Monday, January 13, 1977




A cocaine sting is only as good as its snitches.
When U.S. Customs informants went bad,
Mobile's Operation Skymaster almost went down with them.

By MICHAEL WILSON
Staff Reporter

Maybe you lived in his quiet Mobile neighborhood. Maybe you stood behind him in line at the store, or sat beside him in a restaurant. Despite the best efforts of Alejandro Benitez and the government he served, he could never be perfectly invisible.

He was an unlikely crimefighter: Once a pilot for a Colombian drug ring and deported from the United States, he lived under a special visa and a west Mobile roof with his wife, his baby girl and his secret.

He was an informant for the U.S. Customs Service, until he betrayed the agents he served.

After it was all over -- after all the cases, all the money, and the telephone call that brought it all crashing down -- he explained himself in court:

``I didn't like drugs,'' Benitez told U.S. District Judge Charles Butler last May. ``That's why I was working. ... I never wanted to hurt anybody.''

He was good at what he did because he was the real deal. But Benitez, now 39, will be forever remembered as the double-crossing snitch who a year ago grounded Mobile's Operation Skymaster, nearly shutting down the international drug sting for good.

In interviews with the Mobile Register from a tiny meeting room at Mobile County Metro Jail, Benitez discussed his dangerous career and his life in Mobile's shadows.

By the mid-1980s, the flow of cocaine into the United States from points south had changed channels, from sea to air. The future was in Cessnas and hidden airstrips. There were huge payoffs for pilots willing to look past the risks.

Benitez, a good student, had studied industrial design at Universidad Outonoma Metropolitana in Mexico City, leaving the program in 1979 for a year abroad, at the Aseg School of Language in England, to learn English.

His father was in construction in Mexico, his brother and sister were architects.

He took private flying lessons in Mexico before moving to Brownsville, Texas, to obtain a commercial flying license in 1983. He could fly airplanes and helicopters, and shuttled businessmen around Mexico.

He had no criminal background -- a clean slate. He didn't elaborate during the interview on how his airplane's cargo changed. ``I was hanging out with the wrong crowd,'' he said.

An in-depth presentence report written last April by the U.S. Probation Office in Mobile describes his first career in cocaine importation:

He flew at least two loads out of Colombia, in February and April 1985, stopping at a Costa Rican airfield to refuel, and finally landing in Brownsville. The crucial refueling phase was completed with the help of Costa Rican military officials, and organized by a Panamanian named Cecilio Saenz- Barria.

Benitez was simply a pilot, a low-level position on the cocaine hierarchy. That changed after May 1985, his presentence report states.

A Colombian drug boss named Floyd Carlton-Caceres set up a load of 537 kilograms, 1,181 pounds, out of Colombia. But the plane never arrived in Costa Rica.

``The Colombia sources of the cocaine, believing they had been ripped off, eventually sent assassination teams to eliminate Floyd Carlton-Caceres, who had gone into hiding after mediation attempts to resolve this problem had failed,'' according to Benitez's presentence report.

Carlton-Caceres' top men rose in rank to keep the ring in business. Benitez now provided security and landing strips in Texas, taking orders from Saenz, who had also been promoted past his Costa Rican responsibilities.

They planned a load for September 1985. Benitez did not fly, but met the plane in Brownsville and instructed its pilot, Antonio ``Tony'' Aizprua, to take the drugs to Miami. Aizprua was a veteran drug pilot who a year earlier had flown a money-laundering operation for Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.

As Aizprua flew to Miami, a U.S. Customs Service airplane picked him up on radar. After a long aerial chase, Aizprua landed on an unfinished stretch of Interstate 75 near Miami.

The pilot ducked into a swamp and hid underwater, breathing through reeds for five hours, until the police gave up looking. Aizprua made it to a McDonald's, called a contact with the drug ring and fled from south Florida. Customs seized the plane and 700 pounds of 90 percent pure cocaine -- the equivalent of more than a ton of lower-grade street powder, worth $32 million by law-enforcement estimates.

