Too big to jail: the Colombian drug lord who snitched his way to freedom
If you were walking the streets of Las Águilas, an upmarket neighbourhood of Mexico City, in the early hours of February 28th 1995, you might have noticed a collection of casually dressed people up on the rooftops. Perhaps you’d have mistaken them for stargazers or late-night revellers. In fact they were a crack team of snipers, settling into place for an extraordinary operation.
Before dawn more than 70 heavily armed police officers and presidential guardsmen stormed the house at 62 Costa Street. Even for Mexico, where drug cartels protect their businesses with swaggering militias, it was an unusual show of force. The target was Raúl Salinas de Gortari, a wealthy businessman and elder brother of Mexico’s former president. Salinas’s alleged crime? Assassinating his one time brother-in-law, a political rival.
As officers burst in, Salinas told his own bodyguards to stand down. He was escorted out of the house with his head bowed and taken to an isolation cell in Mexico’s most secure penitentiary. It was the first time in modern Mexican history that anyone so close to a president had been charged with an offence of such magnitude.
The arrest had repercussions halfway across the world. The authorities in Switzerland froze roughly $120m held by Salinas under false names in Swiss bank accounts. They were acting on information from members of America’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) who believed that, as well as picking off his opponents, Salinas was in the pay of international drug-traffickers. If confirmed, this would be one of the largest-ever forfeitures of drug money. But the Swiss needed to prove the case conclusively in order to seize the cash. And that’s where the problems began.
“The American criminal system has taught informants that if you can come up with information, we will excuse your criminality”
The intelligence that Salinas was on the payroll of a drug cartel came from a Colombian named José Manuel Ramos. Ramos was serving two life terms plus 20 years in an American prison for running the Texas operations of the Medellín cartel, a multi-billion-dollar cocaine-trafficking business headed by Pablo Escobar until his death in 1993. By 1990 Ramos was distributing as much as five tonnes of cocaine each month across America, with a value of $330m. From his base in Houston he was responsible for roughly one-eighth of all the cocaine circulating in the country. Millions of dollars of cash were then vacuum packed and smuggled back out of the country. On each package, Ramos had printed his nom de guerre: el Brujo (the Warlock)
Ramos told the American authorities that Salinas had helped him transport thousands of kilograms of cocaine from Colombia to runways in Mexico near the American border. He claimed to have paid Salinas $300,000 for each aeroplane-load of drugs that he managed to land without police interference. Some of the money, Ramos said, had been destined for use in the 1988 presidential campaign of Salinas’s brother.
To help the Swiss build their case, American agents repeatedly took Ramos out of prison to make phone calls to his former associates, which they would listen in on. Chief among those called was Salinas’s father. Transcripts of these recordings reveal a deep bond of trust between the two men. Salinas’s father addressed Ramos as “Alex”, one of his aliases, and pleaded for help. “I have so many problems,” he complained during one crackly call.
One person listening to the conversation was Chuck Mazzilli, the us Customs and Border Patrol agent who had arrested Ramos in 1990 and cultivated him as an informant. To him, these conversations further confirmed Ramos’s credibility. “All informants stretch the truth a little,” Mazzilli said. “But for us to get on the phone and talk to the president of Mexico’s father – this was the man.”
In November 1997 the Swiss sent two of their most senior law-enforcement officers to America to question Ramos themselves. It was a critical mission. Switzerland had long been criticised for harbouring the ill-gotten gains of organised crime bosses and corrupt politicians. Proving that Salinas’s accounts contained drug money would demonstrate to the world that the country had changed its ways.
José Manuel Ramos sold his first bag of cocaine in 1979. Unfortunately for him, it was to an undercover cop and he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison
The person in charge of the Swiss investigation was Valentin Roschacher, head of the country’s federal anti-narcotics police, a soft-spoken, bespectacled 37-year-old who spent his weekends painting Alpine landscapes. For two days he interrogated Ramos at a courthouse in New York City. Ramos reiterated his claims that Salinas provided logistical support and protection through his connections in the military and security services.
