Shadowy snitch takes starring role in bribery trial of veteran DEA agents

Oct 11, 2023, 7:08 AM

NEW YORK (AP) — In his two decades as a professional drug snitch, Jorge Hernández was a master of the double cross.

He lied to his handlers, threatened to unmask fellow informants and even admitted killing three people during his days as a cocaine runner. But time and again, he leveraged his extensive contacts in the narcotrafficking underworld to stay alive, avoid the inside of a jail cell and keep making money.

Now Hernández has turned the tables again, this time on the same U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that launched his lucrative career as the go-to fixer for traffickers, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike. And he’s delivered his most explosive trophy yet: two veteran DEA agents charged in a $73,000 bribery conspiracy involving leaked information about ongoing drug investigations.

Hernández, a beefy, bald-headed figure known by the Spanish nickname Boliche – bowling ball – made secret recordings for the FBI and is expected to play a key role this month in the Manhattan federal court trial of former DEA supervisors Manny Recio and John Costanzo Jr. It’s a case that threatens to expose the seamy underbelly of the nation’s premier narcotics law enforcement agency, which has seen at least 18 agents charged or convicted of crimes since 2015, many for being too cozy with informants.

Not on trial but in the middle of it all is a fiercely competitive circle of high-priced Miami defense attorneys flippantly referred to as the “white powder bar.” Their stock in trade is not so much the finer points of law but in scrambling to sign up kingpin clients before the ink is dry on their indictments, negotiating surrender deals and converting them into government cooperators.

In such a world, informants like Hernández thrive by trading in the currency of information — who will be charged and when, said Steven Dudley, co-founder of Insight Crime, a research center focused on Latin America.

“He’s a linchpin in a corrupt system that is about making cases and making money,” Dudley said.

“When cases are made everyone wins,” he added. “The narcos get lower sentences and get to keep some proceeds, the prosecutors and agents get promotions, and the lawyers rake in the money. The only loser is Lady Justice.”

The case is just the latest embarrassment for the DEA, following the arrest of a standout agent in Colombia who laundered money for the cartels and spent lavishly on Tiffany jewels and VIP travel, and another accused of accepting $250,000 in bribes to protect the Mafia in Buffalo, New York.

Hernández’s central role in the latest case emerged from an Associated Press review of hundreds of court records, some of which have never been revealed publicly, and interviews with 12 current and former law enforcement officials familiar with his career as a confidential informant, including several who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the matter.

Lawyers for Recio and Costanzo have raised concerns in court papers about Hernández’s criminal history, particularly the three people he admitted to killing prior to becoming an informant. But prosecutors insist he is reliable, pointing to bank records and wiretapped calls they say corroborate his testimony.

“Just because someone has committed crimes doesn’t mean that we immediately discount everything they say,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sheb Swett told a judge earlier this year.

Neither the DEA nor the Justice Department responded to requests for comment. Hernández hung up when contacted by the AP.

“Call the Justice Department’s customer service line,” he later texted. “They have all the information you desire.”

Court records show the 56-year old Hernández began his criminal climb in the 1990s dispatching boatloads of cocaine for the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, a right-wing group that later morphed into one of the world’s largest drug-trafficking organizations.

In 2000, after a warlord placed a hit on him, he fled to neighboring Venezuela, where he was arrested. After paying bribes to secure his release, he approached the DEA about becoming an informant.

By all accounts, Hernández proved an adept casemaker, developing a reputation for delivering results but also aggressive behavior toward friends and foes alike.

Agents grew so reliant on Hernández’s network of more than 100 informants across Latin America and the Caribbean that they set him up with a phone and desk at the Tampa headquarters of Operation Panama Express, a federal anti-narcotics task force combining resources from the FBI, DEA, U.S. Coast Guard and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

However, people familiar with Hernández’s past say his luck ran out in 2008 when he was recorded threatening to expose federal informants as snitches unless they paid him to keep quiet. Court records show the DEA abruptly terminated his cooperation agreement and he returned to Venezuela.

But when one door closed, another opened. Despite being blackballed as an informant, Hernández continued to keep in close contact with the DEA and in 2016 met Costanzo, who was supervising agents in Miami investigating Colombian businessman Alex Saab, a suspected bag man for Venezuela’s socialist leader, Nicolas Maduro. At some point, Hernández was also receiving money transfers on Saab’s behalf from offshore accounts and banished from the case, people close to the probe said.

Shortly after, Hernández started cooperating with the FBI in New York, which had its own investigation into Saab. This time his payout wasn’t in cash — it was in seeking to avoid his own criminal exposure.

In 2017, Hernández connected Saab with Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami expert on narcotics trafficking. At Hernández’s urging, Bagley received $3 million from accounts controlled by Saab in the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland. He then transferred the money to Hernández, prosecutors have said, believing it would be forwarded to Saab’s U.S. attorneys, who were secretly negotiating a deal for Saab to turn on Maduro.

But the professor admitted keeping a 10% commission and in 2021 was sentenced to six months in prison for money laundering.

People familiar with the case told the AP that Hernández was also charged under seal in the same money laundering scheme, and that may have pushed him to keep cooperating.

Court papers show that in early 2019, at the FBI’s direction, Hernández recorded conversations with Recio as well as Miami attorney Luis Guerra in which they discussed recruiting targets of DEA investigations as clients using confidential information allegedly furnished by Costanzo. Recio had recently retired from DEA and was working as a private investigator with Guerra and another attorney, David Macey.

Recio is accused in the indictment of speaking hundreds of times on a burner phone he purchased for Costanzo to allegedly coordinate unlawful searches of criminal databases. In exchange, Recio allegedly directed purchases to Costanzo totaling $73,000, including plane tickets and a down payment on a condo. Prosecutors did not allege in the indictment that the lawyers were aware of those gifts.

Also under scrutiny were conversations between Recio and Costanzo discussing confidential DEA plans in 2019 to arrest another potential client. César Peralta was a high-level trafficker in the Dominican Republic who was able to elude capture for more than four months despite a massive search involving 700 law enforcement officials, according to court documents and people familiar with the case.

The task of reaching out to drug suspects to steer them to the attorneys of choice was assigned to Hernández, who was allegedly promised a generous cut of any legal fees.

“Don’t tell anybody where that information comes from,” Guerra tells Hernández in one recorded conversation, according to court documents and the people familiar with the case. “Do it the way you always do it, brother. Using your magic.”

Prosecutors declined to say whether any attorneys have been or will be charged. Attorneys for Recio and Costanzo did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Macey and Guerra.

Costanzo, who was suspended by the DEA after being indicted, denied in a 2019 FBI interview that he ever took anything of value. But he acknowledged that he and other agents sometimes tipped off defense attorneys as part of their mission to encourage suspects to turn themselves in and cooperate.

“We’ve been doing this for years,” he said.

As for Hernández, he’s still involved in Miami’s legal community, running Hernández de Luque Brothers, billed on its website as a “new kind of consulting firm for a changing world.”

“An integral part of our services is to work closely with our clients so that they can make the right decisions in selecting the right attorney.”


Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.

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Shadowy snitch takes starring role in bribery trial of veteran DEA agents