WASHINGTON – A former confidential informant working for the United States in Colombia claims in a lawsuit that the U.S. government abandoned her when she got into legal trouble for her undercover operations, and she wound up spending three years in a Colombian jail.
Astrid Hurtado is seeking $15 million in damages.
Hurtado, 52, first worked as an informant for the Internal Revenue Service in 1997-1998, then for the "El Dorado Task Force," a premier U.S. government unit established by the then-U.S. Customs Service to investigate money laundering.
Her job was to impersonate a money launderer in Colombia and provide information to the U.S. In return, she received a percentage of money seized by the United States.
Hurtado told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that she was paid around $120,000 for her work over a roughly 18-month period from 1998 to 2000.
According to a 2006 sworn statement by a federal prosecutor, Hurtado's work led to the investigation, trial and guilty pleas of three people on drug-money-laundering charges. Hurtado provided information to federal agents about drug money in the United States and would direct people she had contracted with to deliver money to undercover agents, the sworn statement said.
Hurtado, a Colombian citizen, is currently living in Florida, but her visa under the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Humanitarian Parole Program expires Wednesday, according to her lawyers, Ignacio J. Alvarez and Piper Hendricks. They said they are taking steps to request that she can legally remain in the United States, and they have filed a petition for asylum.
Hurtado said she's sure she would be killed by Colombian criminals because of her undercover work if she were to return there.
She said she was arrested in Colombia in 2003 for the money-laundering work she had been doing for the U.S. government. According to her lawsuit, pending in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, it wasn't until four months later that the U.S. Embassy in Colombia sent a letter to the Colombian government confirming that Hurtado was an active informant for the money-laundering investigations unit. But a Colombian judge ruled the letter was inadmissible, according to the lawsuit.
Repeated attempts by the judge and the Colombian government to get a U.S. Embassy official to testify at Hurtado's trial or answer a questionnaire were met with silence, according to the lawsuit. Nor did officials in the United States respond in time to a separate request from the Colombian judge for information about Hurtado's role as an informant.
In early 2006, she was convicted of money laundering, sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison and fined the equivalent of $1.6 million.
In jail, "I was treated as if I was the worst criminal," Hurtado said in the interview with AP, speaking Spanish as her lawyers translated. "For the first two years, I had a jail guard beside me even to go to the bathroom. I was mixed with people who I had transmitted information on, and there was a rumor they were going to kill an informant."
"I feel very sad, very betrayed, and I hope I find some justice," she said.
In August 2006, after three years in behind bars, Hurtado was released on probation. About a month later, the U.S. government finally responded to the judge's inquiry with the six-page sworn statement from a federal prosecutor detailing Hurtado's informant work for the El Dorado Task Force. The document also included a copy of a check made out to Hurtado from the U.S. Customs Service.
In the lawsuit, Hurtado's lawyers argue that the U.S. breached its duties to Hurtado by failing to negotiate protection for her with the Colombian government.
U.S. government officials declined to discuss the case.
In a court filing, the Justice Department has asked the federal claims court to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that Hurtado can't establish that any U.S. official with the "requisite authority" had contractually obligated the government to intervene or assist her in litigation. Neither that filing nor a subsequent one addressed the facts in Hurtado's claims.
A former U.S. law enforcement official familiar with Hurtado's case said that U.S. officials were prepared to tell the Colombian government that Hurtado was working under the direction of the United States and that she should be released. But Hurtado's family refused that offer, fearful about the impact of outing her as an informant, said the official, who lacked authorization to discuss the case and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Hurtado denied that. She said that before working for the U.S., she would purchase American dollars at a reduced rate, then sell them to businesspeople and receive a commission. She said the United States then approached her to work undercover.
According to an International Narcotics Control Strategy Report issued by the State Department this year, money laundering from Colombia's cocaine and heroin trade "continues to penetrate its economy and affect its financial institutions." It says laundered money in Colombia is derived from activities such as commercial smuggling for tax and import duty evasion, kidnapping, arms trafficking and terrorism.