In the summer of 1998 the Swiss authorities announced that they were confiscating Salinas’s money. Roschacher and his team were lauded by the international press. “They’re like the mouse that roared,” a former senior American law-enforcement official told the New York Times. “They just kept going.” Two years later, the Salinas case was cited in Roschacher’s promotion to attorney-general of Switzerland.
The biggest winner was Ramos. DEA agents continued to rely on him, putting him up in safe houses so he could call other people involved in the drug trade. He “was basically living like he was living on the outside,” said Mazzilli.
Was Ramos really a reformed character? Or did he just tell the authorities what they wanted to hear?
When he got on the phone to his associates, he became, Mazzilli said, a man transformed: “He went from this guy who was pretty jolly – all of a sudden he went to this big cartel guy [with] a more commanding voice.” In June 2000 Ramos received an even greater reward for his co-operation – his sentence was slashed. He was about to become a free man and the Swiss decided to put him to work providing intelligence on money-laundering by cartel members.
But had Ramos been of any genuine use? One American law officer objected to his release, believing that he had lied to DEA agents. The case against Salinas slowly unravelled and Roschacher’s newest source failed to provide intelligence that could be acted upon. Ramos’s release raises questions about the integrity of a legal system that offers criminal kingpins a chance to walk free in exchange for information. Was Ramos really a reformed character? Or did he just tell the authorities what they wanted to hear?
There’s a saying in law-enforcement circles: “Good informant, good case. Bad informant, bad case. No informant, no case.” For a time Ramos seemed like a very good informant indeed, offering an almost unparalleled insight into the American and Mexican operations of the Medellín cartel.
Ramos was born in Cali in Colombia in 1952 and emigrated to New York in the early 1970s. Though it’s unclear how he became involved in the drug trade, we know that he sold his first bag of coke in 1979. Unfortunately for him, it was to an undercover cop. It may have been during the two and a half year prison sentence which he subsequently received that he met members of the Medellín cartel. He told Mazzilli that, as soon as he was released, he started delivering cocaine for the cartel along the Atlantic seaboard.
In 1983 one of Ramos’s deals was busted and an undercover policeman got shot. Ramos fled, first to Florida and then to southern California, where the cartel gave him ever greater responsibilities for importing drugs by land, sea and air. When DEA agents raided a number of Californian ranches where Ramos had stashed cocaine he escaped again back to Colombia via Mexico.
He was no safer there. Two men on a motorbike, who he assumed were members of a rival cartel, shot him three times in the leg. The close escape didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for the drug business. Less than a year later he had returned to America, running the Medellín cartel’s distribution hub in Houston.
That’s where, in May 1990, Mazzilli first caught sight of him. Mazzilli had been tipped off that drug-traffickers were operating out of a warehouse in north Houston. While staking it out, he saw a man poking his head out of the truck bay. “Definitely nothing to look at,” Mazzilli said of Ramos, he was a “short round guy” with three chins. “We got a really good look at him, but we didn’t know who the hell he was.”
Ramos escaped back to Colombia. He was no safer there. Two men on a motorbike, who he assumed were members of a rival cartel, shot him three times in the leg
Mazzilli was still new to the job. He had previously worked as a military policeman and a us marshal, but had grown bored of disciplining drunk soldiers and escorting prisoners to courthouses. He wanted some excitement – and was about to get it.
The team of agents Mazzilli worked with began trailing Ramos and his associates as they crisscrossed the city, making “heat runs” – taking unpredictable routes – to evade being tailed. But they couldn’t shake the team. When agents finally moved in, they found 416kg of near-pure cocaine in a van with a street value of more than $100m, as well as $900,000 in cash concealed in a tool box. It was one of the biggest drug hauls in American history.
Rather than arrest Ramos immediately, Mazzilli stepped up surveillance. He soon discovered that Ramos had a vast network of houses, warehouses and hideouts across the city. His workers lived in a ranch in Tomball, Texas, and he kept them supplied with booze and women flown in from Colombia – sex workers, Mazzilli assumed – so that there was little temptation to leave the compound.
