‘Narcos’ on Prospect? La Jolla’s shocking drug-cartel connection
On Sept. 25 1992, a normal Friday to everyone else, Heidi Herrera ushered two Colombian drug-cartel intermediaries out of her company’s office building and into a waiting car. They were on their way to a secret meeting with Herrera’s father, a retired Mexican drug lord who lived nearby.
Or so they thought.
Minutes later, their car was pulled over and Sylvia Velez and Carlos Rodrigo Polania-Camargo were arrested. Later that day, Velez learned the truth when she faced Herrera in an interview room.
“My name is Heidi Landgraf,” said the woman Velez thought she had known for two years. “I’m an agent with the DEA.”
This real-life episode of “Narcos” occurred not in Bogota but La Jolla. One of the greatest crackdowns on drug trafficking in the history of international crime was controlled from a third-floor office that now sits empty and ignored above the Living Room Café at 1012 Prospect St.
From 1989 to 1992, this office was used to launder millions of dollars through a dummy corporation for cocaine syndicates in Colombia and Mexico. Operation Green Ice — a coordination of law-enforcement agencies in eight nations — resulted in 192 arrests and the seizure of $54 million in cash and an actual metric ton of cocaine. It also exposed a previously unknown link between the Italian mafia and the Cali and Medellin drug cartels.
“It was the longest and the most successful money-laundering investigation ever conducted,” Landgraf told the Light recently, “because where other agencies have attempted to launder money for the cartels, they did not seize as much as they laundered. We far exceeded the amount we seized, and that really hurt them.”
Long retired from that life, Landgraf, 64, is currently writing proposals for three books based on some of her DEA experiences. (A movie about them, “The Ice Queen,” was optioned in 1994 by Columbia Pictures from an article published in Working Woman magazine. Although it died in development later that decade, at one point, actress Michelle Pfeiffer and director Sydney Pollack were attached.)
In the operation, cash was collected from cartel go-betweens by Trans Americas Ventures Associates (TAVA), the dummy corporation. It was then wired — less a reasonable commission — to bank accounts all over the world. Landgraf recalled helping Velez set up a fake paper trail from a chain of nonexistent leather warehouses.
“In Colombia, when you received American dollars from the sale of goods in the U.S., it didn’t look suspicious,” Landgraf said, clarifying that “the idea was not to launder money for them, but to go after the largest, biggest bad guys we could.”
Sometimes, Landgraf said, there were unintentional delays with the money transfers.
“So they would take our employees and hold them hostage in Colombia until the money was released,” Landgraf said. “They played a very intense game and it was very dangerous.”
To prepare her for this game, Landgraf was furnished with old tax returns, Visa cards and a driver’s license and passport in her assumed name. The DEA rented her a Learjet and a home atop Mt. Soledad, where she threw ridiculously lavish parties whose waitstaff were all agents in disguise. The TAVA office overflowed with expensive art.
“We had to portray wealth,” Landgraf said. “They had to come look, smell and see the office. Did it look legitimate? We had to take a lot of precautions to make sure every piece of what we were doing was not discoverable. No little mistakes — like even a government-issued pen.”
The TAVA office was also furnished with the latest in surveillance equipment, and everyone who walked in was videotaped using several hidden cameras whirring at once.
After a while, however, too many people became aware of TAVA’s services. “It had become too large and unwieldy to do safely anymore,” Landgraf said.
So the decision was made to stop the investigation and lower the boom on who ever they could. In addition to the arrests in La Jolla, similar takedowns were conducted simultaneously in New York, L.A., Miami, Canada, Italy, Spain and England. Seven high-ranking cartel money-managers were snared. (An eighth avoided arrest when he failed to keep a date in Caracas, Venezuela, where authorities were waiting.)
In the years following the sting, there were rumblings in the Colombian narcotics world of a multimillion-dollar hit placed on Landgraf. Through it all, she claims, she was never scared — even though some of the people she helped take down were associated with notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.
“I don’t think the word scared is the appropriate word,” Landgraf said, “because you don’t function well when you’re scared. There is a heightened awareness. You don’t know if someone with a gun is going to pop out and shoot you.
“Did anyone put a gun to my head?” she asked rhetorically. “No, but it makes you wonder why we sign up to do this!”
— If you know a truly remarkable La Jolla story you would like considered for “Local Lore,” e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org