CALI, Colombia—Ever wonder how much it takes for a powerful drug lord to buy off a U.S. federal agent?
The answer, based on recent evidence, seems to be: not much at all.
Christopher Ciccione, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), pleaded guilty in a Miami courtroom on Nov. 30 to conspiring to commit “deceit, craft and trickery” against Uncle Sam for what would appear to be no more than a few centavos on the dollar. Ciccione, 52, now faces up to five years in prison for aiding and abetting a Colombian capo linked to four major cartels.
What’s the going rate for selling out your country? The court records say that in 2010 Ciccione and another as yet unnamed HSI agent received from an infamous crime boss wanted in one of the nation’s biggest cocaine smuggling incidents about $17,700 in cash, along with an all-inclusive long weekend of wining, dining, and high-end call girls at a luxury hotel in Bogotá.
As Faustian bargains go it’s a fairly paltry sum for which to put one’s soul—or at least one’s government career and pension—at hazard. And the Ciccione case also highlights a worrisome trend of U.S. law enforcement officers breaking bad in service of the cartels or to traffic narcotics on their own.
Deal With El Diablo
The cocaine-running Mephistopheles who brought down Agent Ciccione was a former Colombian army lieutenant named José Bayron Piedrahíta Ceballos, aka “Montanero.” The officer-turned-assassin, money launderer, and international smuggler started his criminal career working with Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel. Piedrahíta, 58, eventually became a top boss with the Cali Cartel. That’s when he first crossed paths with Agent Ciccione.
In the early 2000s, Ciccione was a feared figure among the Colombian underworld. The Justice Department describes him as “the case agent for Operation Cornerstone, a large-scale Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force” based out of Miami. In that role, the Pennsylvania native and his team brought charges against more than a hundred mobsters affiliated with the Cali Cartel, including Piedrahíta.
But the wily crime lord—who owns land in Argentina and Panama, and is known for bribing prominent politicians—managed to evade capture for almost two decades. It was during that span that something seems to have snapped in Ciccione, causing him to trade in his white hat for a black one.
According to the indictment (PDF), Ciccione “began his federal service in 2001 with the United States Customs Service,” which was folded into the Department of Homeland Security after the World Trade Center attacks. Around February of 2010 he began communicating with a Colombian double agent named Juan Velasco, a former member of the Cali Cartel who had flipped to become a U.S. informant. Velasco helped arrange a bribery deal between Ciccione and Piedrahíta that saw the HSI investigator start to undo the long list of indictments he himself had brought against the mafia leader.
Ciccione doctored Department of Justice (DOJ) reports to make it seem as though El Montanero’s “cooperation [with the Cali Cartel] had no real value” and that he was “a suspect in a closed investigation” as opposed to one of Colombia’s most wanted men. He even went so far as to lobby the State Department to give the cartel jefe an open visa for himself and his family to live in the U.S.
As part of his guilty plea the former agent confessed that he “falsified official records and lied to his supervisors and the U.S. Attorney’s Office” to get the charges against Piedrahíta dropped.
All of this illicit activity culminated in a rendezvous with Piedrahíta himself at the Bogotá Marriott on Dec. 6, 2010. Also in attendance at times during the four-day binge were Ciccione’s anonymous partner, the informer Velasco, a famous singer, a Colombian army colonel, and three “divine” (as described by Piedrahíta himself) ladies of the evening.
According to the U.S. indictment against him, “During the party Ciccione consumed alcoholic drinks and had sexual relations with a prostitute, which were paid for by Piedrahíta.”
He also received a suitcase containing almost 18 grand, some of which he used to make the downpayment on a new Jeep upon his return stateside.
But El Diablo eventually got his due. Piedrahíta was arrested when police stormed his sprawling cattle ranch back in October, in the Colombian state of Antioquia, just days after Ciccione and Velasco were charged in Miami Federal Court. (The indictment doesn’t make clear just how the Feds tumbled to Ciccione’s duplicity, but the unnamed and uncharged partner might be a clue.)
In exchange for pleading guilty, the U.S. attorney’s office agreed to drop additional charges of fraud and obstruction of justice against Ciccione when he’s sentenced next February.
“Chris is a good man who served his country for more than 20 years both in the military and as a federal agent,” said his defense attorney, Marc Seitles, in the wake of the conviction. “Sadly, he had a poor lapse in judgment, and today, accepted responsibility for it.”
Taking the blame might not be enough to appease Piedrahíta. The cartel chieftain is likely headed for extradition to the States—and his lawyers say he plans on filing a case alleging criminal extortion against none other than his old compañero Chris Ciccione.
Sex Parties, Border Bribes, and Drug War Deception
Ciccione is far from the first U.S. drug warrior to get caught with his pants down (literally) in cartel country. Several DEA agents—including some with top-secret clearance—were accused by the Justice Department of attending “sex parties” thrown for them by known Colombian drug dealers back in 2015.
Closer to home, a 2016 report indicated that hundreds of Homeland Security and Customs Enforcement officers had accepted about $15 million in bribes from drug smugglers and human traffickers while “protecting” U.S. borders.
Within just the last week, at least five more U.S. law enforcement officers have been indicted or convicted of narcotics-related criminal activities, including a NYPD counterterrorism agent arrested for running heroin across state lines.
On the same day that Ciccione was convicted in Miami, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with the House Foreign Relations Committee to request additional funds for U.S. efforts to fight narco-traffickers south of the border. His rhetoric, as usual, closely echoed President Donald Trump’s simplified dichotomy of black-hatted “bad hombres” and the gringo “good guys” who oppose them.
Such a narrative fails to acknowledge all the dancing with the devil our own side has done, and continues to do, in the ever-expanding drug war.
Christopher Marlowe spoke to that same moral blind spot in his own The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, more than 400 years ago.
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,” Marlowe wrote, “and there’s no truth in us.”