CARTEL WATCH

How the DEA Got A Cartel Queen to Flip

After leaving her life laundering money for top cartel leaders, Pilar found herself running out of funds necessary to keep up her luxurious lifestyle—and then the DEA came knocking.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/ The Daily Beast

It was late in the day in mid-December 1991 that Detectives Morris and Hughes drove up in their unmarked white van to the little house in Boca where Pilar had moved with her two children after her husband went off to prison.

Their knock on the door was answered by Pilar’s housekeeper, who said her employer was out for the evening. Morris didn’t tell her who they were, a common police tactic, meant to give the subject as little advance information as possible, but said they’d be back the next day. While standing there, he peered past the housekeeper into the dining area to get some hint as to what this lady might be like. He saw a glass china cabinet displaying an extensive collection of Lladrós, which he’d seen before in upscale Hispanic households—cutesy porcelain figurines and flowered bowls that were manufactured in a little town near Valencia, Spain.

“You could tell by her things that she was well-off,” he recalls. Probably one of those Boca princesses, he thought at the time. This meant she’d be stuck-up and snippy toward people with less money, a pain in the ass to interview, very likely to call in a lawyer at the first whiff of trouble.

So, yes, this Pilar lady looked to be a challenge, but then, getting people to cooperate with the police usually was, unless they were flat out going to prison. The idea here, as Morris and his boss Tom Tiderington had discussed, was not so much to accuse her of having done something bad, but to plant seeds that would feed off her paranoia, because, in the cop’s mind, all criminals were paranoid.

“If you’re planting seeds, you talk in vague terms about crimes having possibly been committed,” says Tiderington. “She shouldn’t know exactly what you know; that’s far more effective. Hinting around that you might know something, you’ve got the lady thinking, Do they really know that I did this? Do they know I did that? The theory is she’s going to start thinking of everything she’s done that’s criminal that we can get her for. That’s the kind of thing we were hoping for.”

So the key here was not to unload with the threats. “You don’t want to go overboard, telling her, ‘We’re going to charge you for that load of cocaine you smuggled, indict you for this and that, and we’re going to take away your kids and put them in an institution. If she knows even some of that isn’t true, then she knows you’re full of bullshit.”

The evening that Morris and Hughes found Pilar not at home, she was, of course, out on a date with her boyfriend Freddie Blitstein, at the presidential fundraiser for Senator Tom Harkin down in Coral Gables.

The day after the Harkin party, as Pilar was just getting back from her daily bike ride when the van with Morris and Hughes was pulling up at the house. Her housekeeper had been right: They were big and chunky, and, when she first met them, not too friendly, either. After checking their IDs and seeing that they were indeed from the DEA, Pilar asked them into the house, where, right off, Morris got into the threats, apparently having forgotten all that coaching from Tom about just planting the seeds.

“‘You know, we can indict you if we want,’” she remembers him saying. “‘Your name has appeared in many documents, many times. We know all about carrying the suitcases in Puerto Rico, and we know about a lot of other things you did. If you don’t cooperate with us, you could be in a lot of trouble.’”

Without missing a beat, Pilar went back at them in kind. “I said, ‘Well, whatever you have, it’s going to be difficult to prove, because I didn’t really have a specific part in anything. And even if there was something, it is all too old, so please don’t give me any of these stories. And, you know, I could pick up the phone right now and bring in an attorney. But I am not going to do that, because I don’t need an attorney. But it’s a different thing if you guys think I can help you, a totally different situation. But if I agree to help you, it will be because I’ll decide to help you, not because you come here and threaten me with a lot of things.’”

Score so far: Pilar—1. DEA—0.

“So after we talked about how there was no way they could indict me,” she says, “Rick asked me how my financial situation was. And I said, ‘Terrible,’ because the T-shirt company wasn’t paying me any money anymore. My partner was in debt to all these people. After the $350,000 I put in, all I was going to get was a box of T-shirts. And that month I couldn’t even pay my mortgage.

