Monday, October 26, 2020

Colombian cartel boss pleads guilty to bribing U.S. agent to get drug charges dropped

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A Colombian cartel boss from the cocaine cowboy era pleaded guilty Friday to bribing a federal agent with cash, meals and prostitutes in exchange for getting him dismissed from a drug-trafficking indictment.

Jose Bayron Piedrahita, 60, once a leader in the Cali cartel, will be sentenced on July 19 in Miami federal court before U.S. District Judge Robert Scola.

In a statement with his plea agreement, Piedrahita admitted that he paid bribes to Christopher V. Ciccione II, 54, a former Homeland Security Investigations agent, so that he could use his official position to remove him from a 1993 indictment while obtaining approval for him to enter the United States.

At that time, almost a decade ago, Ciccione was the case agent for Operation Cornerstone, a massive narco-trafficking investigation that resulted in indictments of more than 100 Colombia-based cocaine smugglers from the Cali cartel. Piedrahita, an Operation Cornerstone defendant, and Colombian Juan Carlos Velasco plied Ciccione with $20,000 in cash, dinner, drinks and prostitutes during an extended hotel stay in Bogotá. Velasco, 51, served as the intermediary between Ciccione and Piedrahita, authorities said.

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Velasco and Ciccione previously pleaded guilty in the bribery and obstruction of justice case, with Velasco being sentenced to more than two years and Ciccione to three years in prison.

Ciccione had pleaded guilty in late 2017 to a conspiracy of “deceit, craft and trickery” against his own government. Deploying a web of lies, the veteran agent persuaded federal prosecutors in Miami to dismiss Piedrahita from the original drug-trafficking indictment.

The agent, after socializing with Piedrahita in Bogotá in December 2010, lied that the suspect was a fugitive who could not be identified or found, according to a statement filed with his plea agreement. Ciccione admitted he “falsified official records and lied to his supervisors and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to cause” the indictment to be dismissed against Piedrahita.

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