After the demobilization of the AUC in 2006, the paramilitary high command was behind bars. All except alias “Sebastián Colmenares” and his alter ego, “Memo Fantasma,” who was still moving huge consignments of drugs via Mexico.

The demobilization of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) did little to halt the flow of cocaine from Colombia. A significant portion of the paramilitaries did not surrender and simply returned to their old ways, setting up a new generation of drug trafficking organizations authorities called the BACRIM (from the Spanish “bandas criminales,” or criminal gangs).

Memo (real name Guillermo León Acevedo Giraldo) was still working with his principal paramilitary partner, Carlos Mario Jiménez, alias “Macaco,” even though the latter was in prison. According to Macaco’s US indictment, “between March 6 and September 25 of 2007, the defendant did with knowledge and intent … distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine.” This was almost certainly Memo’s work.

*Drug traffickers today have realized that their best protection is not a private army, but rather total anonymity. We call these drug lords “The Invisibles.” This is the fourth article in a six-part series about one such trafficker, alias “Memo Fantasma,” or “Will the Ghost.” Read the entire investigation here.

Carlos Fernando Mateus, alias “Paquita,” a middle-ranking commander of the AUC’s Central Bolívar Bloc (Bloque Central Bolívar – BCB), which Macaco and Memo had headed, briefly shared a cell with Macaco in 2007. He saw Memo visit Macaco in prison. Afterwards, when questioned about Memo, Macaco stated, “He has left me with just the bones and taken all the meat,” but refused to be drawn further.

Memo’s drug trafficking operations seemed intact, even with the paramilitaries officially out of the picture. He still had his routes via Mexico, apparently run out of Medellín’s smaller airport, Olaya Herrera, in the heart of the city. Many of our sources spoke of Memo’s plane and helicopter company, called Aviel, operating out of a hangar at Olaya Herrera. “Zara,” the scorned lover, and “Héctor,” the former paramilitary, confirmed Memo had operations out of Olaya Herrera and worked with Francisco “Pacho” Cifuentes.

The Cifuentes criminal clan was a powerful force on the Medellín drug trafficking scene. It had pioneered air routes into Mexico via Central America, first with the Medellín Cartel and then later working with the paramilitaries and the Oficina de Envigado, under Diego Murillo, alias “Don Berna.”

Carlos Mario Jiménez, alias “Macaco,” Memo’s partner and the visible head of the Bloque Central Bolívar of the AUC, sat alongside Diego Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” another paramilitary warlord and head of the Oficina de Envigado, the successor of the Medellín Cartel. Photo: AP - Memo Fantasma Story
Carlos Mario Jiménez, alias “Macaco,” Memo’s partner and the visible head of the Bloque Central Bolívar of the AUC, sat alongside Diego Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” another paramilitary warlord and head of the Oficina de Envigado, the successor of the Medellín Cartel. Photo: AP

The clan was headed by Pacho Cifuentes and supported by his siblings, among them Jorge (extradited to the United States in 2013), Hildebrando Alexander (extradited in 2014) and Dolly (extradited in 2012). Dolly was married to the brother of President Álvaro Uribe. This was a drug trafficking organization that had top-level political contacts and worked directly with Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, which after the demobilization of the paramilitaries, began its rise as one of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in the Americas.

Indeed, Jorge Cifuentes would later testify at the US trial of Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” in 2019.

Hildebrando Alexander Cifuentes (middle) with Joaquin Guzmán Loera, alias "El Chapo" - Memo fantasma story
Hildebrando Alexander Cifuentes (middle) with Joaquin Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo”

While many of Memo’s allies were in prison, they were still operating from behind bars. Still at liberty were key partners like Pacho Cifuentes and Memo’s criminal godfather, Carlos Mario Aguilar, alias “Rogelio,” who was now running the Oficina de Envigado with Don Berna in prison. Memo was as powerful and prolific as ever, moving multi-ton shipments of cocaine.

Yet his extraordinary run of luck was about to come to an end.

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In April 2007, Pacho Cifuentes was assassinated in Caucasia, a town north of Medellín in the department of Antioquia, where Memo also had a lot of properties. While Jorge Cifuentes was to take over the criminal clan, Memo did not have a close relationship with him.

In November 2007, Mexico registered one of its biggest seizures in history, 26 tons of cocaine found on a cargo container ship that had left the Colombian port of Buenaventura and arrived at the Mexican port of Manzanillo. Sources told InSight Crime that Memo had invested in this shipment via his partners in Mexico, Nestor Tarazona, a Colombian working for the Sinaloa Cartel, and the Mexican Nava Valencia brothers, Oscar, alias “El Lobo,” and Juan Carlos, alias “El Tigre,” who headed the Milenio Cartel, an affiliate of the Sinaloa Cartel federation.

In May 2008, 14 of the top paramilitary commanders were extradited to the United States to face drug trafficking charges. Among them was Macaco, Don Berna and Guillermo Pérez, alias “Pablo Sevillano,” once Memo’s lieutenant in his drug trafficking operations in the Pacific department of Nariño. Suddenly, Memo had lost much of his protection and became utterly reliant on Rogelio and the Oficina de Envigado.

And in July 2008, Rogelio turned himself in to US authorities.

Memo was now alone in a rapidly changing drug world. He was very exposed and vulnerable, sitting on a fortune as a new generation of drug traffickers was establishing itself and preying on its predecessors.

