The seizure of a vast fortune from a Colombian drug pilot newly returned from prison in the United States shows how lesser-but-still-key actors in the drug trade have earned massive profits while mostly staying out of the spotlight.
Juan Carlos Ramírez Taborda, alias as “Manicomio,” returned to Colombia on April 29 after completing a nine-year prison sentence for drug trafficking. A month after his return, authorities announced they had seized about $20 million worth of his assets, including 43 properties and 6,287 head of livestock.
The properties -- located across Colombia in the departments of Antioquia, Casanare, Meta, Santander and Cundinamarca -- were in the names of Manicomio’s relatives and had been subject to seizure requests by prosecutors since 2015.
Manicomio acquired this fortune as a pilot, flying drug cargo from Colombia to northern destinations that included the United States. He offered his services to Colombia's top drug traffickers, including Daniel “El Loco” Barrera and Pedro Oliverio Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo.” Manicomio grew so successful that at one point, he had at least 40 pilots working for him.
Since his return, Manicomio has not been arrested, and authorities have not issued a warrant for his capture or charges against him, suggesting the discovery of the assets happened after he was jailed in the United States.
InSight Crime Analysis
Manicomio's vast wealth shows that one does not have to be a capo to benefit from drug trafficking money, especially if one knows how to invest and hide it well. Manicomio was not involved in any violent activities and developed front businesses that appeared to justify much of his earnings.
The role of pilots in drug trafficking has increasingly grabbed headlines, with a rise in narco-flights and even a major film devoted to Barry Seal, an American drug pilot who worked for Pablo Escobar.
Accountants have also benefited from drug trafficking cash, but often manage to stay in the shadows. In Colombia, a man known only as alias “Contador” (The Accountant), has risen to prominence while not having been identified by Colombian authorities. He is known to have had links to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), particularly the Daniel Aldana Mobile Column and the 29th Front. Former Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez has identified Contador as “the great financier of drug trafficking.” He has also been named as one of the main financial backers of the Oliver Sinisterra Front of the ex-FARC Mafia and the United Guerrillas of the Pacific (Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico).
Contador is known to own multiple properties in Tumaco in the name of third parties. He also controls his business through his own army, known as “Los Contadores,” and has doled out cash to encourage people to join him.
White-collar criminals are an integral part of drug trafficking networks. In Ecuador, Samir Maestre Mena is alleged to have become an accountant to traffickers. An official source told InSight Crime that Maestre Mena and his father live in Los Ceibos, a wealthy neighborhood of Guayaquil where they are licensed accountants. Another source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Maestre Mena conducts his criminal activities through third parties.
Instead of being paid in cash for his part in preparing overseas drug shipments, Maestre Mena allegedly asks for payments in merchandise, such as clothes or other legal goods. These are then imported and sold through a network of legal businesses to launder the drug money.
Pilots and accountants are clearly able to acquire vast drug wealth while being able to stay off authorities’ radars, at least for some time. A new generation of top drug traffickers in Latin America appears to have learned something from them. Unlike flamboyant capos -- such as Pablo Escobar or Joaquin Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” -- the latest generation has learned the value of conducting their business unseen. In Colombia, top drug traffickers have lately earned themselves the moniker of “The Invisibles" for their low profile.