Institute for Policy Studies Investigation of Los Pepes and FOIA Suit Against the CIA

Since June 2004, the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), sought records from the United States Central Intelligence Agency concerning information regarding the Colombian terrorist organization known as Los Pepes or “People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar.” The purpose of this investigation is to expose US government knowledge of "death squad" activity in Colombia, specifically with Los Pepes in 1993, and to advocate for accountability and justice on behalf of those Colombians who suffered violations at the hands of this group.

This project is led by human rights advocate Paul Paz y Miño (@paulpaz). In addition to leading this work, Paul has been the Colombia Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA since 1995 and is also the Associate Director at Amazon Watch.

Who is IPS:

IPS is the nation’s oldest multi-issue progressive think tank, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to strengthening social and environmental movements with independent research, visionary thinking and links to grassroots organizations, scholars and elected officials. Since 1963, IPS has empowered people to build healthy democratic societies in individual communities throughout the United States and the world. IPS publishes a great deal of information and reports on issues affecting democracy, justice, human rights, diversity and U.S. policy.

This investigation is under the supervision of the IPS Drug Control Policy Project. The IPS Drug Policy Project advocates for a sustainable, constitutional, and humane drug control policy.

Who are Los Pepes:

Los Pepes was a Colombian death squad formed in 1993 and financed in part by the Cali Cartel. Using United States military, special forces tactics and information, this death squad was responsible for terrorists threats, kidnappings, car bombings, property damage and execution-styled killings of non-combatant civilians, in their hunt for drug lord Pablo Escobar and his Medellin Cartel. This group waged a fierce and bloody campaign against the Colombian narcotrafficker Pablo Escobar, including the killing of his associates and lawyers. Escobar was killed in December 1993, following a manhunt carried out jointly between Colombian police and U.S. agents. The head of Los Pepes, Fidel Castaño, paramilitary leader and drug trafficker- subsequently founded a nation-wide paramilitary alliance. The late 1990’s saw a sharp increase in death squad killings. Fidel’s brother, Carlos, went on to become the leader of the paramilitaries known as the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas Colombianas or United Self Defense Forces of Colombia), responsible for the majority of massacres, political killings, and “disappearances” in Colombia. The AUC was designated a terrorist organization by the State Department on September 10, 2001. Thus, Los Pepes is instructive of the counterproductive consequences of employing illegal means in the pursuit of legitimate law enforcement objectives – and underscores the importance of strict adherence to human rights norms.

History of “Pepes Project”:

In 1996, Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) filed several FOIA requests, asking US intelligence and defense agencies for information on Los Pepes. Some agencies provided some documents while the CIA refused to confirm or deny the existence or nonexistence of such records. As a result of AIUSA’s legal efforts the CIA later released several hundred pages of Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) documents. These documents were merely Colombian press accounts of the actions of Los Pepes and Pablo Escobar, but held no information about the inner workings of Los Pepes nor the US agency ties to this group.

In 2000, The Philadelphia Inquirer, in a 35-article series on the hunt for drug-cartel leader Pablo Escobar, disclosed that Pentagon officials attempted to remove members of an elite Army team from Colombia when they realized that the Army officials were sharing US intelligence with Los Pepes, a Cali Cartel-funded paramilitary death squad.

The Inquirer revealed that, “The [CIA] analysts, according to [Lt. Gen. Jack Sheehan of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], noted that the tactics employed by Los Pepes were similar to those being taught to the Search Bloc by Delta Force; that intelligence gathered by US forces was being shared with the death squad; and that Delta Force operatives were overstepping their deployment orders by accompanying Search Bloc members on raids.” Then-US Ambassador Morris Busby successfully lobbied against US support for the Escobar search, according to the Inquirer series.

In addition, The Nuevo Herald of Miami, reported on extensive ties between the Drug Enforcement Administration and Los Pepes death squad and Time magazine revealed that Carlos Castaño visited Disney World as a reward for his work in “hunting down Escobar,” a euphemism for his work inside Los Pepes.

