Baruch Vega ran a scheme that ensnared Colombian cocaine kingpins and gave him a life of luxury. Then one put a price on his head.
I. THE RAID
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When the FBI showed up at the door of his penthouse in Miami Beach, fashion photographer Baruch Vega was drinking merlot with a group of models, stylists, and assistants. The group had just returned from two weeks of shoots in Puerto Rico and Cancún. They were preparing for another in Jamaica the next day.
It was March 21, 2000. Vega was 53 and feeling like he’d hit his prime. Trim and tan, he owned a nine-seat Hawker jet and was a fixture at South Beach’s trendy restaurants—always wearing a tight black T-shirt and surrounded by beautiful women. He was thinking of trying to make one of them his fourth wife.
But this fabulous life was actually a cover. Although none of his four daughters or his fashion friends knew it, Vega was a freelance spy working for the U.S. government. He’d insinuated himself into the social circles of Colombia’s cocaine kingpins. And even as he provided information to the U.S., Vega was also running a con. Between photo shoots, he’d talked some of the world’s most dangerous drug traffickers—including a former gunman for Pablo Escobar—into agreeing to pay him more than $100 million.
Vega had the narcos convinced he was close with corrupt members of the all-powerful U.S. government “Blitz Committee,” an interagency task force, and could, for a price, make their legal problems go away. As far as the cartel members could tell, Vega was legit. Once they paid him, the rules of the drug war seemed not to apply. Men wanted for murder were waved through customs. Criminals and Drug Enforcement Administration agents visited strip clubs together. One known trafficker threw a party on a yacht in Miami to mark the millennium. Another went to Disney World.
Drug traffickers were such regular visitors to Vega’s penthouse, he wasn’t alarmed when one, who went by El Médico (“The Doctor”), rang his doorbell that evening. El Médico wanted to discuss the $7 million he’d paid Vega. He said the FBI knew about it and had been asking who got paid off. Vega tried to wave off the questions, saying he’d just spent the money, and El Médico left seemingly satisfied.
Vega didn’t know it, but the FBI was listening. Around 9:30 p.m., as his group was about to head out for dinner, agents showed up. Vega stayed calm, offered the FBI agents wine, and told his friends to go on and order him a veal chop.
The agents refused the wine. They ordered Vega to sit, put on latex gloves, and started searching his apartment. Vega made a show of trying to help, directing them to a camera case stuffed with more than $400,000 in cash. He said the money was part of his work for the DEA. But the agents didn’t buy it. They questioned him for hours. Early the next morning, they told him he was under arrest. He was charged with money laundering and obstruction of justice. The FBI claimed he’d taken cash from dealers and interfered with investigations. The next week, agents raided the DEA’s Miami headquarters and hauled out the computers and notebooks of anyone who had anything to do with Vega. It looked like one of the biggest scandals in the history of the drug war.
And then the case was dropped, no explanation given. Twenty years on, Vega is eager to explain why and tell his story. Like a kind of narco Forrest Gump, he recalls crossing paths with all the major players. He says he delivered drug money to Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and flirted with Escobar’s wife. He trained DEA agents to pose as his photography assistants and used models to recruit cartel members as informants. And then there was the time Medellín capo José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha threatened him by showing him two severed hands floating in a bucket of blood.
Vega was, according to Vega, one of the most successful undercover operatives of all time—a spy whose charm, cunning, and cool under pressure were matched only by his skill with the ladies. He admits to swindling traffickers, but insists he did so on behalf of the DEA.
As crazy as these claims seem, most are backed up by internal DEA documents and thousands of pages of court records from the trials of traffickers that have taken place since. In interviews, two dozen federal agents, prosecutors, and defense lawyers, as well as one very angry former cartel boss, contend that Vega did something so audacious it shouldn’t have been possible: He simultaneously conned two of the most dangerous organizations in the world, Colombia’s fearsome Norte del Valle cartel and the U.S. government.
“It became such a mess that the government as a whole just said f—ing bury this,” says Paul Craine, who was a DEA agent in Bogotá in the late ’90s. “If we try to unravel this, we’re going to have to prosecute FBI agents, DEA agents, prosecutors. It was so crazy, where do you even start?”