There’s a saying in law-enforcement circles: “Good informant, good case. Bad informant, bad case. No informant, no case”
Ramos led a modest lifestyle and used an array of false identities. At one condo Ramos gave the doorman a business card saying he was a screenwriter for the Azteca Film Productions, a fictitious film company in Mexico City. He often jet-skied to meetings to avoid being followed. His only indulgences were a rotating cast of attractive young women and American fast food. He enjoyed the all-you-can-eat buffet at Wendy’s. “He’d eat five plates,” said Mazzilli, who once followed Ramos inside to observe him up close. Mazzilli learned that Ramos’s own foot soldiers called him by the same nickname as the customs agents: el Gordo (the Fat Man).
After several weeks, agents arrested Ramos’s long-term girlfriend as she attempted to wire drug money to Mexico. In a safe at her flat they found $480,000 and another half a million stuffed into one of Ramos’s giant pairs of trousers in the washing machine. Officers came away with $1.2m in total.
Agents hunted Ramos in the weeks that followed. On one occasion they watched helplessly as he escaped on his jet ski. They finally tracked him down to a house in north Houston. A police officer kicked down the door and discovered Ramos cowering in a back bedroom.
The trial was over in a matter of days. The jury convicted Ramos on all counts: drug possession and distribution and money-laundering. As soon as the judge sentenced him to life imprisonment, Ramos turned and looked Mazzilli straight in the eye. “It was the look of a guy who just got told by his doctor he had stage-four cancer and had a few weeks left on Earth,” Mazzilli remembered. He uttered three fateful words: “I wanna talk.”
And so the interrogations began. “We’d drag him out of prison and feed him,” Mazzilli recalled. “He was always friendly…It was hard not to like the guy.” The two men built a rapport, especially when they realised that Ramos had lived for a while in the same Long Island suburb where Mazzilli had grown up.
“He was telling me about the Long Island Rail Road, the pizza places,” Mazzilli recalled. “It was good because I could actually say to my partners that this stuff was all true…It put a little legitimacy into what he was telling me.” Ramos believed that Mazzilli was crooked: 1kg of cocaine had been found in one of his trucks and he accused Mazzilli of planting it (there is no evidence that this is true). The two of them, Ramos felt, were kindred spirits.
Ramos’s only indulgences were a rotating cast of attractive young women and American fast food. He enjoyed the all-you-can-eat buffet at Wendy’s. “He’d eat five plates,” said Chuck Mazzilli, a customs officer who once followed Ramos inside to observe him up close
Ramos proved remarkably forthcoming about the Houston operation, even telling Mazzilli about a stash that he’d missed. He also helped him decode the ledgers in which he recorded his drug transactions – “lobsters” was code for cocaine – and gave the real names of drug-traffickers listed there. He even admitted to moving cocaine on the quiet for a rival cartel, information that his bosses in the Medellín cartel might have killed him for if they’d known about it.
Everything Ramos told Mazzilli seemed to check out and Mazzilli trusted him ever more. “He was a big fish when we got him,” said Mazzilli, “we didn’t know how big. It’s almost unbelievable that we’re sitting here talking to this guy.” Ramos was frank about why he co-operated. He didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in jail.
That Ramos was such a prominent figure provided an obstacle to his objective. He was already behind bars, so the only way to reduce his sentence would be to help the police land someone even higher up the chain. There were few of those around. But things changed four years into his sentence when Raúl Salinas was arrested.
At first Ramos’s extraordinary allegations about Salinas seemed to stack up. Roschacher, the lead investigator in Switzerland, approached Ramos’s story with caution. When dealing with criminal informants, Roschacher said, “the first point is everybody’s a liar.”
He was reassured by the confidence Mazzilli and other American officials placed in Ramos. “We knew from the American authorities that he had already worked with them for a long period of time,” he said during an interview in January 2020 at his studio outside Zurich. “And he was a good witness. We could corroborate his testimonies…and it fitted together.”
There were reasons to doubt his allegations, however. Ramos admitted to having met Salinas only once, in a shopping mall in Mexico City, and he struggled to provide evidence even of that. He had never sent money directly to Salinas and, apart from a couple of entries in a ledger labelled “Raúl” – a common name in Mexico – no other documents implied a connection.
