In the investigation, "The Invisible Drug Lord: Hunting ‘The Ghost,’" InSight Crime reported that Colombia’s Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez and her husband, Álvaro Rincón, were shareholders of Hitos Urbanos Limitada, a construction company that developed Torre 85, an office building in Bogotá. Also invested in this development project was Guillermo Acevedo, alias “Memo Fantasma,” an alleged former drug lord and paramilitary commander who was the subject of the investigation published on March 29.
InSight Crime spoke with Rincón, who admitted working with Acevedo but denied any knowledge of his criminal past. Vice President Ramírez also stated she was not familiar with Acevedo, but that she had asked former Colombian vice president and police chief, General Óscar Naranjo, to carry out a background check on him. InSight Crime has found no evidence of any direct links between Ramírez and Memo Fantasma.
On April 8, Colombia’s W Radio published interviews with InSight Crime Co-director Jeremy McDermott and Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez.
Here is a complete transcription of Ramírez’s interview:
W Radio (WR): Marta Lucía Ramírez, welcome to W, a good day to you.
Marta Lucía Ramírez (MR): Hello, thank you for your call.
WR: Madam Vice President, this story is not new for you. But it would be good to hear from you clearly once again. What the journalists from InSight Crime obtained, what we received from General Óscar Naranjo yesterday as well as from an agency that formerly investigated the matter ... the investigations that were done into this partner who turned out to be a highly dangerous drug dealer with no case against him from Colombian authorities, without an indictment in the United States and who today is free in Madrid.
Naturally, for you, this must be a very difficult situation as he became a partner in a company in which you and your family are involved in. What can you tell us? How have you dealt with this topic since suspicions arose about the origins of Mr. Acevedo’s money?
MLR: Firstly, I want to thank you very much for this call, thank you for giving me the opportunity to explain this to the Colombian people. Unfortunately, it has almost become a habit that when accusations are made against a public official or somebody involved in politics, they are sadly not given the chance to explain what the accusations are about. That is why I first wanted to thank you.
Secondly, I must tell you that if all this information is correct, as it apparently is, what I most desire is for this investigation to advance. So that this man, any activities he may have carried out, and any relationship he may have had with drug trafficking, with paramilitaries, with whatever, can truly be known by the justice system, so that he may answer to Colombian justice.
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It is very unfortunate that our country still has so many gaps in its justice system, that cases like Odebrecht, or of the former prosecutor, are discovered by foreign judicial systems and not by our national one. This is something truly regrettable that we must correct. It must be a priority in our country to provide better tools to the Attorney General’s Office, to the judiciary and strengthen our entire judicial apparatus.
Thirdly, my entire life has been spent working with integrity and honesty. I am devoted to public service and that is why I am here. And it is not easy, it is not easy at all. You know very well that my work has been carried out with great difficulty. And I am here, among other things, because I want Colombians to have the right to a decent country, to a country where criminals respond to the law.
That is why I met Mr. Jeremy McDermott when I was defense minister. Jeremy is a journalist whom I met because he was always moving around the [criminal] underworld, investigating the paramilitaries, the guerrillas, drug trafficking. Of course, when I was defense minister, I was interested in knowing about the information he could provide us so that we could proceed against everyone, against guerrillas, drug traffickers and paramilitaries. I met him in 2003.
Later, in 2006, when I was no longer defense minister, and it is very important you are aware of that, my husband, who is a property developer, met this man. His construction company is always being sought after, being offered plots, being offered buildings, so they can buy them or join a project through a trust, as happened in this case.
In 2006, my husband, who knew General Naranjo due to my previous relationship with him at the Defense Ministry, always they in his office when there is someone they don't know they try to investigate.That is why he called General Naranjo, who was director of intelligence at the time, and asked him if he happened to know this man. General Naranjo told him he would check and after two or three days, they told him that “there is nothing against this man, he is unknown, there’s nothing.” That was the due diligence carried out by the construction firm that, like many others, is always receiving people that offer plots.
I don’t know about what Mr. Jeremy McDermott is saying that, in order to launder his money, [Acevedo] got into real estate financing. If that is the case, it must all be investigated. When I was made aware that Mr. Jeremy McDermott was carrying out an investigation into this case, I asked my husband if he knew this man. He did and he told me, “I think it’s a person from whom we bought a lot for a building on 85th Street with Carrera 14.”
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And the truth is, let me tell you: what I want most of all now is for my name to be cleared as it must be, because I have always acted with integrity. But I cannot tell you the name of the person who told me about Jeremy McDermott’s investigation. I cannot tell you because this person gave me this information through their contacts in the United States. I must have integrity and loyalty and I will not give you the name. But I will ask this person to give you and your journalists internal assurances that they warned me about the investigation in Madrid, and that Mr. Acevedo did not warn me.
