While a guilty plea for money laundering by a decorated University of Miami professor continues to send shockwaves through the academic, law enforcement and crime investigation communities, his Colombian go-between remains free, a walking example of how the US justice system sometimes rewards the most slippery of figures.
Jorge Luís Hernández Villazón, alias “Boliche,” was a drug trafficker who worked his way through the underworld to become part of the drug organization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia -- AUC), the murderous right-wing group that started as a proxy army for the Colombian government against leftist guerrillas and later became one of the largest drug operations in the world.
Hernández got hunted by his AUC cohorts, then US agents, eventually becoming a US informant and most recently the go-between for a money laundering sting operation involving Bruce Bagley, a professor and organized crime specialist who has written numerous books on the topic.
For his part, Bagley pleaded guilty to two money laundering charges during a June 1 hearing. He told the judge that another Colombian national, the businessman Álex Saab -- who wasn’t identified by name in the indictment -- was the one transferring illicit proceeds from a Venezuela corruption scheme into bank accounts Bagley controlled. Saab was arrested June 12 on Cabo Verde’s Sal Island in West Africa.
SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles
And while Saab’s arrest captured the headlines because of his important role in assisting the corrupt Venezuela regime of President Nicolás Maduro, it was Hernández who was the lynchpin connecting Saab and Bagley. Hernández now appears to be AWOL.
In the indictment, Hernández is identified as “Individual-1.” And in court, Bagley admitted to accepting a January 2019 money transfer “from an overseas bank account” owned by Saab, identified as a “Colombian individual (‘Individual-2’).” The professor then transferred most of that money to Hernández in order to “disguise a transfer directly” between Saab and Hernández. Bagley did the same thing with another February 2019 transfer, according to the hearing transcript.
“I should have understood that the money involved the proceeds of unlawful activity because Jorge Luís Hernández told me that the money from Saab was from corruption,” Bagley told the court. The two deposits totaled $474,000, according to US prosecutors.
Bagley transferred 90 percent of the funds he was sent into accounts controlled by Hernández in order to conceal their illicit origins, while he kept a 10 percent commission for himself, according to the indictment against him. It’s unclear what happened to the money transferred to Hernández, or if there were other people involved.
“Professor Bagley admitted ... to laundering money for corrupt foreign nationals -- the proceeds of bribery and corruption, stolen from the citizens of Venezuela,” said then-US Attorney Geoffrey Berman in early June.
First arrested in November 2019, Bagley will be sentenced on October 1, 2020, and could face up to 40 years in prison. He will likely serve less time for his cooperation. His defense attorney, Peter Quijano, did not respond to InSight Crime’s request for comment.
InSight Crime Analysis
Bagley’s case came as a shock to the academics, journalists and government officials that sought his expertise -- among them InSight Crime. As prosecutor Berman said, Bagley went from “literally writing a book on drug trafficking and organized crime -- to committing crimes.”
But while Bagley’s role in this scheme is becoming clearer, Hernández’s is just coming into focus.
By all accounts, Hernández spent his formative years in Valledupar, a bustling city near the Colombia-Venezuela border famous for its annual festival of the music that bears the town’s name, Vallenato. There on the coast, Hernández worked with numerous clans of smugglers and drug traffickers. Specifically, between 1996 and 2000, Hernández worked with Víctor Manuel and Miguel Ángel Mejía Múnera -- or the “Mellizos Mejía” as they were known -- through a frontman, Iván Álvarez, alias “Pinocho,” according to Verdad Abierta.
The Mellizos Mejía became members of the AUC, and by the late 1990s, Hernández was allegedly a key financial operator for the Mellizos, as well as then-AUC leaders Salvatore Mancuso and Carlos Castaño. However, the AUC ordered Hernández's murder after he allegedly stole a cocaine shipment from Mancuso. Fearing for his life, he fled to neighboring Venezuela with the help of a local criminal group.
It was there that Hernández began negotiating with US authorities, and in 2001, he reportedly began collaborating with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and US prosecutors. Among the cases he helped prosecutors make was one against top AUC leaders Mancuso and Castaño. In 2002, the two were formally indicted by the United States.
Hernández did not serve any jail time, but he was reportedly deported briefly due to a dispute with his handlers. Still, he made his way back to the United States and eventually sought relief from deportation under the Convention Against Torture, an international law that obliges US immigration courts to assess whether there is a better than 50 percent chance that a petitioner will be tortured or killed by his or her own government if returned.
It was during those proceedings that Bagley reportedly entered the picture, providing oral testimony during Hernández’s hearing to support his claim that he would face torture or death in his home country. As an expert, it was not uncommon for Bagley to participate in such cases and detail certain dynamics that could put the person requesting asylum at risk.
