"Snatched" and the Story of Operation Princess

Snatched: From Drug Queen to Informer to Hostage--A Harrowing True Story

I have always been fascinated by the story of the Princess and the DEA. My computer is filled with thousands of pages I downloaded from PACER in her civil lawsuit against the DEA in the Federal Court of Claims: Case No. 97-cv-00579-MCW. In this overly long post about the DEA and money laundering stings, at the very end I wrote:

I hope the Princess gets $10 million or more from the Government for what the DEA did in her case. Her expert witness, former DEA Agent Michael Levine, filed an 861 page report (97-cv-00579-MCW, Document 196, Filed 05/31/11). I''m surprised there hasn't been a made for TV movie of the case yet. It's filled with tales of informant and agent-induced money laundering schemes,cops picking up money and sending it around the world, kidnappings, agents breaking rules and even stealing the traffickers' money, and corrupt foreign officials.

Now there's a book out about her case. It's called Snatched: How the DEA Got a Cartel Queen to Flip by Bruce Porter, the author of "Blow," which became a hit movie. The Daily Beast published an excerpt this week. The Daily News recaps the story here, along with photos of the Princess and some others. [More...]

There were a few articles about her back in the day, and a few more about her lawsuit against the DEA. She filed the suit in 1997 and it was just completed in 2015. There were two trials, one on liability, which she won, and then one on damages, that concluded with the judge awarding her (in my view) a paltry $1 million. The amount represented her expected future medical costs.

I don't know how accurate the book is. I've read a few chapters online and just reserved it at the library so I can read the whole thing. The book refers to her as Pilar (no last name) in an effort to shield her identity. Which is pretty silly since it names her children and ex husbands and shows her photograph. The pleadings in the lawsuit refer to her as "The Princess," because the DEA Operation she was involved in was named "Operation Princess." Although I know her full name, I always refer to her as "The Princess."

One problem with the book, at least as to the chapters I read, is it doesn't source its information. Is Porter getting the information from retired DEA agents, drug traffickers, the Princess and her family? No way to tell.

Also, the Princess' story is very fascinating and even the legal pleadings and court decisions read like a novel. This tone of this book doesn't convey the fast-paced, excitement of the real life story.

More interesting than what I've read so far in Snatched, is the 861 page expert report filed by the Princess' expert, former DEA Agent Michael Levine. Here is the summary of his conclusions. He backs them up with 800 plus pages of citations and sources, including references to the DEA Manual.

A. The PLAINTIFF, a DEA Confidential Informant SGS-92-X003 a/k/a PRINCESS, was “Conned” by AGENTS and OFFICERS of the DRUG ENFORCEMENT ADMINISTRATION using false pretenses, into exposing herself to prolonged situations of inordinate risk to her life and the lives of her family during a four year period of time, in a manner that was both unreasonable, unethical and evincive of a craven disregard for human life on the part of all DEFENDANTS who played a role in said recruitment and/or aided and abetted in said recruitment by dereliction of oversight and supervisory duties related thereto; and that said recruitment was an important contributing factor in the kidnapping and damages suffered by PLAINTIFF.

B. That the DRUG ENFORCEMENT ADMINISTRATION, at all levels of Its chain-of-command— upon recruiting the services of PRINCESS as a deep cover operative—accepted the responsibility of doing everything reasonable to protect her and her family from harm resulting from said services; and that the review materials reveal that DEA’S failure to adhere to this responsibility led directly to her kidnapping, which is the subject of this action.

C. That, as viewed through the lens of my own 45 years of training and experience,... no reasonable or well-trained DEA HQ OFFICER charged with oversight of significant international covert actions would have allowed such an assignment to occur and/or perpetuate without ensuring that extraordinary precautions were taken, yet DEA HQ took no oversight measures whatsoever throughout the four years of THE PRINCESS OPERATION, despite massive evidence indicative of the pending murder and/or kidnapping of PRINCESS that finally did occur.

