Guillermo León Acevedo Giraldo, alias “Memo Fantasma,” a former paramilitary leader and longtime drug trafficker who escaped prosecution for decades by living behind a façade of legitimate business dealings, was captured June 25 by Colombian authorities.
Colombia’s National Police told InSight Crime it had captured the alleged trafficker and three others, two of whom are related to Acevedo, in operations in the country’s capital, Bogotá, and the northwestern departments of Antioquia and Córdoba. The police also said Acevedo, who was apprehended in Bogotá, will face charges of money laundering, criminal conspiracy and illicit enrichment.
Acevedo’s lawyer, David Espinosa Acuña, did not respond to repeated attempts to reach him for comment.
During a preliminary court hearing* June 28, prosecutors formally charged Acevedo with money laundering, conspiracy and illicit enrichment. Acevedo pleaded not guilty.
Acevedo's mother and grandmother were also charged during the same hearing for money laundering and illicit enrichment. Both pleaded not guilty to those charges as well.
Acevedo’s shadow life first came to light following an article in El Espectador in 2015 and later following a more extensive, two-year, six-part investigation published by InSight Crime in March 2020. The InSight Crime investigation chronicled how he had slipped under the radar for years, how he had built a business empire and how InSight Crime had tracked him down living in Madrid, Spain.
Although Acevedo continued to duck allegations following the publication of the InSight Crime report, the Attorney General Office’s soon confirmed his identity. More information followed, as other investigators sifted through the reams of testimony given by former paramilitary leaders following their demobilization in the early 2000s, and the Attorney General’s Office reopened an investigation into Acevedo, which led to the seizure of numerous properties connected to him. While details varied, especially given his use of various aliases such as “Sebastián Colmenares,” the central story remained consistent: Acevedo had escaped justice.
Just how he had done this, though, remains a mystery. His alias, Memo Fantasma (Will the Ghost), was well known in the underworld because he had worked with various drug trafficking organizations in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In the late 1990s, he became part of the Central Bolívar Bloque (Bloque Central Bolívar – BCB), one of several parts of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), then the world’s largest paramilitary army and cocaine trafficking group.
And in 2004, using the alias Sebastián Colmenares, Acevedo and seven other leaders of the AUC signed a letter of intent, promising to work towards a peace deal with the government.
Until now, Acevedo was the only one of those leaders who had not been jailed or killed.
Instead, he was able to build an aviation, cattle ranching and real estate business with holdings in Europe and South America, including in Bogotá where he sold lots to the family real estate business of Marta Lucía Ramírez, Colombia’s current vice president and foreign chancellor. Her husband converted the lots into a swanky office building.
At the time of the sale in 2006, Ramírez had recently gone from defense minister to senator. Her husband, Alvaro Rincón, was running the real estate business, but Ramírez was a shareholder in the firm. For his part, Acevedo was escaping the AUC demobilization process. Still, when questioned, both Rincón and Ramírez denied knowing that Acevedo had paramilitary and drug trafficking ties and said another firm had the obligation to do due diligence on the client, not them.
Both Ramírez and Acevedo reacted strongly to the InSight Crime report. Ramírez filed a criminal defamation suit against InSight Crime co-director and author of the Memo Fantasma stories, Jeremy McDermott, but later dropped the suit.
Acevedo also filed a criminal defamation suit against McDermott. It is not clear if this case against McDermott will proceed, if Acevedo is formally charged with the crimes that he says McDermott has falsely levied against him.
InSight Crime Analysis
Acevedo bridged two eras of drug trafficking in Colombia: the era of the visibles and that of the invisibles. Pablo Escobar epitomized the visibles – becoming not just an ostentatious drug trafficker and brutal murderer but an alternate congressman and philanthropist.
Acevedo was tied to Escobar’s Medellín Cartel going back to the early 1990s. He was also tied to the AUC, which, with their close to 30,000 paramilitary soldiers, was perhaps the ultimate culmination of the era of the visibles.
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But until media unearthed him, Acevedo was also the quintessential invisible, part of a new generation of traffickers who rely less on brute force, crude populism and paramilitary armies, and more on anonymity, backroom political deals and savvy business investments.
Acevedo’s capture, while laudatory, is an embarrassing reminder of the many failures regarding the AUC demobilization process, as well as the challenges going forward of finding the many other invisibles who remain at large.
This article was updated June 28 to include details from Acevedo's preliminary court hearing.*