Hernández won his claim, and Bagley and Hernández stayed in touch in the years that followed. While Bagley continued teaching, writing, presenting at conferences and assisting in legal cases, Hernández offered his services to lawyers in their drug trafficking cases, eventually even presenting himself as a “paralegal.”
However, Hernández was not a paralegal. He had no legal experience or license. But it did not matter. He understood that his value-added was to connect lawyers and possible clients. He also developed relationships with counter-narcotics agents, and in some cases he would connect lawyers, clients and the agents.
Hernández would also help arrange proffers, the all-important documents describing what the traffickers could offer officials for their cases. The proffers set the stage for plea deals, convictions and more cases. And the legal carrousel continued spinning.
For this, Hernández would collect a fee. The fees range, but generally do not top more than 25 percent of the payout to the lawyer, according to several lawyers in Miami, where Hernández mostly operated. If the lawyer is desperate for business, fees for fixers like Hernández can be even higher.
Since paying fees to non-lawyers can get you disbarred, the lawyers would disguise fixers like Hernández as “independent contractors” to pay them an hourly wage or a salary. The most unscrupulous of them, however, would simply siphon off the fixer’s percentage of the fee, according to numerous lawyers, and pay them in cash.
The payouts are not insignificant, especially when drug traffickers will pay fees in the millions of dollars to get a chance to negotiate their way out of a stiff sentence. And the business has drawn in dozens of Colombian lawyers as well, who also seek to connect, then collect, thus playing their own role in this legal carrousel.
The business can also be dirty. Fixers and lawyers shop their potential clients to US defense attorneys or even sell third-party information to criminals or their lawyers, so they can play it off as their own and receive sentencing benefits.
"He’s a snake charmer,” one person who worked recently with Hernández in Miami said on condition of anonymity since they said Hernández was “dangerous.”
“He’s a mercenary.”
For the last 20 years, Hernández continued this pattern of assisting US law enforcement and prosecutors and working with defense lawyers. For all of them, Hernández offered the same services: He was the fixer with third-party information to sell. The lawyers got clients; law enforcement got cooperating witnesses, cases and seizures; drug traffickers got access to a “flip-lawyer” who could quickly turn information into a beneficial plea deal once their client "flips," in legal parlance.
“That breeds corruption,” said Bonnie Klapper, a former US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, who now practices privately and has defended drug traffickers. “One might ask: Why doesn’t the government do anything to stop this? One answer is that the agents like the results. So many of them just don’t really care where the information comes from, so long as it gets them a seizure or an arrest.”
At some point in the mid-2010s, Hernández connected with Álex Saab through his Colombian coastal networks. Saab, who is also from the Caribbean coast, had long worked in Colombia as a businessman and a contraband trader. He had also been signaled as playing a critical role in securing illicit financial flows for Venezuela President Maduro through gold sales and other means, making him a prime US law enforcement target.
To Saab, Hernández again presented himself as a fixer who could arrange for Saab’s handover to US authorities and, presumably, get him a lower sentence. And the two began to work with various US lawyers to secure him a deal. For this, Hernández began to receive large payments, which presumably caught the attention of US authorities who pounced.
In another legal bind, Hernández became a cooperating witness again to save himself. This time, his handlers were from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), not the DEA. Their potential targets were multiple: Saab, defense lawyers and, of course, Bagley.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Money Laundering
To be sure, in 2016, Hernández connected Saab and Bagley, the Associated Press reported. Those two began their own relationship. The AP reported that Saab employed Bagley’s consulting services for advice on investments and to obtain a student visa for his son.
But what was really at play was Saab’s handover to US authorities and for that, the following year, Saab began making deposits of hundreds of thousands of dollars into Bagley’s accounts, which were then passed to the accounts of “Individual-1,” Hernández.
It’s not clear what Bagley thought the payments were for, but sources told InSight Crime he appeared to believe they were for legal services that Hernández was providing or securing. This would coincide with the role that Hernández had long played.
The justification Hernández might have given Bagley for moving the money through Bagley's accounts is harder to discern. But one option offered by numerous defense lawyers consulted for this report -- and also proffered by a Univision story -- is that Saab did not want the money going directly to a known fixer or lawyer for fear the Venezuelan government would find out he was possibly negotiating his handover to US authorities.
This chivalrous description might also help explain why Bagley, despite one of his business accounts being shut down in October 2018 for suspicious activity, opened another account to continue accepting Saab’s funds.
About a year later, in November 2019, Bagley was arrested in Miami. Seven months after that, Saab was arrested in Cabo Verde. Hernández’s whereabouts are unknown. Attempts to reach him failed, but prosecutors told the Associated Press that he is “working under the direction of law enforcement.”
*Asmann is an InSight Crime investigator; Dudley is co-director of InSight Crime; Molinares is a Colombian investigative journalist and the director of the news organization 360 Grados.