In 1997, the paramilitary army began its bloody campaign across Colombia, supposedly to fight the Marxist rebels, but really to take control of the cocaine trade. “Will the Ghost,” or “Memo Fantasma,” was funding the bloodshed and using it to strengthen his position at the top of the criminal table.

By then, the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), headed by the Castaño brothers, were busy recruiting the private armies of drug traffickers across the country. Memo Fantasma had already been drawn into the orbit of the Castaños, being tasked by them, along with Carlos Mario Jiménez, alias “Macaco” take the guerrilla stronghold and coca-growing region in the south of Bolívar.

*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 first article in a six-part series about one such trafficker, alias “Memo Fantasma,” or “Will the Ghost.” Read all chapters of the investigation here, or download the PDF.

In 1998, the Central Bolívar Bloc (Bloque Central Bolívar – BCB) was formed. It was to become one of the most powerful fighting divisions of the paramilitary army, with a presence in the departments of Antioquia, Arauca, Bolívar, Caquetá, Caldas, Córdoba, Nariño, Putumayo, Risaralda and Santander.

“Memo Fantasma was actually a leader, or the leader, of the Central Bolívar Bloc, which was responsible for the slaughter of anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 people,” said Peter Vincent, who as judicial attaché at the US Embassy between 2006 and 2009 in Bogotá, had all the files on the AUC and their drug trafficking activities spread across his desk.

“It carried out its grotesque narco-trafficking and terrorist activities in Colombia. Not only was the AUC more powerful than either the Medellín or Cali cartels, …. it was engaging in massive amounts of narco-trafficking and frankly, crimes against humanity and genocide, in a targeted effort to completely remove any threats to their domination of the narco trade.”

In 2001, such was the bloodshed unleashed by the AUC, and such was its control of the drug trade, that it was put on the US list of terrorist organizations.

Command Structure of the Central Bolivar Bloc

Memo Rises to Power in the Central Bolivar Bloc

The division of labor in the BCB was clear. Macaco ran the military end of operations, Memo the money and drug trafficking. In an organizational chart that the BCB published in 2005 on their now dismantled website, Memo Fantasma appeared again under his paramilitary alias, “Sebastián Colmenares.” The chart revealed the territorial reach and military organization of a criminal structure that had control over much of the most important drug trafficking real estate in Colombia.

While Macaco, with his two top military lieutenants, Rodrigo Pérez, alias “Julián Bolívar,” and Héctor Edilson Duque, alias “Monoteto,” were conquering new territory for the paramilitaries and selecting areas where drug crops proliferated, Memo was turning the cocaine into the millions of dollars needed to keep the war machine fed and the paramilitary warlords satiated.

It is hard to underestimate the brutality of the paramilitaries. Covering the BCB takeover of the oil-refining city of Barrancabermeja in 2001 was a lesson in ruthlessness. The city was a stronghold of the Marxist National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación – ELN). Led by alias “Julián Bolívar,” whom I interviewed at the time, the paramilitaries offered any guerrilla who wanted to switch sides a job and a reward for every one of their former comrades they identified.

SEE ALSOColombia Convicts Former Paramilitary Leaders for Hundreds of Crimes

One former ELN guerrilla identified more than 12 members of his network, earning himself almost $20,000, a fortune to a man who lived on less than $200 a month. The ELN guerrillas and collaborators were then assassinated on the streets of the city, at a rate of up to 10 a day during February 2001. This is what Memo Fantasma was funding and promoting.

Testimony given by José Germán Sena Pico, alias “Nico,” to the Peace and Justice courts, set up as part of the peace agreement between the paramilitaries and the government, stated that Macaco and Memo had produced at least 100 tons of cocaine between 1997 and 2001.

Just to give an idea of the value of these quantities, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that in 2000, a kilogram of cocaine in the United States was worth $29,580 wholesale. That would mean that Macaco and Memo, if they moved their 100 tons to the United States, could have earned anything up to $2.9 billion.

However, the BCB continued expanding after 2001, taking more territory where drug crops were present. It would have been surprising if Memo and Macaco did not produce at least the same amount of drugs again between 2002 and the paramilitary demobilization in 2006.