“He was a big fish when we got him. We didn’t know how big. It’s almost unbelievable that we’re sitting here talking to this guy”
Perhaps Ramos had simply heard of Salinas’s arrest and manipulated his familiarity with the father to concoct a backstory that would impress his handlers and potentially win him an early release. Mazzilli is adamant that Ramos mentioned Salinas from their earliest conversations, but two decades on he could find no written records of this. Mazzilli’s partner at the customs and border patrol, Randy Hilding, can’t recall when Ramos first mentioned Salinas. Still, Mazzilli and Hilding both think Ramos had good reason to be truthful. “He was in a position of needing something from us,” Hilding said.
Not all officials were so trusting. When Ramos first requested a reduced sentence, the judge denied it after objections from an assistant us attorney who said that Ramos had provided “untruthful information” in a different case.
Ramos had every incentive to lie. According to Alexandra Natapoff, a law professor at the University of California Irvine, who studies police informants, “people who are facing the deprivation of their liberty and punishment turn out to be extraordinarily creative, sophisticated and entrepreneurial about fabricating stories.” They frame “other individuals and doing anything they can in order to gain their own liberty.”
Agents hunted Ramos in the weeks that followed the arrest of his long-term girlfriend. On one occasion they watched helplessly as he escaped on his jet ski
There are also incentives for those in authority to believe informants, because they need to bring in cases. “This dependence can become so great that it creates a sort of perverse romance: ‘falling in love with your rat’,” Natapoff writes in her book “Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice”. Once agents are invested in a story they may find it difficult to reject that narrative in the face of inconvenient evidence.
It’s a problem that stretches far beyond the case of Ramos. Using criminal informants to root out organised gangs goes back over a century. American law-enforcement agencies have, at times, let informants commit crimes with impunity, from racketeering to murder. Snitching has become far more commonplace since the early 1970s when Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs”. In 1975 the FBI used 1,500 informants. By 2008 that number had increased to 15,000, according to Trevor Aaronson, a journalist – and that was just a single agency.
The Witness Protection Program, created in 1970, furthered this trend. It allowed government agencies to relocate and create new identities for people who testified in major-crime cases. The US Marshals Service offered protection to 19,000 people between 1971 and 2020.
When dealing with criminal informants, “the first point is everybody’s a liar”
Few of those individuals were innocent bystanders. Gerald Shur, who founded the Witness Protection Program, estimated that 95% of those who entered it were themselves criminals. By the late 1990s, when Roschacher and Mazzilli were pumping Ramos for information, America’s reliance on informants was extensive. As one veteran (DEA) agent said, “informers are running today’s drug investigations, not the agents.”
And so it proved with Ramos. His allegations against Salinas remained unsubstantiated. Roschacher reckoned there was enough evidence to indict Salinas in Switzerland for money-laundering. But after years of trying to prove that the money was dirty, he couldn’t make the charges stick. In November 2002, more than seven years after Salinas was arrested, Swiss authorities ceded the case to the Mexican judiciary. In 2008 they transferred the money frozen in Salinas’s account to the Mexican government. “One can reasonably say that the trail of drug trafficking has not been verified,” said the Swiss magistrate overseeing the case.
Salinas served ten years of a 27-year sentence for assassinating his former brother-in-law before the verdict was overturned (he was never convicted of drug-smuggling or money-laundering). In December 2014 a federal court in Mexico exonerated him of “unjust enrichment”. By the time Salinas’s slate was wiped clean, however, Ramos was long gone. When he again requested a reduction in his sentence in June 2000, a judge agreed to cut it to 12 years. Mazzilli was astounded. “You don’t really see guys who have two life sentences and 20 walk out of jail,” he said. “But he did.”
Even as the money-laundering case against Salinas sputtered out, Mazzilli and Roschacher remained committed to Ramos. He was nearing the end of his sentence and had nowhere to go. As a Colombian citizen he couldn’t remain in America, but having grassed on the Medellín cartel, he didn’t want to return home. Newspaper reports that he had been an informant were a “death warrant”, said Mazzilli. “I didn’t want him to get whacked.”
He was refused a special visa sometimes granted to let criminal informants stay in America. So Roschacher proposed a novel solution: he asked the American attorney-general for permission to bring Ramos to Switzerland. His “exact information on, and evidence of, drug accounts of Colombian drug cartels in Switzerland”, Roschacher wrote, represented “a unique opportunity” to tackle money-laundering.
