He was considered a tough antidrug warrior.

Serrano is credited over the years with ridding the police of 8,000 crooked cops. But even Serrano couldn't afford to let Gonzalez go. Serrano needed him to pursue the Cali drug lords. No one had his infiltration skills.

"The feeling was that if we were going to go after Cali, we had to use Danilo Gonzalez," said Col. Oscar Naranjo, who was Serrano's right-hand man and now heads Colombia's Judicial Police. Naranjo knew Gonzalez well. They had studied together at the police academy. "He knew them better than anyone. He had gone inside their entrails. The information he had was amazing."

Only Gonzalez knew the code names and cell phone numbers of the main cartel bosses. The traffickers trusted him. His unique ability to move in both worlds gave him a power and influence unrivaled within the police. Prefering to stay in the shadows, he was happy to let his chiefs take the public credit for his work.

Dealing with traffickers wasn't Gonzalez's only expertise. He also turned his skills to kidnapping, a favorite fundraising device for Colombia's left-wing guerrilla armies. Once again, Gonzalez was ideally equipped. Through his early leftist activism in the Cauca Valley, he had gotten to know like-minded radicals who - unlike Gonzalez - had gone on to take up arms against the state.

Promoted to a key position as head of intelligence for the police antikidnapping unit, Gonzalez exploited those contacts to negotiate ransoms. As part of his work negotiating the release of kidnap victims, Gonzalez - and some of his superiors - allegedly collected part of the reward money.

He never discussed his work, said his sister, Gladys. She recalled that during occasional visits to his hometown of Buga, Gonzalez seemed withdrawn and obsessed with his job. "I'd hardly see him. I had to move the computer into his room, and I'd bring him coffee. He would lock himself away for days. Sometimes he went off to the hills and came back covered in mud."

Officials at the U.S. Embassy heard stories of reward money ending up in the wrong pockets, but lacked proof to confront officials. On one occasion U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette raised it with Serrano, the police chief. He says he was brushed off.

But concern about corruption was offset by a number of high profile Colombian police operations that earned Serrano a reputation as the "World's Top Policeman."

In 1996 a largely unknown leftist gang kidnapped Juan Carlos Gaviria, the brother of Colombia's president, Cesar Gaviria. Police successfully secured his release in only three months, without paying a ransom.

"How did they do it, who knows?" said Frechette. "Their speed was really impressive. They clearly had penetration in a lot of places, penetration that made some of us very uncomfortable."

In fact, Gonzalez helped crack the case. Authorities suspected the kidnapping was the work of a little known gang called the "Gegas," according to Naranjo, head of police intelligence at the time. Gonzalez knew all about the Gegas from his left-wing contacts. After locating the group's head, he arranged Gaviria's release.

Also, in January that year a major Cali cartel drug trafficker, Jose Santacruz, escaped from jail, causing deep embarrassment to the Colombian government. Four months later the Cali drug boss died in what officials described as a shootout with police. Police chief Serrano proudly took the credit.

In fact, DEA officials say Santacruz was captured by one of Gonzalez's paramilitary pals, and delivered to the police. He was allegedly executed after being tortured into revealing where he kept his drug money hidden. While the government took the credit, Gonzalez was reportedly allowed to divide the $2-million reward with his paramilitary friends.

But by 1998 Gonzalez's underworld connections were a source of division within the police. The United States was pressing for better results in the war on drugs. The Clinton administration was promoting Plan Colombia, a $1.3-billion all-out effort to wipe about the drug trade. For Congress to go along with that level of spending there had to be zero tolerance for corruption.

Gen. Serrano's rivals within the police also wanted Gonzalez out. Some were outraged by his methods. They spoke in hushed tones about his associations with traffickers and paramilitaries. Agents at the DEA had also opened an investigation targeting Gonzalez and the North Valley Cartel.

A few months later Gonzalez quietly retired.

But, even out of uniform, Gonzalez wielded enormous authority. Active duty policemen continued to call upon his services, as did the drug traffickers.

