In May 2014, Virgil Flaviu Georgescu took a phone call from a man claiming to be a member of the the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the guerrilla group better known by its Spanish acronym, FARC. The guerrillas wanted to buy some new weapons, and Georgescu, a 43-year-old Romanian arms trafficker, said he had just what they were after.
Three months later, at a meeting in Bucharest, Georgescu let one of three FARC contacts present peruse catalogs full of rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles. The guerillas said they wanted to shoot down US planes and helicopters sent to help the Colombian government in its half-century-long fight against them. They struck a deal—but before any arms or money could change hands, Georgescu ended up behind bars.
In early December 2014, he and two other weapons traffickers involved in the deal were arrested in Montenegro. That's when Georgescu learned the truth: He hadn't been dealing with Colombian guerillas at all — he'd been duped by undercover operatives working for the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
US law enforcement agencies have long relied on sting operations like this one to bust suspected terrorists, drug dealers, and other criminals all over the world. Due to the FARC's global presence and its strong anti-American leanings, sending undercover agents to pose as Colombian rebels has proved particularly successful: some of the agency's biggest blockbuster cases since the early 2000s have invoked the FARC, which is heavily involved in the cocaine trade.
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The FARC stings have drawn criticism from lawyers and activists who accuse federal agents of entrapment in the name of a largely invented war on narco-terrorism. Many of the agency's targets had never set foot in the US, and many — including Georgescu — seemingly had no plans to deal with the Colombian guerillas until the DEA's undercover operatives came calling. Some of the suspects didn't even have a clear anti-American leaning until the operatives encouraged it in their discussions.
Critics also point to the controversial use of former drug traffickers as undercover operatives. A Department of Justice audit of the agency in 2015 found its lack of oversight of these informants "troubling."
But the tactic has helped secure enough convictions that the DEA is likely to continue using it—even though it may now have to find another group to impersonate. The FARC finalized a historic peace agreement with Colombian government negotiators on August 24, bringing an end to a conflict that has killed at least 200,000 people and displaced nearly 7 million.
A DEA spokesman would not comment on how recently the agency had employed the FARC sting, but Georgescu's case shows it was still in use as recently as 2014. His case, like a half-dozen others reviewed by VICE News, offers a window into how the DEA employs this tactic — one the agency is unlikely to abandon despite the Colombian peace deal.
Since the introduction of the Patriot Act in 2001, the DEA has pushed the dubious idea that there is an "unequivocal connection" between drug trafficking and terrorism. The agency argued before Congress in 2011 that 39 percent of all designated terrorist groups have "confirmed links to the drug trade." During the early years of George W. Bush's presidency, US authorities began to look at the FARC specifically as a so-called narco-terrorist organization.
The emphasis on narco-terrorism has allowed the agency to bolster its argument that it is on the front line of the struggle to contain terrorist threats — and that Congress needs to increase its funding to keep Americans safe. The DEA is the fastest-growing U.S. law enforcement arm, with 220 domestic offices and 89 foreign stations, and a 2017 budget request of more than $2 billion.
'A lot of those who are targeted are shadowy figures, who try to stay as far back as possible from the front lines.'
The FARC stings, like the one that ensnared Georgescu, have been central to the DEA's counter-terror strategy even as critics charge that the agency is concocting crimes that would not have occurred otherwise.
Michael Braun, a former DEA chief of operations who was involved in several FARC-related stings, said that, under the Patriot Act, DEA agents only need to produce an "overt act" that shows plans to commit a criminal conspiracy. They never needed to see any actual weapons or drugs.
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"You and me, all we have to do is agree to move a ton of cocaine into the US and then [perform] an overt act — calling a contact in Colombia, for instance," Braun said. "A jury listens to this shit and very quickly concludes that agents couldn't make it up."
But drugs are only half the narco-terror equation — the DEA has also pushed the other half. VICE News reviewed a dozen indictments of bona fide FARC members, including several who were accused of ordering or being complicit in the kidnapping of three American defense contractors in 2003. In each of these cases, jurors were told by prosecutors and law enforcement officials that the FARC "has authorized the use of violence and attacks against American citizens to forward their mission of terrorism." Jurors also were told about the FARC's goals to finance "attacks on innocent citizens, and poison Americans."
Jeffrey Brown, a former US Attorney in the Southern District of New York who prosecuted several FARC cases and helped draw up indictments on others, said the narco-terror prosecution strategy helped sway jurors who were more familiar with al-Qaeda than Colombian guerrillas.
"The public knows much more about jihadi terrorism than they do about narco-terrorism," he said. "People feel a greater immediacy of connection to the idea of American hostages being taken abroad than they do to revolutionary violence that's funded by cocaine trafficking."
Georgescu was convicted in the Southern District of New York in May. When he is sentenced in September, he could face life in prison for conspiracy to murder US government employees and conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists. His attorney, Albert Dayan, argued that his client is a legitimate businessman. Sting operations "test the targets' morals," he said, "by throwing large sums of money their way and then watching them reach out and try to grab it."
Melvin Patterson, a DEA spokesman, called this an exaggeration. "[The agents] are not making anyone do anything they're not predisposed to do already," he said. "There are negotiations. … Either they're interested in involving themselves in the deal or not. Money is not thrown at them."
Shira Scheindlin, a former judge who tried narco-terrorism cases for more than two decades in the Southern District of New York, said it would be difficult to obtain evidence against drug and narco-terror suspects without sting operations.
Related: The golden age of drug trafficking: How meth, cocaine, and heroin move around the world
"A lot of those who are targeted are shadowy figures, who try to stay as far back as possible from the front lines," she said. "To get to the general, it takes a lot of effort. I think it's fair to use this construct to get to the real leaders."
In order to convincingly pull off the FARC ruse, the DEA has employed former drug dealers as operatives — a practice that has come under criticism. One trafficker-turned-undercover agent, Carlos Sagastume, was paid roughly $9 million for participating in at least 150 stings on behalf of the DEA during a 15-year period, often posing as a member of the FARC.
In response to the DOJ audit that cited the DEA's "troubling" lack of oversight of informants, Patterson said the agency revamped its methods in July, issuing new guidelines that ensure handlers will meet with undercover operatives at least every 90 days instead of once a year. But he also suggested that the new procedures are burdensome and could put undercover agents at risk by forcing them to come up with excuses to meet with their handlers.
'Either they're interested in involving themselves in the deal or not. Money is not thrown at them.'
"Out in different areas of a [foreign] country, it's really tough for [informants] to navigate, to come up with a reason to come to town, to go back home," he said. "This is where I raise my eyebrows a little bit. I don't know how we navigate those waters where everyone is happy and safe."
The peace deal between the FARC and the Colombian government may not hold. Although both sides announced a definitive ceasefire last month and recently finalized the accord, one guerilla unit has already refused to lay down its arms. Colombian voters could also reject the agreement when they vote on it on October 2.
Related: Colombia's peace deal with the FARC could still fall apart
Either way, some form of the FARC ruse is likely to remain in the DEA's repertoire. Patterson, the DEA spokesman, said guerilla groups in other countries, such as Peru, have "just changed their names" rather than actually quitting the drug trade, meaning a similar ruse could still work. "It's too early to tell," he said.
Dayan, Georgescu's defense attorney, also said the sting-op tactic is too effective for the DEA to give up entirely; narco-terrorism allegations are one of the easiest ways for prosecutors to sway a skeptical jury, he said.
"Jurors don't seem to care much if it's ISIS, FARC, or Hezbollah," he said. "What they do care about is that the arms are intended to be used against US servicemen overseas."
Follow Malcolm Beith on Twitter: @mbeith