As a kid growing up in Colombia, Camilo Gomez wasn't much of a student, dropping out of high school as his parents’ marriage broke up.
But he was street-smart, a knowledge gained from stealing cars and motorcycles in Medellín before graduating into big-time cocaine smuggling and money laundering in his native country, Mexico and Panama.
But by 2006, after $3million was supposedly stolen from him, Gomez would be running for his life to Florida, where he improbably obtained political asylum and became a highly paid federal informant. The father of five now owns an equestrian ranch at an undisclosed location.
Over the last week, the 36-year-old Gomez — now looking like a conservative middle-class businessman — has held center stage as the government’s star witness against a suspended Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in Miami federal court. Juan F. Martinez is accused of using his badge to extort more than $2million from the informant, a drug trafficker and a Colombian construction company, then pocketing more than $250,000 in cash bribes and gifts.
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On Friday, Gomez himself was accused by defense attorney Silvia Piñera-Vazquez of being “a manipulator of the truth” and “a protected government informant” who has never been arrested for a lifetime of crime.
His unflappable response: “I used to be a criminal; I no longer am.”
Martinez, 48, who joined ICE in 2001, faces up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted of an extortion conspiracy charge or related offenses in a 12-count indictment filed last December. His trial is expected to last three weeks before U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga.
The charges allege that Martinez used his official ICE position to extort bribes — including $109,000 delivered to him by another informant at Bayside Marketplace — in exchange for purported law-enforcement protection and immigration benefits between 2009 and 2011, according to prosecutors Michael Nadler and Karen Gilbert.
Martinez’s fate will greatly depend on whether the 12-person Miami federal jury believes Gomez, who came to know him when the informant had a meeting with agents from the FBI, ICE and the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2009. His testimony resumes Tuesday.
Gomez quickly became valuable to the DEA because he possessed a ton of insider information about the Colombian drug cartel headed by Carlos Mario Jimenez Naranjo, aka “Macaco,” who he testified had threatened to kill him and his family. Gomez disclosed that the DEA paid him $500,000 for helping the agency seize about $20 million in cocaine proceeds and capture many drug traffickers.
At the same time he was working for the DEA, Gomez testified that he also helped narcotraffickers find defense attorneys in Miami so they could cut plea deals with federal prosecutors.
Some of the money that he earned from the DEA and his side deals would end up in the pocket of Martinez, Gomez testified last week.
On the witness stand, Gomez detailed about $150,000 in cash payments and other gifts — including a diamond ring, watch, cognac, airline tickets, a rifle and a handgun — that he said were delivered to Martinez by himself and several intermediaries, including a Miami criminal defense attorney.
Gomez repeatedly testified that he paid off Martinez because he “feared” the ICE agent would either deport him or bring drug charges against him.
“If he became angry with me … he could deport me. … I and the rest of my family would not last very long in Colombia,” Gomez testified in Spanish through an interpreter. “They would kill my family and kill me when I return.”
Gomez further testified that after his first meeting with federal agents at ICE’s office in Miami, Martinez began pressuring him for cash bribes and gifts, several of which were documented with receipts produced by the prosecutors. They also displayed emails in which Gomez and Martinez discussed the payments. Martinez used a private email name: “JuanBlueEagle.”
In one instance, Gomez said that Martinez asked for $100,000 to $150,000 for a far-fetched mission to bribe a helicopter pilot in Colombia to carry out the arrest of drug lord Macaco’s wife, so she could be extradited to the United States to face charges.
“I thought it was weird,” Gomez testified, adding that the operation was never executed.
Gomez said he still delivered part of the cash payoff, $32,000 in $100 bills, to Martinez at a strip center anchored by Home Depot off U.S.1 in Coconut Grove. “I stepped inside Mr. Juan’s car and gave him the money,” Gomez testified.
Gomez also testified that Martinez’s wife “suspected him of infidelity” and that he wanted to get back in her good graces by giving her a diamond ring. Gomez said the ICE agent asked him if he knew a jeweler, and he recommended one in Colombia. Gomez said he paid for the ring, which cost $5,000.
On Friday, Gomez disclosed that he once met with Martinez and Miami defense attorney Susy Ribero-Ayala at the Segafredo cafe in the Brickell area of downtown Miami in 2010. He testified that Martinez asked for money and arranged to have it delivered through her to the ICE agent. Gomez also testified that she delivered messages to him on Martinez’s behalf.
Gomez also said that he gave a handgun to Ribero-Ayala to give as a gift to the ICE agent.
Gomez added that Martinez had initially introduced him to Ribero-Ayala after he had asked him if he could recommend a good Spanish-speaking lawyer.
“I referred defendants and cases to her,” Gomez testified.
Ribero-Ayala, a former state prosecutor who has represented numerous drug traffickers and most recently convicted steroid dealer Anthony Bosch, has come under the scrutiny of federal prosecutors. They mentioned her name in the opening statements of the extortion trial and during questioning of Gomez.
Ribero-Ayala, who has not been charged, is represented by prominent criminal defense attorney Sam Rabin, who said she “ enjoys a stellar reputation.”
“We categorically deny that she has done anything illegal, unethical or improper,” Rabin said in a statement. “To further support our position, she submitted to a polygraph examination and passed with flying colors.
“Any suggestion that she has done anything wrong is an invention of a government witness with a lengthy criminal past who is also a documented liar and drug trafficker with incentive to lie in this instance.”
During cross-examination, Martinez’s Piñera-Vazquez tried to shred Gomez by repeatedly attacking his lack of credibility and long history of crime. To dramatize her point, she got Gomez to admit to a slew of crimes for which he has never been charged, checking off a list that included everything from drug trafficking to visa fraud. Gomez also admitted he had been shot three times in Colombia.
She noted that Gomez, a lawful permanent U.S. resident, lied on his asylum application about his criminal past. Gomez used his past conflicts with the Colombian leftist group, the so-called FARC, a U.S.-designated terrorist drug-trafficking organization, to gain asylum in the United States, according to court papers.
On Friday, Piñera-Vazquez sparred with Gomez about his life of lies, saying that the dropout bought a high school diploma for $500.
“Was that your first lie?” the attorney asked.
“No, I have many others prior,” the informant responded.
“So you could say you were a born liar?” she posed.
“You could say that,” he said, without missing a beat.