By this time, the Drug Enforcement Agency had infiltrated the ring with a Florida undercover agent. The operation flew three more loads between October 1985 and January 1986. Two were successful. The last, 538 kilograms, was seized in Mexico.

The undercover DEA agent had accepted $2.8 million of laundered money from Carlton-Caceres and others in the ring, according to published accounts of the case. Police arrested the leaders. Benitez, 28 at the time, was picked up Jan. 29, 1986, and pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to import cocaine. Sentenced to six years, he served just over a third of that -- two years and about two months -- before he was released and deported on April 5, 1988.

He would be back.


Into another life

In Mexico, Benitez returned to the cockpit, flying advertising banners. ``I was doing very good over there,'' he said later.

It was around July 1988 when his old friend from the smuggling days called, pilot Tony Aizprua, who had hidden in the Florida swamp only to be caught later in the Los Angeles airport.

Aizprua, in broad strokes, explained that he'd flipped, working now as an informant for the U.S. government. ``He told me, did I want to work with him? I said, `Yeah, sure,' '' Benitez recalled.

Later that month, said Benitez, he piled into a truck with his sister and brother and drove north, to Reynosa, Mexico, on the border. He walked toward the immigration office on the Texas line, toward a country he'd been thrown out of.

``They were waiting for me,'' he said. He walked across the line into McAllen, Texas, and into another life.

A man introduced himself as Ernie Winberg, special agent with the Customs Service. He and Aizprua laid it out: ``They told me that I was going to be working for Operation Skymaster.''

In Skymaster, undercover customs agents pose as legitimate Mobile importers who, on the side, smuggle in drugs. They arrest whoever comes to pick up the load, whoever planned the deal.

It has worked for 10 years running, making 200 arrests and hauling in more than eight tons of narcotics.

All the money and surveillance gear and government resources mean nothing without a way to slip into drug rings, picked out and served up by the informants. In the drug underworld, informants wield a credibility that agents never will.

Skymaster's informants work all over; Orlando, Miami, California, New York, Mexico, Central and South America -- and Mobile.

``I was going to help produce cases. I signed papers there,'' Benitez recalled of the border motel meeting. He returned to his pilot's work in Mexico and waited.

In 1989, a friend of one of Benitez's codefendants from the old cocaine ring called. He asked Benitez if he knew of any remote ranches in northern Mexico that could be used as a checkpoint in a drug run into the United States.

``I got scared, to tell you the truth,'' Benitez said of the call. ``I said, `I'm out of this.' '' He said that he called customs and asked for his friend, Aizprua.

``If he (the smuggler) calls back, tell him to call me,'' Aizprua told Benitez. It worked, leading to about $7,000 for Benitez, and a conviction for Skymaster, he recalled.

He brought other cases from Mexico, the last one being one of Skymaster's signature busts, that of a Mexican smuggler known as ``El Tio.'' The case sent Mobile agents to Los Angeles, New York and Houston to set up the cocaine load.

``We needed a contact in Mexico since the main guys were there,'' recalled an undercover agent speaking on condition of anonymity. ``We needed someone who could go and handle a meeting with these people.''

When it was all over, Benitez believed there was a price on his head in Mexico.

``I had to leave the country,'' he said. He married his girlfriend and moved, on a temporary customs visa, to Mobile. He arranged for a friend, Carlos Iglesias of Veracruz, Mexico, to work with him.

``They told me, `Do not get into trouble.' ''


The hard work

Benitez brought the targets to Mobile: the smugglers and transportation brokers who keep the pipeline open. The cartels get more press, but their coca fields would be worthless if the harvest couldn't move north.

He often worked out of the fake businesses that Skymaster used as fronts, bait for drug traffickers, where agents posed as importers who ferried narcotics on the side.

``When you're dealing,'' he said, tapping his forehead, ``you have to take out that you're police. You're a criminal.''

With his quick smile and large eyes that suggest sincerity, Benitez had a way of making dopers -- and agents, for that matter -- trust him.

``Our work is for you to accept what I want, for you to say what I want to hear, and for you to give me what I want. We're actors. That's what we are. We're actors here,'' he said.

