Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Slick Colombian Drug Informant Gets Arrested For A $16 Million Mortgage Fraud In Miami


Mortgage fraud case may end drug snitch’s wild career


Carlos Ramón Zapata was doing nicely as a worldly, daring drug snitch — until he was ratted out by pals involved in a plan to scam lenders.


Ramon Zapata
Ramon Zapata
Miami-Dade Corrections


Carlos Ramón Zapata spent the last two decades tangling with some of the world’s most dangerous and nefarious characters.
Ramón took up arms against Pablo Escobar’s bloody cartel — and survived. He helped facilitate a cross-oceanic cocaine deal with a Saudi prince that brought international shame to the Royal Family.
When “El Médico” — the nickname given to Ramón, a trained plastic surgeon in his native Colombia — wasn’t charming South Florida beauties from his posh South Beach bachelor pad, he acted as a high-value drug informant for the feds.
But for all his street smarts, charisma and good fortune, Ramón’s wild run could be nearing an inglorious end.
Arrested earlier this month, Ramón, 45, stands accused of running an extensive South Florida mortgage fraud racket, an enterprise whose total take exceeded $16 million. The state’s attorney general alleges that Ramón’s paper-pushing crew bilked lenders, using fraudulent documents.
In a cruel case of karma, the snitch was ratted out by his confederates.
“The arrest of Mr. Zapata and his colleagues shows that we are serious about targeting criminals committing mortgage fraud in our state,” said Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Police records depict Ramón, through his I&L Investment Group, Inc., and longtime friend Ayadie Carmen Londono as the rip-off’s ringleaders, claiming they set up “straw buyers” and provided funding for the intricate operation. In all, 12 have been charged, with the accused hailing either from South Florida or Latin America.
Ramón’s criminal defense attorney, Carol Breece, declined to comment for this story, and instructed her client to do likewise.
After Ramón’s arrest on charges of racketeering, conspiracy, organized fraud and money laundering, the Department of Homeland Security wanted to deport him immediately, but prosecutors successfully petitioned the court to intercede to protect the state’s interests in the case, court records show.
That could be a blessing. Ramón is probably safer in federal custody than back home, where his life would be in danger because word has spread of his cozy relationship with the U.S. government, sources say.
But Ramón has wriggled out of trouble before. In 2000, he pleaded guilty to cocaine conspiracy charges, only to receive a 72-month sentence, of which he served four years. To win early release, he agreed to be an informant for Justice Department and DEA officials, setting up undercover drug stings that resulted in multiple arrests.
Then, he allegedly began to freelance. Ramón’s involvement in mortgage fraud started a scant two years after his release from federal custody, according to the arrest report.
“I think it’s fair to say that Carlos Ramón is a very smart, sophisticated guy, who as far as I know, had resolved his differences with law enforcement authorities a long time ago, and as far as I know, was living a productive life in Miami,” said Daniel Forman, Ramón’s former attorney. “I was truly shocked that he was arrested in this case, or any case.”
Few attorneys, investigators or prosecutors involved either with Ramón’s prior criminal case or his current one would speak on the record.
But others with insight into his past privately describe an appealing, fun-loving con artist.
Born in Colombia on April 26, 1966, Ramón studied medicine at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, and seemed poised to carve out a legitimate living. But that all changed when Escobar’s Medellín Cartel murdered his father when he refused to give up the family’s ranch, located just outside the capital city.
Hungry for revenge, he turned to drug trafficking, although details of his rise are fuzzy. Some say he joined forces with Los Pepes, the vigilante group of outlaws made up of Escobar’s rivals. Others say he helped form the North Valley Cartel, which grew into one of the nation’s most powerful enterprises after Escobar’s death.
Either way, he didn’t hesitate to think big. In 1999, he helped negotiate a two-ton coke deal with Saudi Prince Nayef bin Sultan bin Fawwaz al-Shaalan. The prince smuggled the drugs from Colombia through Venezuela to France in his 727 jet, which was shielded from searches by diplomatic protocol. The deal came to light only after part of the haul was discovered by French authorities, who ultimately pieced together the puzzle, with the assistance of Ramón and his cohorts.
The prince got a 10-year prison sentence and $100 million fine, but it didn’t matter. He had already fled.
Among those also charged by the French: Ramón; his brother-in-law, Juan Gabriel Usuga Norena, aka “El Flaco”; and Ramón’s cousin, Oscar Campuzano.
Ramón and Usuga briefed the feds on the prince’s deal and countless other criminal matters after turning themselves in to the U.S. government in early 2000. The in-laws, who coincidentally both lost an eye in separate accidents, were scared into surrendering by a new policy of permitting the extradition of Colombian nationals.
Ramón was in federal custody by February 2000, and pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge three months later, court records show. One of his co-conspirators: Londono, who along with Ramón ran the mortgage fraud scheme, authorities say. She ultimately pleaded guilty to the same conspiracy charge, and got 42 months in federal prison.
However, the Justice Department held off on Ramón’s sentencing until 2001. The reason: He was far more valuable on the streets as an informant.
Court records indicate Ramón bonded out while awaiting sentencing and was granted permission to travel. Over the next year, he visited Las Vegas, New York and Orlando, all the while keeping a three-bedroom apartment in the Portofino Tower at the southern tip of Miami Beach, and living like a playboy.
He eventually returned to prison to serve out his sentence, and was granted permission to marry fiancée Maria Taberas while incarcerated in August 2003.
Two years later, he was out. U.S. District Judge Shelby Highsmith agreed to release Ramón 24 months early, with the promise he would cooperate with the DEA in narcotics and money laundering investigations during his probation, court documents show.
There was a caveat: “His relationship with the DEA will not protect him from arrest or prosecution for any unauthorized violations of federal, state or local laws,” a motion filed by federal prosecutors in late 2005 stated.
It is alleged that he didn’t take that stipulation to heart. By early 2007, he had teamed up with Londono in her scheme to defraud mortgage companies, prosecutors say.
In one transaction, he is alleged to have convinced brother-in-law Juan David Jaramillo to act as a “straw buyer” — someone induced to purchase a property solely for the purpose of perpetrating a scam — on a single-family home in northern Miami Beach. As is typical in mortgage fraud schemes, properties were allegedly bought by a middleman conspirator at market price then resold to the straw buyer for a vastly inflated price. The straw buyer then defaulted on the home, sticking the lender with a huge loss, the charges state. The middleman, who received far more than the property was worth, split the profits with the straw buyers, with Ramón and with the person who provided the inflated appraisal.
Had the lender looked carefully at Jaramillo’s application, it might have seen some red flags. For one thing, there was the buyer’s supposed monthly income: $50,000. And unsubstantiated claims of a bank account balance greater than $630,000
Finally there was Jaramillo’s stated home town: Medellín, Fla. There is no such place.
Ultimately, authorities caught on, and in August 2008, Ramón associates Monica Fergusson and Diana Diaz pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering. They then began cooperating with state investigators, helping to build case that resulted in Ramón’s latest arrest.

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