In 2001, Mark Bowden published Killing Pablo which further detailed the search for Escobar as well as the creation and activities of Los Pepes. Mr. Bowden obtained hundreds of leaked DEA documents, many of which indicate that the CIA was well aware of the activities of Los Pepes and received hundreds of cables during their existence.

Institute for Policy Studies request for records regarding Los Pepes and the death of Pablo Escobar:

In 2004, IPS filed more specific FOIA requests to the Departments of Defense, Justice, State and the CIA. Several agencies released documents and others are still processing the requests.

In 2006, IPS filed suit for CIA violations of the Freedom of Information Act as the CIA failed to conduct an adequate search for the records requested by IPS, relating to the death of Pablo Escobar and Los Pepes.

In 2008 the National Security Archive at The George Washington University published a report entitled: Colombian Paramilitaries and the United States: "Unraveling the Pepes Tangled Web" [1] citing documents that were released as part of the other IPS FOIA requests. The report cited these "new documents, released under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act" as "the most definitive declassified evidence to date linking the U.S. to a Colombian paramilitary group..."

Results of IPS' FOIA lawsuit aginst the CIA:

In 2012, as a result of the IPS litigation, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia's Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to search for and release records pertaining Los Pepes. It also ordered the CIA to include all documents mentioning drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

In February 2014, ten years after the initial FOIA was filed by IPS, the CIA declassified and released a series of documents related to Pablo Escobar and Los Pepes. Those documents can be found here. Those documents and subsequent releases referred from other agencies including the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of State are now available on this site. Over 15,000 pages have been released in 1777 documents. These files are available and searchable. The released documents paint a more complete picture of the breadth of US intelligence about the activities of Escobar, Los Pepes, and the Colombian National Police during (as well as before and after) the hunt for and killing of Escobar.

Two redacted CIA memos (found here and here) describe briefings provided by members of a "Blue Ribbon Panel" of CIA investigators to a U.S. congressional intelligence committees and the National Security Council. CIA personnel from the Directorate for Clandestine Intelligence Operations investigated whether intelligence provided by U.S. agencies to the CNP was shared with Los Pepes - a group already recognized as “terroristic” [see this declassified memo - DOJ C06096146 & CIAletter] by the U.S. government.

As the released documents indicate, the DOS was already concerned in March 1993 [C05563011] that the Pepes posed a “danger to the future of Colombia” after already having murdered 37 of Escobar’s “associates and sympathizers” [C06001820]. Documents also indicate that only one month later that criminal paramilitary leader Fidel Castaño was already rumored to be leader of Los Pepes [C05548291]. U.S. agencies were also aware that Los Pepes were responsible for the murder of one of Escobar’s lawyers and his teenage son in April 1993 [DOS C05548291].

By October 1993, the DOD documents confirm the agency was aware of the identities of the leaders of Los Pepes and their close connection to the Cali Cartel [271541Z]. Documents also show that information continued to be passed from U.S. agents to the CNP’s “Task Force” well after it was established that the CNP had close ties to Los Pepes. By the end of 1993 and shortly after the death of Escobar U.S., agencies were already concerned about the strengthened relationship between the Cali Cartel and the Colombian government because of the Los Pepes connections [C05544633 & C05544601]. Concerns were also raised in the documents that shortly after the death of Escobar the members of Los Pepes were trying to “re-establish control over what remains of the Medellin drug trafficking infrastructure.” [C05544481]. 

IPS is still awaiting many more documents referred to other agencies and will continue to review and post these releases as they are made available. Many documents remain missing and a complete "Vaughn Index" is still outstanding.

The greater impact of Los Pepes and US government connections to this group:

The case of Los Pepes highlights the sinister alliance between right-wing paramilitaries, drug traffickers, and Colombian security forces. For U.S. foreign policy, Los Pepes highlights the danger of overzealously pursuing a national security/law enforcement goal to the detriment of human rights concerns.

In addition to the illegal paramilitary collusion with the US-supported Colombian army, there is strong evidence of US government agents, working, sometimes directly, with individuals involved in paramilitary activity. These actions were not only sanctioned, but were recognized at high levels of the US government. Information indicates that the US Government, through the US Army, the DEA, the US Embassy and quite likely the CIA, colluded with the very individuals who formed Los Pepes and later the AUC.

