Florida courts hand down $191 million ruling for Colombian assassination

Antonio Caballero (seated) was recently awarded $191 million by Florida courts for the kidnapping and murder of his father in Colombia in 1999. Beside him are his legal team, Joseph Zumpano (left) and Leon Patricios.
Antonio Caballero (seated) was recently awarded $191 million by Florida courts for the kidnapping and murder of his father in Colombia in 1999. Beside him are his legal team, Joseph Zumpano (left) and Leon Patricios. Zumpano Patricios & Winker

As a senator, ambassador to the United Nations and president of the powerful Liberal Party, Carlos Caballero loomed large in Colombian politics.

When his emaciated body was found dumped by the side of a road with five bullet holes in the back of the neck Aug. 15, 1999 — after being held captive for more than six months — it was a matter of national outrage.

But at the height of Colombia’s 50-year civil conflict, mass murder, kidnapping and political assassinations of the highest order were commonplace, and the country eventually focused on fresh outrages.

Now, Caballero’s case and plight are back in the spotlight, as a South Florida judge found that three disparate groups — including Colombia’s most notorious drug traffickers and guerrillas — colluded to kidnap and kill Caballero because they needed his property to move drugs to the Caribbean coast and, ultimately, Florida.

The Miami-Dade Circuit Court awarded Caballero’s son, Antonio Caballero, who lives in South Florida, $191.4 million and will allow his legal team to target seized assets of a wide array of individuals and organizations, including those of Venezuelan government officials, Mexican cartels and hundreds of front companies.

The court found Colombia’s two largest guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), were working with the Norte del Valle Cartel to smuggle cocaine through the Magdalena River Valley to Colombia’s northern coast and into the United States.

The parties were found guilty of racketeering, torture, extrajudicial killing and scores of other crimes. Because none of the defendants responded to the complaint it was ruled without a jury under summary judgment.

For Antonio, who received asylum in the United States after Colombian police told him they could not guarantee his safety, the ruling provides a degree of closure.

“This puts all our pain, the drama, the barbarity into context,” he said. “We were alone fighting against the world trying to save a loved one … I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”

The case pivots on two farms that the politician owned and his son helped run in northern Colombia, in a notoriously violent area known as the Magdalena River Valley. The properties had been in the family for four generations, but starting in the late 1990s they became a strategic thoroughfare for cocaine being transported to hidden airstrips and river ports, the ruling found.

It was at a time when the Norte del Valle Cartel was on the rise — after the breakup of the Cali Cartel — and opening up routes along the Atlantic coast to run drugs through South Florida and up the U.S. eastern seaboard. According to the ruling, the FARC and ELN — considered terrorist groups by the United States and Colombia — were working as the cartel’s muscle and running logistics.

That finding is counterintuitive because the cartel has long been accused of having ties to the AUC paramilitaries that battled the guerrillas — sometimes in collusion with the armed forces. And the guerrillas have always denied that they shared business interests with their paramilitary foes. In addition, the FARC and ELN were often at odds, particularly during the 1990s.

Even so, the government has long maintained that guerrilla and narco-trafficking interests are mixed. (Requests for comment sent to email accounts run by both guerrilla groups were not immediately returned.)

The Caballeros had already fled the property because of guerrilla threats, but the politician remained an outspoken critic of the groups.

After a series of menacing FARC pamphlets began circulating in late 1998 — they named Caballero as backer of right-wing paramilitary gangs — the politician was stopped at a guerrilla checkpoint and hauled out of his car near the town of Pivijay in February 1999.

Caballero, 76 and a father of 10, had hypertension and was pre-diabetic. But according to court documents, he was marched through the jungle for days, forced to sleep in caves and holes and often denied food, water and medication during the 184 days of his captivity.

The rebels asked for a $6 million ransom but the government froze the family’s bank accounts as part of its policy of non-negotiation with terrorists. Even so, relatives gathered money to appease Caballero’s captors as his phone calls grew increasingly frantic.

“He was absolutely desperate and asked us to do anything we could to free him,” Antonio recalls. “He was living a hell on earth.”

The guerrillas took the ransom but executed Caballero.

Newspaper reports at the time blamed the ELN. In the ruling, the court found that “such a high-profile assassination” would not have been carried out without the knowledge and consent of all three parties.

“This is not simply a wrongful death type of case, but is much more profound,” the ruling found, citing Antonio’s mental anguish and post-traumatic stress disorder. “This is a case that justifies an extraordinary judgment.”

Even so, collecting from defunct cartels and active guerrilla groups poses a challenge.

The ruling lists hundreds of individuals and organizations designated as narco-traffickers by the U.S. government that could see their U.S.-blocked assets targeted by the plaintiff because of their ties to the three groups. Among those listed are notorious Mexican cartels, Colombian right-wing paramilitary groups and their successor criminal gangs, and hundreds of front companies and businesses.

Hugo Carvajal, the former head of Venezuelan military intelligence, is one such narcotics kingpin designated by the U.S. government. Earlier this year, there had been an attempt to extradite Carvajal from Aruba.

U.S. anti-narcotics and anti-terrorism laws “are meant to maximize the collection rights of the victim,” said Joseph Zumpano, with Zumpano Patricios & Winker, the Coral Gables firm handling the case.

As a result, “you don’t need to be a defendant for an asset to be considered susceptible,” he said. “Even after the fact and years later, it can be susceptible to collection. … There is a price that you pay under American law for aiding and abetting terrorist organizations.”

“To the extent assets are available for collection, we will take all actions within our capabilities to collect them,” Zumpano said.

Zumpano has made a career of such high-profile international cases.

In 2003, 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. Zumpano also helped break up Bahamian trusts to collect millions for another client, and he currently has a case before the second-highest court that would allow his client — a former Cuban political prisoner who was purposefully infected with hepatitis C — to collect damages by attaching Cuban trademarks and patents.

The Caballero lawsuit comes at a sensitive time in Colombia. FARC and government negotiators have spent more than two years in Havana trying to hammer out a peace deal that would end 50 years of civil conflict. Among the issues they will tackle is transitional justice — where guerillas might see reduced sentences for their crimes.

Zumpano said he did not expect the negotiations to have an impact on his firm’s ability to collect.

Antonio said it’s troubling to see some of the defendants in his case, including FARC commanders, playing peace maker in Havana. Previous peace negotiations — for example, when the M-19 guerrillas or paramilitary groups demobilized — are reason for cynicism, he said.

“There’s a common denominator in all of those processes,” he said. “The victims get stuck with their pain and their dead, and the victimizers end up with money and legal benefits.”