The reduction in Ramos’s sentence seemed to confirm his reliability as a witness. “My other point was saving his life, just, as a Christian,” said Roschacher. “I was raised in a monastery school. So if I can do something for somebody, I try.”
A police officer kicked down the door and discovered Ramos cowering in a back bedroom
The Swiss prosecutor was also under pressure to bring in high-profile indictments. The government had given the attorney-general’s office hundreds of millions of francs to help prosecute money-launderers and organised criminals, but its expert advisers complained that Roschacher’s office had exaggerated the scale of the problem to expand the reach of his department. Roschacher needed a victory to deflect the criticism. Ramos looked like he might provide it. On December 21st 2002 Roschacher’s entreaties finally bore fruit. Ramos boarded a flight to Zurich, free at last.
“All informants stretch the truth a little. But for us to get on the phone to the president of Mexico’s father – this was the man”
Roschacher created a special unit to handle Ramos, codenamed “Task Force Guest”. Four seasoned police officers and a prosecutor, reporting directly to Roschacher, were to guide Ramos as he contacted members of South American drug cartels. The evidence he gathered would be used to prosecute bankers who abetted the dealers’ money-laundering. Ramos expected to receive a cut of any funds seized, according to Jeff Manciagli, Ramos’s lawyer at the time.
The operation was kept secret to protect both Ramos and the team itself – the Swiss public wouldn’t have been impressed to find out that the government was paying more than $10,000 a month to a convicted narco. The arrangement was highly irregular for Switzerland. “Apparently they don’t do the same thing over there – use convicted felons as paid informants and turn them loose basically to see what they come up with,” said Manciagli, “which is why it turned out to be such a scandal for Roschacher.”
Task Force Guest was a disaster. Ramos failed to provide any of the “exact” information that Roschacher had assured the police he had. He couldn’t identify a single dubious payment, let alone a Swiss bank account holding criminal assets. Weeks turned into months and Ramos turned up only minor cases of street-level drug dealing. His biggest tip led to the confiscation of 1kg of cocaine in Zurich, a city where local police seize hundreds of kilograms of cocaine each year without the help of former drug lords.
Roschacher’s colleagues grew concerned. One described Ramos as an “unguided missile”. Ramos was not permitted to own a mobile phone, but soon after arriving in Switzerland he bought one anyway. He blew his own cover by boasting about his mission while enjoying himself in Zurich’s red-light district. On one occasion he threatened to go public on the entire operation.
He repeatedly demanded a cut of Salinas’s assets, despite the case having collapsed. And though he was barred from engaging in crime to gather intelligence or acting as an agent provocateur, he tried to sell 40kg of non-existent cocaine to a group of drug dealers. Above all, Ramos was forbidden from having contact with any foreign law-enforcement officials but, according to a confidential memo written by the head of the Swiss federal police, Ramos was discovered “trying to sell intelligence” to agencies abroad.
By the summer of 2003, six months after Ramos had arrived in Switzerland, prosecutors had still failed to bring a major indictment against organised criminals. “Is the Justice Department chasing a phantom?” read a headline in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Switzerland’s most influential newspaper. The pressure was mounting. Perhaps that’s why Roschacher was so eager to believe Ramos when he accused a prominent Swiss banker named Oskar Holenweger of laundering drug money.
Oskar Holenweger was in bed in his villa in a quiet village on Lake Zurich when he awoke to a loud crash: a heavily armed federal agent had jumped through the kitchen window. Holenweger leapt out of bed to discover two dozen policemen and federal officers in combat uniform and bulletproof vests bursting into his home
Holenweger was a man of humble origins. His father was a postman and his mother worked at a local grocery store. He never went to university, instead completing an apprenticeship in banking before going on to work in finance. During his mandatory service in the army, he rose to the senior rank of colonel (general staff). In 1998 he founded a new bank called Tempus Privatbank.
Ramos met Holenweger in April 2003. At the direction of Task Force Guest he posed as a South American investor interested in opening bank accounts in Switzerland. After two brief meetings with Holenweger, on July 7th Ramos told his handlers that Tempus Privatbank, which managed over $350m on behalf of wealthy clients, was a front for the Medellín cartel. Only two weeks later Roschacher’s office opened a criminal investigation and sought permission from the courts to tap Holenweger’s phone. An undercover agent was assigned to trail him. Soon after, Roschacher requested a warrant for the banker’s arrest.
