Cocaine for Kalashnikovs The Stasi Spy Who Became an FBI Spook
East German arms, Colombian cocaine, ex-Stasi spies and the FBI -- it sounds like a Hollywood thriller. But for the Stasi operative turned FBI stooge Bernd Schlegel, "Operation White Terror" was very real. And very dangerous.
Uwe Jensen, Carlos Alí Romero and Bernd Schlegel (from left to right) meet to discuss the cocaine-for-Kalashnikovs deal.
The latter reason is why Carlos Alí Romero is here. Romero, 42, has taken a seat at the bar with a clear view of the door. From this vantage point, he can see if someone enters the club who might pose a problem. Being cautious can help you stay alive in this business.
Romero is wearing a polo shirt and rimless glasses. His laidback air belies his status as the local unofficial representative of an extreme rightwing Colombian paramilitary terror organization called the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
The Colombian has come here on this autumn day in 2001 because he needs arms -- serious arms -- to fight the guerrillas in the jungle. He wants to establish contacts to Eastern Europe, to former generals of the Soviet Army who are offering to sell their arsenal on the black market. Next to him sits a man who Romero met a few weeks ago, a man from Germany.
"Do you have these kinds of contacts?" asks the Colombian.
Bernd Schlegel (not his real name) is wearing a black suede leather jacket, black cowboy boots and Armani mirrored sunglasses, and his long hair has been dyed blond. He looks like a Texan version of the flamboyant German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld.
The man in black lowers his voice as the waitress passes by, swinging her hips and suggestively asking what she can do to make the gentlemen happy. Both men order rum and cokes and Negro Modelos, a bittersweet Mexican beer that Romero has recommended.
Schlegel was an officer in the East German armed forces, the NVA. He learned the fine points of the trade in St. Petersburg back when it was called Leningrad and knows how this game works. In the leg of his left boot he's concealed a Browning with a wooden grip -- .22 caliber, five shots, easy to handle, quiet, efficient. A pistol also helps you stay alive in this business.
Romero hesitates. He knows he has to take a risk, but he wants to tread carefully. "Money is no object," he says. He can pay with a currency that is valid all over the world: cocaine. He speaks with the accent of a Colombian immigrant who has climbed to the top of the social ladder. Little does he realize that up near the dance floor an FBI agent has taken up position to cover Schlegel.
It's 12 noon at the Men's Club, and one of most spectacular sting operations in the recent history of the FBI has just been launched. At stake are Kalashnikovs, anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons to fuel the civil war in Colombia. Also at stake is cocaine with a street value of half a billion dollars. In the midst of this plot, which Hollywood even filmed last year as a "Miami Vice" remake, stands Schlegel.
Honest and Reliable
Schlegel pursued the kind of career typical for the son of a Communist party official in East Germany: a stint in the National People's Army (NVA), followed by officer training -- and eventually the East German secret police, the Stasi. A captain approached him about working for the Stasi, and he signed up, under orders to collect information on soldiers "suspected of spreading anti-state propaganda or helping people to illegally leave the GDR."
The chekists, the Russian secret police, were also impressed with Schlegel. "Honest," "reliable," and "conspiratorial" were how they described him in an evaluation. What especially pleased the Russians was that Schlegel operated "independently" and did not need to be supervised -- an aptitude which would later also be highly praised by the FBI.
"Operation White Terror" -- as the FBI dubbed their investigation into the Colombian paramilitaries -- continued over a number of years and spanned half a dozen countries. The US government listed it as one of the top 10 inquiries following the 9/11 attacks. It's a textbook example of the relationship between crime and politics, the all-American way of fighting crime. In an FBI sting operation like this, the bad guys are pushed and prodded by undercover agents until they -- and sometimes the investigators themselves -- cross the line into illegality.
The FBI is the investigative arm of the US Department of Justice. Not surprisingly, once the case had been wrapped up, US Attorney General John Ashcroft appeared before the TV cameras to announce that Bureau agents had "made the nation and the life of our citizens safer." This was the rehearsed and visible part of the game. Since 9/11, America has perceived itself at war. The US has enemies and it needs heroes to save the country. An outside threat can unite a country internally -- that's the logic behind this type of crime fighting.