Pedro Juan Moreno, one of Colombia's most vocal critics of police corruption and a close friend of then presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe, recalls receiving a unexpected visit from Gonzalez. Moreno had filed accusations against Gen. Leonardo Gallego - the head of the Anti-Narcotics Police and a longtime drug war ally of the United States - alleging misuse of funds and corruption.

Gonzalez asked to see Moreno over dinner and tried to persuade him to drop the allegations. "He was very sure of himself," said Moreno. "He was still the king."

* * *

A tall, fresh-faced cop noted for his openness, Col. Naranjo was clearly torn by what he calls Gonzalez's "ambiguity."

"He was a brave man," Naranjo said in a two hour interview. "But he was too weak personally when it came time to decide which world he belonged in."

His sister Gladys speculates that after witnessing so much police corruption, he may have had a hard time figuring out "who were the good guys and who were the bad guys."

Either way, when the net finally began to close in on the North Valley cartel, Gonzalez was caught on the wrong side. By 1999 the cartel was shipping as much as half of the cocaine headed for the United States, in coordination with major Mexican traffickers. An indictment would later accuse the cartel of smuggling more than 1-million pounds of cocaine, worth a staggering $10-billion.

Sensing their days were numbered, the cartel bosses were looking to get out of the business and cash in their assets. So, one by one they approached U.S. law enforcement agents to explore cooperation deals in return for reduced jail time. Mutual suspicion over who would be the next to turn set off a bloody vendetta between the potential snitches in the valley. Hundreds died. Eventually, Gonzalez realized that the time had come to make his own pitch for survival. Early in 2003 he contacted a Colombian fashion photographer in Miami, Baruch Vega, who had worked for years as a U.S. government informant.

Gonzalez offered to mediate the surrender of the entire cartel. "There's a lot of people willing to cooperate with information," he told Vega, who tape-recorded their conversations.

During hours of discussions, Gonzalez admitted to knowing "every drug trafficker, almost without exception," but he insisted he had an explanation. "In one or another form I received information from them," he said.

He claimed that since leaving the police he had dedicated himself to raising cattle and had never been directly involved in drug trafficking. He was willing to meet with U.S. officials and discuss surrender terms. "If there's something that has to be resolved I am willing to do it," he said. "Otherwise I can never live in peace."

But Gonzalez's world was caving in. A new, deeper purge within the police force had removed some of his key allies, including Gallego, the antinarcotics chief.

A number of corrupt prosecutors in the cartel's pay were exposed and fired. Gonzalez had nowhere left to turn for protection. In January, he called Naranjo, his old friend and now Colombia's top drug cop. "He said he was talking to the DEA," Naranjo recalled, "but they were being very tough."

The Justice Department was already putting the finishing touches on an indictment in New York naming Gonzalez an an "enforcer" for the North Valley cartel, accusing him of drug trafficking and money laundering, as well as bribery of government officials, kidnapping, torture and murder.

The week before he was gunned down, his sister Gladys was attending an education conference in Bogota. They sat down for drinks. It was the last time she would see him alive.

He'd never looked so down, she recalls. He was sad and distant. She told him to get out of Colombia.

Gladys figured she'd pick up the newspaper any day and read that her brother had surrendered to the DEA. It wasn't fair, but it was the only way to save himself, she thought.

But Gonzalez never made it to the U.S. Embassy.

On the morning of March 25, he was in his lawyers' office in Bogota arranging the last details of his surrender when he was summoned downstairs.

Someone needed to see him urgently. At the bottom of the stairs he was confronted by a lone gunman who fired several shots.

Before Gonzalez could reach for the pistol in his belt, he was down. The assassin pumped several extra rounds into his prostrate body.

The killer was allegedly another retired police captain, Pedro "Pretty Boy" Pineda, alias "Pispis," according to a police investigation.

A former colleague of Gonzalez in the early 1990s in the Medellin Search Bloc, Pineda had also later gone to work for the cartel.

News of Gonzalez's murder came as no surprise to Naranjo. But who ordered it was harder to say."Everyone killed him," he said.

--David Adams can be contacted at dadams@sptimes.com

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