Paramilitary drug lord, alias “Memo Fantasma” or “Will the Ghost,” may soon walk out of prison in Colombia, after the prosecutor fumbled two hearings designed to keep the accused in pre-trial detention. Underworld sources suspect foul play.
On June 30, judge Carmen Gualteros denied a request to extend the pre-trial detention of Guillermo León Acevedo Giraldo, alias "Memo Fantasma," almost a year after he was first jailed. The Attorney General's Office immediately appealed the decision but Acevedo may be allowed to walk free around July 3, when he completes a year of pre-trial detention.
The judge also lifted house arrest restrictions on Acevedo's mother, Margoth de Jesús Ramírez Giraldo, and his grandmother, María Enriqueta Ramírez. They will instead have to present themselves every 15 days to judicial services. All three are facing charges of money laundering and illicit enrichment, while Acevedo faces the additional charge of criminal conspiracy.
"Your arguments were not sufficient to support why it was necessary to extend this...measure for another year," she told prosecutor Julio César Ochoa during the virtual hearing which was broadcast live on YouTube.
This hearing to consider whether Memo Fantasma should remain in pre-trial detention was convened after his defense lawyer requested his release at a separate hearing on June 28.
“All the established procedures have been fulfilled," said defense lawyer David Espinosa Acuña, himself under investigation for receiving unexplained funds from Acevedo, on June 28. “There has not been a single delaying tactic by the defense."
However, the prosecutor Ochoa, who took over the case last April, did not appear remotely committed to efforts to keep Acevedo in prison. Acevedo is seen as a flight risk and there has been evidence of attempts to bribe officials linked to his case. Acevedo is also accused of being a leader in two criminal structures that routinely killed opponents.
Ochoa appeared to concede much of the defense's arguments. “It is true what the defense states, that there have been no postponements or delays by the defense team. It is a family tragedy that we see a man being detained along with his mother and grandmother," he said during the first hearing.
There have been accusations that Ochoa is not fit to handle this case and that there has been overt interference in the investigation.
During the initial June 28 hearing, the judge, Paul Oswaldo Santander Esquivel, appeared unimpressed with either side.
He lambasted the defense team, insisting that they had taken far too long in needing 31 days to collect the evidence from the Attorney General’s Office, holding up the judicial process.
“Yes, there were delaying tactics on the part of the defense,” he responded.
Santander also rejected the notion presented by the prosecutor that this was a “family tragedy.”
“This court considers that it has not been taken into account that we are dealing with an organized crime group,” the judge said, before rejecting a request for Acevedo's immediate release.
After this request was denied, Acevedo laughed and shook his head. His lawyer, Espinosa, appealed against this decision but he need not have bothered.
The second hearing, which began on June 29 and was presided over by Carmen Gualteros, was requested by the Attorney General's Office to extend pre-trial detention for Acevedo. Ochoa did not seem that keen on securing another extension. Indeed, it appeared he may have preferred for Memo Fantasma to be set free.
“Is the defendant a danger to society? In this...the prosecution does not have elements to judge except for media and journalistic indications where it is stated that León Acevedo is allegedly a dangerous person who can kill witnesses. There is no background in the process on this issue,” Ochoa assured the judge.
These declarations by Ochoa run counter to statements made by some of Colombia's highest security officials. In May 2020, Attorney General Francisco Barbosa identified Acevedo as “Memo Fantasma” and as commander of the brutal right-wing paramilitary army the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC), with the alias “Sebastian Colmenares.” Barbosa said that the Attorney General’s Office had judicial documents showing that Acevedo had a criminal career stretching back to 1992.
And Colombia’s police chief, General Jorge Vargas, stated during Acevedo’s arrest in June 2021 that there was proof Memo Fantasma was a top paramilitary commander.
Ochoa also appeared to be ignoring the case files handed to him by the previous prosecutor who built the case, Juan David Huepe. These files apparently included testimony gathered from at least six paramilitary witnesses who identified Acevedo as a paramilitary commander and/or drug trafficker.
During an erratic presentation on June 28, where Ochoa had to keep pausing to find documents and collect his thoughts, he returned to his notion of a family tragedy. Instead of asking for the continued detention under house arrest of Acevedo’s mother and grandmother, he stated it was better to let them go.
“It is the obligation of the prosecution to take into account the dignity of the people who are here facing a process, which is already a tragedy,” Ochoa assured the judge.
The representative of the Procuraduría (Inspector General's Office), also present at the hearing, was damning about Ochoa’s presentation for a continuation of the pre-trial detention.
“It is not valid to try to use those same arguments and material evidence (from the previous request for pre-trial detention) to say that this situation persists today. It was the obligation of the prosecution to present new material evidence that update the grounds to request this extension,” stated the official.
This criticism was was echoed by Judge Gualteros who criticised Ochoa, saying "the prosecution was weak in its argumentation."
"I did my best," Ochoa responded.
InSight Crime consulted two experienced prosecutors after the hearings. They, separately, came to the same verdict on Ochoa and his performance. Both of them referred to the prosecutor as "a clown."
"This was entirely unprofessional. He is making the entire Attorney General’s Office look bad,” said one of the prosecutors, as he watched a recording of the audience, clearly horrified.
Alias 'Charlie,' who was Acevedo’s personal assistant during more than a decade for his drug trafficking business, also watched a recording of the audience and provided InSight Crime with commentary. He could only come to one conclusion.
“Memo is going to bribe his way out of prison,” he said.
As he watched the hearings, Charlie’s outrage grew.
“I am now convinced that Memo has reached once more inside the Attorney General's Office,” said Charlie. “I have never heard a prosecutor be so brazen. He seemed like he was part of the defense team," he concluded.
Acevedo’s trial is slated to continue in September or October.
*In the interests of transparency, it should be stated that Guillermo Acevedo brought a charge of criminal libel against McDermott, the author of this article and the initial investigative series. The case has since been archived by the Attorney General’s Office for lack of evidence.