Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office has notified InSight Crime Co-director Jeremy McDermott of criminal proceedings brought against him by Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez linked to an investigation into the drug trafficker known as “Memo Fantasma.”
In the summons, Prosecutor Mario Hernan Barahona stated that the vice president had brought criminal charges* against McDermott for “affecting her right to moral integrity, good name, dignity and honor.”
The accusations stem from InSight Crime’s two-year investigation into Madrid-based businessman Guillermo León Acevedo Giraldo, also known as “Memo Fantasma,” a former drug trafficker and leader of the brutal paramilitary army known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia -- AUC).
While tracking Memo Fantasma’s assets and money-laundering activity, the investigation arrived at a company part-owned by Vice President Ramírez and run by her husband, Álvaro Rincón.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the charges Vice President Ramírez’s lawyers levied against McDermott in a July 28 statement.
“As a senior public official, Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez should expect to be covered extensively by the press, and should refrain from filing lawsuits against journalists,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick. “Colombia should have scrapped criminal defamation from its books long ago, in line with growing regional trends. Ramírez should drop her suit against Jeremy McDermott immediately, and the country should reform its laws.”
Colombia’s Foundation for Press Freedom (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa -- FLIP) told InSight Crime that the vice president’s reaction to the investigation was “atypical” and of “great concern,” adding it was characteristic of “authoritarian regimes.”
“The vice president had the opportunity to give her version [of events] in the article,” the foundation said, adding that “she has a permanent and very large microphone with which she can complement any issue or offer her point of view.”
In the InSight Crime investigation, the links between Memo Fantasma and the vice president center on the Torre 85 office building in downtown Bogotá, a high-profile construction project spearheaded by her husband. Memo Fantasma provided a portion of the land for the development and invested in the construction carried out by the company run by Rincón, Hitos Urbanos Limitada. The vice president was, and still is, a major shareholder in the company although she now has less shares than she previously did.
In one document, Hitos Urbanos is named alongside Memo Fantasma, or Guillermo Acevedo, regarding land used for the Torre 85 project.
Despite these links, the vice president told W Radio in an April 8 interview that “[Guillermo Acevedo] is not my husband’s partner, he never was my husband’s partner.” Rincón, on the other hand, admitted to working with Guillermo Acevedo but denied knowing anything about his criminal past. After the building’s construction, he claimed to have only met Guillermo Acevedo in the elevator.
The vice president is specifically mentioned by name in the final two chapters of the six-part series written by an InSight Crime team headed by McDermott.
In the fifth chapter, titled “Tracking the Ghost: Follow the Money,” a member of the social circle of Guillermo Acevedo’s in-laws, known as “Olga,” said that Acevedo and his wife Catalina “got their two daughters into the Nueva Granada school [in Bogotá] thanks to a recommendation from Marta Lucía Ramírez.”
InSight Crime has repeatedly petitioned the school for information on the admittance of the Acevedo girls but Nueva Granada has refused to oblige. All of the other information provided by Olga has proven to be true.
In the sixth and final chapter, titled “The Ghost Lives the High Life in Madrid,” Vice President Ramírez is mentioned in relation to a message that McDermott received from her upon landing in Colombia just hours after confronting Memo Fantasma in Spain.
“I know what story you are working on,” she said, adding that a “source in Washington” had told her.
McDermott went on to ask her if she had helped Guillermo Acevedo get his daughters into the Nueva Granada school.
She said she hadn’t, and clarified that he was “simply someone that my husband did business with.”
“I do not remember recommending anyone’s children, in Nueva Granada or in any school,” Vice President Ramírez said.
McDermott’s lawyer said in response to the criminal charges that the information in question is “truthful and socially relevant.” They added that McDermott has not “disseminated information aimed at damaging the moral integrity of Mrs. Ramírez [and] will not accept any conciliation formula that involves retraction of what has been published.”
Before the announcement of the criminal complaint, in April of this year, McDermott received a demand to rectify the mentions of the vice president. The firm of her lawyer, Abelardo de la Espriella, stated that linking her to Guillermo Acevedo had damaged “her good name.” Vice President Ramírez’s lawyers also raised concerns about an interview McDermott gave to the newspaper El Espectador that was published on April 4, 2020.
De la Espriella’s law firm was recently implicated in allegations of collusion with a corrupt Colombian police officer that reportedly filtered sensitive information that allowed the law firm to tip off a client about his imminent arrest, according to a Univision investigation. The client, Colombian businessman Álex Saab, who is wanted in the United States, managed to flee but was eventually arrested two years later.
Lawyers for McDermott responded to the April rectification request in a letter the same month. They explained that the information obtained as part of the investigation was not “denied or distorted by the contradictory statement” given by the vice president.
“Based on what we’ve reported, I see absolutely no grounds for rectification of any kind. We are open and sensitive to the vice president’s concerns and will listen to them,” McDermott said from his home in Medellín. “We welcome her complaints explaining why she feels she has been wronged by us criminally, and will take everything into full consideration.”
McDermott was surprised to receive the criminal complaint from the vice president, whom he has maintained direct contact with throughout this process and whom he has had a cordial relationship with for many years.
On June 22, the vice president called McDermott via WhatsApp and asked him to make a statement clarifying that she did not have any links to Guillermo Acevedo whatsoever. McDermott declined, explaining that this fell outside his responsibilities as a journalist, and that as the investigation stated, she had irrefutable links to him through her husband and her company, Hitos Urbanos.
However, neither McDermott nor InSight Crime have ever said that Vice President Ramírez was involved in any illegal activity. She was never the target of the investigation. Her name only came up after Guillermo Acevedo was identified as Memo Fantasma and Sebastián Colmenares, another alias used by the drug trafficker and one-time commander of the AUC, which was Colombia’s largest paramilitary group from the 1990s to mid-2000s.
In April, Guillermo Acevedo, the main focus of the investigation, also threatened McDermott with criminal proceedings, just as the vice president is now. The letter published by his lawyers on Twitter contained false accusations and claimed the InSight Crime investigation threatened Colombia's "institutional stability," in reference to the vice president.But the complaint was never registered with the Attorney General’s Office. Furthermore, it lost any credibility when, on May 26, Colombian Attorney General Francisco Barbosa confirmed InSight Crime’s findings in an interview with W Radio.
He said that his office was investigating Memo Fantasma’s assets and identity and concluded that this person “corresponds to Guillermo León Acevedo Giraldo.” These facts, he added, were included in a judicial police report.
In addition, Colombian authorities are actively pursuing Guillermo Acevedo for his apparent ties to paramilitarism. On July 21, eight properties valued at about nine billion pesos (more than $2 million) were seized from an estate of his in northern Córdoba department.
In the coming weeks, McDermott will be publishing the second installment of InSight Crime’s investigation into Guillermo Acevedo.
*The vice president later withdrew her complaint against McDermott.