They warned me from Washington that Jeremy was investigating a plot purchased by my husband’s office, which is why I called him [McDermott] in October. As soon as I found out, I called him the next day to ask, “I want to know what is happening. They are telling me there is an investigation linked to a plot that my husband’s office had where they built a building. I want you to know that, for anything you might need, my husband, his partners, his office are available to provide any explanations and all the information you might need.” That is what happened.
He called my husband. They gave him all the information, they sent him all the documents, they showed him how the business had taken place, they showed him that it happened through a trust. This man [Acevedo] is not my husband’s partner, he never was my husband’s partner. People, sometimes, can deliver a plot for a project to be developed. From the moment a project is liquidated, each person takes the part due to them based on the value of the plot. But this man is not my husband’s partner.
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The truth is that is all the information I have. My husband did the due diligence. They investigated when Jeremy McDermott called them last October, they checked again to see if there was any information they hadn’t received 10 years before. They asked a company to check, but this man has no open case against him, either in Colombia or in the United States.
I ask myself, how can one go about finding an entire file for someone who, as Mr. McDermott says so well, is apparently a ghost? This is totally unacceptable. Now, I want to tell you another thing, I don't know who said that I recommended his children [Acevedo’s] to a school. I do not remember recommending anyone's children, in Nueva Granada or in any school. I always criticize and reject the system of levers this country has. The truth is I have not made recommendations nor do I remember ever making any recommendations to any school in Bogotá. And all the rectors of all the schools will be able to confirm this.
I am a straightforward person. I want to tell the Colombian people that I am the person that they know me to be, a woman with character, a hard-working woman, an upright woman. A situation like this hurts me terribly, a situation like this, as one unfortunately does not have the tools needed to defend themselves
And do you know why? Because when a journalist writes a headline, they can say something is related to Marta Lucía Ramírez when it isn’t related to me. This is related to a transparent business method and a man who is not being investigated. And they cannot come at me in any way and try to tarnish my name in connection to a person that I have never met in my life. I never met him. I did not have a reason to meet him, because I do not have a construction firm that sees hundreds of lots and hundreds of landowners. As the wife of one of the partners, I do not have a relationship with the people who offer them business.
This is all the information that I have for you. Naturally, I feel that drug trafficking has already done enough damage to Colombia. Because there are families with children that became drug traffickers, there are families with children that are drug addicts, there are families that have been ruined by this evil business. And what I want more than anything is for all people involved in this business to respond before a court of law. This is all I have to say about this.
WR: Vice President, I obviously understand what this means to you, we sense that in your words. But regarding what is happening at this moment, we have to ask a few questions. When we spoke with Jeremy, he told us that he went to Spain and tried to contact this man [Acevedo]. At first the man did not want to speak with him and you later called him to ask him about the investigation.
So, what you're saying is that this was a coincidence? Or, how did you know about Jeremy’s investigation?
MLR: Thank you very much for your question, because I just explained this and I must not have been clear, so it gives me an opportunity to say it twice. I became aware of Jeremy’s investigation in the month of October, I was informed about the investigation by someone in Washington, a person that has asked me not to reveal their name, and for this reason I will not give you their name.
I am an honest, loyal person and I am not going to break confidentiality when it's asked of me. The person that provided me with the information is in Washington, I have asked them to speak internally with [W Radio journalists], with those he wants and to give them certainty. Obviously, the person that advised me was not Mr. Acevedo. And neither is it a coincidence. A little birdie did not bring me the information. A person in Washington provided me with the information. For this reason, I immediately called Jeremy to ask about the investigation and to tell him that my husband, their partners and their office, documents, accounting, everything, was totally available for the investigation.
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And I think that it's important when there is someone who has been doing an investigation for so long and has so much information, that he should file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office. What does not make sense at this point is to ask questions about this man and then, unfortunately, there is no investigation.
I believe that here in Colombia, what we need is that when people have information about drug trafficking, paramilitaries, guerrillas, criminals, corrupt officials, which I have fought my whole life against, that they act as good citizens and present these accusations to the authorities. So we can stop this impunity and this tolerance that, unfortunately, has often left many areas of the country in charge of crime.
WR: Marta Lucía, I can attest to what you have just said. I know who the person was that gave you this information and I can attest to the accuracy of what you have just said. I would add that in the midst of such uncomfortable circumstances, if there is something that has set you apart, it's that you have always expressed the need to seek transparent behavior, precisely because of your aspirations to hold public office. This is something even your political rivals, who hold very different points of view, recognize. They are in agreement regarding your honor and honesty and have always recognized you to be unimpeachable.
