In October 2019, InSight Crime conducted a telephone interview with Álvaro Rincón, the husband of Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez. The topic was Guillermo León Acevedo Giraldo, alias “Memo Fantasma” or “Sebastián Colmenares,” the elusive drug trafficker, turned-paramilitary commander, turned-money launderer.
By then, InSight Crime had pieced together how Memo had wormed his way out of the limelight of the paramilitary demobilization process in the mid-2000s with the government happening in the north of the country and into the real estate business in Bogotá, inching ever closer to the country’s business and political elite.
This article is a follow up to InSight Crime's six-part series on how Guillermo León Acevedo Giraldo, alias 'Memo Fantasma,' moved tons of cocaine and worked with paramilitaries for decades, while he remained free of arrest warrants. Read the series here. See the Vice President's response here.
In February 2006 -- near the time his paramilitary faction was handing in its weapons -- Memo’s mother, Margoth de Jesús Giraldo Ramírez, and his grandmother, María Enriqueta Ramírez, had granted him power of attorney. Memo also had a connection with a company known as Inversiones El Cipres SA, which had formed in 2001 and described itself as a company that did “investments, commercialization, distribution, promotion, financing or sales of goods and services.”
This was standard operating procedure for Memo, who used third parties in numerous cities to hide his assets and movement of illicit gains.
In March 2006, Memo’s mother and grandmother had purchased five properties along Carrera 14 and 85th Street. The area is known as the “zona rosa," roughly translated as the "pink zone," for its high commercial and nightlife activity. Inversiones El Cipres SA (which was also referred to in the documents as Cipre SA) purchased two other properties on the same strip.
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That was when Rincón entered the story. He told InSight Crime that he was introduced to a man he called “Acevedo” in 2006 who was, of course, Memo Fantasma. Rincón did not give the exact date of the meeting but said the man claimed to be a “cattle rancher.”
“He was not a person that would sound any alarms in the way he acted, nothing in the way that he did things,” Rincón told InSight Crime about Memo. “He didn’t raise any suspicions.”
Rincón said this sort of meeting happened all the time with his company, Hitos Urbanos Limitada. He said they did not look for properties to purchase and develop. The property owners went to them.
When it formed in 2003, Hitos’ shareholders were him, Marta Lucía Ramírez and their daughter. About a year after he met Memo, Rincón added four others to the company registry as shareholders. Ramírez, for her part, had gone from defense minister to senator during that time period, but Rincón insisted in the interview that his wife knew nothing of the business deal that was about to happen.
“My wife has never helped me in any business deal, never in her life,” he told InSight Crime. “Each one of us works independently and that is what makes our marriage work.”
On August 24, 2006, Memo’s mother, grandmother and Inversiones El Cipres SA combined their seven different properties into a single lot. Later that same day, they, along with Memo, Hitos Urbanos Limitada and Carlos Alberto Gutiérrez Robayo created a trust. (Gutiérrez Robayo was the one who introduced Memo to Rincón. He was a cattle rancher and cattle breeder, among other pursuits.) They called it the Fiducia Inmobiliaria Integral.
This formed the basis of the transaction and was managed by a company called La Previsora SA, a financial services company. Rincón told InSight Crime that La Previsora had the responsibility to do the due diligence of the funds going into the trust. He and his wife would later tell El Espectador in a letter that Hitos Urbanos Limitada had sent “all of the required support documents” to facilitate this due diligence.
Indeed, the document from August 2006 that created the trust states that La Previsora went through the steps to check the buyers and sellers, including soliciting background checks from the banking association's Central Financial Information system (Central de Información Financiera - CIFIN) and the government-run Money Laundering Prevention System (Sistema de Prevención de Lavado de Activos - SIPLA), which has since changed its name.
Rincón added that his lawyers also looked at the deal.
“We did the investigation of the properties with our lawyers,” he said to InSight Crime. “But the trust does the investigation on its own to tell us that the properties are legal. And that is how we found them, right. And that is why we did the deal."
He added that he did his own, extra layer of due diligence through a contact his wife had in the police: then-Police General Óscar Naranjo, who was heading up the investigative division of the police at the time and would go on to become the police chief and later vice president of the country. The two had overlapped in public service when Ramírez was defense minister, and Naranjo was a high official in the police. (In Colombia, the police are under the direction of the defense ministry.)
“General Naranjo had a lot of gratitude to my wife because of her time when she was defense minister,” Rincón explained to InSight Crime. “And one day, I ran into him, and he says to me ‘Señor Rincón, I can, if you want to do business with someone you don’t know directly -- or if someone was a childhood friend or a [classmate] from university, etc., or because the person is known here in Bogotá -- I can, I can do a screening, which is what we do in the police.’”
Screening meant a background check. Rincón agreed and, in less than a week, he said Naranjo’s assistant called him and told him the general says “the man has no problems and you can do business with the man.”
Rincón said Memo’s mother was there for the signing, describing her as, “a woman from a good family, like any family.”
Rincón insisted that Memo did not put any money into the construction of the building that went up shortly thereafter, except as it related to the development of his own office, which he’d negotiated as part of the deal.
“I think he put something like 200 million pesos [near $100,000 at the time of the deal] because he wanted a personal office,” Rincón explained. “But he did not invest as a partner but more like someone who was buying an office. And he gets that office because, according to the contract, he gets a small office. But he is not our partner. We don’t have partners. We don’t need partners. When you look at the contracts with the trusts, we don’t need partners.”
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However, by May 2008, Memo had not one office but four and as many as 39 parking spaces from the deal. And in 2010, Memo installed his company, Inversiones ACEM SA, in an office at this building.
Rincón said he saw him around but did not do any more business deals with him.
“He had an office there in that project, he had his offices,” Rincón told InSight Crime. “And well, I saw him, you know, on the elevator and things like that, but we never did anything else with him. If he used me as a reference, it’s because he wanted to use me as a commercial reference but [it was] not authorized because neither I nor my partners had ever done anything more with him.”
In 2017, Rincón said he received information that “Guillermo Acevedo” was being investigated.
“They told me that there was this inconvenience,” he told InSight Crime of that notice. “They surprised me when they said this guy was a criminal because he didn’t seem like a criminal, really.”
Rincón never said who the people were who told him. But he later sent a letter to the Attorney General’s Office, El Espectador reported, asking for more information about the person. El Espectador says this was part of the due diligence then-candidate for Vice President Ramírez was doing at the time for her candidacy. The Attorney General’s Office, the newspaper says, responded by saying it had no investigation into “Guillermo Acevedo” for drug trafficking.
“We simply know that we did things correctly,” Rincón told InSight Crime.
Main Photo: AP