D. That, PRINCESS’S undercover role posing as a money launderer, made her the responsible party for money shortages, of which a large number were noted in reporting, including the theft of $1 million in trafficker funds by a corrupt DEA AGENT, RENE DELACOVA and likely other corrupt AGENTS whom, due to an absence of DEA oversight, have managed to thus resolve or clarify these shortages in any manner whatsoever, simply ignoring them and recklessly sending PRINCESS, nunprotected, back into her deep cover role in Colombia, where, as a direct result, she was kidnapped. The craven cowardice and reckless disregard of life manifested by this type of Informant Management—antithetical to every professional standard I have ever been exposed to or taught—cannot be overstated.

E. That, DEA MANAGEMENT OFFICIALS charged with oversight of THE PRINCESS OPERATION, ignored previously successful and well-known, covert operational tactics such as the US based “store front money laundering operation” mentioned in the original operational plan submitted to DEA HQ, that, beyond a reasonable degree of certainty, would have protected PRINCESS from the kidnapping that is the subject of this matter; and that the totality of materials reviewed herein—as viewed through the lens of my now 45 years of training and experience— indicates that the motive for DEA HQ’s refusal to utilize said tactics was their possibly negative affect on the amounts of money seized.

F. That, instead of doing everything reasonable by way of protection, DEA AGENTS and MANAGERS at every level its chain-of-command wantonly, amateurishly, recklessly and routinely exposed PRINCESS to extraordinarily dangerous undercover operations and/or situations, during the four-year duration of OPERATION PRINCESS; operational perils that far elude identification. Each of these shortages placed PRINCESS, the one whom the traffickers would blame for the missing money, in clear and present danger of homicide and/or kidnapping, unless resolved. Yet those DEA OFFICERS and MANAGERS charged with operational and/or oversight duties as relates to THE PRINCESS OPERATION went far beyond that to which any reasonable and well-trained SUPERVISORY OFFICER, exercising due diligence oversight, would have allowed, culminating in her kidnapping.

G. That, there is significant Probable Cause found in the materials reviewed, indicating that the kidnapping of PRINCESS occurred at the hands of HERNAN BELTRAN, an ex-Colombian POLICE OFFICER with a record and reputation for drug trafficking, kidnapping and homicide, into whose hands DEFENDANTS, knowingly and/or through gross and professionally unacceptable ineptitude, had placed the safety and security of PRINCESS.

H. That the PRINCESS OPERATION, as a result of lax and/or non-existent oversight by DEA Headquarters, was utilized by CORRUPT OFFICERS to steal trafficker funds, pad expense accounts, indulge in heavy drinking and the taking of high-expense boondoggle trips, while the safety and security of PRINCESS went entirely ignored, resulting with her predictable kidnapping.

I. That, in consideration of the indications of large-scale theft of trafficker funds noted during the instant review, there are significant elements of Probable Cause present in the materials reviewed indicative of an effort by NAMED and as yet UNIDENTIFIED CORRUPT OFFICERS to cause PRINCESS’S death for the purposes of covering up said thievery.

J. That, there are significant elements of Probable Cause found in the review materials
indicative of the destruction and/or concealment of recorded evidence that may have contained evidence incriminating to NAMED AND UNNAMED DEFENDANTS in this matter, as well as supportive of all PLAINTIFF claims. K. That, all DEA and Professional Investigative Reporting Requirements were ignored by the Entire DEA Chain-of-Command—ALL DEFENDANTS—during the entire duration of OPERATION PRINCESS, evincing a total absence of DEA MANAGEMENT Oversight—found to be a prime factor in Police Corruption worldwide.

L. That, the overall management of THE PRINCESS OPERATION as a covert operation was radically inconsistent with all professional standards of Undercover Tactics and Informant Handling that I have ever been exposed to and/or taught, to a degree that can only be described as recklessly amateurish and directly causative to the kidnapping of PRINCESS that is the subject of this matter.

M. That, unqualified and/or inexperienced and/or ineptly performing personnel were noted at key points or “weak links” in the chain-of-command in the PRINCESS OPERATION; and that in general, these “weak links” in covert operations, have been found to be the primary cause of numerous catastrophic covert operations failures—from anti-terror operations in 9-11 to anti-narcotic operations such as the PRINCESS OPERATION—yet glaring signs of same were ignored by the DEA MANAGEMENT; further: That, the disastrous consequences of placing unqualified personnel in the chain-of-command in a covert operation, was the subject of a study that I conducted and then presented before the Defense Intelligence College, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Southern Command, December, 2008, and later published in the Law Enforcement Executive Forum (2009), under the title “The Weakest Link.”