II. A LUCRATIVE CAREER
I found Vega through an online photo portfolio stamped with his personal logo—an intertwined B and V—and featuring page after page of pouty-lipped women in skimpy swimsuits. I wrote to ask if he might be interested in discussing his undercover years. He was. We talked for hours on the phone, then at a bar at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York.
“We were really able to dismantle the biggest drug trafficking operation in history,” he said and took a sip of wine.
Now 72, Vega stands about 5-foot-10, with buzzed gray hair and a deeply lined face. He joked that he looks like a Shar-Pei, but he’s still handsome. Within minutes of my arrival, he was hitting on the waitress. He’s also fond of superlatives: Models are “spectacularly stunning,” rich people are “mega-multibillionaires.” He was in Manhattan, he told me, to raise money for a cryptocurrency venture.
Born in Bogotá, Vega claimed he was recruited as a teenager by the CIA to infiltrate radical student groups. (The agency doesn’t reveal its informants, but two federal agents confirmed that Vega did at least some work for the CIA.) He got into photography around the same time, at first as a way to meet women. He’d approach them on the street and ask to take their picture. Once he was shooting, he’d tell them how beautiful they’d look naked. In Vega’s telling, passion would take over. “They were so ready to explode,” he told me. “For them, it was a tremendous escape.”
Vega said he quit the CIA in the mid-’70s and moved to New York, where he started a modeling agency, Intramodel Beauty. He also befriended a crack-smoking Venezuelan hit man, Rafael Rodriguez, better known by his alias, Amilcar. Vega partied at Studio 54, jumped into Champagne-filled hot tubs at Miami’s Mutiny Hotel, and helped Amilcar’s cartel buddies launder some of their money. Drugs were everywhere. “If they did not offer you cocaine, you would say this was a low-class event,” Vega said. He added that he never partook.
He also never entirely trusted Rodriguez, and when the hit man admitted to killing some of their mutual friends as part of a turf war among Miami’s cocaine cowboys, Vega went to the police. (Rodriguez pleaded guilty to murder and died in prison.)
Vega’s new friends in law enforcement came in handy in 1985. He was in a tight spot financially—a flamboyant tax shelter promoter with two mischievous pet monkeys had scammed him out of most of the money he’d made selling the modeling agency. (The story is so outlandish, I wouldn’t have believed it, but the dispute, along with the monkeys, shows up in court records and newspaper articles from the time.) Vega’s law enforcement acquaintances proposed that he could work as a paid informant for them. That sounded exciting. And Vega’s lifestyle wasn’t cheap. Models, he said, “need private jets, mansions, major hotels. That’s the difference between a model and a regular woman.”
That was the start of Vega’s lucrative career in the drug wars. He never told his family what he was up to, not even when one of his daughters, a child actress, was preparing to star in the movie Spy Kids. “My parents can’t be spies,” her character in the movie says when she learns about their double life. “They’re not cool enough.”
III. THE DRUG TRAFFICKER RESOCIALIZATION PROGRAM
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush gave an Oval Office speech during which he held up a bag of crack and declared war on drug trafficking. America was being ravaged by drug use, he said, and in Colombia, “cocaine killers” were murdering judges and politicians with impunity. “Our message to the drug cartels is this: The rules have changed,” Bush said. He announced $2 billion in funding for international drug policing.
The push gave cops in both countries the leeway to target kingpins, sometimes in ways that pushed ethical and legal boundaries. It also provided ample opportunities for corruption, which Vega turned out to have a knack for exploiting. In the early 1990s he persuaded his handlers in Florida to give him a confiscated ranch to help him establish a new cover, as a money laundering breeder of high-end Paso Fino horses. A cartel member would give Vega, say, $2 million in dirty cash, and then “sell” him a horse in exchange for a check and a phony receipt. Vega would take a cut. The horses were a bonus—“very lovely,” he recalls.
In 1997, after the ranch operation ended, Vega met a rising DEA star named David Tinsley. At 42, Tinsley was sharply dressed, zealous, and eager to take risks. Former colleagues say he had special permission from the Justice Department to run an operation in which his informants posed as crooked financiers and laundered millions of dollars for traffickers. The fees they charged gave him a slush fund to pay for expenses the government wouldn’t normally cover—faster cars, nicer hotel rooms, fancier restaurants. Tinsley declined to comment for this story.
