Alternate Title: A Look at the Shadetree U.S. Visa Industry
I met Alfonso Plazas Vega in 2011, but he is not what this story is about. He is just the attention-grabbing title. The story is about a corrupt businessman who I worked for in Bogota before moving to Peru. But before that story, a word on El Coronel.
Alfonso Plazas Vega
If you have not heard the name, Plazas Vega was the officer who led the Colombian military’s assault in 1985 on the Palace of Justice (equivalent of U.S. Supreme Court), which had been attacked and held hostage by M-19 guerrillas. Almost 100 people were killed in the siege, and 11 people disappeared.
El Coronel went on to head Colombia’s anti-drug agency, where he seized over $100 million in real estate, vehicles (planes, trains and automobiles) and more from organized crime. His strategy of focusing on asset seizures was hailed as a game-changing success in the country’s war on drug trafficking, at a time when curbing the cartels’ power was still a critical challenge in Colombia.
In 2007, El Coronel was indicted for the 11 disappearances in the Palace of Justice siege. He was jailed in 2008 and convicted in 2010. Later that same year, he was transferred to a military base in Bogota for his own protection.
I met El Coronel at that military base in September 2011. His conviction was overturned in 2015, and he has been free ever since. His wife (and cousin?) Thania Vega, who I also met at the military base, served as a Senator from 2014 to 2018. Plazas Vega lost his own bid for Senate in 2018.
Long story short, El Coronel was a decorated military officer aligned with right-wing politics who later served eight years in prison for murder, after which the conviction was overturned. For those unschooled in Colombian history and need an apples-to-oranges comparison to American figures, I’d say Alfonso Plazas Vega is the Colombian equivalent of Oliver North.
And for those who want a pop culture reference …
Regarding this depiction of Escobar’s involvement, I was always skeptical about how rigorous the Narcos team’s verification process is (and I’m not alone).
Expat extraordinaire, Christopher “The Mick” Kavanagh, gives us an underground vignette that showcases the M-19 guerrillas’ reach in the 1980s, a Public Hanging in South Bogota.
Finally, one more caveat before I tell my story. I don’t know if El Coronel is guilty or not. But even if he is, I would be careful before judging the hardball tactics used in Colombia. As one supporter explained uribismo to me back then, people wanted the government to play dirty against the cartels and guerrillas. Ethical law enforcement wasn’t working.
For the government to gain control of its territory, maybe it had to cross the line. In any event, the uribista movement specifically voted for crossing the line. Consider Mexico, which hasn’t employed the hardball tactics, and has not tamed its drug cartels. Or Venezuela, whose democratic leaders abided by ethical norms, has been ravaged by anti-democratic Marxist extremism.
Colombia faced both threats and won. Keep that in mind before passing judgment on the generals.
Before telling of El Coronel’s life as a “prisoner,” an overview of the job and my work for the man we’ll call “Farsan.”
Farsan’s business offered visa services to Colombians looking to visit or emigrate to the United States. I never saw the breakdown of revenue by category, but based on the work I did, it seemed the three main product lines were family visas, claiming asylum and overcoming prohibitions.
Over the years I’ve referenced the marriage-for-visa industry, which I can call an “industry” with authority because I saw it. The industry for family visas is best-known for spousal fraud and single mothers seeking a better life for themselves and/or their child(ren). You may be imagining the foreign men or women (usually women) who seduce U.S. citizens into marriage with the sole aim of gaining citizenship, and leaving them in the dust as soon as they get it.
But it’s just as common for U.S. citizens to marry strangers for cash. Sometimes those arrangements are thwarted by a shrewd embassy official. One reliable revenue stream was from Colombian women who had paid U.S. citizens who had previously been married to and obtained citizenship for foreign wives, sometimes two or even three before marrying the Colombian client was denied. Puerto Rican men seemed to be good at that.
One woman overstayed a tourist visa and lived in the States for a decade before being deported. She immediately started working the Christian dating sites and found a fiancé. Alas, the betrothed couple’s application for a K1 visa was denied. Farsan fixed that and she got the visa. I later learned that he died of cancer just a few years after their marriage, so she didn’t have to suffer for long living in the freezing, rural state she used to complain about having to move to.
Sometimes the issue wouldn’t be nefarious at all. For example, somebody who overstayed a student visa for a short time and left without being deported was later applying for permanent residence after a parent or sibling gained citizenship.
Farsan knew how to fix all that. He also knew how to coach his clients for the embassy interview. Even if he couldn’t fix the issue, he got paid for trying and he knew all the different documents, applications and workarounds for any given scenario. Any given scenario except (unfortunately for the deported homies) felony convictions for violent crimes.