Paramilitary fighters of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, cheer and wave their guns during a demobilization ceremony Dec. 10, 2004. Photo: AP Memo Fantasma Story
Paramilitary fighters of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, cheer and wave their guns during a demobilization ceremony Dec. 10, 2004. Photo: AP

Macaco was extradited to the United States in 2008 to answer charges of trafficking thousands of kilograms of cocaine via Central America and Mexico into the United States while running his paramilitary army. He “exported cocaine from Colombia using helicopters and go-fast boats,” read his indictment. Also mentioned in the indictment was Memo’s first mentor, Fabio Ochoa Vasco, and Francisco Cifuentes Villa, alias “Pacho Cifuentes,” who plays a part in Memo’s story later on. Yet it was Memo Fantasma that really handled that side of the business. Macaco was the visible partner, Memo the invisible.

Looking to get more details on the relationship between Macaco and Memo in the BCB, we found Carlos Fernando Mateus, alias “Paquita.” Paquita was a mid-ranking commander in the BCB operating in the department of Caquetá.

Carlos Fernando Mateus, alias “Paquita”. Photo: Colombian Police - Memo Fantasma Story
Carlos Fernando Mateus, alias “Paquita”. Photo: Colombian Police

Paquita first saw Memo in 2001. He confirmed that the photos we had were of the man he knew first as Memo Fantasma, and then under his paramilitary alias of Sebastián Colmenares.

The BCB were having a summit in one of Macaco’s favorite properties in the village of Piamonte, in the municipality of Cáceres in Antioquia, north of Medellín. “He arrived in a helicopter with other BCB leaders. A young guy, informally dressed. I did not know who he was, but he was greeted with respect by Macaco and my immediate boss Monoteto [Héctor Edilson Duque],” said Paquita.

“I asked Monoteto who he was. He replied that he was the guy who signed off on everything,” Paquita continued.

When asked where he saw Memo Fantasma in the BCB pecking order, he placed Memo Fantasma right at the top.

“From my point of view, I saw him as a little above Macaco,” he said.

With Paquita’s testimony, it was time to go back to Héctor, the paramilitary source who was terrified of Memo and still refused to go on the record. He confirmed almost everything Paquita had said, although he put Macaco and Memo as equal partners, one military, the other money.

“I saw Memo at a big summit of AUC leaders in 2000. It was held by the Castaños at one of their properties known as Finca 21, between Antioquia and Córdoba, on the road to San Pedro de Urabá. He was there with the BCB contingent. This was soon after Memo had promoted the setting up of BCB in Nariño, with what they called “Liberators of the South Front” [Frente Libertadores del Sur]. This was apparently Memo’s project and he ran the drugs that came out of there, one of the principal cocaine-producing parts of the country, even today.”

This was confirmed during Nico’s Peace and Justice testimony on August 25, 2015:

“When Nariño was taken, the boss of Nariño was Memo Fantasma … From 1999, Memo Fantasma was responsible for Nariño,” Nico confirmed.

Yet in the end it was Guillermo Pérez, alias “Pablo Sevillano,” who was to answer to law enforcement for all the drug trafficking activity that the BCB ran out of Nariño. Sevillano was the visible commander, Memo remained in the shadows directing the business.

“Memo put ‘Pablo Sevillano’ to run the operations there,” Héctor said. “Sevillano ended up getting extradited to the United States to face drug trafficking charges, but it was Memo’s op. He set it up, he bought the weapons, he sold the drugs. He used Sevillano and left him out to dry.”

We asked Héctor why he thought Memo signed the BCB documents and appeared on the organizational chart if he never planned to surrender?

“I think Memo was keeping his options open. Sebastián Colmenares was Memo’s Plan B, in case he was threatened with arrest and needed to use the paramilitary amnesty. But he never appeared in public at any of the AUC demobilizations. He was very careful.”

Memo Under No Pressure To Demobilize

Memo never felt threatened and so never demobilized with the rest of the paramilitary army even though multiple sources, including Nico, put him in and out of Santa Fe de Ralito in Córdoba, where the negotiations with the government were conducted. Various sources stated that he owned lots of properties in and around Córdoba and presented himself as a cattle farmer.

It seems the order Macaco gave to BCB paramilitaries that testified to the Peace and Justice courts after 2006 was to avoid mentioning Memo Fantasma or Sebastián Colmenares altogether.

