When a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge in 2015 awarded Antonio Caballero $191.4 million for the kidnapping, torture and death of his father at the hands of Colombian guerrillas and drug-trafficking groups, few thought his legal team would be able to collect.
After all, how do you find the funds of rebels known to stash cash deep in the jungle?
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But Caballero’s lawyers managed to follow a serpentine trail of drugs and money that went from Colombia’s heartland, through Mexican cartels, into a Texas armored-car company and, finally, into Florida bank accounts.
Earlier this month, they were able to seize just under $1 million dollars, and they hope that’s just the beginning.
Recovering less than 1 percent of a judgment might seem like a modest success, but Caballero, who lives in South Florida, calls it a clear victory.
“It’s not about the money,” Caballero, 59, said by phone. “This shows that lives cut short by violence aren’t forgotten … This has returned my faith in justice.”
The case goes back two decades when Caballero’s father, Carlos Caballero, owned two farms in Colombia’s Magdalena River Valley. The land had been in the family for generations, but in the late 1990s, the area became a strategic thoroughfare for drug traffickers.
During the court case, Caballero’s legal team proved that Colombia’s two largest guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), were working in league with the now-defunct Norte del Valle Cartel and other groups to move drugs through that region to South Florida.
Caballero and his family fled the area amid threats of violence when the traffickers moved in. But Antonio’s father — a prominent politician, who had been a Colombian senator, ambassador to the United Nations and president of the Liberal Party — remained an outspoken critic of the guerrillas.
In 1999, he was kidnapped at a rebel checkpoint and taken hostage. Though the 76-year-old man had hypertension and was pre-diabetic, the guerillas forced him to march through the jungle for 184 days, sleep in caves and holes, and often denied him food, water and medication, according to court documents.
The rebels asked for a $6 million ransom but the government froze the family’s bank accounts as part of its policy of not negotiating with terrorists. Even so, Caballero’s family scrounged some money together as the victim’s telephone calls became increasingly frantic.
“He was so desperate for us to make a miracle happen because they were abusing him and torturing him,” Caballero recalls of those conversations. “He was desperate and anguished and you could hear it in his voice … And the feeling of helplessness and suffering just grows inside of you.”
The guerrillas took the ransom money, but on Aug. 15, 1999, Caballero’s body was found dumped by the side of a road with five bullet holes in the back of the neck.
Newspaper reports at the time blamed the ELN, but in the 2015 verdict the court found that “such a high-profile assassination” would not have been carried out without the knowledge and consent of all the parties involved.
In addition, the court ruled that based on proof of actual ownership, and despite the use of fronts and “straw men,” Caballero and his lawyers could go after a wide array of organizations and assets that could be traced back to the guerrillas and the Norte del Valle Cartel or their agents.
“This particular finding of the final judgment would prove crucial to recovery in the case,” said Caballero’s lawyer, Joseph Zumpano, with Zumpano, Patricios & Winker, the Coral Gables firm that handled the case.
Zumpano said he took a “shot in the dark” by issuing subpoenas to some of Florida’s largest banks “under the theory that if drugs were being moved to South Florida, the money trail would be nearby.”
They got a hit when Regions Bank identified a “blocked account” under the name of Prodira Casa SA de CV, a currency-exchange company.
That money was tied to a 2012 case where ICE officials had seized $2 million in drug cash from an armored car company in Pharr, Texas.
Caballero’s team was able to establish that Prodira was a “straw man” for the notorious Mexican cartel, Los Zetas, and that the Zetas were a key part of the network that allowed Colombian guerrillas and drug traffickers to move narcotics into the United States.
In short, Prodira was shown to be “an agent” of Colombia’s FARC, Zumpano said.
The case is likely to draw the attention of other guerrilla victims in the United States, who have also won multi-million-dollar judgments but haven’t been able to collect, because the assets are either frozen or concealed.
Some of the obstacles to recovering assets revolve around the nature of the organizations, and whether they’re considered drug “kingpins” or terrorist organizations, Zumpano said.
“The message from this case is to never stop the inquiry based on the way someone has been labeled,” Zumpano said. “You have to keep searching for the true owner of an asset.”
The FARC and the government of Colombia are in the midst of implementing a peace deal in which the guerrillas have agreed to provide reparations to their victims, but it’s still unclear how that process might work. And the smaller ELN recently initiated peace talks in neighboring Ecuador.
Zumpano has made a career out of high-profile and tangled international cases, including a 2003 case in which the firm collected $23.7 million in compensatory damages for the death of a CIA pilot who was captured during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Caballero, who has had asylum in South Florida for more than a decade, said he plans to use part of his money to hold a memorial service for his father in Miami.
“There’s not enough money to pay for the pain and anguish my father went through and the fact that he’s not with us anymore,” he said. “But this recognition from the justice system is worth more than money.”