HomeInvestigations'The Invisibles' of the Drug World

'The Invisibles' of the Drug World


InSight Crime has long believed that behind every famous drug trafficker, there have been many “invisibles.” Rather than dressing in alligator boots, sporting gold chains and gold-plated pistols, these drug traffickers have shunned ostentation and the limelight. They act like legitimate businessmen. Because the drug trade needs protectors, with high profits and untrustworthy participants, every invisible needs a “visible” to ensure that agreements are respected and debts are paid.

Pablo Escobar was the ultimate visible trafficker, becoming a member of Colombia's congress, opening his vast estate Hacienda Nápoles to the public and populating it with exotic wildlife. Yet when Escobar fell, dozens of invisibles remained and many, like Memo Fantasma, survive to this day.

*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 the entire investigation here.

Escobar’s successor, Diego Murillo, alias "Don Berna," learned from Escobar’s mistakes, living in the shadows in Medellín, his alias known to all but his face and real name known to few. Still, he too stepped into the limelight in 2003 when he entered the paramilitary peace process with the government and sought, unsuccessfully, to evade imprisonment and extradition. But hidden behind him and his criminal structure, the Oficina de Envigado, were dozens more invisibles, doing business and making money under his protection. Memo Fantasma was one of them.

Then there were the Castaño brothers, once members of the Medellín Cartel, who founded the right-wing paramilitary force of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) in 1997. Their army provided hundreds of invisibles with protection as well as the infrastructure necessary to do business. Memo Fantasma was one of them.

SEE ALSO: The 'Invisibles': Colombia's New Generation of Drug Traffickers

At any one time, InSight Crime has dozens of open files on suspected invisibles. A file is opened when an individual, or an alias, repeatedly appears on our radar, linked with serious transnational organized crime, usually cocaine. Many of these files remain dormant for years, or indeed forever, only being activated when new information becomes available. For many years, two aliases remained on our files, for which we were unable to find enough information to initiate an investigation. These were "Sebastián Colmenares" and "Memo Fantasma."

Sebastián Colmenares

The Sebastián Colmenares file was opened in 2004. Colmenares was the alias of a commander of the paramilitary AUC. From its formation in 1997 until its demobilization in 2006, the AUC was the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world. The group demobilized some 30,000 fighters and in its heyday controlled up to 30 percent of Colombia, including some of the country’s most strategic drug trafficking real estate. It exported hundreds of tons of cocaine a year.

Colmenares became visible only briefly in 2004 when he signed a crucial AUC document, "Unity for Peace," in Santa Fe de Ralito, in Colombia's northwestern department of Córdoba, where different elements of the paramilitary army announced their intention to work together and negotiate a peace agreement with the government.

The signatories to this, the top paramilitary command, read like the Who’s Who of Colombian drug trafficking. Membership at this level meant you were part of the world’s criminal elite.

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  • Founders of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC).
  • Real name Diego Murillo, successor of Pablo Escobar and head of the Oficina de Envigado, a criminal group in Medellín.
  • Real name Carlos Mario Jiménez, head of the most powerful AUC faction, the Central Bolívar Bloc (Bloque Central Bolívar - BCB).
  • Real name Rodrigo Pérez, military chief of the BCB and Macaco’s right-hand man.
  • Real name Guillermo Pérez, brother of Julián Bolívar, ran BCB drug trafficking operations in Colombia’s department of Nariño on the Pacific Coast.
  • Real name Carlos Mario Aguilar Echeverri, one of Oficina de Envigado’s top capos, who answered to Don Berna, and was known in Medellín as “Rogelio.”
  • Never identified. To this day, the Colombian state does not know who he is.

We pored over the names at the time and were able to identify almost every person behind the aliases, except Sebastián Colmenares. As the paramilitaries demobilized, Colmenares did not appear, let alone surrender. He was never heard of again. Our thinking was always that this was a top-level paramilitary drug trafficker who decided not to turn himself in, but remained outside the peace process, slinking back into the criminal shadows, until nobody was sure that he had really existed.

Memo Fantasma

The alias Memo Fantasma has been kicking around the Medellín underworld since the days of Pablo Escobar. He was linked to the Medellín cartel, then its successor organization, the Oficina de Envigado, headed by Don Berna. Many had heard of the alias but nobody appeared to have met him, knew what he looked like, or had an idea of his real name. He was presented by the Colombian police as a low-level player, not worthy of serious law enforcement attention. Yet the few mentions that came from our underworld sources suggested this was a sophisticated trafficker playing at the very highest levels. Despite the assertions of the police, we kept our Memo Fantasma file, but for years it remained dormant, the odd mention never enough to justify any serious attention.