Tinsley told Vega he wanted to take down the biggest, baddest cartel. That meant Norte del Valle, which exported $1 billion of cocaine a year from its labs in the jungles of western Colombia and was protected by a violent paramilitary army. In particular, Tinsley wanted to go after Danilo González, one of the most powerful police commanders in Colombia, whom he suspected was secretly working for the cartel, according to a memo he wrote to his bosses in 1999. González gained fame as a leader of Search Bloc, an elite police squad that had tracked down and killed Pablo Escobar in 1993, but he was rumored to have worked closely with Escobar’s underworld enemies.
Tinsley’s strategy was to cultivate informants using the threat of U.S. extradition. He told Vega he’d be willing to offer reduced sentences to criminals who flipped. The problem was that in Colombia, even being suspected of talking to police was a good way to die. A Norte del Valle boss, Diego Montoya, routinely tortured and murdered suspected turncoats, his secretary testified in a 2011 trial, adding that he’d have videos of the killings delivered to his hideout. “All snitches, snitching sons of bitches, need to be killed,” Montoya would say, according to the assistant.
Vega, ever the hustler, saw an opportunity. Cutting a deal with federal agents may have been taboo within the cartels, but paying off federal agents definitely wasn’t. The cartel did it all the time in Colombia. So Vega suggested that he fly to Colombia and attempt to solicit bribes. He’d tell the traffickers he knew high-level people in the U.S. government who, for a few million dollars, would ensure them a sweetheart plea deal. Plead guilty, serve a minimal sentence, then retire in Miami. No snitching required.
“Living at the beach, nobody chasing you, nobody trying to kill you, with the blessing of the U.S. government, what else do you want for you and your family?” Vega says, summarizing the pitch. “It was a business proposition that nobody says no to.”
Of course, to make it all work the traffickers would have to meet with the DEA after paying the bribe and sign a standard cooperation agreement. Vega would tell them they didn’t have to rat out their friends—they could just put some cocaine on a boat and tell the DEA where to find it. That was a lie: The DEA agents would eventually start demanding names of associates or asking for real smuggling routes. But the beauty of the trap was that the traffickers wouldn’t be able to tell anyone about what happened without revealing they’d flipped. Instead of denouncing Vega as a double-crosser, his marks would brag about how well the bribes worked. The more people Vega conned, the more credibility his system would gain, and the more former marks he’d have as salesmen. It would be like a pyramid scheme of snitches.
“Man, that’s going to get you killed,” David Lemoine, a retired FBI agent, recalls telling Vega at the time. But Vega says Tinsley thought it was genius. He gave Vega a code name, Dr. B, and assigned a junior agent named Larry Castillo to be his primary contact. (Castillo didn’t return calls, emails, or letters from Bloomberg Businessweek.) Vega says Tinsley promised him a reward for each informant he recruited and gave him permission to use the bribe money to finance the operation’s expenses—a claim Tinsley would later dispute. If there was some money left over, Vega would count that as well-earned hazard pay.
“I used to call it my retirement,” Vega says, grinning. “A healthy retirement, I’ll tell you.”
One of the first people Vega reeled in was Arturo Piza, a retired smuggler who ran an antiques shop in Medellín. Piza knew everyone in the cocaine business, and his store became Vega’s meeting place. Piza led Vega to Julio Correa, a ponytailed former gunman for Escobar who was dating the most famous model in Colombia. Correa paid Vega more than $1 million, according to records from the DEA’s investigation into Vega’s scheme, and helped Vega bring in a second Escobar associate, who agreed to pay $1 million upfront and $7 million later.
Over a few months in 1999, Vega perfected his sales pitch. He would show prospects a laptop full of official-looking organizational charts and warn them about the horrible punishments they might face if they were caught. Then he’d invite them to join a U.S. government initiative, the Drug Trafficker Resocialization Program.
The name was made up, but it worked marvelously. Traffickers who’d already paid would recruit informants on Vega’s behalf. Some of these interactions were captured on secret recordings that were later revealed in court. “Someone is opening a side door for us, how are we not going to want to take that way out?” one trafficker said. “Brother, what’s the difference between five years and the rest of one’s life?” an informant asked a fellow narco. “The difference is Baruch. As simple as that.”
