A murky investigation into the assassination of a leading prosecutor in Cali puts at risk the country's ability to protect the lawyers and judges investigating organized crime -- who have long been paralyzed by threats and targeted killings.
Alcibiades Libreros Varela, Cali’s chief organized crime prosecutor, was shot dead in broad daylight on the afternoon of December 29, 2019 in the Limonar neighborhood of Cali. Local security camera footage, made public by Noticias Caracol, shows a man running up to Libreros’ vehicle while it waits at a stoplight, firing two shots through the passenger side window, and then fleeing the scene on the back of a motorcycle.
A day after the shooting, Security Minister Andrés Villamizar said that the initial line of investigation into Libreros' killing focused on the prosecutor's work to dismantle organized criminal structures in Valle del Cauca.
But after the January 7 arrest of five men, four of whom later confessed to participating in the shooting, the Attorney General's Office said the killing was a robbery gone wrong by a gang of jewelry thieves who had committed several similar robberies in the city.
In addition to cell phone interceptions, investigators used videos from security cameras in a bakery near his house to identify those responsible and piece together the events leading up to the prosecutor’s death. Police and prosecutors said the men were after what appeared to them to be a gold chain around the prosecutor's neck. The victim's family says it was actually just made of steel.
Libreros’ wife, Nina Gallardo, is not convinced it was a robbery. In an interview with InSight Crime, she shared her doubts about the investigation. According to Gallardo, the perpetrators were either specifically contracted for this attack and part of a gang based in a sector of Cali that is controlled by a larger mafia. Such criminal federations are common in Colombia's cities, such as Medellín.
According to an El Espectador report, two of the prosecutor’s former colleagues, who remained nameless but reportedly have years of experience tracking the leaders of irregular armed groups, also argue that Libreros’ death was not a robbery.
Gallardo confirmed that, while the initial case is closed, a new investigation is looking into whether there is an intellectual author behind Libreros’ death, but she told InSight Crime the Attorney General’s Office has not provided the family with any updates.
Libreros’ security detail was removed several years ago following budget cuts, his wife said. The Attorney General’s Office later repeatedly denied his requests for additional security. A 2017 letter from the Attorney General's Office shown to InSight Crime said that his situation did not “meet the required criteria" for him to be part of the Protection and Assistance Program. The letter went on to provide suggestions for how he might protect himself, including keeping car doors locked and the windows rolled up. It was the last time he asked for protection, his wife said.
“For 17 years he gave everything to the institution... he practically gave his life for the institution," Gallardo said, expressing her hope that justice is served in her husband's case.
Libreros served as the head of the national directorate specializing in taking down Colombia’s organized criminal structures during a period when the agency took on several high-profile cases, including the arrest of William Herrera López, alias W, the nephew of former Cali Cartel boss Pacho Herrera; the “oficinas de cobro,” collection offices consisting of networks of hitmen; and Los Rastrojos.
Additionally, Gallardo corroborated information initially reported by the newspaper El País that the prosecutor frequently collaborated with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
InSight Crime Analysis
The fact that one of Colombia’s top prosecutors could be gunned down in broad daylight raises real concerns about the safety of officials targeting organized crime, and what it means for the country's judicial system. It also raises questions about why security details are denied to officials who fear their lives are in danger, particularly considering the country’s history of using hitmen and intimidation tactics to paralyze prosecutors and judges.
Libreros was not the only judicial official targeted in the city in 2019. In February, a hitman shot Cali’s district judge, who survived the attempt on his life. In this instance, a man was arrested four months later, and the Attorney General’s Office determined that he had been hired to kill the judge and had contracted two more men to help carry out the attack. There has been no word on who ordered the killing.
The concern extends beyond Cali. Libreros’s murder, and the investigation that has followed, reflect a statement made by Cali’s security secretary, Andrés Villamizar, in September. “The city is to some degree a microcosm of the whole country. Practically all of the insecurity problems and phenomena Colombia faces are concentrated here,” he was quoted as saying by El Espectador.
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Meanwhile, the administration of President Iván Duque has sought to further reduce government spending on security details for officials.
Libreros’ death may have a broader chilling effect. “In regards to the criminal underworld in Cali…it sends a message to authorities or to the individual that will take up the investigations that Libreros was working on,” a former police investigator specializing on organized crime in Cali, and who has knowledge of the Libreros case, told InSight Crime.
He added that authorities may be wary of going after the true perpetrators, even if they know who they are. The authorities “make a huge splash in the news, but in reality they capture very low-ranked individuals ... they do not touch the true leaders."
This sentiment was echoed by Libreros’ former colleagues, who went further in criticizing the investigation, reportedly pointing to years of mafia influences permeating local authority structures.
The former police investigator who spoke with InSight Crime said that unless those arrested speak out, "it is likely that the case will stop here." He added that "it is unlikely that they reach the true intellectual author of the crime.”
The Attorney General's Office's conduct going forward will say much about the Colombian government's willingness to hold accountable the mafias that threaten to undermine justice.