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“Rick said, ‘Well, we might be able to help out.’ They said it was possible for me to make some money working with them. They asked me how much I owed on my mortgage, and I said I was two months behind. He said, ‘You could solve all these problems by helping us, because by helping us, we will help you.’ I told them, well, I’d need to think about that. I hadn’t been around those drug people for years. I’d have to do some research. ‘So, give me a beeper number, and I’ll get back to you.’ ”

When Pilar moved into the new house in L’Ambiance, she hired a carpenter to build a hidey-hole under the floorboards in the coat closet, where she could keep a cache of legal documents and certain paperwork. Over the years, because she had no prison record, at least not in the United States, business associates of her former husbands had persuaded her to buy houses and condos for them, rent apartments, lease automobiles and airplanes, help get their children into private schools. After the deals went through, she kept all the materials and wrote down the names of everyone she met, until she had a partial membership list of those in the upper echelons of the Colombian drug business. She kept this stuff for years in case of… well, she didn’t quite know why. But now that she was thinking of signing on with the U.S. government, its good use seemed suddenly to fall into place.

As of yet, Pilar had no idea what the two detectives had in mind, and, if they were being honest about it, neither did they.

After getting fingerprinted, Pilar was scheduled for a thorough going-over by Sandi Neal, a senior DEA intelligence analyst attached to the Fort Lauderdale task force. An analyst’s job was to develop files on drug dealers and on the drug business and to help devise strategies regarding how to proceed with any particular investigation. DEA analysts were different from field agents. They didn’t carry guns, and they didn’t make arrests. But Neal was different from most analysts in a couple of noticeable ways. To people who encountered her for the first time, the most significant one was that she was a 6-foot-tall-in-heels, look-you-in-the-eye, strikingly gorgeous blonde who called to mind the actress Kim Novak from her smoky days in the 1950s as a Hollywood head turner. The daughter of a U.S. Navy Seabee, who served during World War II in the Aleutians and quit the service after 12 years to work in the steel mills—“he always said that was the stupidest thing he ever did”—she was raised in Baltimore and forsook going to college on account of having to support a son she had out of wedlock during high school. She started out as a secretary for the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, worked her way up through staff positions, then joined the old federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, soon to morph into the DEA. There, she tested high enough to land one of the newly created jobs in intelligence.

The second difference was that, unlike most analysts, Sandi didn’t like spending time at her desk. In the late 1970s, she and a DEA pilot were flying all over Mexico in a single-engine plane, looking for poppy fields. To keep their crops from being spotted from the air, growers would plant them hanging off the sides of cliffs, which meant that Neal and the pilot would have to swoop down into canyons at just the right time of day so that they could use the rising or setting sun as a spotlight to illuminate the plantations. They’d report the locations to the Mexican air force, which was supposed to go in and spray the fields with herbicide, after which Neal would revisit the location to verify whether they’d actually done it.

The session occurred on Jan. 8, 1992, in the main conference room at DEA headquarters, a nondescript 1960s office building out near the executive airport in western Fort Lauderdale. As with everyone who encountered Pilar for the first time, Sandi was struck by how perfectly she was groomed—in a conservative business suit and high heels, her hair drawn back severely in a bun, jewelry noticeable but understated. This was not the sartorial profile she expected of an Hispanic female in the drug business.

“Especially the Colombian women, who were usually all blinged out, heavy lipstick and big hair, looking like hoochie mamas. But Pilar looked like something out of a magazine. There was an air about her. She was—how to describe it?—very reserved, very proper, very nice, and she gave off that feeling of class at all times. She spoke perfect Castilian Spanish. The language is completely class-based, the difference between someone from northern New Jersey, like on The Sopranos, and people from Connecticut. And even when I first met her, she was extremely cooperative, very forthcoming. She would expand on anything, answer any question.”

Neal’s first of many “DEA-6’s”—the code name for agency debriefing reports—ran five pages, single-spaced, and reflected Pilar’s extraordinary memory for detail—for names, places, dates, the intricacies of each trans- action she’d heard about, or overheard, from friends in the business. The session involved a quick run-through of Pilar’s 16-year-long career in the drug business. She began by telling about the chemist and the pilot— she named both—who showed up at the house of her husband Ernesto in the Suba district of Bogotá on July 12, 1976, with eight kilos of cocaine paste and then used an oven in the kitchen to bake the concoction into crystal cocaine. She ended her story with an encounter just three weeks before with a woman who told Pilar that her son ran the operations in Los Angeles for the Cali cartel, and that he had an associate who had just transported 300 kilos of cocaine from Miami to an apartment in the Whitestone section of Queens.