On December 11th 2003, Holenweger lay in bed in his villa in a quiet village on Lake Zurich with a spectacular view of the Alps. At 6.30am he awoke to a loud crash: a heavily armed federal agent had jumped through the kitchen window. Holenweger leapt out of bed to discover two dozen policemen and federal officers in combat uniform and bulletproof vests bursting into his home.
The theatrical display of force was unusual for Switzerland. “I felt like I was in the wrong movie,” he said later. When an officer showed Holenweger a warrant for his arrest for “suspicion of organised money-laundering”, he assumed he was a victim of a terrible mistake. “I still don’t understand why the attorney-general’s office carried out such a militaristic act,” Holenweger said. “They could have easily summoned me.”
“You don’t really see guys who have two life sentences and 20 walk out of jail. But he did”
Roschacher’s case against Holenweger seemed weak even at the outset. Within hours of Holenweger’s arrest, 12 auditors and lawyers started scouring the books of Tempus Privatbank at the request of the Swiss Federal Banking Commission, looking into every transaction over SFr25,000 ($20,000).
The audit turned up a single suspicious deposit. The source? The Swiss authorities themselves. In an attempt to drum up evidence against Holenweger, an undercover police officer had posed as a money-launderer. The officer claimed Holenweger had been willing to launder the money, an accusation that Holenweger categorically denies. (The officer was wearing a wire but the recording was so bad it yielded no conclusive evidence.) Apart from this, the auditors determined that there were “no signs of money-laundering”. The bank had no clients from Colombia or, indeed, anywhere else in South America.
Nevertheless, Roschacher pressed on. Having arrested a respectable banker to such fanfare, he sought to secure Holenweger’s conviction despite the lack of incriminating evidence. His office accused Holenweger of “offering himself as a money-launderer in international organised drug-crime circles”. Absurdly, one of the court filings accused Holenweger of having “personally had contacts with Pablo Escobar”, despite the fact that Escobar had died in 1993, five years before Holenweger founded his bank.
On August 24th 2004, a thunderstorm rolled overhead as Ramos was escorted to Zurich airport to board a plane for Bogotá. His 20-month sojourn in Switzerland was over
The longer Roschacher took to dredge up evidence proving Holenweger’s guilt, the more loudly he was criticised in the Swiss media and parliament. “Organised crime (convictions) desperately wanted”, read one headline in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
Meanwhile Task Force Guest began to unravel. In the summer of 2004 Ramos was caught secretly meeting three American nationals whom his handlers believed to be government officials – a gross violation of his agreement and possibly an act of espionage. The Swiss authorities had had enough. On August 24th 2004, a thunderstorm rolled overhead as Ramos was escorted to Zurich airport to board a plane for Bogotá. His 20-month sojourn in Switzerland was over.
Reputation is everything in private banking. Though the case against Holenweger was eventually dismissed, Roschacher’s investigation ruined his career. “If you as a banker are confronted with the suspicion of laundering money for Pablo Escobar, it is devastating,” Holenweger said. In March 2004, three months after his arrest, he was forced to sell his bank for a fraction of its value.
He was not the only casualty. In June 2006 Weltwoche, a Swiss weekly newspaper, revealed that Roschacher had based his case on the claims of a former drug lord who had lived it up on the Swiss taxpayer’s dime. The Swiss minister of justice immediately opened an investigation into Roschacher, who resigned a month later. Handelszeitung, a business weekly, called it “the biggest judicial scandal of recent times”.
The findings of the parliamentary inquiry were stark. Between 2002 and 2005 Roschacher’s office opened 365 investigations into organised crime and money-laundering and brought charges in only three cases. In a confidential report the federal criminal court blamed Roschacher himself for the dismal record.
Holenweger’s case dragged on until April 2011 when, nearly eight years after his arrest, he was exonerated of all charges. The court concluded that there had been no reasonable grounds for suspecting him. It deemed the use of Ramos as a criminal informant “unlawful”. Despite all this, in July 2019 Switzerland’s supreme court rejected Holenweger’s claim for around $16m in damages.