N. That, despite the fact that, as a consequence of her services to the US government THE PRINCESS and her FAMILY’S physical safety would remain in great jeopardy long after said services were no longer needed, no thought, consideration or preparation for said safety and security was ever contemplated by those for whom she served directly.

O. That, the ordeal of kidnapping suffered by THE PRINCESS, and the subsequent payment of ransom from her own funds, to secure her safety, came as a direct result of her service to the US Government and the total disregard of her safety and security on the part of ALL those for whom she served.

P. That, despite an overwhelming amount of evidence found in review materials indicative of the high likelihood of PRINCESS being murdered and/or kidnapped, should she return to Colombia, SOME OR ALL DEFENDANTS either directly caused and/or aided and abetted, in her return, where she was in fact kidnapped.

Q. That, the alleged statement made by CA ANTHONY SENNECA, that he would have approved of PRINCESS’S return to Colombia had he known about it, is one that is radically inconsistent with the duties, training and responsibilities of his position as a DEA AGENT and COUNTRY ATTACHÉ

In 2011, it came to light the DEA had trashed documents in the case.

In its 2014 opinion on damages, available here, the Court stated:

the Court concludes that DEA breached its duty to protect the Princess both by 1) sending the Princess to Colombia “into harm’s way” in August of 1995, despite a recent death threat, and recent kidnapping and assassination plot against her, her association with missing trafficker funds, and her potentially compromised cover, and 2) by failing to follow its protocol for sending undercover agents to foreign countries. The Court is persuaded that this breach proximately caused the Princess’ kidnapping. In so holding, the Court credits Mr. Levine’s testimony that DEA never should have sent her to Colombia, and that in doing so, DEA placed her in danger. 2011 Tr. 115, 144, 197-98 (Levine). Mr. Levine’s testimony established that DEA not only failed to protect Plaintiff but acted with reckless disregard for her safety in light of its intelligence indicating how at risk she was. After discussing DEA’s numerous missteps, Mr. Levine opined: “the totality of this, and through the totality of evidence that I’ve reviewed, [she was] literally being delivered into the lion’s mouth.” Id. at 56.

The 2009 opinion finding the DEA breached its duty of care to the Princess is here. An article in a legal publication on the decision is here.

The Princess was tied to Medellin cartel leader and Pablo Escobar partner Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha (one of her husbands worked for him) and the Cali Cartel. It was an AUSA in Illinois who blew her cover to a trafficker. From the court opinion:

On March 29, 1995, an Assistant United States Attorney (“AUSA”) in Chicago disclosed the Princess’ status as a confidential informant to a criminal defendant whom the Princess had lured to the United States to be arrested. PX 91 at G-3; PX 421. When reporting this incident the very same day in a memorandum, Special Agent Charles Dvorak also related that “throughout the debriefings,” before the AUSA blew the Princess’ cover, the criminal defendant had stated that he and members of his family believed that the Princess was cooperating with the United States Government. PX 421. Neither Special Agent Dvorak nor “any part[y] related to this investigation” was the first to mention the Princess. When the AUSA revealed the Princess’ cooperation, the criminal defendant had “no adverse reaction” and admitted that it confirmed his suspicions. Id. In a letter dated April 14, 1995, an unidentified person at DEA sent memoranda to ASAC Salvemini regarding “the unnecessary compromise of” the Princess by the Chicago AUSA and noted that “I bring this to your personal attention because this type of careless disregard for the safety and security of our informant should not be tolerated.”12 PX 422.

Later, in a memorandum written to DEA’s Chief of Operations, Harold Wankel, dated October 3, 1995, entitled “ABDUCTION OF SGS-92-X003” that reviews the history of Princess’ work as an undercover informant, ASAC Salvemini stated:

The information provided by [the Princess] against the HERRERA organization may be the reason for [her] disappearance as on March 19, 1995, . . . an Assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois advised Mr. HERRARA of the identity of SGS-92-X003. It should be noted that this information was disclosed by AUSA [] intentionally and in direct contravention with agreements made with high ranking DEA official[s] and DOJ personnel.