Vega’s “clients,” as he called the informants who’d paid him bribes, seemed to confirm Tinsley’s suspicions about González, the police commander. They said the Norte del Valle cartel paid him to get information on operations and shared rumors that cops were participating in kidnappings and executions. Another Vega snitch gave the U.S. information that led to the seizure of 9,000 kilos of cocaine hidden in the mast of a ship. Tinsley claimed it was the second-largest maritime seizure in history.
By early 1999, some drug lords began to suspect Vega wasn’t what he seemed. One kingpin Vega says he met with was murdered in prison. And in March, Piza, the antiques dealer, was assassinated in front of his wife by gunmen on motorcycles. An FBI agent warned Vega there was a price on his head, the agent would later tell DEA investigators. Vega says his trafficker friends told him González wanted him dead. He stopped traveling to Colombia to stay safe.
IV. OPERATION MILLENNIUM
In October 1999, Vega heard from his DEA handlers that something big was going down. He says they told him to tell the traffickers he was trying to flip to lie low for a few days. He called Piza’s widow and told her to spread the word.
The tip was accurate. Before dawn on Oct. 13, 1999, hundreds of DEA agents and Colombian police officers raided the homes of traffickers across the country. In Medellín, surveillance planes made sure the coast was clear before truckloads of agents cruised into a kingpin’s ranch to grab him. Other officers in Bogotá smashed through a plate glass window at a trafficker’s mansion, interrupting an all-night birthday party. All told, 32 were arrested. Operation Millennium, as it was known, was one of the biggest busts since the Escobar takedown.
Vega’s tipoff almost blew the entire thing, according to the Bogotá-based DEA agents who ran it. To prevent leaks by corrupt cops, they’d kept Millennium secret until the last minute. Even the Colombian officials who went on the raids were told they were gathering for professional development seminars. But Vega’s DEA handlers in Miami had known about it days earlier. Three or four traffickers evaded arrest because of the intel. The DEA agents in Bogotá were furious with their Miami counterparts when they found out their colleagues had used Vega to undermine them. “Somebody should have went to prison for this,” says Craine, one of the Bogotá DEA agents.
Instead, Vega’s antics made him even wealthier. The tipoffs gave him credibility with the cartel, and the increased risk of extradition posed by Operation Millennium made his “resocialization program” more appealing. So many narcos were calling him that he decided to arrange a kind of narcos-and-agents convention in Panama City, a neutral location where Vega wouldn’t have to worry about hit men.
He bought a Hawker jet so he and the traffickers could travel in style, and, a week after the raids, flew to Panama. He was joined by Correa, his Colombian informant-turned-recruiter, and Correa’s model girlfriend. Fans swarmed them at the airport, according to Daniel Forman, a defense lawyer who flew in with Vega. Dozens of traffickers, relatives, and lawyers were waiting for them at the oceanfront InterContinental Miramar Panama hotel, where Vega had booked an entire floor of suites. “We were on top of the world,” Vega says. “Everybody believed we were doing miracles.”
Vega met with the traffickers in their hotel suites and delivered the resocialization pitch. Once they bought it, he’d walk them down the hall where a group of Miami DEA agents waited. Carlos Ramón Zapata—El Médico—agreed to pay $42 million to cover himself and some relatives. He gave Vega a $7 million down payment.
To celebrate, Vega took his clients and some agents to a strip club and paid dancers to party with them. His handler, Castillo, hooked up with a friend of Zapata’s, he later admitted to internal affairs.
At one point, Vega took a break from the conference to fly a trafficker who was wanted for murder in Colombia to Miami to surrender. Vega says the CIA helped smuggle him through customs. But once they were through, Vega’s handlers told him DEA agents from Bogotá were heading to Panama City to make arrests. Vega flew back through the night and hustled the fugitives out of the hotel just in time.
Later, he met with Castillo and a DEA agent from Bogotá, Nicholas Kolen. Vega described his bribery scheme. Kolen listened—and was incredulous that Vega clearly didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. “It was surreal,” Kolen recalls. “They were dumb enough to give that spiel in front of me.”
Kolen told Vega and Castillo to shut down their operation. They ignored him. Vega ran another convention the next month, then one in December. In January he lured his biggest target yet to Panama: Luis Hernando Gómez Bustamante, better known as Rasguño (“Scratch”), one of the top bosses of the Norte del Valle cartel and “the Pablo Escobar of his generation,” according to U.S. prosecutors. Vega says Rasguño didn’t flinch when he asked for $50 million.
