The following is a script from "The Super Cartel" which aired on Nov. 18, 2012. Lara Logan is the correspondent. Howard L. Rosenberg, producer.
We're about to take you behind the scenes of a three-year investigation that took down the most powerful drug trafficking organization in law enforcement history.
Bigger than both the Cali and the Medellin cartels combined, more powerful than the infamous Pablo Escobar - this was a Colombian cocaine empire with a reach so vast, and profits so great, it became known as "the super cartel."
Sworn to secrecy until now, our 60 Minutes team was given unprecedented access to the investigation as it was unfolding.
Colombian national police worked alongside agents from ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, whose job, among other things, is to prevent contraband from moving across U.S. borders.
The amount of cocaine and money the super cartel smuggled was incomprehensible and it took authorities by surprise.
U.S. ICE agents first got a glimpse of what they were up against when they arrived here in September 2009: the sprawling, Pacific coast port of Buenaventura, Colombia.
The agents got a tip to be on the lookout for cargo containers of fertilizer arriving from Mexico. They were stunned by what they found.
[Man: There it is!
Shrink-wrapped bundles of money. This one is 700,000 U.S. dollars in 20-dollar bills. As they searched through more containers, both here and in Mexico, they found staggering amounts of cash. More and more money, $41 million in that first seizure alone.
Lara Logan: You'd never actually seen anything like it?
Luis Sierra: No, no, we'd never seen containers full of cash.
Luis Sierra was directing the ICE operation that day. He told us that until then, tales of containers full of cash were just a myth.
Lara Logan: How much space physically does that kind of money take up?
Luis Sierra: $41 million is probably waist deep in maritime shipping container, waist deep of cash.
Lara Logan: How long did it take you to count it?
Luis Sierra: It took us 30 days to count.
Teams of agents worked eight hours a day with Colombian police counting the money inside this heavily secured bank in Bogota, the capital. And that was just the beginning.
Luis Sierra: The amounts of cash they move is unfathomable. It-- we couldn't believe it. And, shipments that we seized, that was a routine shipment for them. That--that was--that was nothing.
Lara Logan: A routine shipment.
Luis Sierra: Routine. Monthly, weekly--that wasn't a once a year or a one-time shot. They were--they were--that was standard business.
Lara Logan: How much money are you talking about?
Luis Sierra: Hundreds of millions, if not billions.
Lara Logan: Of dollars?
Luis Sierra: Of dollars. Being smuggled, around the world, into Colombia.
These shipments were just one method of smuggling cash. They also hid money in vehicles, luggage and furniture.
Luis Sierra: We've never seen the likes of it. You know, an organization operating on that scale.
Lara Logan: Explain to me how this cartel would work. Is it fair to say it was like a conglomerate?
Luis Sierra: It was run like a sophisticated business, a Fortune 500 company. They had their CEOs. They had their vice presidents.
Lara Logan: Was it very compartmentalized?
Luis Sierra: Yeah, they--they've learned. And this particular cartel, you could be involved in transportation, but you didn't know who the CEOs were or even whose cocaine you were smuggling. So no one really knew what the other hand was doing except for two or three people at the top.
The enormous scale of the cartel's operations was unprecedented and so was the audacious plan U.S. ICE agents and Colombian police used to bring the men at the top to justice.
They did it by following the money, starting with the cash from that first seizure three years ago. It led them to a trio of ruthless kingpins who ruled the super cartel for a decade: Luis Caicedo was the mastermind, a former police investigator so secretive he was known as "the ghost." Julio Lozano directed the group's powerful alliance with Mexican cartels. And Claudio Silva managed the cartel's assets, worth billions of dollars.
ICE agents told us the super cartel supplied 42 percent of Colombian cocaine in the U.S. -- some 900 tons over seven years -- much of it grown here, in the verdant coca fields that blanket central Colombia.
We went with Colombian police commandos - called "junglas" - and U.S. ICE agents, on a series of raids to destroy drug labs linked to the super cartel.
Across streams, through dense vegetation, the junglas led us toward a crude structure, hidden beneath the jungle canopy.
In Colombia, Steve Kleppe is the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in charge.
Lara Logan: How important is a lab like this to the cartel?
Steve Kleppe: It's tremendously important. In the supply chain, this is step one. And you'll find these type of clandestine labs closest to the coca fields themselves.
The piles of coca leaves you see here, are the source of the cartel's vast fortune. Inside these big barrels, the leaves are soaked with gasoline and toxic chemicals to make unrefined cocaine. There are thousands of labs like this across Colombia. They're easy to build and easy to conceal.
The commandos set a series of explosive charges throughout the makeshift structure and directed us to a nearby coca field where we watched the jungle lab go up in smoke.
It's a tiny, but critical part of the super cartel's global enterprise.