The next major product category was filing applications for asylum. In other parts of the world, people flee for their lives based on their race, religion or nationality. But in Latin America and especially Colombia, violent persecution is all about politics. So I would revise applications in English which told stories of FARC guerrillas terrorizing people who had somehow crossed their path.
I’m not sure how true they were, but some of these stories detailed how people fled to Bogota to escape guerrillas in Cali or small towns in Valle de Cauca, and had been followed. They were paranoid on the park benches or had received threats even in the city. These weren’t military generals, but the kind of civilians who claimed to have helped peasants gain title to land or maybe spoke to journalists. Some of it felt a little strange.
Overcoming prohibitions includes getting visas for people who have been deported before their 10-year penalty was up, but Farsan’s lucrative niche in this category were right-wing politicians and military officers who found themselves on blacklists for their connections to paramilitaries and/or human-rights abuses. Those guys weren’t looking to emigrate so much as take their children to Disney World. I once met a department governor in this category.
While uribistas with checkered pasts may not be a big market, they made up a good part of Farsan’s business. If he got somebody a visa, the word-of-mouth paid off in orders of magnitude, and in perpetuity, as his satisfied customers back from Florida would pass his name around to all their friends. That is how I imagine Farsan was introduced to El Coronel.
El Coronel en Su Laberinto
That was how I met El Coronel, then a “prisoner” at the Bacata military base in north Bogota. I was Farsan’s assistant and the mere presence of a clean-cut, sturdy gringo lent credibility to his services.
I put “prisoner” in quotes because this wasn’t a jail at all, but one of the nicer buildings on the Bacata campus. We sat on soft leather sofas as MPs served us coffee. El Coronel was the boss. As I understood it, he was beloved by the men in uniform. He had been whisked out of La Picota when agents discovered a plot on his life. The military base was a safe space to serve his 30-year sentence.
While everybody was at his service, he was technically a “prisoner” because he couldn’t leave. He could receive and entertain guests, but he couldn’t leave the grounds of the base.
The conversation bore nothing worth repeating, just an informal “meet and greet.” El Coronel was already a client. We had already begun working on his asylum application. This was just a service call to address any questions, have a smile and a coffee and, of course, showcase the gringo talent.
Visiting El Coronel on the secure military base felt surreal given the timing. In 2011, I achieved small notoriety in Colombia. The MIA Incident and the DAS Incident had happened, as had the Colombia Reports Controversy. Bogota, and especially the Chico area around Calle 100, was starting to feel really small, and it felt like somebody was bound to see what I was doing.
Then Farsan sent me to the U.S. embassy to file El Coronel’s application for asylum. He had already sent one copy by courier, but another had to be hand-delivered, and he assigned me to do that. He knew the dodgy stuff I was into back then, and I think he wanted me to put me in a position to face the implications.
I said Farsan was corrupt in the first paragraph, and he is, but I learned a lot from him. I think this was just one little move from him in what was a campaign to get me to go straight. Stop the partying and controversial blogging, and focus on (his) business.
I had cycled by, but I had never been in the U.S. embassy in Bogota. I didn’t learn what a pleasure U.S. embassies are until later in my expat career. I submitted the application packet with what I remember as two Colombian soldiers at the front door. Their eyes grew wide as they read El Coronel’s name on the envelope and gave me another look, and then a document receipt.
I remember wondering if somebody at the embassy would review video from the lobby to see who delivered those documents. That’s how paranoid I was. It was a difficult time for me in Colombia, and the embassy was the nerve center. It wouldn’t have been newsworthy, but certainly notable among the expat community that I, controversial blogger of small-time infamy, hand-delivered what may have been the highest-profile asylum application of the year.
I never read anything official, but Farsan told me that El Coronel’s request was essentially accepted. He could get a green card, but he would have to clear up his legal situation first. The United States would not admit him if he escaped from Colombia extralegally, which would have been as easy as calling a taxi to the airport and making sure a friendly DAS (!) officer was there to stamp his passport before boarding his flight.
I used to believe that Alfonso Plazas Vega would be assassinated if he were to leave the base and stay in Colombia. But that narrative has been a little undermined by the fact that his conviction was overturned four years later, and he stayed in Colombia.
I’ve already said that we should be careful before judging Colombian officials in the war on cartels and guerrillas. I believe El Coronel conducted his work out of patriotism, and not out of bloodlust or greed.
But then there is this WSJ op-ed, No Good Patriot Goes Unpunished in Colombia, by Mary Anastasia O’Grady. If you don’t know the name, O’Grady is the resident psycho in English-language conservative media covering Latin America. Her columns give pause even to the conservative expats in Latin America. So while I want to be cautious before judging El Coronel, there is that O’Grady article.
I met Farsan on a bender in Villa de Leyva. Our relationship started with his paying me to teach English to his employees and clients, then grew to document revision and later marketing and web development. He wanted to buy up all my time.