We asked Héctor why all the BCB high command would want to give Memo a pass, even after they were extradited to the United States to face charges of drug trafficking operations that Memo directed?

“There are two reasons I can think of. The first is that he ran all the BCB finances and was looking after a lot of their money. They were not going to risk losing that. The second is that he was known as a vicious little shit and was a friend of Rogelio’s [real name Carlos Mario Aguilar] of the Oficina de Envigado, who ran the Medellín sicario [hitman] networks and who had several policemen on his payroll, including General Mauricio Santoyo.”

General Santoyo, who is mentioned and thanked in President Alvaro Uribe’s autobiography, “No Lost Causes” (“No hay causa perdida”), was one of the stars of the police force and head of President Uribe’s security detail. His relationship with Rogelio is well documented and was confirmed to us by Rogelio’s sister, Cruz Elena Aguilar.

SEE ALSOOficina de Envigado News and Profile

Indeed, it was Rogelio’s testimony to US authorities that led Santoyo to plead guilty to charges of working with the paramilitaries after being extradited to the United States in 2012. Having a top policeman on the payroll showed the power of the Oficina de Envigado, the successor to the Medellín Cartel, that Rogelio ran under the orders of Diego Murillo, alias “Don Berna.” And the Oficina was Memo’s criminal home, perhaps even more so than the paramilitaries.

The close relationship between Memo and Rogelio was confirmed again by Nico during his Peace and Justice testimony. “Another person who respected Memo was Rogelio, the head of the Oficina de Envigado, Don Berna’s second, who turned himself in to the United States. I was in various meetings in which he and Rogelio were together,” he explained.

Poring over hours of testimony to the Justice and Peace tribunals, set up to oversee paramilitary demobilization, finally turned up a nugget of gold. Buried deep in the thousands of pages under review were declarations by Pablo Sevillano, who worked for Memo in Nariño and was extradited to the United States for drug trafficking. He was questioned repeatedly about Memo Fantasma. Memo is short for William, which is also Sevillano’s real name (Guillermo Pérez) and so he was accused of being Memo Fantasma. He denied it and while he admitted he had heard of Memo Fantasma, he denied that he had been linked to the Liberators of the South Front that controlled Nariño.

“Really, I did not know him …. And I totally deny that he was part of The Liberators of the South Bloc,” said Sevillano.

But under repeated questioning by Judge Uldi Teresa Jiménez, on September 9, 2015, he again denied being Memo Fantasma and offered up a name.

“Look Madam Judge, about Mr. Memo Fantasma, he is called Guillermo Acevedo,” continued Sevillano.

Yet for some reason, this name was never investigated further and Memo Fantasma remained registered under the false name of Guillermo Camacho. When we made an official request to the Peace and Justice system about Memo Fantasma and Sebastián Colmenares, only the name Guillermo Camacho came back. Somehow Memo’s real name was never entered into the records. Was that simply bad luck? Or did Memo manage to get to someone? Memo was extremely surprised when we later told him we had found his name in testimony given to the Justice and Peace Tribunals.

Memo fantasma Fiscalia Guillermo Camacho Acevedo

By the end of 2006, the paramilitary AUC had demobilized more than 30,000 fighters. The single most powerful component was the Central Bolívar Bloc, which saw 7,067 fighters hand over their weapons.

The paramilitary high command was in prison. The Castaño brothers were dead. The paramilitary era was over. Memo was still in play, still handling BCB money and assets, still moving drugs. Not only was he totally in the clear, but Macaco and Pablo Sevillano, the visibles, were blamed for all his drug trafficking activity.

With the paramilitary peace agreement, Sebastián Colmenares disappeared, never to be heard from again. After tens of thousands of deaths, hundreds of tons of cocaine, and hundreds of millions of dollars, one of the top leaders of the most powerful AUC fighting divisions simply walked away. He never contributed to the Truth Commission as it sought to piece together the history of the bloodiest chapter in Colombia’s civil conflict, never offered the victims any compensation. Colmenares simply disappeared as if he had never existed.

Memo Fantasma, however, was still very much alive, and richer than ever.

*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 third 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 Ángela Olaya, Ana María Cristancho, Laura Alonso, Javier Villalba, Juan Diego Cárdenas and María Alejandra Navarrete.

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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...