Two hundred miles north, the cartel bosses ran their daily operations from a string of small cafes and coffee shops in an upscale neighborhood in Bogota. That's where Luis Sierra and other ICE agents shadowed them for months.
Lara Logan: How difficult was it to run surveillance on this cartel?
Luis Sierra: I'd say this was the most difficult surveillance that we've ever seen. These guys were so anonymous, they were like ghosts, trying to identify them during the surveillance was extremely difficult.
In face-to-face meetings at the cafes, the bosses issued orders to their lieutenants.
Luis Sierra: These guys essentially existed off the radar. People who didn't lead what we think of as typical drug trafficker, money launderer lifestyles, very low profile. Low key. Driving anonymous cars, living in small apartments. It was amazing that they lived this lifestyle and that made it harder for us to identify them.
Lara Logan: So what's the point of having all the money then, if you can't use it?
Luis Sierra: Yeah, I remember asking one of the members of the cartel that question because we couldn't figure it out. And the answer that person gave us was, for the power.
It all began to unravel when this ICE agent turned one of the cartel's most trusted money men into his secret informant. The agent was only allowed to talk to us if we concealed his identity because he still works undercover.
Lara Logan: What would happen to you if your cover was blown?
Agent: They'll probably retaliate.
Lara Logan: And retaliation would probably mean what?
Agent: Maybe just a hit on your life, or you know family. You never know.
Lara Logan: Can you describe the kind of guys that you were dealing with?
Agent: They were well-educated, well-dressed, well-spoken. Young guys. You'd be surprised how young these guys are. Some of them even had master's degrees. So they operated legitimate businesses. And on the side they were drug traffickers. Even their families didn't know what they did. You'd never think if you saw 'em out on the street that they were drug traffickers.
Lara Logan: Were they feared?
Agent: Yes. They were feared just because they had so much money, so much power, that, you know, people didn't want to mess with them.
In a daring ploy, the undercover ICE agent infiltrated the top tier of the cartel in Colombia.
Agent: They thought I was just a money guy, who, you know, was facilitating the money pickup for the organization. So they thought I was a member.
For months, the U.S. agent helped direct the super cartel's cash and cocaine deliveries right into the hands of police and his fellow agents in more than a dozen countries around the world, from Ecuador, to Morocco, to the Netherlands.
In one operation, this semi-submersible built by the super cartel was intercepted near the Galapagos Islands. It was carrying a ton and a half of cocaine.
In another, this suitcase stuffed with their cash was picked up in Spain by an undercover ICE agent.
Meanwhile, back in Colombia, authorities wiretapped the phones of the bosses' friends, wives and mistresses. The ICE agents and police methodically began cutting off the cartel's main tentacles.
Agent: We started with the boss and from there on we just went down. And we actually dismantled the whole organization from the suppliers to, you know, to the people who picked up the money, who did the payoffs, you know, to the people who actually transported the narcotics to the people who received the narcotics.
The first of the bosses to fall was Luis Caicedo, "the ghost." He had fled from Colombia to what he thought was safety in Argentina.
CE agent Steve Kleppe was there when police moved in.
Steve Kleppe: His look at the time of arrest was just of shock.
Lara Logan: Did you look into his eyes, were you right there?
Steve Kleppe: Yes. Yes. He was hooded at the time. And I went to make positive ID of him and take some pictures. So we removed the hood, and the photo I took with a camera phone.
Agent: That was the biggest victory, you know of the investigation, arresting Don Lucho in Argentina.
Lara Logan: Were you there at the scene?
Agent: I was at a safe house. But once he was apprehended, we did go out there.
Next to fall was Claudio Silva. He had been hiding at a remote farm deep inside the jungle. Our 60 Minutes team was there in May 2010 when police loaded him into a helicopter. A cell phone call to his mistress had given him away. The mob boss, one of the most feared and powerful leaders of the Colombian cocaine empire, cried when he was captured.
The last of the bosses, Julio Lozano, surrendered to ICE agents in Panama six months later.
Steve Kleppe: We destroyed their infrastructure. We destroyed their business. The remnants that are out there now have to scramble to try to regain whatever footing they can. Certainly not on the scale that they had. And those who are out there still are looking over their shoulder.
But ICE agents acknowledge they only got a tiny fraction of the super cartel's cocaine and their cash.
Lara Logan: If you look at the big picture, there's still tons and tons of cocaine flooding into the United States. So what difference does this make?
Luis Sierra: I'd say we took off the most prolific organization in terms of bulk cash smuggling and drug trafficking. Of course there's people ready to step in and take their place. But for an organization to become that sophisticated again, as sophisticated as this, is going to be very difficult.
ICE agents and Colombian police are still following leads, picking at the bones of the super cartel, all three cartel bosses are now in custody in the U.S. awaiting sentencing.
There are about 2 dozen other groups in Colombia & Panama that operate @ this level.
"Great minds have purpose, others have wishes" - Washington Irvin
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