One of her undercover partners was Rene de La Cova, whose face was infamous as the cop who arrested Manual Noriega. He later was charged and convicted and went to prison for stealing drug money.

Rene De La Cova, the Drug Enforcement Administration agent who put the handcuffs on Noriega after he surrendered to American forces in Panama, was sentenced to two years in prison on Friday for pocketing $760,000 in drug money during an undercover money laundering investigation last year.

"I have no excuses for what I did," said De La Cova, 44, a former DEA group supervisor in Fort Lauderdale.

The person likely responsible for her kidnapping:

On her DEA-sanctioned travel to Colombia in August 1995, the Princess met with Hernan Beltran (“Major Beltran”) on several occasions. PX 541.19 At that time, Major Beltran served as head of security for the largest drug trafficker in Colombia with whom the Princess did “business” as a money launderer. Id.; PX 479. Hernan Beltran, known as “el Major,” was a former sub-commander for the Colombian National Police in Cali, Colombia. PX 479. After his dismissal from the National Police for misconduct, the Major turned to private security and intelligence work for Cali drug traffickers. PX 247, 486.20. Major Beltran was described by known DEA sources as “a ruthless individual who ‘kills for the fun of it’” and often carried out kidnappings and torture. PX 247. To win his good grace, the Princess had paid for the Major to be elected as a Major. 2007 Tr. 269 (Princess). The Princess also regularly hired the Major “for security” while in Colombia since he was ex-police and had connections with the drug traffickers. 2011 Tr. 529-31 (Princess).

On August 29, two days before her kidnapping, the Princess met the Major to introduce him to an associate. PX 541. Major Beltran mentioned that he had recently “done a job” for someone who needed to move money, and the Princess expressed interest in a potential client. Id. On August 31, 1995, Major Beltran notified the Princess that he had arranged a 6 p.m. meeting for her with a known drug trafficker and “controller [of] financial operations for the Ramirez organization.” PX 541; PX 479.22 After the meeting, the Princess took a taxi with the Major. 2007 Tr. 212 (Princess). Major Beltran exited the taxi near a shopping center, leaving the Princess in the car. Id. at 202. Shortly thereafter, two armed men stopped the taxi and got in. Id. Later, the Princess’ abductors moved her from the taxi to the trunk of another car. Id. at 203-04 (Princess); PX 541.

What did the U.S. get from this botched and expensive DEA investigation?

The way it played out, though, according to Levine and court records, is despite the four years that the money-laundering operation was in play, from late 1991 to 1995, no prosecutions resulted and at least $20 million went missing, unaccounted for in DEA documents — which were either destroyed or nonexistent. Yet only one DEA agent was prosecuted — allegedly for skimming a tiny fraction of the missing cash, $700,000.

To date, DEA has failed to account for that missing money, Levine stresses, hence the judge’s request for an inquiry by the US Attorney General’s office, which oversees the Department of Justice under which DEA operates.

The DEA should have been disbanded long ago. They are nothing but Global Holy Warriors.

As for the book, Snatched, I'll let you know what I think of it once I read my library copy. As I said at the beginning, this really should be a movie.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Definitely (none / 0) (#1)
    by CaptHowdy on Mon Jul 04, 2016 at 09:52:45 PM EST
    A movie.

    Amazon (none / 0) (#2)
    by jimakaPPJ on Tue Jul 05, 2016 at 07:52:19 AM EST
    doesn't have it..guess I'll have to drive to a brick and mortar store.

    Jeralyn... (none / 0) (#3)
    by jimakaPPJ on Tue Jul 05, 2016 at 08:05:28 AM EST
    The author's name is Bruce Porter.

    thanks, fixed it (none / 0) (#4)
    by Jeralyn on Tue Jul 05, 2016 at 07:10:29 PM EST
    And the post began with an Amazon link to the book, you just had to click on it