He worked with his friends Tony Aizprua and Iglesias, who stayed in Mexico but traveled regularly to Mobile. Benitez settled into a $1,300-a-month, ranch-style home on Sugar Creek Drive, with a big back yard and palm trees out front.

``If I can give my wife and baby a nice place to live, it's worth it,'' Benitez said of the money, and the way he earned it.

He wore nice suits, cotton shirts open down to his chest, and gold chains and bracelets. Photographs from the period show that he wore his dark hair long, sometimes tying it into a thick ponytail, and kept a full beard. He drove a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

``I didn't know when they (his targets) were going to see me in the street,'' Benitez explained, as if the lifestyle was a burden.

It was sometimes dangerous work, particularly the trips to South America. He took off and landed on hidden airfields in Mexico, Colombia and other coastal countries, on runways of dirt illuminated with lights linked to portable generators. He remembered shooting pool once with armed Colombians.

``We risked our lives constantly for them,'' he said of the agents. ``They have the guns. We're not allowed to have guns.''


Big money, big problems

Their motivations vary. Some informants work to stay out of prison, some crave adventure, but they all want the money.

When Skymaster began 10 years ago, its main informants were paid in cash -- $3,000 to $5,000 per month -- plus a cut of the cash seizures for cases they worked. Quarter-million dollar payouts were not unusual.

For that money, they, especially the pilots, worked hard.

``Billy Bob'' Bottoms of Louisiana was introduced to cocaine flights by his brother-in-law, Barry Seal of Louisiana. Both of the smugglers became informants.

Seal infiltrated Colombia's Medellin cartel and reported back to the DEA until he was assassinated outside a Baton Rouge halfway house in 1986. Soon after, Bottoms moved to Mobile with Seal's old DEA contact to help start Skymaster.

``If you look at the pay, it's pretty good. But when you factor in the expenses and problems, it comes out to just about zero,'' Bottoms, now 49, said in a telephone interview from Louisiana.

The flights from Mobile to Colombia lasted 12 hours in a twin-engine airplane. The pilots left at night for a dawn arrival in South America, with only the high-frequency radio, maybe a copilot, to keep them company over the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. An empty gallon jug served as the restroom.

Near the Colombian coast, the pilots received final instructions on finding the landing strip. They sometimes wore infrared night goggles to amplify available light, but the electronic headgear threw off their depth perceptions, making daytime landings preferable.

Bottoms often landed near lush Lake Cienaga, surrounded by mountains between the cities of Santa Marta and Barranquilla on Colombia's northern coast. The dirt runways -- gravel if you were lucky -- were hurriedly cleared in the marsh; they often had soft spots and treacherous wet patches.

The pilots' stays in the jungle were brief, ending as soon as the plane was fueled and loaded with drugs far past the safe weight limit. Pilots often were on the way home within an hour of landing, before the humidity got bad enough to hamper the heavy takeoff.

But they had company this time, an armed cartel chaperon to ensure safe passage.

``I almost always had a killer with me,'' Bottoms said. ``If something happened to the load, they'd rather have their own person explaining what happened.''

The planes left heavy with drugs and heavy rubber ``bladders'' of extra fuel. A former undercover agent in Mobile remembered the time that Bottoms landed in Alabama with green stains on his propellers, having clipped treetops while trying to gain altitude out of Colombia.

They flew out of Colombia fast, burning enough fuel to drop their weight and gain altitude. Crossing the Gulf, the pilots swung far enough west to stay clear of the radar blimps that hovered in wait for Florida landings. Near the Gulf Coast, the planes dropped low, trying to mimic oil-rig helicopters.

This, of course, was for show, for the chaperon's benefit, as area customs agents knew exactly where the plane was and what it was carrying.

In Bottoms' smuggling days with Seal, he'd drop so low that spray from the Gulf coated his airplane's windshield. A ``kicker'' on board would boot the parachute-rigged load and the empty plane would land safely at an airport.

``You're a tired puppy when you get back,'' Bottoms said. He was granted immunity for the loads he flew into the country before he became an informant (He estimates there were at least 25 such loads; his partner, Seal, testified to 50).