MLR: Thank you very much for those words. The person who gave me the information about the research Jeremy was doing surely already had the opportunity to speak with you. And as you realized, you are a person who has very important ties in Washington, and for that reason, you asked me not to violate confidentiality because it would also hurt this person.
I have absolute clarity that all the information that is coming to light will be brought to the authorities and investigated further. Mr. Jeremy says he has all of the documentation, so we are going to go from yellow journalism to an investigation with judicial weight, which is really what we Colombians would like to see.
If I was going to tell him [McDermott] one thing, frankly, I have questions about the way in which he has handled this. If you've done so much research, how many people has this gentleman [Acevedo] done business with? If he dedicated himself to laundering money in the real estate sector, I imagine he did business with many other people. It’s important to mention all of those people, so as not to give the impression that this is being directed at just one person in order to harm that person, namely me.
All of the information he [McDermott] has about the business he [Acevedo] did with 1, 10, 50, or 100 people should be provided. This means people will know that there was no partnership or close relationship between Marta Lucía Ramírez or her husband and the man who was evidently laundering money through real estate. Unfortunately, this person was so protected, so hidden, so ghostly, that he was totally impossible to identify, even with greater due diligence than that which my husband's office carried out.
During my time in the vice presidency, frankly, it’s impressed me and tremendously hurt me to see how they have tried to drag my name through the mud. For one, as you say, it’s because I have many flaws. I am intense, I talk too much, I have thousands of flaws. But nobody can accuse me of corruption or of patronage, or say that I am involved in the underworld. I never have been.
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It’s frustrated me many times to hear on the radio how some of your colleagues haven’t the slightest problem in saying that I am nepotistic and that I have done thousands of things that I’ve never done.
That is why I say to the Colombians who are hearing me now, this will be the only time I speak of this. I am the person they know. There is no deception. I am a person who can look anyone in the eye and say that what I have achieved in my life, I have achieved with hard work, integrity, truth, and with clarity that when serving this country it is done by providing an example of integrity.
WR: Madam Vice President, do you believe that you and your husband were robbed by this man [Acevedo] who, by all accounts, presented himself as a businessman? Do you think there were ulterior motives for him to target your family circle?
MLR: Look, first I don't know if you are the person who did this article. I want to tell you, with all due respect, that an individual can always write headlines that attract attention but the headline that said I had a connection to this man [Acevedo] is totally wrong.
I insist, I don’t know him nor do I have a relationship with him. He approached a real estate firm. All the property developers who are hearing this program know what their business is like, they constantly receive plots of land, properties, people who offer exchanges or trades to them. This was a man who came to a firm through third parties, who offered one or several plots of land, I don’t know how many, and found that this was something they were interested in developing.
He hasn’t had any relationship with me at a family level. I have not met him, I have not greeted him, I have not been in his house, he has not been in mine, I have no personal relationship with him.
So I would ask that we make it clear that there isn’t any personal relationship between Mr. Acevedo and myself or my husband. A commercial relationship with a company where Álvaro Rincón is one of the partners is in no way a personal relationship.
WR: Madam Vice President, you have had respectful criticisms of the peace process and negotiations with the FARC. However, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz – JEP) had similar flaws, including people who tried to appear like paramilitaries when in reality they were drug traffickers.
But in this case, for years the authorities were unable to unmask this man and he ended up having legitimate dealings. Did the JEP fail to reveal such links with people who ultimately continued to launder dirty money and even participate in legal activities?
MLR: Unfortunately, the truth is that I believe Colombian society has failed. Colombian society has failed in fighting crime, drug trafficking, paramilitaries and the illegality that surrounds all this.
I think Colombia has unfortunately had a totally unacceptable tolerance for the gray areas. And unfortunately, congress hasn’t managed to pass reforms to the JEP, with either the depth or magnitude needed.
Unfortunately, we know of many cases in which criminals and the underworld have penetrated everything, including the authorities. This is a country that has problems at its root, a lack of values, a lack of ethics. Some institutions have unfortunately been permeated by criminal interests many times. This is why we’re in politics. This is why I’ve wanted to work in government. Because when somebody has the conviction and determination to get involved with this, you also face a lot of hostility, malice and disdain.
I believe there were failures in the JEP, there were failures with the FARC. If not, we would not have this embarrassing spectacle that those who are involved in drug trafficking, those who have just concluded a peace process with the government, have never truly apologized and have not made a complete break with drug trafficking.
