Photographer's Dangerous Double Life

He admits he was living the high life through his income as a mediator for the government, but some in the FBI began to see his earnings not as fees but as extortion.

One night in March of 2000, Vega was arrested on charges of money laundering and obstruction of justice.

He had become a criminal to the government he had worked for — the government he says gave him permission to collect those fees in the first place. "I was reporting every single penny that I was receiving from the drug traffickers," Vega said.

Vega says his FBI and DEA handlers authorized him to charge the drug dealers fees, but Raffanello denies that was the case. "We play by the rules. We don't authorize anyone to break the law," he said.

The shock waves of Vega's arrest reverberated through the DEA: Two of his immediate superiors were suspended and are currently being investigated for their handling of him.

"The DEA is embarrassed that Vega ran so rampant. The DEA is afraid to confront the issue," says Sharpstein.

Sharpstein believes Vega stole "anywhere up to $40 million" from the Colombian drug lords. But Vega himself says he made that money legitimately, and the total was closer to $4 million, which he used to buy a mansion off Miami Beach and a 78-foot yacht.

Double Life Doubled Back?

About a year after Vega was arrested, virtually all of the charges against him were quietly dropped. He recently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge for failing to file taxes on time and is awaiting sentencing.

Today Vega is bitter and, he claims, broke. He says he's the victim — and that now it's the U.S. government that's stolen the money from him.

"They have seized my money, they have seized my equipment and everything. I was not able to work," Vega said.

He said the money he took from the Colombian drug lords is "in the hands of the U.S. government. They seized from me: $1,486,000 exactly."

And there is one final twist to this fantastic tale. Despite alleged death threats from traffickers, Vega says he's now once again working undercover — not for the DEA but for some other branch of the U.S. government.

"If he is, that would be the biggest, saddest joke in the world," Sharpstein said. "But knowing the United States of America and our government, anything could be true."

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