Seal had gone from TWA to drug-running; Bottoms took the opposite career path. After Bottoms left Skymaster in 1989, he flew passenger jets for Eastern Airlines. A Customs Service supervisor wrote him a letter of recommendation, which read in part: ``He has flown in excess of 2,000 hours under extreme weather and flight conditions in a variety of aircraft.''


True colors

In Mobile, Benitez was pulling down $3,000 a month, plus a percentage of cash seizures from his cases. On one case alone he made $287,000 in one lump sum.

He was living a sort of cocaine version of the American Dream: Plenty of money and excitement, without fear of arrest.

Targets came to Mobile and usually met with Benitez and an undercover agent in a back office at the fake import business. Hidden cameras and microphones recorded their conversations about importing cocaine, and details such as quantity and cost for shipping per kilogram. Informants were instructed to show interest in nothing smaller than 150-kilogram loads, 330 pounds of near-pure cocaine, Benitez said.

``That's important at sentencing,'' when judges consider the amount of cocaine imported, Benitez said. Federal sentencing guidelines, a rule book of sorts that bind judges in the punishments they hand down, compute cocaine sentences by weight.

He never touched drugs, he said. ``In my life, I never did drugs. I never smoked a joint, period. I am proud of that.''

Benitez was a regular face at the customs undercover business. The familiarity led to carelessness. For example, agents are supposed to listen in on informants' telephone calls to targets; in Benitez's case, they didn't.

``He was like one of the family,'' said Gary Wright, the agent in charge of Mobile customs.

``We went everywhere together,'' an undercover agent recalled. ``Europe, Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica. You name it.

``I was very close to him. Closer than I should have been, probably.''

Informants are supposed to be isolated and work in vacuums, but Benitez had access to different angles of his cases, and to the cases of other informants.

ooking back, veteran agents say it was just a matter of time before he put the operation to work for him.

The way Benitez tells it, he went broke suddenly. He vaguely attributes his shortfall to his wife's illness. His attorney would later blame Benitez's lavish lifestyle.

``I told customs, `I need money,' '' Benitez recalled. It was the summer of 1995. He was making $3,000 per month plus bonuses, though the last one had been months before, he said. ``You might say that's a lot, but I had bills to pay.''

He anticipated a windfall bonus that never came. The way he tells it, ``I was desperate. There were days I had trouble getting food, diapers.''

So:

He was working a case involving south Florida targets who had agreed to pay him and undercover agents to ship 400 kilograms, 880 pounds, of cocaine, through Mobile.

According to court records, Benitez had met with two of the targets, including a man named Juan Carlos Pinillos, in the Fort Lauderdale International Airport, where they paid him an advance of $25,020 for expenses. (Informants are not allowed to carry that much cash. Benitez excused himself, ducked into a restroom and switched bags with an agent, then returned to the targets, he recalled.)

It was June 1995, at a delicate point in the deal. Pinillos, the target, had gotten a call from a contact in Colombia warning him that he was dealing with the police. The contact described a blonde secretary in Mobile and a dock the agents used.

Pinillos warned his friends, who asked Benitez if it were true, who of course said no. One target actually came to Mobile, where he found a secretary with different color hair than described by the Colombian tipster. The agents took a collective, deep breath and the case resumed course.

Then it happened. Telling it later, in jail, Benitez slipped into the last act of his story without buildup or emotion:

``It was my idea.''


The double-cross

Well after customs snuffed out the Colombian tipoff, someone else called Pinillos in south Florida and said: ``You're dealing with the police.''

The man called several times over a two-month period, first requesting $80,000 for more information, then dropping the demand to $25,000.

Pinillos taped the calls.

To prove he knew what he was talking about, the man explained -- correctly -- that Pinillos was about to be served with arrest papers. The man knew information from Pinillos' driver's license and the clothes Pinillos had worn to a recent meeting in Mobile.

What's more, the caller described the appearance of an undercover agent Pinillos had believed was a smuggler.

Soon after, on July 31, 1995, Pinillos was arrested at his Fort Lauderdale home. The agents got hold of Pinillos' tapes of his talks with the mystery caller, an affidavit shows.