Nobody ever turned over information about the routes, the cartels, the Mexican partners, the way in which the money is laundered, about properties in Colombia, in the Caribbean, and abroad. We are still missing a lot to be able to truly face this mafia but we must do it with honest politicians, honest judges and above all an honest society that understands that this is absolutely not the legacy we can leave to the young people of Colombia.
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This is the shameful stigma of a country where drug trafficking has damaged so many families. For families affected by drug addiction, for the young men, the women, the elderly used as drug mules. How many times have we seen this in airports? It is an infamous business, which has fed the paramilitaries and the guerrillas, the two machines which have ended the lives of many Colombians.
This is what has to end. To do that, one must have character, integrity and determination to see through all the fights that are needed.
Of course there were flaws in the JEP, of course there were flaws in the agreement with the FARC, of course there have been people who have not had the courage to see things through. And for this reason, we have to be united as a society to fight criminality.
WR: A person who managed to remain invisible to authorities, invisible to the justice and peace process, invisible to the United States, living today with no case, with no charge, with no indictment in Colombia or the United States, how can he not be invisible to a construction company?
But something which Jeremy said did grab my attention. This is the last question, vice president, I will not take up more of your time dedicated to helping people with the coronavirus. But something Jeremy said grabbed my attention: [your husband’s] company includes some very well-known names, some names that have business with many respectable Colombian businesspeople.
Do you or your husband remember who brought Acevedo to the company? Who introduced him and said, “here is a man with interesting plots that could serve for a development?” Who introduced him?
MLR: The truth is I don’t know, I can ask my husband. I believe it was another businessman who I think is called Carlos Gutiérrez, but I need to ask my husband. I am in my office right now, I can ask my husband right now so you can be sure of this.
It's true there are people from the criminal underworld who managed to blend in and find accomplices, within institutions not only in Colombia but also in the United States.
How many times have we seen DEA agents show weakness towards drug trafficking money, allowing themselves to become corrupted?
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That is why it seems to me that, with all these investigations and documents that Mr. McDermott must have, he should use them and take them to the Attorney General’s Office. They should be made known to judges in Colombia and abroad. This would make it not only a journalistic investigation but a legal process at the same time.
Right now, we cannot take pleasure in gossip, we must satisfy the country’s desire for justice and for integrity, shared by millions of Colombians. I am totally certain of this. One percent or less [of the population] are in the guerrillas, are in the paramilitaries. And unfortunately, we are the 99 percent who are carrying the loss of reputation due to the activities of others.
It is important that this is known and that any information from Mr. McDermott and his documents lead to justice, both nationally and internationally.
WR: Well, Jeremy gave precisely the same name you just mentioned. We will try to speak with this businessman and see what he remembers of how Memo Fantasma managed to be connected to so many places and so many people, as a facade for a criminal organization on the scale revealed by InSight Crime’s investigation.
MLR: Forgive me for interrupting, if he truly laundered money through plots of land and properties, it's important to know how many people he did business with. Because it's not possible that the only person he did business with was with this firm. Because when he did this, unfortunately it was very well hidden.
WR: No, no, no. There are many firms. Madam Vice President, I want to let you go and I want to collect the information that Alberto knows and that he has shared with you and that has come from the United States, because this man was in contact with the United States. There is a reason why today he [Acevedo] enjoys complete freedom and faces no indictment. Without an indictment, we will never find out whether or not he negotiated with a US agency.
But regardless of whether that information of how this man [Acevedo] knew or how you knew about this investigation, I do want to pick up on what you just said as well as your first answer. Hopefully, this case will be investigated, hopefully, the Justice and Peace file where he was mentioned will be reviewed, and [we'll see] if it disappeared or if they didn’t pay attention to him. Investigate what needs to be investigated.
But in the case of your public record, since I have known you, we may not always agree, we can have differences on many issues, but as far as I am concerned, I say publicly that I have no doubts about your moral quality and your honor. That is above reproach, Madam Vice President.
MLR: As I said at the beginning, thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to explain all this. I repeat, this has been very painful, as when one has political aspirations, people sadly feel empowered to wipe the floor with your name. And when one has made one’s name with hard work, with integrity, with effort, with sacrifice, nobody gave me anything. It has often been difficult for me how, through a microphone, they can use your name, ruin your reputation, laugh at you, question you, and not even bother to call you to ask if what they’re saying is true or if you have an explanation. That is what I most value about the opportunity you have given me.
WR: Thank you, Marta Lucía. Hopefully, this will all be cleared up, we will see the full truth about how this “invisible” operated, and the responsibility of those, if any, who knew about his illegal activities.