By Eric Barton
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Carlos Toro says he was never much with a gun, which is why he was so frightened when his boss pulled an Uzi on him.
About This Story
This story was produced in partnership with Latterly.
It was 1985, and Toro was a mid-level member of the Medellín drug cartel, which was believed to have supplied 80 percent of the cocaine sold in the States. His boss, Alvaro Triana, was skimming money, taking a slice of cash meant to pay pilots who were smuggling cocaine.
Toro confronted his boss in the home Triana owned in the Boca Raton development of Captiva. Triana pulled the Uzi from a bag under his chair. But Toro was quicker, pulling a .38-caliber revolver from his satchel.
He hit Triana twice, in the groin and chin. Triana wasn’t dead, but he was bleeding badly.
Toro called the cartel leader, Carlos Lehder, to find out what to do next. Lehder had a clear message for him: “You’re not one of us anymore,” Lehder told him. “Don’t try to hide. There is no hiding. You’re a dead man.”
That was it. Toro’s life in the Colombian drug cartel was over, but his days working as a drug dealer were just beginning. For more than a quarter century now, Toro has played the part of drug dealer as an informant for the United States government. Toro testified against his former bosses and then worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration in undercover stings from Mexico to Spain.
For his work, Toro says he was rarely paid. He was guaranteed instead U.S. citizenship, a promise that has yet to be delivered to the 65-year-old. Toro now technically lives in the country illegally and faces deportation back to his native Colombia. Toro agreed to speak in hopes of bringing attention to his case. His accounts were confirmed by DEA agents who have worked with Toro.
Toro also isn’t alone. A 2010 inquiry by the Los Angeles Times and California’s Center for Investigative Reporting found at least a dozen similar instances of DEA informants left in immigration limbo.
It’s unclear how long Toro has before he might be deported. He says the DEA told him his work with them is done now that he has talked with the media.
“If I am sent back to Colombia, I would be dead within the first four hours,” Toro said from his modest apartment. “I am scared to death. I don’t sleep anymore. I’m only thinking about what happens if they come for me.”
The Colombian Connection
Carlos Toro may never have gotten mixed up in the drug trade if he wasn’t born on the same day as Carlos Lehder. They met as boys in their hometown of Armenia, Colombia, and always said that the fact they shared the same birthdate, Sept. 5, 1949, made them brothers.
Toro’s father owned a string of radio stations in Colombia, and after Lehder’s parents got divorced, he moved in with Toro’s family for a time. They lost touch when the both moved to the United States in the 1960s for school. Toro spent three semesters at Emerson College in Boston before dropping out in 1970 to take a job in radio.
Lehder, meanwhile, found a career in exporting stolen American cars. When he was caught, he would learn the drug trade in prison. After his return to Colombia, he helped form what would grow into the Medellín cartel.
Toro got married and moved in 1982 to his wife’s hometown in Broward County, where he started a janitorial service. He built the company from nothing until he had two dozen workers cleaning offices at night. But the work required constant supervision, as his workforce was always turning over. He worked days interviewing new hires and then nearly every night making sure the jobs were getting done.
Lehder called him in 1983 and asked Toro what he was making at his company. “Sixty-thousand a year? That’s what you’ll make in a week if you come work for me,” Toro recalls Lehder telling him.
Lehder needed someone with a clean record to become the political face of the cartel. Toro agreed and began flying throughout the Caribbean and Central America to find airstrips to refuel planes bringing massive shipments of cocaine to the United States.
Toro says he bribed Manuel Noriega’s men in Panama. In Mexico, he paid off local officials to ignore the planes that would land there on the way to Florida. Lehder bought an entire Bahamian island, Norman’s Cay, where the cartel built an airstrip. Toro says he would deliver $88,000 a month to the Bahamian prime minister for use of the island.
In Cuba, Toro says they could refuel but not discuss the drugs inside the planes. Once, Fidel Castro told one of the cartel’s men that he wanted a seaplane. So Lehder bought one and spent $800,000 to refurbish it. Toro went to Havana personally to deliver it to Castro, as a present for his 59th birthday. Castro didn’t show up at the airport, though, and instead sent his brother Raúl.
The cartel had a team of mostly American pilots who flew the drugs. The final destination was an airstrip on a ranch north of Orlando. Toro’s job was to make sure the pilots were paid enough to keep quiet.
But the pilots began complaining that their payments were increasingly light. Toro suspected Triana. They both had homes at the time in west Boca Raton, where Toro would often hide millions in cartel money in his attic crawl space.
After the shootout with Triana, Toro hoped saving his boss’s life might convince the cartel to spare him. Toro called a doctor and his best pilot. As the doctor worked to stabilize Triana, the pilot headed to the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport with a stack of money. Toro says they bribed airport workers to ignore what would happen next.
Minutes later Toro says he wheeled Triana through the airport lobby in a wheelchair, an IV bag dragging behind. A hoodie covered the bloody bandage over Triana’s chin.
“This is when my life went downhill real quick,” Toro recalls. “Nothing good happened from here.”
The pilot flew Triana to Colombia, where doctors kept him alive. But it wasn’t enough to keep Toro out of trouble.
Lehder told his childhood friend to run.
Toro didn’t go far. He still had his Broward County janitorial business going, as a front for the drug money, so he dove back into it. Toro, then a father of two and married to a nurse, moved into a modest home in the suburbs and says he tried to ignore the threat of the cartel.
