CHUPETA CONTINUED TO DIRECT his narco-trafficking operation from jail, while working on a degree in economics under the tutelage of a fellow convict, later known to the DEA as Copernico. By 2002, Chupeta had completed his sentence and, employing Copernico as an accountant, had begun making his organization even more powerful than beforeas part of the Norte del Valle cartel, a loose affiliation of traffickers from the Valle del Cauca region. Chupeta expanded his money-laundering operation, employing a phalanx of legal and financial professionals. His accountants sent him daily reports on Excel spreadsheets, and the activities of his assassins were meticulously logged. "They had to account for every dime," one law-enforcement source says. Chupeta was soon averaging $70 million a month in profits and investing in dozens of properties and businesses in Colombia. The U.S. Department of Justice would later estimate his global assets were worth some $2.1 billion.
On May 6, 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft unsealed charges against the nine principals of the Norte del Valle cartel. The cartel was accused of helping to smuggle more than $10 billion worth of cocaine into the United States between 1990 and 2004. The State Department offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the apprehension of any of the men named in the indictment. A provisional arrest warrant for Chupeta was sent to the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá.
Within weeks of Ashcroft's press conference, Chupeta vanished. He would not be positively identified again for more than three years. He made arrangements to leave the country through a person who has since been killed. He packed his bags with as much cash as he could carry and apparently gave the details of his destination only to Laureano Renteria, his loyal deputy. From that point Renteria would run the business and be the sole line of communication to the boss. The DEA's sources of intelligence about Chupeta suddenly went silent.
ON A SUNDAY AFTERNOON IN MAY OR JUNE 2004, a group of foreigners came ashore at Camocima small town in northern Brazilfrom a 40-foot sailboat. Agents of the Brazilian Federal Police (PF) watched as the party was met by known Colombian narco-traffickers. One of the arrivalsa short man with a powerful upper bodycarried two bags. Fernando Francischini, who was in command of the operation, had no idea who the man was but, judging by the reception, knew that he must be a major criminal figure. Chupeta later told investigators the bags he'd brought ashore contained $4 million. "We think it was a lot more," Francischini saysperhaps as much as $16 million.
Chupeta began constructing a new criminal network in São Paulo. Like the Colombian operation, it was built on a cell structure. Each cell was run from a ranch or large house in a gated community in one of the three southernmost states of Brazil, bought by the members of Chupeta's new outfit. Each employee was paid a monthly salary to run a range of businesses that included import-export operations, a fish farm, and a car-bulletproofing shop. These investments represented the end of a complex money-laundering scheme routed through five countries. Via Renteria, Chupeta continued to control drug shipments leaving Colombia for Spain and Mexico for distribution in Europe and the United States.