Heavy Traffic

Miami attorney Joaquin Perez helps drug kingpins get minimum jail time, maximum profits, by cooperating with the feds

It is the first step in the flip process. The next occurs at a closed-door meeting in a nondescript office in an Orlando strip mall. There Perez tells federal agents and prosecutors that the Mexican will cooperate. He suggests the prosecutor recommend to the judge a "downward departure," meaning a shorter sentence. According to federal sentencing guidelines, such deals depend on "the court's evaluation of the significance and usefulness of the defendant's assistance ... ; the truthfulness, completeness, and reliability of any information ... ; the nature and extent of the defendant's assistance; any injury suffered, or any danger or risk of injury to the defendant or his family resulting from the assistance."

Perez says prosecutors and judges realize that people who cooperate help them continue to build cases. "Prosecutors started to believe that it's better to get five people in [jail] for five years, than one person in for twenty-five years," he explains. "They look at it from a practical standpoint.... They are being more creative."

Perez concedes this practice generates more business for him. His colleague, José Quiñón, is more explicit. "It's like a pyramid scheme without an end," he explains. "You come in and bring some friends to the party and then they bring some friends to the party. This goes on and on and on. There's no end to it. And as long as there is a demand for drugs you're going to have that pyramid."

Surrounded by pigs and soldiers, Perez and Castaño talk strategy
Steven Dudley
Surrounded by pigs and soldiers, Perez and Castaño talk strategy
Perez moves from courtroom, to back room, to jail cell via telephone, airplane, and automobile
Jonathan Postal (top), Steven Dudley (bottom)
Perez moves from courtroom, to back room, to jail cell via telephone, airplane, and automobile

Still, many of Perez's old-school defense attorney colleagues consider him a traitor for negotiating at all. Some even speak of him as an extension of the United States government, an accusation that Perez firmly denies. "A satellite is somebody who does what they're told," he says. "I don't do what they tell me unless it's suitable for my client."

Saving a killer

Carlos Castaño is no ordinary client. Perez can't cajole him into confessing; cooperation isn't yet an option. The game is different for the paramilitary leader, and both men know it. Their meeting behind the soccer pitch in the small northern Colombian village reflects this. Castaño talks at length about the war, the AUC, illegal drugs, and his innocence. Perez hardly says a word.

The paramilitary leader accepts responsibility for using drug money to finance his battles against the guerrillas, but he doesn't admit to trafficking several tons of cocaine, as the Ashcroft indictment alleges. "I've told Doctor Perez that with regard to the United States, if the charge is drug trafficking, I'm not afraid to confront the United States. What's more," he adds, "I think that my extradition gives me the possibility to show the entire world that I've never been a drug trafficker, and that I can be an honorable member of society."

Hubris is naive, and Perez gently reminds Castaño that justice could take a back seat to politics in this case. Keeping this client out of jail may be Perez's greatest challenge yet. Keeping him alive may be impossible. Through the early Piza, Bergonzoli, and Correa handovers, Castaño was thought to have some leverage with the U.S. government. The indictment has sapped him of this influence, and his AUC colleagues are wondering who will be safe from prosecution if Castaño becomes the next big flip.

Perhaps the only thing keeping Castaño alive is his role as the symbolic leader of the AUC. The group has sought peace with the government and last month some 850 of its fighters laid down their weapons. Many believe gestures like these are part of an effort to escape prosecution for years of criminal activity. Indeed Castaño has pushed for an assurance that neither he nor his men would get prosecuted in Colombia or face extradition to the U.S. on charges of drug trafficking. Because of his popularity, Castaño may be the only representative who can broker any further agreements with the government. "It's almost like a confederacy of drug dealers under one umbrella," Perez explains. "I think that but for Carlos this would be a very loose association of individuals that didn't have anything in common."

The irony is that once a peace deal is brokered, Castaño's future becomes increasingly uncertain. If he stays in Colombia, he may be safe from prosecution, but his AUC colleagues may try to dispose of him. If he tries to go to the United States, he will have to face John Ashcroft. "What's going to happen from here in the long run, I don't know because I think that the more he undermines the political base of the AUC, the more he's potentially digging his own grave," Perez says in reference to a possible settlement with the government. "I mean it's almost like working himself into a nonexistent position.... He's going to become a liability to a number of people and there will be many, many people that prefer to see him dead than in the United States."

It's up to Perez to guide Castaño through this maze, and as he bounces along the dirt roads of the northeastern Colombian jungle in the SUV, the lawyer considers this. This may be the start of another chapter in their relationship. Or it may be the end of their journey. In either case, reminders of his client's dilemma surround Perez: "04" sits behind the wheel of the car; paramilitary soldiers dot the roads; unidentified aircraft circle the sky; corrupt policemen wait at the remote airstrip. Miami is a distant dream.

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