At that stage of my life, I was fully immersed in one of the greatest follies of my career, which was not focusing on one business. I had a hand in various things, all of them small, so I resisted committing to Farsan. In particular I was committed to the idea of being self-employed, an “entrepreneur” who wouldn’t work for somebody else. And of course a writer. But he kept trying.
Farsan was a dual citizen after 30 years in the States. He had a gringa ex-wife and bicultural children who were almost my age. He told me he became an attorney after working at INS for years. Then he launched his law practice helping undocumented or problematically documented immigrants in the States. He came back five years before we met to bury his father and was shocked at Colombia’s improvement. He married a costeña and set up shop in the heart of Chico.
Farsan always wore suits with suspenders. He required me to wear a tie. He had bookshelves full of leatherbound books and all the trappings of a service professional. Lots of American flags, including a three-by-five footer that hung from a pole taller than me. I learned my habit of wearing friendship pins from him.
When I came clean to him about my life outside of the office, I had a hard time believing he hadn’t Googled me yet. It wasn’t like I was hidden. I was surprised that he wanted to hire me even more after learning everything.
Being known brings me in contact with a lot of gringos, a source of new clients. I was in with the deported scene, an even bigger source. I could teach English, I could write, I could build websites, I knew digital marketing and I could sell in Spanish. Finding all those skills in a gringo isn’t easy, and for the pittance he was paying me, I’d buy up all my time too.
Farsan was set to sponsor my work visa to remain in Colombia, after mine was cancelled. I had to get a new one outside the country, and I chose Lima so I could reunite with the old girlfriend I would later marry. While I was in Peru awaiting the visa, he fired me. He said he was pressured by government officials. I didn’t care. I got married and stayed. He later offered me the job back, but it was too late. I was finished with Colombia.
We did agree on some limited work that could be done online. But it dried up when he stopped paying. Annoyed and broke one day, I googled his name and … WHOA!
I learned Farsan had been charged with multiple felonies including theft, fraud and forgery. Local news stories described a con man who poses as an immigration lawyer. These articles described his exact same business, but in the United States. They didn’t mention that most clients get what they need, but I learned that some receive bad advice that gets them deported.
There were no fewer than four mugshots of Farsan. Each one indicated he spent a couple weeks in lockup. In one of the pictures, his hair is a mess with a clump standing straight up, suggesting a fight with the arresting officers.
Here I had been, laughing at him for never having discovered this blog by Googling me, and I had never Googled him! I felt stupid, but this also answered a lot of questions.
When I told Farsan about the blog and my extracurricular activities, he wanted to hire me even more. What kind of lawyer would do that? Now I understand. He’s not a lawyer, and he conducts business in a more illegal fashion than I ever have.
Farsan once told me a story from when he initially moved back to Colombia. After setting up his new business, he attended a service at the United Church of Bogota, the English-language, non-denominational place of worship popular among expats (and embassy staff). He told me the diplomats shunned him. He was doing his best to be friendly, but they treated him like a leper.
Farsan framed our business as an “us vs. them” endeavor against the embassy. They were an adversary, and his failed attempt to make friends was the motivation. Now I have a little more context. I don’t know the inner workings of embassy operations, but I imagine the graybeards knew who he was and what he was doing by the time he showed up at church.
There was also dodgy English. An accent is to be expected, but Farsan’s written English was riddled with simple mistakes. If a foreigner could pass a U.S. state bar exam, I might understand their writing having occasional mistakes, but not “riddled with.” Maybe my party life and the desire to believe the immigrant success story blinded me to the red flags.
This wake-up call had a profound effect on me that came out in my writing. For years I was harshly critical of Colombia, to the point where many of you asked why I was so bitter toward the place. Many people assumed it was because I was “chased out” by authorities. That wasn’t the case. I could have gone back if I wanted. In fact, after firing me Farsan offered to hire me back to open an office in Cali.
The bitterness stemmed from the wake-up call. Farsan was the one person in Colombia trying to convince me to clean up and focus on business. He was a devoted family man. He didn’t even drink. Farsan was, for me, my personal paragon of decency in Colombia. And then this!
I got to saying in conversation that every time you shake a tree in Colombia, a grifter falls out. To be fair, many people would say the same thing about Peru. But if you ask me, it’s not in the same league. There certainly exist virtuous Colombian people, but at the same time, Colombia is a mad dodgy place. Some stereotypes are deserved. That was my takeaway.
I never planned to write about Farsan. He paid me. He believed in me. He was my friend. But something changed. He swindled my friend, Gustavo. Ironically, I was with Gustavo partying in Villa de Leyva (longtime readers may recall that story) when I met Farsan, but they hadn’t met.