It’s a system that benefits the greatest offenders. Serving time is for grunts
When Roschacher was asked if he made a mistake by pursuing the banker based on Ramos’s word, he noted that the case ran on long after he had resigned. “I am responsible as the then attorney-general for the beginning of the case. But I’m not responsible any more for bringing him to court.”
Not everyone agrees. The Holenweger case is a “paradigmatic example of the deal with the devil that the informant apparatus represents,” says Natapoff, author of the book on snitching. “All too often, we rely on informants who are targeting the innocent.” Manciagli, Ramos’s lawyer, reckons that Roschacher was just another of his client’s victims. Ramos was “a loose cannon” in pursuit of profit and “he kind of went rogue.”
From another perspective Ramos did precisely what the justice system incentivised him to do: deliver up suspects. “The American criminal system has taught informants that entrepreneurship will be rewarded, that if you can come up with information, we will excuse your criminality,” Natapoff said. “Using informants changes the definition of justice. It commodifies justice.” It’s a system that benefits the greatest offenders the most. The more dastardly the crime and the higher up in a criminal organisation you are, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to supply a prime target and walk out of prison. Serving time is for grunts.
Ramos was last seen having reinvented himself once again, this time as the padre of a small church in Bogotá, peddling the word of the Lord
America continues to employ informants on an enormous scale. In 2015 two men convicted of moving $1.8bn-worth of narcotics for Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman, a Mexican drug baron, received lenient sentences of just 14 years because of their co-operation, when they could have been jailed for life. Bloomberg revealed in 2018 that the government’s Narcotics Rewards Program had distributed $32m in payments to 33 informants in just five years – nearly $1m a piece.
The American government reckons that it “could not catch serious criminals without flipping other criminals”, says Natapoff. But “if you think that Ramos and people like him will produce evidence about other wrongdoing that we could not otherwise obtain…then this is the price of that compromise.”
It’s a system that benefits the greatest offenders. Serving time is for grunts
Ramos himself kept on grifting. When he returned to Colombia he became involved in a scheme selling worthless Chinese bonds. But he was a shadow of his former self. A few years ago, Manciagli, Ramos’s lawyer, met Ramos and some of his associates in a coffee shop in Bogotá. “He was telling me all this stuff: ‘By the end of the year we should have four, five million dollars.’ It was another one of these ‘we’re about to be billionaires’ schemes.”
One man needed to leave the meeting early and asked Ramos for 25 cents for the bus ride. “And Ramos – he didn’t have enough,” said Manciagli. “That was the absurdity of it…You never heard anything coming out of his mouth other than he was gonna be a multi-millionaire. And he’s going around with a group of guys who couldn’t come up with a dollar between them.”
Ramos was convicted of fraud for the Chinese bond scam and sentenced to five years in prison. What happened after that is unclear. Some say he died inside. Others that he paid prison guards to fake his death and set him free. Recently an American customs agent who once used Ramos as an informant told us that he was alive and well. He was last seen having reinvented himself again, this time as a padre of a small church in Bogotá, peddling the word of the Lord.
These days Roschacher spends his days in a studio in the hills above Lake Zurich, working on meticulous landscapes infused with colour. “I always told myself, ‘You’ll live as a prosecutor, but you will die as a painter, as an artist,’” Roschacher said one morning in January 2020.
When Roschacher was attorney-general he would exhibit his paintings under a false name. At each opening the gallery owner would declare, “Unfortunately, the artist is ill. He cannot attend.’” In reality, “I was there, but as a spectator,” he recalls with a smile. “They were undercover missions.”
Refusing to discuss Ramos any further, he pointed to a large, square painting resting on an easel. From each side, an identical mountain rises inward toward the centre of the frame. “It does not matter how you hang it, it’s always correct,” said Roschacher. “There is no wrong way in my paintings. You are free to see what you want.”■
ILLUSTRATIONS: COREY BRICKLEY
Jacob Kushner is the author “of “China’s Congo Plan: What the Economic Superpower Sees in the World’s Poorest Nation”
Daniel Ammann is an award-winning journalist and the author of “The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich”
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