The agents knew the caller right away: Iglesias, Benitez's pal from Mexico. The informant had turned on them, double-crossed them, offered to sell their deepest secrets -- their identities.

``I heard that voice, and I saw the whole thing right away,'' recalled the agent who had traveled the world with Benitez. ``It really was a shock.''

Iglesias was in Veracruz at the time. They knew he wasn't acting alone: ``Because Iglesias was not present during, or involved in, the investigation of Pinillos, Iglesias necessarily received this information from another person,'' special agent Sharon Murphy wrote in an affidavit.

``Benitez had access to the information Iglesias provided to Pinillos,'' she wrote.

Later, justifying his actions, Benitez would argue that Pinillos, spooked by the blonde-secretary tipoff, had already withdrawn from the conspiracy and could do the agents no harm. Besides, Benitez said in jail, he was working with the agents, and putting their lives in danger would be risking his own neck.

Very quickly, two things happened:

First, Benitez's pay was cut to zero.

``We're not going to pay someone who was extorting us and trying to get us killed,'' Wright, the agent in charge of the Mobile customs office, said later.

The agents told Benitez his salary was tied up in the 1995 budget showdown between Congress and the White House. He was furious.

``Where am I going to find work for $3,000 a month? Three thousand. Gone,'' he snaps his fingers, ``just like that.''

Second, the agents set up an elaborate sting within their sting, bringing in an undercover agent Benitez didn't know, who posed as a Miami dealer.

On Sept. 13, 1995, special agent George Machado, calling himself Jorge Mercado, visited the Mobile storefront with Benitez and undercover Mobile agents.

They discussed importing cocaine, and Mercado gave the agents $35,000 in cash for expenses. Later, the agents told Benitez a second meeting had taken place without him, and said Mercado gave them $45,000 more.

Benitez was asked to transcribe the tapes of the Mobile meeting, translating them from Spanish to English, making sure to include Mercado's cellular telephone number in his report, Benitez recalled. Later, he saw a blown-up copy of Mercado's driver's license where an agent had left it, with a phone number beside it, he said.

``They were pushing me to call,'' he said later. ``I was under a lot of pressure. So I called. I fell into the trap they set.''


Busted

It was another informant, at Benitez's direction, who actually made the calls: Cecilio Saenz-Barria, the Panamanian who oversaw Benitez in the 1985 cocaine pipeline through Brownsville.

``On approximately 13 occasions from Oct. 11 through Oct. 25, 1995,'' Saenz called the agent who was posing as Mercado, agent Murphy's affidavit states.

Saenz called himself ``Mario'' and promised Mercado ``information which would save him from problems resulting from his dealings with undercover law enforcement agents in a drug venture,'' the affidavit states. These calls, of course, were taped. Not only did agents know Saenz's voice, but they recognized his home telephone number in Panama when he mentioned it.

Saenz wanted $6,000 in return for his information. At his direction, Mercado wired half of it to the Mail Boxes Etc. office in Fairhope on Oct. 25, 1995. Benitez received the wire and cashed the check at a nearby bank.

During the operation, agents had to maintain their cool in the storefront, where Benitez was still showing up for work.

``It wasn't easy,'' the undercover agent closest to Benitez said. ``He'd come into my office and talk about his kid, ask about my kids.''

It was time to get Iglesias and Saenz into the country. Agents called them both in for routine informant debriefing in Miami. At the same time, Mercado told Saenz that he'd pay the $3,000 he owed if the informant could come to Miami to pick it up.

On Nov. 1, 1995, Saenz and Iglesias met at Miami International Airport, called Benitez from a telephone booth and went to an Amoco gas station where they'd agreed to meet Mercado. They followed the undercover agent to an office, where both informants were arrested.

They waived their right to remain silent, and quickly gave up Benitez, who was in Mobile. The next day, Nov. 2, 1995, Saenz -- acting now as an informant against his fellow informant -- arrived with money for Benitez, and something else.

``Check in the bag. It's a gift for you,'' Saenz said, Benitez later recalled. Inside were about 4 pounds of cocaine. It had been a customs agent's idea; dealers often pay part of their debts in drugs.

