Fordham Law

$9M richer, informant unmasks himself at NY trial

Karen Greenberg in The Associated Press, November 06, 2011

Media Source

NEW YORK (AP) - The most bankable star witness at the trial of an ex-Soviet officer known as the Merchant of Death was a former drug dealer turned U.S. government-sponsored actor who became one of the highest paid informants in history.

Carlos Sagastume, 40, earned more than $9 million over 15 years by convincing drug dealers and a weapons merchant that he was as bad — if not worse — than they.

Collecting evidence against Viktor Bout was another major achievement in a remarkable career for Sagastume. He posed as a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC, to coax Bout to travel from Russia to Thailand in March 2008 to arrange to send deadly weapons to Colombian rebels to fight Americans.

The monthlong trial in federal court in Manhattan ended Wednesday with Bout's conviction on conspiracy charges. The arms dealer, an inspiration for the character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film "Lord of War," faces a potential life sentence.

Sagastume made most of his millions through the State Department's Narcotics Rewards Program, collecting $7.5 million from two rewards for work he did for the Drug Enforcement Administration. Another $1.6 million was earned through work on 150 investigations, though some of the money covered expenses.

He was paid $250,000 for the Bout probe. In all, the State Department has paid more than $62 million in rewards since Congress established the program in 1986 to reward individuals who provide information to help arrest and convict drug dealers.

Myrna S. Raeder, a Southwestern Law School professor, said she found it interesting that Sagastume had lived a life of disguise for so long.

"One would think that one's cover would be blown much earlier," she said. "This sounds like fodder for a movie with that kind of background."

Thomas Pasquarello, a former DEA special agent who headed the Bout probe in Thailand, said Sagastume was among the DEA's best informants.

"If you're looking at big fish, you need big bait," he said. "That's what guys like Carlos are good at. They're pros at what they do and they have deep connections."

A good informant risks his life and can fake underground connections to reassure someone like Bout that he's authentic, he said.

"Look at Viktor Bout. He wasn't going to fall for a rookie informant. Guys like that could see through a rookie undercover in five minutes," said Pasquarello, now chief of police in Somerset, Mass.

The Guatemalan-born Sagastume did not seem a likely candidate to be a prosecutor's best friend when he began transporting drugs — after he finished a five-year stint in Guatemala's Army, where he specialized in gathering intelligence on subversive activity and guerrilla activists.

Speaking through an interpreter —even though he could be heard on taped conversations speaking English — he testified at Bout's trial that he was paid $450,000 for helping transport up to 3,000 kilos of cocaine and $3 million in cash for drug organizations.

He said that after he was kidnapped by federal police in Mexico and a $60,000 ransom was paid to free him, he contacted the DEA in Guatemala, looking for a new line of work.

By 1998, he had moved to the United States and was steadily delivering successful results in DEA investigations.

In January 2008, he was summoned to join a sting operation designed to catch Bout, who was known as a supplier of weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa. His clients ranged from Liberia's Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to the Taliban government that once ran Afghanistan.

Sagastume was assigned to pose as a FARC member who wanted to buy 100 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 AK-47 rifles, 350 sniper rifles, 5 tons of C-4 explosives and 10 million rounds of ammunition, among other weapons. He teamed up with Ricardo Jardenero, 52, a Colombian-born informant who posed as "The Commandant," a commanding officer in the FARC, classified by Washington as a narco-terrorist group.

Jardenero was one of the DEA's better paid informants as well, making $500,000 during four years working undercover. He was paid $320,000 for the Bout probe.

Like Sagastume, Jardenero also was a former drug dealer who could project himself like a rebel commander after a decade in the Colombian Army and time spent shipping weapons for a paramilitary group that opposed the FARC.

Karen Greenberg, a history professor at Fordham Law School, said large payouts make sense in pursuit of targets like Osama bin Laden and Bout as the government rewards informants who lived in a criminal world themselves long enough to mimic the language and attitudes of those they must catch.

"You still have to be careful with how much government money you're throwing around," she said. "Once that kind of money is out there for the pool of people who can help, it will be harder and harder to discern who you can trust. Who wouldn't take that kind of money?"