Colombian diplomat Carlos Caballero was kidnapped and killed by guerrillas in 1999
His son, now living in the US, won a court victory and collected money traced back to the rebels
Collecting upwards of $1 million of a nearly $200 million judgment may not seem like much. But for a grieving man who lost his father years ago to one of Latin America’s longest-running guerrilla wars, it’s a crucial victory.
Ever since his diplomat father died at the hands of Colombian rebel forces in 1999, Antonio Caballero has been living in the United States under political asylum, looking for ways to bring those responsible to justice.
A degree of closure came in 2014, after a Florida trial court awarded Caballero damages in a case that held Colombia’s most notorious guerrillas and drug traffickers liable, in absentia, for the brutal attack.
The problem is, collecting money from a foreign terrorist organization – particularly an armed rebel group that tries to hide its money beyond the reach of US courts – is difficult, especially if you’re not a US citizen.
So his legal team followed the money, tracking a trail of drugs and money that began in the Colombian jungle and ran through a Mexican drug cartel into an armored car in Texas before landing in a bank account in Florida.
Now that Caballero has collected a small portion of the money a court awarded him, he feels vindicated.
“The symbolism of this justice is more important than the money,” Caballero, 59, said in an interview with CNN through his attorney, Joseph Zumpano. “But the collection of the money itself makes the justice more meaningful.”
The bloody beginning
Caballero’s father, Carlos Caballero, was big in Colombian politics.
A liberal party leader and five-time senator, he took the post of Colombia’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1972. Throughout his political career, he was an outspoken critic of Colombian guerrilla forces.
The ambassador was 76 years old when he was taken hostage in February 1999, during a period of extreme violence between drug traffickers and paramilitary groups. Around this time, Colombia saw a large spike in the number of kidnappings, according to the country’s victim services unit.
Caballero’s father turned up dead more than six months after rebels demanded a $6 million for his release. During his captivity, rebel forces tortured him daily, forcing him to walk through the jungle for hours and depriving him of food and water, according to the civil complaint Caballero filed in a Florida trial court.
Despite receiving, according to court records, a “substantial sum” of money, rebels killed Carlos Caballero anyway, shooting him in the back of the neck and dumping his body on the side of a dirt road.
In the complaint, Antonio Caballero says he was forced to flee his home country, abandoning property and businesses, and he wants those responsible to pay.
The defendants listed were Colombia’s two largest guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), along with the Colombia’s North Valley Cartel (NDVC).
The suit says Caballero’s father was targeted because of his political positions against the rebel groups, and because property he owned could facilitate the transport of drugs from Colombia to southern Florida.
Records from the Colombian government’s human rights observatory blame ELN for the death of Caballero’s father. But the court judgment found “such a high-profile assassination” to not be possible without the “approval and acquiescence” of the ELN, FARC and NDVC, a three-way finding that would prove crucial to Caballero’s ability to recover any money.
A ‘shot in the dark’
After the ruling, Antonio Caballero tried to collect, filing an order in Florida to seize a portion of the $191.4 million judgement against the FARC, ELN, and NDVC.
But collecting money from Colombian guerrillas and narco-traffickers from thousands of miles away in the US is tough.
In 2012, a Florida judge awarded three American contractors who had been held hostage by FARC a total of $318 million, to be paid from bank accounts seized from Colombian drug traffickers linked to the FARC, according to Reuters.
As of 2016, they were able to claim only a very small portion of that money, Reuters reported.
One of the contractors taken hostage by the FARC, Thomas Howes, addressed this obstacle in a 2014 written statement to the US House Financial Services Committee: “The FARC itself has no blocked assets in the US, never has and likely never will. [Foreign terrorist organizations] simply do not open bank accounts or hold assets in their name. Instead, they operate through cartels, groups, and individual drug traffickers and money launderers – the agencies or instrumentalities of the FARC.”
Hoping to get his client paid, Zumpano says he took a “shot in the dark,” trying to find any blocked narco-cash that could be traced to Colombian rebels and drug traffickers and made available to Caballero for collection.
Zumpano issued subpoenas to some of the largest banks in Florida. He thought if Colombian drugs were finding their way to southern Florida, then a money trail wouldn’t be far behind.
The Miami-based lawyer found a “blocked account” tied to a seizure of $2 million in drug money from an armored car in Texas, near the border with Mexico. The account was tied to a money laundering operation of the notorious Mexican drug cartel, Los Zetas.
Caballero’s legal team successfully argued that his client was entitled to the money, since Los Zetas were acting as an “instrument” of the country’s rebel groups by transporting Colombian drugs to foreign markets.
It’s the first time in his legal career that he’s seen any terror victim recover assets in the United States from a Mexican drug cartel, Zumpano said. Under federal law, assets seized by the US from Mexican drug cartels are often unavailable to victims of terrorism.
“Not many lawyers do this type of litigation … It’s a lonely field,” Zumpano explained. “But if you’re a victim of terror, you’ve got to be able to follow the money, and trace back to who is really behind it.”
No stranger to complex international cases, Zumpano and law partner Leon Patricios collected close to $24 million in damages from Cuba on behalf of the daughter of a CIA pilot shot down during the Bay of Pigs invasion. In 2010, he also argued the Cuban government’s injection of hepatitis C into a political prisoner’s body constituted a biological attack of an American citizen.
More money ahead?
Zumpano declined to comment on further legal actions he would take to obtain more of Caballero’s compensation. But the victory could open the door for other victims of guerrilla violence looking to use blocked or hidden narco-cash to satisfy judgements.
Caballero collects his money at an important juncture in Colombia’s history. The government approved a historic peace agreement with FARC in September, bringing Latin America’s 52-year conflict to an end. FARC’s leader apologized for the “great pain” the insurgent group caused by kidnappings. Peace talks between the Colombian government the ELN are ongoing.
Despite the country’s progress towards peace, Zumpano says his client isn’t safe to return to Colombia. Nevertheless, Antonio Caballero says he hopes to use the money he’s received to someday hold a memorial for his father among his loved ones in Colombia.
“Wherever my father is, I’m confident he’s looking down on me and is so happy,” Caballero said. “I know he is so proud of what I have done in his memory.”
CNN’s Marilia Brocchetto and Catherine Shoichet contributed to this report.