Memo Finds Himself Isolated

We had found a new source who, like Memo, had worked with paramilitaries but operated mainly out of the Oficina de Envigado. He refused to be named due to ongoing legal problems. We will call him “Ernesto.” He clearly hated Memo and further investigations among elements of the Oficina de Envigado uncovered that Ernesto and Memo were fierce rivals and had some “bad blood” between them.

Ernesto insisted that at this time, Memo began to wipe traces and contacts in the underworld that might lead to him, even going as far as murder.

“In 1998, he founded the Central Bolívar Bloc with Macaco until 2006 when Macaco was captured, but he continued in the business,” he told us. “For that reason, he killed his workers to keep them quiet. He has many police in his pockets and has a Doctor [a term in Colombia used to refer to a high-status professional such as a lawyer] who manages his politicians.”

Zara also suggested that Memo had some Colombian policemen on his payroll and used them to disappear some judicial files and divert investigations that might implicate him. She mentioned two names, Carlos Meza and Roque García.

These two turned out to be infamous in police circles. Former police colonels Carlos Meza Carrillo and Roque García Pedriza were known as star undercover operatives that infiltrated the Medellín underworld. They worked under former police general Mauricio Alfonso Santoyo, who was later extradited to the United States. One of the general’s closest contacts was alias “Rogelio,” Memo’s political godfather and leader of the Oficina de Envigado. It seems when Rogelio turned himself in to US authorities, he gave up General Santoyo, among others.

Meza and García were linked to the Cifuentes criminal clan, Memo’s allies, and known for protecting drug traffickers. Both ended up serving jail sentences in the United States, but not before, it seems, they were able to wipe away the criminal trails with the Colombian police force leading to Memo.

It also seemed that Memo bought himself some political protection.

Zara named Mario Uribe, to whom Memo allegedly lent a helicopter during his campaigning and provided funding. Mario Uribe, the cousin of President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), was elected senator in 2006 and was later sentenced to more than seven years in prison for taking money from and working alongside the paramilitaries. Mario Uribe was known to be very close to his presidential cousin.

Mario Uribe Escobar. Photo:La Razón - Memo fantasma story
Mario Uribe Escobar. Photo:La Razón

It seems that Memo had protected himself as much as possible from prosecution in Colombia. But the United States was a very different matter, and with the extradition of his paramilitary partners and Rogelio, he had to assume that he was now on the radar of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

The Ghost: a US Informant?

It was likely that all of the extradited paramilitary commanders knew of Memo’s drug trafficking activities. Rogelio turned himself in to US authorities after the mass AUC extraditions and cut himself a deal, giving up his partners and much of the structure of the Oficina de Envigado.

Memo had to assume that those now in US custody would talk about him. There are indications that he might have cut a deal for himself, maybe at the same time as Rogelio.

What we know is that there was an open case file on Memo in the United States. We have the name of a prosecutor who was looking into him and the name of a possible DEA case officer. Requests for comment were not answered and another US source stated that the files had been sealed and were classified.

Héctor is convinced that Memo made a deal with US authorities.

“Many people think he became a DEA informant and sold out all the BCB to stay out of prison,” Héctor said. “It was Sevillano and Macaco that took the rap for all of the BCB drug trafficking activity, when really it was all run by Memo. From what I hear, now that Macaco is back in Colombia [Macaco left the United States in July 2019 after completing his sentence and was arrested when he arrived in Colombia], Macaco is convinced Memo sold him out.”

Zara also believes that Memo made a deal with the United States because after 2008, “he closed his office in Medellín, and he did not do a single drug deal because, according to some American law, he had five years to clear his name.”

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Bonnie Klapper, a former assistant US attorney who specialized in drug prosecutions and is now a noted defense attorney, has seen both sides of the US justice system and its interactions with the drug world and its informers. While she had no specific knowledge of Guillermo Acevedo or Memo Fantasma and she thinks no formal indictment against Acevedo exists, he could have worked as an informant and therefore received lenient treatment.

Asked how tolerant US agencies would be to criminal activity by a source, she replied: “Quite tolerant, so long as the source is working at the agency’s direction.”

Asked if it is usual for a drug trafficker to get a complete pass, Klapper replied, “not very common, but not unheard of. I have represented two individuals in the past eight years who were given a pass. However, neither had a high profile nor was there any violence. They weren’t given a pass because their cooperation was so great — though it was excellent — but simply because the agents were not interested in pursuing the case — not big enough, conduct was old, etc. — or the informants just slipped through the cracks and the statute ran out.”

Whatever the truth, Memo Fantasma departed Medellín after 2008 and left behind him the paramilitary alias of Sebastián Colmenares. He had no arrest warrants pending, neither then, nor now. The Ghost simply vanished and took his millions with him.

*Drug traffickers today have realized that their best protection is not a private army, but rather total anonymity. We call these drug lords “The Invisibles.” This is the fourth article in a six-part series about one such trafficker, alias “Memo Fantasma,” or “Will the Ghost.” Read the entire investigation here.

*Investigation for this article was conducted by Angela Olaya, Ana María Cristancho, Laura Alonso, Javier Villalba, Juan Diego Cárdenas and María Alejandra Navarrete.

Jeremy McDermott is co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime. McDermott has more than two decades of experience reporting from around Latin America. He is a former British Army officer, who saw active...