The documents IPS obtained from other organizations as well as from US government agencies under the FOIA, demonstrate that several US government agents and agencies were aware of the activities of Los Pepes and their direct connection to the Colombian National Police’s special “Search Bloc” tasked with apprehending Pablo Escobar. For example, a former member of Los Pepes said the DEA turned a blind eye to the group's activities and that some of the group were in direct contact with DEA agent Javier Peña, based in Medellín. In direct contradition to the supposed U.S. “War on Drugs”, documents show that the same US government agents knew that Los Pepes were financed in part by the Cali drug cartel. This group waged a fierce and bloody campaign against the Colombian narcotrafficker Pablo Escobar, which led to the killing of hundreds of individuals including Escobar’s associates, lawyers and even his lawyer’s eighteen year old son.

Escobar himself was killed in December 1993, following a manhunt carried out jointly between Colombian police and U.S. agents. After Pablo Escobar was killed, the Castaño brothers, leaders of “Los Pepes”, created the ACCU, Autodefensas de Cordoba y Urabá, the Self Defense Forces of Cordoba and Uraba. Cordoba and Urabá are two areas where the Castaño brothers had been active as paramilitaries – and indicted for human rights atrocities – even before the creation of “Los Pepes.” They also brought together paramilitary leaders from the rest of the country to coordinate action nationally. A declassified Defense Intelligence Agency document IPS obtained notes uncertainty that the Government of Colombia would pursue Fidel Castaño and that Colombian efforts “may depend more on how his paramilitary agenda complements Bogota’s counterinsurgent objectives rather than on his drug trafficking activities.” Castaño did not disappoint this assessment and went on to be elected head of all Colombian paramilitary groups. It is possible that his recently developed skills, access to information, and strong government contacts helped him to accomplish this endeavor.

The late 1990’s saw a sharp increase in death squad killings, paramilitary growth and massive human rights violations. Fidel’s brother, Carlos, went on to become the leader of the paramilitaries known as the AUC, responsible for the majority of massacres, political killings, and “disappearances” in Colombia. The AUC was designated a terrorist organization by the State Department on September 10, 2001.

Thus, Los Pepes is a very relevant case study of the disastrous and counterproductive consequences of employing illegal means in the pursuit of legitimate law enforcement objectives – and underscores the importance of observing and respecting human rights. By abandoning principles of human rights, US foreign policy has created a condition known as blowback: whereby pursuing a short-term goal by having the ends justify the means, creates an even bigger problem and greater danger.

During the hunt for Escobar a great deal of tactical information was gathered by both the CIA and US Army Intelligence and given to the Colombian National Police’s “Search Bloc”. There are credible reports of collusion between Los Pepes and the “Search Bloc”, an anti-Escobar task force that received extensive support from US intelligence and defense agencies. Los Pepes was instrumental in turning around the manhunt and helping lead it to Escobar's eventual demise by ruthlessly eliminating anyone associated with Escobar, including innocent people. Journalist Mark Bowden claims in his book Killing Pablo that CIA analysts informed Pentagon officials that US defense agencies were aiding the work of Los Pepes. Other journalists have made similar claims of US agency collusion with Los Pepes.

Current investigations into possible direct links between the US government and the AUC must consider the role the US has played in directly supporting the masterminds of its creation and intellectual authors of its many crimes. Even more critical for the future of Colombia is the role all of these interests have played in the paramilitary “demobilization” process. Many of the close ties forged between Los Pepes and members of the Government of Colombia have persisted well after Escobar’s death. These ties may have been instrumental in the “negotiated peace” obtained by the AUC. US Government support for this process (after what amounted to weak criticism) raises further concerns about potential ties.

Understanding the extent of the relationships between Los Pepes leaders (and subsequent AUC leaders) and the Colombian government may shed further light on the “peace process” that many have characterized as a redressing of the paramilitaries and a travesty of justice.