Benitez was arrested. His agent friend walked in.

``I just said, `I can't believe you did this to me,' and then I walked out of the room,'' the agent recalled.

Benitez was taken to Mobile County Metro Jail to live among men he helped put there.

Photographs of Benitez, Saenz and Iglesias, along with a story about their arrest, made the front page of the Mobile Register. Other prisoners saw the article.

Pinillos' codefendants were still locked up there, along with two Florida half-brothers and a boxing trainer convicted just that summer of conspiring to import cocaine. One of the half-brothers was facing a life sentence.

``He was real mad at me, because I was in the paper,'' Benitez said.


`A bad divorce'

The three informants were indicted on charges of extortion, money laundering, wire fraud and obstructing the agency's criminal investigations. Benitez was separately charged with possession and intent to distribute the 4 pounds of cocaine Saenz had given him.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gloria Bedwell later acknowledged that charge was slim: ``We were aware that that count did not have a lot of jury appeal.''

Benitez had all of $2.61 in a savings account. His wife and daughter were sent back to Mexico. He was appointed an attorney, Domingo Soto of Mobile.

Soto, who has long tracked Skymaster's cases and has represented past customs defendants, attacked with zeal. He subpoenaed 13 customs special agents, several informants, members of foreign militaries, even a travel agent who he said passes travelers' flight information to customs agents upon request. He said at the time that he wanted to ``put Skymaster on trial.''

The government fought the subpoenas. The customs agents watched the case more closely than some of their own. This was personal.

``It's like a bad divorce case,'' Soto said. Benitez planned to argue entrapment; that customs, by cutting off his pay and feeding Mercado's phone number to him, gave him no alternative but extortion.

Opening arguments were scheduled for Ash Wednesday last February, right after the Mardi Gras court holiday.

Saenz had already pleaded guilty in January. Iglesias buckled on the Friday before trial, pleading guilty to obstructing justice and agreeing to testify against his old friend who had brought him into Skymaster.

Alone now, Benitez had two options he knew well:

Fight. A jury would hear and see him on tape and hear testimony from codefendants who have made deals with prosecutors. And him sitting there, a deported alien. His odds were not good. To date, Operation Skymaster has indicted 194 defendants, according to customs figures. All but four were convicted.

Or he could plead out. Roll over and hope for a decent sentence.

He pleaded guilty to obstruction and wire fraud charges on Ash Wednesday.

His codefendants both did well at their sentencings: Saenz, 14 months; Iglesias, 12 months. Both men are already out.

But Benitez, before a different judge, received a 10-year prison stretch, two five-year sentences, stacked back-to-back. The main reason was the way the judge considered his role in the Mercado sting.

Benitez's lawyer argued that the informant's sentence should not be enhanced for obstructing a drug investigation because there was no drug investigation, just the undercover agent posing as Mercado. The argument had worked for Saenz before U.S. District Judge Brevard Hand of Mobile.

Judge Butler disagreed, hitting Benitez with the maximum penalty.

``I never tried to block justice. I never really wanted to do that,'' Benitez pleaded that day before the judge, his broad shoulders slumped in his prison garb and his face cleanly shaven.

``I had a financial problem and I slipped. I did this for money.''

Benitez has appealed the sentence, and since his interviews with the Register he has been transferred to a federal prison in Three Rivers, Texas.


`At arm's length'

After the case, the customs office in Mobile dug out its rule book on the treatment of informants.

No longer will men like Benitez and Iglesias and Saenz work as closely together. Now, the informants know only of their roles in particular cases, agent Wright said. They must submit to regular drug and lie detector tests, he said.

``We had a wake-up call,'' Wright said. ``We're a lot more leery than we used to be. You treat the informant at arm's length.''

Retired agent Ernst ``Jake'' Jacobsen was harsher.

``You develop a real close bond with them because you put your life on the line with them,'' he said, recalling times when informants visited agents' homes, an informality that since has been banned.

``Before you know it, you're treating these individuals like you and I, and they're not. They're dope smugglers and murderers.''


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