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Paramilitary gunmen during a training session in Colombia.
Paramilitary gunmen of the United Self-Defense Forces (AUC)
during a training session in Colombia. Reuters photo.

OPERATION 'WHITE TERROR'
A Tale of Drugs, Guns, and Murder

11/15/06

Sniper rifles. Grenade launchers. Pistols. Heaps of ammunition. The warehouse on St. Croix was no ordinary gun shop. The woman inspecting the arms was no ordinary buyer, either. She worked for a ruthless terrorist organization, and she was about to place a large order with an undercover FBI agent.

The carefully orchestrated—and recorded—gun show in April 2002 was part of "Operation White Terror," a case that spanned three continents and once again demonstrates the interrelationship of national security and criminal investigations and the use of drug money to fuel terror.

The arms inspector—Fanny Cecilia Barrera de Amaris—worked for the leaders of Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (the United Self-Defense Forces of Columbia), or AUC, a right-wing paramilitary organization known for its violence and brutality. In one 10-month span, the AUC was reportedly responsible for 804 assassinations, 203 kidnappings, and 75 massacres with 507 total victims. The terrorist operation, which once boasted some 20,000 members, has been fueled largely by the sale of drugs. The AUC smuggled more than 50,000 kilos of cocaine into the U.S. over eight years.

Here's how we uncovered and shut down the drugs-for-weapons scheme in concert with agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA):

  • Just four days after the 9/11 attacks, a man named Uwe Jensen approached one of our confidential sources and learned that our source had connections in Eastern Europe that might lead to the purchase of huge stores of military weapons for the AUC. Jensen—a naturalized U.S. citizen from Denmark living in Houston-was a weapons scout for Romero-Varela.
  • Jensen and his associate, Carlos Ali Romero-Varela, began negotiations in Houston with our source to buy Warsaw Pact weapons for $25 million in cocaine. Several other informants and undercover officers we recruited helped us create the appearance of a Eurasian organized crime group. At one point, Romero-Varela had a CD-ROM weapons catalog sent to AUC leaders in Colombia.
  • Two high-ranking AUC leaders—including Elkin Alberto Arroyave-Ruiz, also known as Commandante Napo, and Edgar Fernando Blanco-Puerta, also known as Commandant Emilio—placed their order from the catalog. They asked for shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles; 9,000 assault rifles, including AK-47s, sub-machine guns, and sniper rifles; rocket propelled grenade launchers and nearly 300,000 grenades, and 300 pistols.
  • Our agents, working undercover, met to arrange a deal with AUC members in London; Panama City, Panama; and St. Croix, Virgin Islands. The Defense Department loaned us the weapons and delivered them to St. Croix, where our agents arranged for Barrera de Amaris to check out the goods. The deal was sealed. It was a dangerous operation that put the lives of our agents at risk, particularly with video cameras secretly recording the action and dialogue.

With the proof we needed, we moved in to arrest the various players. On November 5, 2002, we arrested Jensen in Houston. The same day, Romero-Varela, Arroyave-Ruiz, and Blanco were lured to Costa Rica and arrested. Jensen, Arroyave-Ruiz, and Blanco pled guilty and were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. The weapons inspector, Barrera de Amaris, was extradited from Columbia and sentenced to five years in prison.

As the case has broadened, more arrests have followed. The investigation has been worked by the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, which includes FBI and DEA agents working hand-in-hand.

Links: Press release of May 31, 2006