José Bayron Piedrahita Ceballos is presumed to be one of the biggest drug lords in Colombia. During his criminal career spanning more than 20 years, Piedrahita managed to stay out of the authorities’ spotlight and consolidate his power. Though Piedrahita was surrounded by well-renowned capos, he managed to conceal his illegal activities thanks his facade as a successful rancher and businessman.
His businesses -- like the Cattle Auction of Caucausia, Del Cauca Refrigeration and the Contadora Rice Company -- were some of the biggest job creators in Colombia’s Bajo Cauca region in the center-western department of Antioquia. It is likely that Piedrahita was extremely well-connected in the political sphere. Despite his obvious links to drug trafficking, he has never stood trial in Colombia.
Piedrahita was a key player in the drug trafficking and money laundering businesses in the 1990s. Authorities believe Piedrahita began his criminal career guarding cocaine laboratories for the Cali Cartel, and that later he became directly involved with Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela. After the death of Pablo Escobar, Piedrahita returned to Antioquia to become the kingpin of Bajo Cauca. For years, he was one the most influential actors in the region’s underworld, allowing him to generate close ties with drug traffickers and paramilitary commanders operating in the region.
On September 29, 2017, Piedrahita was captured in one of his estates in Antioquia, charged with obstruction of justice and corruption in a US court. Piedrahita had allegedly bribed a US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer to tamper with records in a criminal case that implicated himself and 18 other former Cali Cartel members. In 1991, US customs and officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) launched
Operation Angular Stone in an attempt to unravel the Cali Cartel’s illegal financial network. In 1993, authorities established that Piedrahita was an important part of this scheme, which eventually led them to the illegally modified court file that the ICE officer had fudged. US officials renewed their interest in Piedrahita in June 2014, when the Treasury Department initiated an investigation into the financial apparatus of the Oficina de Envigado, a powerful Colombian criminal organization that was included on the US "Kingpin List."
Shortly before his arrest, Piedrahita was on the radar of Argentine authorities for his involvement in a network of money laundering schemes in the south of the country. Authorities said he may have laundered as much as $15 million through various businesses, including a cafe in Buenos Aires and a government railroad construction project. Apparently, well-known criminals participated in the network, including Victoria Henao and Juan Pablo Escobar -- the widow and son of Pablo Escobar -- now known as María Isabel Santos and Sebastián Marroquín.
The network also included members of the Oficina de Envigado, the soccer player Mauricio “El Chico” Serna, and high-profile Argentine businessmen Mateo Corvo Dulcet and Antonio Pedro Ruiz.
Piedrahita was extradited to the United States in April of 2019 where he pled guilty to bribing a special agent from the US Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) unit to drop a drug trafficking indictment against him.
Although Peidrahita’s direct participation in Colombian drug trafficking shouldn’t be ruled out, he is better known for laundering money through various companies in support of drug trafficking. For instance, Piedrahita was a shareholder of the Caucasia Cattle Auction (Subasta Ganadera de Caucasia S.A., or Subagauca), which was reported for suspicious financial activity related to its massive profits and rapid asset growth.
Authorities suspect that the company’s growth could be related to the drug business. According to authorities, Piedrahita may have used a technique called “smurfing” to bypass financial regulations, although his illicit finances eventually garnered unwanted attention. El Espectador reported that “financial institutions are legally obliged to report all transactions over $10 million to the authorities. In the case of Subagauca … all of the company’s transactions were between $9 million and $9.9 million. It raised suspicion, and for the authorities, the company’s financial activity was just as significant as transactions that amounted to over $10 million.”
Although Piedrahita had important connections with the Cali Cartel and later with the Norte del Valle Cartel, his region of influence and the center of his operations were in Bajo Cauca in the department of Antioquia, an area known for strong presence of illegal armed groups engaged in drug trafficking. There, Piedrahita was known as the “Dueño de Caucasia” for his large, legal businesses, as well as for his influence in regional politics. Before his capture, Piedrahita was expanding his criminal activities into Argentina.
Allies and Enemies
Before his capture, Piedrahita relied on extensive connections to many of Colombia’s most notorious drug traffickers. His involvement in the underworld initially began with the Cali Cartel. After the fall of that organization, however, he allied himself with the Norte del Valle Cartel, and later with the paramilitary commanders that operated in Bajo Cauca in Antioquia. It is believe that Piedrahita had connections with Ramiro Vanoy, alias “Cuco Vanoy,” the boss of the Miner’s Bloc of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC) who committed various crimes in Bajo Cauca, Antioquia. Piedrahita also had connections with Carlos Mario Jiménez, alias “Macaco,” commander of the Central Bolívar Unit of the AUC.
John E. Smith, the acting director of the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), stated that Piedrahita "is a long-time supporter of drug cartels, including the Cali and North Valle cartels, and now La Oficina de Envigado." Although Piedrahita claimed to have helped bring down Carlos Mario Aguilar, alias “Rogelio,” a former member of the Attorney General's Office Technical Investigation Unit (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigación - CTI) who ran the Oficina de Envigado during his final years as a career criminal. His most important partners were Jorge Luís and Juan David Ochoa Vásquez, two brothers and ex-Cali Cartel members who also participated in the Subagauca laundering scheme.
Piedrahita was previously being held in the Special Treatment Unit (Unidad de Tratamiento Especial - UTE) in the Picota prison in Bogotá before being extradited to the United States in April 2019. He will be sentenced in July 2019 after entering into a plea agreement with US authorities.