That all changed on July 18, 2015, when an article was published by Ana María Cristancho in one of Colombia’s top newspapers, El Espectador, entitled “The Narco Ghost” (El narco fantasma).

The article not only named both Sebastián Colmenares and Memo Fantasma, but alleged that they were one and the same. It stated that Colmenares was the partner of paramilitary warlord Carlos Mario Jiménez, alias “Macaco,” and that he had managed to wipe all records of himself and his links to the most powerful of the AUC’s fighting divisions, the Central Bolívar Bloc (Bloque Central Bolívar - BCB). He did this “to continue the illegal business of the bloc he commanded ... and to look after the money and properties of the BCB.”

A follow-up article, published two days later, gave even more details.

The articles stated that Memo Fantasma began his criminal career in the Medellín Cartel, working for the Galeano criminal clan, based in New York City, receiving cocaine shipments. When Pablo Escobar killed the head of the Galeano clan in 1992, claiming he was not being paid his dues, Memo Fantasma had just received a big shipment. Now he had no boss to answer to and could keep the money from the sale for himself. This was the seed money that allowed him to start moving his own drug shipments and enter the big leagues of drug traffickers.

The article stated that he returned to Colombia in 1996 and set himself up in the municipality of Caucasia (not far from Santa Fe de Ralito where the aforementioned AUC document was signed). This was at the same time that the paramilitaries were expanding from their home base in the Urabá region of northern Colombia, ready to launch themselves as a nationwide movement in 1997. Paramilitary fighters arrived in Caucasia and drug traffickers flocked to join them, among then Macaco and Memo Fantasma, who were tasked by Vicente Castaño, one of the paramilitary founders, to create a paramilitary unit and “conquer” the south of Bolívar department, for the right-wing army. They paid up to five million dollars to the Castaños to become part of the AUC.

SEE ALSOA Former Warlord is Back in Colombia, Will His Drug Trafficking Empire Follow?

Revealing Testimony

The story of Memo’s time in the AUC is based on the testimony of paramilitaries who testified as part of the special legislation that formed the heart of the peace agreement with the government: the Justice and Peace Law. Those that told the truth to the Justice and Peace Tribunals, created to oversee the legal side of the paramilitary demobilization, would receive a maximum of eight years in prison, no matter how horrific their crimes, and be protected against extradition.

There were two key testimonies to the Justice and Peace courts quoted in the articles: that of José Germán Sena Pico, alias "Nico," and Juan Carlos Sierra, alias "El Tuso." Nico was a member of the BCB, while El Tuso was a senior drug trafficker who moved large consignments of cocaine under paramilitary protection.

Nico detailed much of the drug trafficking operation, stating that one drug laboratory produced 65 tons of cocaine between 1997 and 1999, of which 50 tons, which had a scorpion marking on the packaging, belonged to Memo Fantasma and Macaco. It left Colombia via the Caribbean coast in boats and speedboats. Between 2000 and 2001, 78 tons of cocaine were processed in a similar laboratory, of which 50 tons belonged to Memo and Macaco, this time leaving via the Pacific coast.

El Tuso, the drug trafficker who worked with the AUC and was extradited in 2008 with much of the paramilitary high command, stated that Memo Fantasma was a major drug trafficker that worked with several paramilitary leaders, not just Macaco, because he had a top-level connect with Mexican drug traffickers.

Best of all, the articles gave a real name for Memo Fantasma: Guillermo Camacho.

InSight Crime wrote its own article laying out the work that El Espectador and Pacifista had done and started looking for Camacho.

We found a recording of Germán Sena Pico being questioned by a Peace and Justice prosecutor in 2015.

Prosecutor: Who is Memo Fantasma?

Germán Sena Pico, alias “Nico”: Memo Fantasma was the second person in Bloque Central Bolívar after Macaco.

Prosecutor: And who is he? Where is he? Where is he from?

Nico: Memo Fantasma is from Envigado, Antioquia.

Prosecutor: What is his real name?

Nico: The name, because I was with him, I acted as a courier for him, and was physically with him, was Guillermo Camacho.

Prosecutor: That name does not exist, it is not registered. We have looked, looked again, in all the registries. I have sent orders to the judicial police, I have done a legal inspection. That name does not exist.

Nico: I saw that name. Once we went to his farm in Buenavista (in Cordoba department, near Santa Fe de Ralito), we came via the airport in Caucasia, because he had a plane.

Prosecutor: What was he called?  He was not called Guillermo Camacho.

Nico: Well, he was always known as Sebastián Colmenares or Memo Fantasma.

We had no more luck than the prosecutor. We could find no Guillermo Camacho either. The Ghost had shimmered briefly into view, but once again faded away.

*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 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.

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