Rasguño gave Vega and his handlers a clearer picture of González. He said the police commander was secretly a high-level member of the cartel. Vega says Tinsley was thrilled with the intelligence. With Rasguño’s help, they might be able to bring the whole cartel down.
V. THE SNAKE CHARMER
Vega’s enemies on both sides of the law were already trying to stop his scheme. Kolen and the other DEA agents in Bogotá complained to headquarters about how their colleagues in Miami were sabotaging their work. One prosecutor in South Florida, Theresa Van Vliet, heard that Vega was bragging he’d bought her off. She called Tinsley, irate. “Get your informant under control,” she later recalled yelling at him.
Fabio Ochoa, a kingpin who was arrested in Operation Millennium, also became a problem. Vega asked his family, who’d run the Medellín cartel with Escobar, for $30 million to fix the case. They didn’t take the deal. Instead, they taped the pitch and sent the recordings to the Justice Department.
In Miami, prosecutors confronted Vega’s client, El Médico. They told him he’d been conned and suggested he could get a reduced sentence if he helped run a sting on Vega. At the Miami penthouse just before the raid, while Vega was unwinding with his friends, and in other meetings, El Médico got Vega to admit, on tape, to receiving about $3.5 million from Rasguño, among other payments, according to an FBI affidavit. That was all the evidence they needed to arrest him.
Vega says he expected Tinsley or his other law enforcement friends to clear up what he thought was just a misunderstanding. They never did. He spent 52 days in jail before making bail. The U.S. seized $1.5 million—all of Vega’s cash the feds could find. The arrest blew his cover, and drug traffickers stopped making the payments they’d promised.
Vega tried to fight the charges publicly, giving interviews to reporters about all the good work he’d done persuading narcos to surrender. The magazine Gatopardo called him El Encantador de Serpientes (“the Snake Charmer”), and ABC News called him “Secret Agent Man.” The Wall Street Journal quoted an anonymous U.S. agent who called Vega “our principal weapon” against the Colombian cartels.
The case was a law enforcement scandal, but it was even more disruptive to the cocaine trade, since it revealed the man many believed to be their mole inside the DEA to have been, instead, a triple agent. The Norte del Valle cartel splintered as bosses accused each other of flipping. One cartel associate who was working with the FBI, Jhon Jairo Garcia Giraldo, was lured to a farm, dismembered, and then tossed in a river, according to U.S. prosecutors. The relatives of another member who testified in the U.S. were hacked to pieces with chainsaws. Correa, Vega’s model-dating client, disappeared in Colombia; paramilitaries would later admit to having incinerated his body. The intracartel feud inspired a novel, El Cartel de los Sapos (“Cartel of the Snitches”), and a telenovela based on the book.
Vega was worried he’d be next. He regularly heard rumors about traffickers who wanted revenge, and he faced deportation to Colombia if convicted. He lost his penthouse, and his jet was repossessed. He stayed in relatives’ homes, motels, and truck stops. At one low moment, he had to sell a Hasselblad camera lens worth thousands for $100 just to buy gas.
But the worst thing, Vega says, was that shortly after the raid, federal agents ransacked his storage unit, dumping 11 cabinets on the floor and destroying his photo archive. Vega says when he found out, it was the saddest day of his life. The photos had nothing to do with the case. “I cried. I cried so much,” he says. “The only things that were there were mega-gorgeous, spectacular-looking women.”
In 2003, Vega’s old enemy González got in touch out of the blue. The cop told Vega that U.S. authorities were preparing a case against him and he needed help brokering a deal. González knew Vega’s program was fake, but at least the photographer had contacts with the DEA. Vega fell back into his old role, meeting González in Aruba in April 2003. They talked for hours at a poolside bar, while Vega secretly taped the encounter. He says that when he confronted González about the murder of Piza, the antiques dealer, and the contract on Vega’s head, González seemed to accept responsibility. “We were in the middle of a war,” González said, according to Vega. “We did what we had to do to protect ourselves.”