It wasn’t easy. Toro would head to his office wondering if a gunman would be waiting for him. Often at night he’d be in his darkened office, alone, wondering about sounds down the hall.
Perhaps worst of all was trying to be normal again. He had spent two years handling hundreds of thousands of dollars a week, sometimes millions. Toro always figured it would continue, so he says he stashed none of it away. Instead of handing a stack of cash to his wife each week for shopping money, the couple had to count every penny to raise their two children.
That changed on April 22, 1985, when the body of 21-year-old Sandra Suarez was found down the street from Toro’s home. She had been stabbed 15 times, beheaded and shoved in the trunk of a car, and Toro had been the last one to see her alive.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office brought Toro in for 12 hours of questioning. Toro says Suarez wanted to buy coke and he helped set her up with a low-level dealer. He claims he doesn’t know how she ended up dead, although he now suspects it may have been the cartel trying to frame him.
It was near midnight when Toro broke down. “I didn’t kill that girl,” he told the detectives. “But for years I worked with the Medellín cartel.” He detailed for them his involvement in arranging airports and bribing officials.
Court records are no longer available to confirm Toro’s account, but he says the murder charge was dismissed at his first arraignment, when the judge declared there was no evidence to hold him. Toro says that as he walked out of the courtroom, DEA Special Agent Michael McManus stopped him.
McManus told Toro his tape-recorded interview with the Broward Sheriff’s Office was enough to charge Toro with conspiracy and put him in prison for life. To preserve his freedom,Toro agreed to testify against Lehder and his former cartel bosses.
In 1987, the DEA gave Toro and his family new identities and moved them to Indianapolis, where they had a 24-hour detail of federal agents protecting them. That lasted until 1989, when Toro said he was tired of being trailed and started living under his real name.
Meanwhile, the Medellín cartel was collapsing. After spending months on the run in the jungle, the Colombian government arrested Lehder and extradited him to the United States. At the trial, Toro was listed as one of 121 witnesses to testify against Lehder. But he was never called to testify against his childhood friend.
Toro figured he was done. But after the trial, Toro says McManus told him he had a long way to go to make sure he’d stay out of prison. So he began working as an undercover DEA informant. Toro stood in as a drug dealer and money launderer. In exchange, the government issued him temporary visas yearly that allowed him to stay in the country.
Toro’s accounts, confirmed by DEA agents, included open cases earlier this year in Madrid, Paris, and Mexico. Often, Toro was included in cases from the beginning. The DEA would send him a folder on a suspected criminal, and then Toro would make contact to initiate a drug sale or launder money. The case would go on for months or years as Toro helped set up a sting operation to exchange a bag of coke for a suitcase of money, sometimes just like the movies, slid across the floor of a hotel suite simultaneously.
Typically, the DEA would set him up with about $10,000 in expenses, a hotel suite, and an undercover identity. In his apartment, Toro has a bank envelope full of fake passports and citizenship papers from various countries he says were provided by the DEA.
McManus, now retired, declined to discuss Toro’s case in detail. But he said Toro’s claims should be believed. “From an official position, if testifying at trial, I would say he’s a reliable source,” McManus said by phone. “He has worked for me for many years, and he proved himself as a trustworthy asset.”
In December, however, Toro learned that his value to the government may have come to an end.
Toro’s final temporary visa expired Jan. 1. At any moment, he could be deported to Colombia.
Toro’s current handlers at the DEA have promised him they’ve been working to obtain for him at least a temporary visa and — they hope — something more permanent. But after months of empty promises, Toro decided to go public earlier this month. He spoke first to the Huffington Post, and the article and videos posted in response prompted the DEA to tell Toro he would no longer be needed by the agency.
The idea that an informant with 28 years of history working with the DEA would be denied citizenship isn’t new. Alonzo Peña, a former deputy director at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, said it’s common for agents to promise citizenship that may not be delivered.
It’s typically not false promises as much as it is simply the bureaucracy of the immigration process, Peña said. “You have agents in the field developing informants, and they’ll make all kinds of promises,” said Peña, now retired in Texas. “Sometimes those guarantees don’t line up with policies.”
Often, Peña said, the DEA’s requests to get citizenship for its informants sit for months or years on desks at ICE. Sometimes ICE employees disagree with giving citizenship to informants, who may have long criminal histories, in exchange for their testimony.
“A lot of times, requests get sent over there and it ends up in a black hole and you can’t do what’s promised,” Peña said. “Sometimes the cases just stay open, and nobody knows why.”
For Toro, that means his whole family remains in limbo. His son, Matthew Toro, wonders if his father will be deported any day. Matthew Toro grew up with a pseudonym and believing his family was from Argentina; he decided to take his true family name when he became an adult. It means the cartel could seek him out someday, but Matthew Toro said his family was tired of hiding.
“My father made a lot of mistakes that defined our family, and now he has paid for them,” Matthew Toro said. “I am concerned for the safety of his life, and it’s time that the government just let him move on.”
For Toro, it’s not just fear of deportation that’s motivating him to go public. Without citizenship papers, he can’t apply for Medicare, Obamacare, or Social Security benefits. With no social security number, he can’t get a job. And he says he’s broke.
Now that his story has been published, Toro says he’s prepared to go into hiding. He has adopted a new fake identity and deleted Facebook and email accounts with his real name.
“I messed up, in a big way, many years ago,” Toro said from his apartment, where he lives, for now, with his wife and dog. “But I atoned. Many times over, I atoned. All I want now is what they promised me.”