A South Florida woman who infiltrated a Colombian drug cartel and was then captured is suing for millions over what she claims was lack of protection by the DEA.
WASHINGTON -- In court documents she's referred to as the Princess, with a capital ''P.'' But her story reads more like Mata Hari infiltrating the Colombian drug cartel.
In federal court documents, a Palm Beach County woman -- the ex-wife of two convicted drug dealers -- outlines a life of intrigue, adventure and considerable danger as an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. For more than three years, she traveled the world for the Fort Lauderdale DEA office, earning a $10,000-a-month ''salary'' and posing as ``an affluent money launderer.''
She raked in as much as $1.85 million from the agency, according to documents in a 1997 lawsuit she filed against the agency in U.S. Court of Federal Claims. And now, after a decade of legal wrangling and a trial, the Princess may be in line for more.
A federal judge ruled that the DEA failed to protect confidential informant SGS-92-X003 -- aka the Princess -- when it dispatched her to Colombia in 1995 at the height of the country's brutal drug war.
''The evidence is uncontroverted that the head of [the] DEA's Fort Lauderdale Office, who supervised the Princess, sent her on this undercover operation without advising DEA Headquarters or the Colombian attaché,'' Judge Mary Ellen Coster Williams wrote in a Feb. 9 opinion that was unsealed after classified information was removed.
''During this mission,'' Coster Williams wrote, ``the Princess was captured by a guerrilla organization, transported in the trunk of a car, and held for over three months in a windowless, dirt floor room where she slept on a straw mattress.''
In her lawsuit, the Princess sought more than $33 million. Next step: determining whether the woman was damaged by the agency's negligence, and if so, how much the DEA should pay.
The Princess' chief DEA contact, Joseph Salvemini, who retired from the agency in 1999, disputed the findings. He said his DEA higher-ups were aware of every move.
''It would have been virtually impossible to operate in and out of Colombia without knowledge of the Colombian embassy and DEA headquarters,'' Salvemini said this week.
A spokesman for the DEA declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The partial victory has pleased the Princess, who grew disillusioned with the agency when it failed to give her what she considered adequate compensation for risking her life.
'The other agents kept telling me, `It's the DEA. It stands for `Don't Expect Anything,' '' said the woman, who asked The Miami Herald that her name not be disclosed to protect her identity. ``The money we were getting, the millions. They were buying police vehicles, they were giving away money right and left.''
During her captivity, she ate her address book -- fearful her cover would be blown.
''I was sure I was going to be killed,'' she said.
After her return from the three-month ordeal in Colombia, she said she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and bipolar disorder.
Before the kidnapping soured the relationship between the DEA and the Princess, it was a profitable one for both. Court records show the woman -- a great-granddaughter to a former president of Colombia -- helped the agency identify dozens of drug traffickers and seize more than $22 million from Colombia drug cartels, along with ''significant seizures'' of cocaine and heroin.
The Princess said she got little direction from the DEA, but using contacts and her imagination, she began posing as a wealthy art dealer and money launderer.
''There's no school for it,'' she said of her undercover endeavors. ``It has to be your creation, and I'm a bit creative.''
Salvemini, in court records, called the Princess ''probably the best informant'' he had worked with in his 31-year DEA career. She set up deals; the DEA took the money. He estimated that more than $60 million was seized.
''From the standpoint of value to the agency . . . to infiltrate the very highest levels of the criminal element that we were interested in, there are none better,'' he said.
Her work took her to Colombia, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Spain, Italy and Canada. But, as she testified in the 2007 trial, it wasn't easy working with the DEA.
''The Princess testified that operations in Rome and Geneva had resulted in risks to her safety as a result of conduct by DEA agents,'' the judge wrote.
According to the court files, the kidnapping occurred in Cali when she was meeting with a police major to learn the identity of a key person working for a drug trafficker. She was not accompanied by any DEA employees.
After the meeting, she was confronted in her taxi by two men with hand grenades and a machine gun. Her captors told her they were part of a Colombian guerrilla group but seemed unaware she was a DEA informant, abducting her because they thought she was wealthy.
That's when the Princess ate her address book.
''They left me with the phone book, and it took me like one day, one day and a half to eat it, because I had to eat those pages,'' she testified.
According to court records, her release was secured after a ''highly confidential'' DEA source paid a $350,000 ransom. The source -- unnamed -- was later reimbursed at least $50,000 by the agency.
The Princess said she is certain the DEA didn't know what it was getting when it signed her up -- a twice-married mom who was running a failing T-shirt shop.
''At that moment, I don't think they really thought I could do what I did,'' she said. ``I don't know that anyone could've ever imagined all that we did.''
BY LESLEY CLARK
February 24, 2009