A central Texas lawyer known as the “DWI Dude” will spend more than 15 years in federal prison after deceiving Colombian drug traffickers with promises of getting their cases dismissed or sentences reduced.
Lawyer James Morris Balagia – alongside Colombian attorney Bibiana Correa Perea and Chuck Morgan, a private investigator from the state of Florida – was “shaking down his clients for years by claiming that he was able to purchase favorable deals from prosecutors and judges alike,” acting US Attorney Nicholas Ganjei said in a May 3 press release announcing the 188-month sentence and $1.5 million forfeiture.
In exchange for more than $1 million in inflated “attorney fees” received via bank deposits and bulk cash payments, Balagia and his co-conspirators told their clients -- major Colombian drug traffickers facing criminal charges in Texas -- they could bribe US government officials to get their sentences cut or cases dropped.
Prosecutors in the Central District of Texas indicted Balagia in 2016 and arrested him the following year. After a two-week trial in October 2019, a jury found him guilty of five criminal charges, ranging from conspiracy to commit money laundering and wire fraud to violating the Kingpin Act, which denies international drug traffickers and their associates access to the US financial system.
Unbeknownst to his clients, Balagia was never in contact with any government officials nor paid any bribes. Instead, he was lining his own pockets with the money he swindled. “Fortunately for him, these drug dealers chose to turn him into the [Federal Bureau of Investigations] rather than handle it any other way,” said US Attorney Joe Brown at the time of the guilty verdict.
Balagia’s co-conspirators both pleaded guilty and were sentenced in 2018. Correa Perea received seven years in federal prison, while Morgan was handed a six-year sentence.
InSight Crime Analysis
Lawyers across Latin America have in the past garnered controversy for representing some of the region’s unsavory criminal players, but Balagia’s is a unique case in which he cheated drug traffickers out of money used to pay for “legal” services he never provided.
And Balagia wasn’t duping just anyone.
Colombian authorities first arrested Aldemar Villota Segura in August 2013. Hermes Alirio Casanova Ordoñez was arrested in 2014 and Segundo Alberto Villota Segura was arrested in 2015 in Ecuador. In 2014, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated them under the Kingpin Act for trafficking “massive quantities of drugs for some of the most violent drug trafficking organizations in the Western Hemisphere.” Casanova Ordoñez was eventually extradited to the United States in 2016.
Specifically, the three worked for a drug trafficking network led by Fernain Rodríguez Vázquez that exported some 100 tons of cocaine annually in service of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia -- FARC), as well as the Zetas and Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico.
In one December 2015 meeting at the infamous La Picota prison in the Colombian capital of Bogotá, Balagia and Morgan were recorded meeting with Segundo Alberto Villota Segura. The Colombian trafficker was told “four people in Washington, DC were [bribed]” with some of the more than $900,000 he had already paid them in order to "effect a favorable resolution of his case," according to court documents.
Balagia said federal authorities knew what he was doing, arguing it was “part of a secret US government program that lures Colombian drug traffickers to the [United States] with a clever ruse about being able to bribe their way toward leniency, with the cooperation of prosecutors, so the feds can close big drug cases,” according to reporting from the Dallas Morning News.
Prosecutors weren’t convinced.