I introduced Gustavo to Farsan later. Gustavo wanted to go to the States, but needed some maneuvering to get around his priors. I forgot about the introduction by the time of the wake-up call. I didn’t tell everybody I ever introduced to Farsan to be careful. Unbeknownst to me, Gustavo paid him a few thousand dollars for work he never did.
Farsan has since closed his office and disappeared. I emailed asking him to either file some work or return Gustavo’s money. He has never responded. Hence this article.
Gustavo has a new business helping foreign expats get set up in Medellin with apartments, papers and whatever else they need. Would you like to hire him? Or buy him a beer? Hit him up on Facebook.
I have some interesting artifacts from the business. The first is a blog post I couldn’t bring myself to publish. It’s a sales page aiming to identify gringos willing to get married, for money or any other reason. The Colombians would be paying and I would have received a commission. It was going to be titled something like “Settle Down with a Colombian Woman,” and the money quote is “They come with dowries.”
Here is a form letter for the paracos and politicos who needed to visit Disney World.
Finally, while Farsan is a swindler, I did learn some valuable business lessons from him. Read an email exchange that illustrates his skill in qualifying the prospect. Farsan’s services started at four figures, so he had to quickly and effectively separate the bullshit.
Good read. It’s interesting to point out also that you also have people trying to marry their way into Latin America instead of out of Latin America as well. When I was researching some stuff months ago, I found this little piece by the BBC that I included in the end of this comment about Chinese folks paying Costa Ricans to marry them for the legal right to live in their country.
It’s made me wonder the extent to which that happens in Latin America. I might look into it more someday. If I had to guess, obviously the richer countries (like Argentina, Chile, Brazil) would probably have more of that. Maybe Mexico also. Perhaps less so for Venezuela or Bolivia.
Some other things that come to mind….
“Consider Mexico, which hasn’t employed the hardball tactics, and has not tamed its drug cartels.”
I’m not entirely in agreement with this. I suppose it depends on what you mean by hardball tactics. In the Mexican efforts against the war on drugs since President Calderon, there has been a lot of violence and human rights abuses in the process as you can see in some of the articles below.
Though, to be fair, it’s all relative. I live in Mexico as of now but have only spent a brief period of my life in Colombia and am even less knowledgeable about Colombia in those days.
I would agree though that hardball tactics can be useful in fighting the cartels. More of a “ends justify the means.” If the desired end is achieved through dirty tactics and those dirty tactics don’t do more damage than the alternative to the violence carrying out longer anyway.
There’s a good documentary I always liked that I attached below that gives some good examples of that. For example, how rogue militarized groups going after Pablo Escobar ended up targeting anyone associated with Escobar (including families). In that sense, with Pablo Escobar not being able to get everyone in his family out of Colombia, you could argue that served as a good restraint on possible actions he would have taken in the last few years of his life when he was feeling the pinch from groups (governments and informal ones) hunting him down (and who could kill his family like he killed the families of so many).
Of course, hardball tactics like that can also backfire. At the same time, there was concern supposedly in Congress in Washington about any association between Colombian government officials and the informal groups doing “hardball tactics” against Escobar with a real risk that financial and military support for Colombia could be terminated as a result. Had that happened, I’m not sure how the conflict with Escobar would have carried out differently but it probably would have prolonged even more then with more people dead.
“I got to saying in conversation that every time you shake a tree in Colombia, a grifter falls out. To be fair, many people would say the same thing about Peru. But if you ask me, it’s not in the same league. There certainly exist virtuous Colombian people, but at the same time, Colombia is a mad dodgy place. Some stereotypes are deserved. That was my takeaway.”
I’d agree very much with that. Though my experience in Colombia was quite different. I mostly was in Barranquilla for a much shorter period of about 7 months some odd years back (I think 6 years ago). In hindsight when I compare my time in Colombia to elsewhere, it was definitely a lot dodgier compared to most Latin countries I have been to. There was quite often a feeling on my part that “trouble could happen at any moment.”
At least compared to Mexico City (and even the dodgier parts of Mexico City), Colombia felt a lot sketchier. Very enjoyable though. Fun place to be. But sketchy nonetheless when compared to places like Mexico City, Argentina, Bolivia, etc.
Chinese people marrying in Costa Rica: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-43761893
Mexico HR Issues: https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/11/09/mexico-widespread-rights-abuses-war-drugs
Mexico HR Issues: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mexico-violence-victims-idUSKBN1E92LR
Mexico HR Issues: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/07/mexican-military-human-rights-abuses-war-on-drugs-report
Pablo Escobar Documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdVUATC_NJk&bpctr=1613767396
Long time reader of your blog (do miss the forum…small crowd but eclectic views) but as someone who spent a fair bit of time in Colombia in the 2010s this was a fascinating read, really enjoyed it! Only when you have been there can you appreciate the contradictions and absurdities of life in the tropics 😉