Vega turned the information over to prosecutors, but before González could reach a deal, he was killed. In March 2004 a hit squad ambushed him at his lawyer’s office in Bogotá. Diego Montoya, the Norte del Valle cartel boss, had offered a $3 million reward for the assassination, because he heard González was snitching, according to court testimony by José Carlos Robayo Escobar, one of the hit men. “He was a criminal just like we were,” Robayo said.
On the day González was shot, Vega was in a Miami courtroom. Prosecutors had reduced the charges to tax evasion, and Vega had decided to plead guilty. In court, Vega begged the judge not to deport him. He said he was a U.S. patriot and that his arrest was the result of a conspiracy. He admitted to taking some drug money but said he needed it to cover expenses. “This was a self-financed operation,” Vega told the judge. “That’s why the government allowed us to have certain money. Of course I enjoyed that money. I was risking my life every day.”
The judge recommended Vega be allowed to stay in the country to protect his safety and sentenced him to time served. Vega was a free man.
VI. A STORY HAS THREE SIDES
The DEA’s final report on the scandal, which was posted online by Narco News, showed that Vega’s operation had violated DEA rules in every possible way. But it also included testimony suggesting that Vega’s handlers had been aware of the scheme despite their denials. Vega claimed an FBI agent helped him invent the system in the ’80s. The investigators tracked down Vega’s old FBI handler, Robert Levinson, who confirmed the story. Levinson said he let Vega keep any money he charged traffickers for himself. Vega’s FBI source file showed one gave Vega $50,000 and a Jaguar sports car as a retainer, and that Escobar’s cartel paid Vega $15,000. (Levinson disappeared in Iran in 2007 while on what the CIA called a “rogue” mission.)
One person involved in the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained that the U.S. was in an impossible situation. If it prosecuted Vega for the scheme, he’d be able to call everybody involved in his operation to the stand. Even if the government could show that Tinsley hadn’t given Vega permission to solicit bribes, it would be hard to convict an informant who had a plausible claim that he was simply doing his job. And the trial would be a public embarrassment for the DEA and the FBI.
Tinsley, suspended during the internal affairs investigation, was reinstated in 2004, as was Castillo, the young agent who traveled with Vega to the conventions. “I thought they had suffered enough,” says Tom Raffanello, who took over as head of the DEA’s Miami office after the scandal. “Nobody can control any informant 24-7.” Tinsley retired from the DEA four years later and now runs a private security firm that calls itself “the first and only Judeo-Christian intelligence agency.”
Vega’s claim that he could sell get-out-of-jail-free cards was a lie. But it also turned out to be sort of true. His clients—at least the ones who weren’t murdered—are free because Vega tricked them into snitching. None had to serve more than six years in prison. Some have returned to Colombia, while others live in South Florida. Ochoa, the kingpin who refused to pay and informed on Vega, got a decades-long sentence. He’s not scheduled for release until 2026.
“He is a big, big liar,” Ochoa says in a phone call from a federal prison in Georgia. “He manipulates people. He likes to feel so important.”
Meanwhile, the Operation Millennium arrests, and the war of the snitches that followed, did permanently change the drug trade. The Norte del Valle cartel never recovered. After González’s death, the leaders of the other factions were captured and brought to the U.S. Other, less violent traffickers eventually rose to take their place.
Today, Vega lives in Maui in a modest house near the ocean. Craine, the Bogotá DEA agent, who is now retired, estimates that the photographer’s swindle generated $50 million. But Vega says that the total was much less and that he blew it all on wine, jets, and other model-related expenses. He says he didn’t stash any in offshore accounts—despite 20 years of experience doing just that as an undercover money launderer. “Without being presumptuous, I think I am one of the top money launderers who ever worked for the government,” Vega says. “But I have something that is called integrity.”
Vega still does the occasional photo shoot—this spring he photographed models on a beach for a German clothing catalog—and claims he gets called on for “highly classified” missions by his friends in Washington. He’s revising a memoir. In it, he’s not a con man. He’s an irresistible lover and a crime-fighting international man of mystery. His drug-trafficker clients are happy with his services, and his scheme ends the drug war and brings peace to Colombia.
Vega tells me this is true, all of it. A few times during our talks, though, he hints that I shouldn’t necessarily take him at his word. “A story has three sides—your side, my side, and the truth,” Vega says. “And no one is lying.”