In the past year and a half, two murder cases have shaken the city of Cali: the slaying of its lead organized crime prosecutor and the massacre of five youths in a sugarcane field. Now, the prosecutor leading both has been arrested on charges that he took part in a bribery scheme.
Prosecutor Jorge Iván Ríos García was charged in March with accepting a bribe of 100 million pesos (around $28,000) from a defense lawyer to prevent the arrest of a former police officer-turned kidnapper, wanted in relation to a murder case, according to an Attorney General's Office news release.
Attorney General Francisco Barbosa Delgado has said that that Ríos was part of a network of corrupt officials within the prosecutor’s office in Cali, capital of the Valle del Cauca department and Colombia's third-largest city. Accusations from the Ríos case – which include that he and others in the Cali section had links to a cartel figure – have left the prosecutorial agency in crisis.
The defense attorney representing Ríos, Luis Fernando Anchico Zamora, told InSight Crime that the allegations against his client "are unfounded" and that he has "declared himself innocent of all charges and will demonstrate that in court."
Meanwhile, the criminal allegations against Ríos have led to calls from local officials and attorneys for a thorough review of the two major investigations he oversaw: the murder of Cali's chief organized crime prosecutor, Alcibíades Libreros Varela, and the Llano Verde massacre, in which the five youths were killed.
The Cases in Question
On December 29, 2019, Libreros Varela, then Cali’s top organized crime prosecutor, was shot in the head in broad daylight while sitting in his car at a traffic light. Security camera footage showed a man running up to the passenger side window, shooting the prosecutor and fleeing the scene on the back of a motorcycle.
Multiple sources close to the investigation confirmed that Ríos volunteered to lead the investigation into his colleague’s death, which was declared a robbery and quickly closed in early 2020.
SEE ALSO: After Prosecutor’s Murder, Will Colombia Protect Its Anti-Crime Crusaders?
Ríos asserted that there was no evidence Libreros’ death was a murder-for-hire plot or had anything to do with his work as an organized crime prosecutor. But some of Libreros' former colleagues and family say otherwise.
An active prosecutor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to security concerns, told InSight Crime that Ríos sought to close the Libreros investigation prematurely and that targeted killings are frequently staged to appear as robberies. Libreros’ sister, who has long insisted that her brother's killing was not a robbery, said that Ríos' arrest adds to the family's suspicions and that the case should be reopened.
“Should it be true that prosecutor Ríos was involved in this act of corruption, it would be a shame that the investigation into my brother’s murder (…) was in his hands,” said Carmenza Libreros, the victim’s sister, in a video statement following news of the charges against Ríos.
“It would plant more doubts about why the investigation did not advance and has not advanced,” she said.
Rios' defense attorney said that his client's record inside the Attorney General's Office has been "impeccable," and that he has been the recipient of "significant recognition by the judicial apparatus."
Ríos also oversaw the case of the Llano Verde Massacre, in which five Afro-Colombian teenagers were shot dead in a Cali sugarcane field in August 2020. By the end of that month, two men had been arrested in connection to the case and a third was arrested in January 2021.
Prosecutors have stated that the three men guarding the property killed the boys when they entered without permission to eat sugarcane. However, a Cali city councilman, along with independent journalists and news outlets, have pointed to inconsistencies and holes in that investigation as well.
The Ríos case has brought scrutiny upon Cali's entire prosecutorial apparatus, as several of his colleagues have since come under fire.
Ríos’ case stems from a bribe he allegedly accepted from defense attorney Héctor Alirio Rojas Cruz in December 2019 to interfere in the arrest of former police officer and confessed kidnapper Juan David Rengifo Mendoza.
Despite the bribe, Rengifo was arrested, escaped custody and was recaptured in January 2020. It was during Rengifo’s interrogation that the finger-pointing began.
In February 2021, Colombian news station Caracol reported that Ríos was among several prosecutors in Cali that Rengifo named as having ties to Jair Sánchez Hernández, alias “Mueble Fino,” a former hitman for the Norte del Valle Cartel who was deported to Colombia from the US in 2019.
Defense attorney Anchico said that "there is no support" for the accusations against Rios and that "there is no connection" between Ríos and alias "Mueble Fino."
"My client's arrest is due to a precarious and hasty investigation," he told InSight Crime.
Rengifo reportedly named two other prominent Cali prosecutors as well: Ana Victoria Nieto Salazar and Iván Aguirre. Rengifo accused Nieto and Aguirre of pressuring him to incriminate another prosecutor in exchange for preferential treatment.
Nieto has denied all accusations. In a detailed letter to prosecutors on the case, to which InSight Crime had access, she called Rengifo a “false witness” who was part of a scheme to retaliate against her due to her involvement in his initial arrest in 2016.
In the same letter and a conversation with InSight Crime, Nieto pointed to Rengifo’s conflicting testimony, her long career as a prosecutor and her role in Rengifo’s initial arrest, as proof that the accusations have no merit.
While Nieto told InSight Crime that there is no evidence of a syndicate of corrupt prosecutors in Cali working for “Mueble Fino," she has also levied misconduct allegations against fellow prosecutors and police.
Nieto is being transferred to Arauca. Her colleague, Aguirre, who also maintains his innocence, has been reassigned to Guaviare while investigations are underway.
'Not corruptible just once'
Rengifo’s defense lawyer, Omar J.C. Suárez Acevedo, told InSight Crime that the prosecutorial apparatus in Cali is tainted and that his client’s testimony implicates over 80 individuals.
He claims that both he and his client have received death threats.
Former Cali prosecutor Elmer Montaña, now a defense lawyer for the family of one of the Llano Verde victims, told InSight Crime that he would not be surprised by further revelations of prosecutors accepting bribes in exchange for controlling the scope of investigations.
“You see prosecutors getting rich overnight in ways that do not correspond to their salaries,” he said.
In light of Ríos’ arrest, Montaña said, the Attorney General’s Office should review all cases Ríos handled in recent years, adding that officials like him are “not corruptible just once.”