That first session lasted two hours and was filled with details on the doings of dozens of traffickers, few of whom the task force members had ever heard of. But when Neal sent the names up to Washington to be run through the criminal identification system, known as the Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Information System, or NADDIS, the computer practically had a heart attack.

“The system normally runs up a flag if you put in a name that’s already in there, and we got a hit on every one!” recalls Neal. “It gave us back files that were a half-inch thick, and they were all major traffickers. It was like, Whoa! Where do we start?”

Among Pilar’s more interesting revelations was that a close associate of her former husband was the chief of Colombia’s Department of Administrative Security, or DAS. In its official function, the DAS was the most powerful agency in the country, operating like a combination of the FBI, the CIA, and the Secret Service. It provided security for state institutions and important people, it guarded against threats from inside and outside the border, and it served as the chief liaison agency with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. On the side, Pilar told Sandi that the DAS director had also protected her husband Ernesto from harm because of his status as an “investor” in the country, a euphemism for a large player in the cocaine business.

Then there was Alejandro Velez, a good friend of her second husband, Steven, and also of Pilar. Pilar had been close to Velez’s wife, a power in her own right. Velez lost a load in Guatemala that consisted of 1,481 kilos, more than a ton and a half, worth nearly thirty million dollars wholesale, and Pilar said he didn’t seem to bat an eye.

Velez, whose stepfather was a general in the Colombian army and who was part owner of a five-star hotel in Bogotá, operated the major air arm for both the Medellín and Cali cartels. Along with owning the fleet of Boeing aircraft, she said, he had recently bought the Colombian cargo route from Eastern Airlines, all the better to provide camouflage for his own cargo business. He frequently traveled to Miami, where he stayed at the Mayfair Hotel, and at one time had owned a condo in the Key Colony on Key Biscayne, purchased secretly for him by Pilar.

Then there was Pilar’s close relationship to the late José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, whom she had gone to to scare Ernesto into giving her a divorce. She told them that his associates had invited her to Colombia to attend a small memorial service for Gacha in a cemetery out- side of Bogotá. She provided Sandi with a photograph showing her looking on with appropriate solemnity as she knelt over his flower-bedecked tombstone. Gacha was the only name on Pilar’s list that task force members had ever heard of. This was thanks to his appearance a couple of years earlier on a Fortune magazine list of the world’s wealthiest men.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t put him down as a target because he was dead, but Pilar provided the names of rising cartel stars, one of whom was Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía, aka “Chupeta,” or “Lollipop.” She told Sandi Velez had pointed him out to her during their jeep tour.

Along with being known as an up-and-comer, Chupeta stood out for his readiness to use violence against competitors and suspected informers. There were stories in Cali that after killing people he’d order his men to cut them open and fill their body cavities with rocks, sew them up again, and dump them into the Cauca River, where the languorous current allowed them to sink quickly to the bottom. As for his nickname, Lollipop, some people said it came from his liking for sweets as a little boy. Others thought it might have some sexual connotation, but it was probably not too smart to question him about that personally.

As for Pilar’s potential usefulness: “I told Joe Salvemini, ‘There’s no doubt in my mind after two hours of talking to her that she is totally real,’” Sandi recalls. “‘She knows everything she’s talking about, and she has been there; she isn’t making it up. You have no idea of the potential here. If she can start doing things, if she’s into even one-quarter of the people she mentioned, you’re going to have your hands full.’”

While Sandi regarded Pilar as an once-in-a-lifetime CI bonanza, the guys on the task force were a little less willing to buy her act. Some of them ad- hered to the common scum-of-the-earth attitude toward all CIs. They felt that no one could be trusted who had not been admitted to the “sworn personnel” brotherhood of the police establishment. Some even thought Pilar might conceivably be a cartel spy, posing as an informant to tease out details about how the DEA operated.

What they needed now was some evidence that she could put the money up where her mouth was. She could certainly talk a good game, but could she actually do anything for them?

From SNATCHED: by Bruce Porter. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

Bruce Porter is a former writer for Newsweek and a professor at the Columbia Journalism School who has written for The Washington Post, New York Times Magazine, Playboy, and Rolling Stone, as well as dozens of other magazines and newspapers. His first book, Blow, was a bestselling New York Times Notable Book and was made into a major motion picture. Bruce lives in New York City.