(CBSNEWS) In access unprecedented even for 60 Minutes, the news magazine was allowed to follow Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on a three-year investigation and eventual bust of a Colombian drug cartel so large that an ICE agent likened it to a Fortune 500 company. 60 Minutes cameras capture the raid and destruction of a jungle cocaine lab, the arrest of one of its top leaders and Lara Logan interviews an undercover ICE agent who infiltrated the “super cartel,” the biggest group of drug traffickers law enforcement has ever encountered.
Logan’s report will be broadcast on 60 Minutes, Sunday, Nov. 18 at 7:30 p.m. ET and 7:00 p.m. PT.
It took ICE agents and Colombian police a month to count the stacks of U.S. currency found in shipping containers of fertilizer entering Colombia from Mexico in 2009 — the beginning of the massive investigation. The $41 million recovered was a routine return for the huge amounts of cocaine they were processing and selling overseas.
“The amounts of cash they move is unfathomable,” says ICE special agent Luis Sierra. “That was a routine shipment for them…Monthly, weekly – that wasn’t a once a year,” says the ICE agent who was in charge of the cash seizure at the port of Buenaventura.
The operation was bringing in “hundreds of millions, if not billions,” says Sierra, and used other methods to smuggle it in. “We’ve never seen the likes of it….an organization operating on that scale,” he says. “It was run like a sophisticated business, a Fortune 500 company. They had their CEOs. They had their vice presidents,” he tells Logan. It had assets worth billions. Sierra says one reason it grew so large was a strategy of compartmentalizing its process. “You could be involved in transportation, but you didn’t know who the CEOs were or whose cocaine you were smuggling.”
The Bogota-based operation supplied 42 percent of the Colombian cocaine in the U.S. – some 900 tons over seven years, says Sierra. The product was made in jungle labs like the one Logan and 60 Minutes cameras watched agents raid and destroy on a military-style helicopter mission.
ICE cracked the cartel by tracing the money confiscated in the port. It led them to information and suspects, enabling them to infiltrate the group. First, a top money man for the cartel was turned into an informer. Then an undercover ICE agent, interviewed by Logan, managed to infiltrate the top tier of the group himself as a money man. He could then facilitate the surveillance of members, leading to the arrests of many of the group’s key personnel, including one of its three main leaders, Claudio Silva. 60 Minutes captured his arrest, the once feared cocaine king shedding tears as he sat handcuffed in a helicopter.
There are still remnants of the cartel that can be harnessed to rebuild; the takedown of its leaders and infrastructure will stop only a trickle of the cocaine pouring into the U.S. But it’s still a big blow, says Sierra, “We took off the most prolific organization in terms of bulk cash smuggling and drug trafficking. Of course, there’s people ready to step in and take their place,” he tells Logan. “But for an organization to become that sophisticated again…is going to be very difficult.”