Authorities in Colombia have arrested 11 people close to powerful businesswoman "La Gata" and seized many of her assets, as part of an ongoing drug money laundering investigation that has shed light on how this controversial figure used paramilitary ties to build her economic empire.
So far, Colombia's Prosecutor General's Office has seized 391 properties, 124 vehicles, 121 offices and seven businesses belonging to Enilce Lopez, alias "La Gata," which are worth a total of $500 million, reported El Tiempo. In addition, Lopez and 13 others in her inner circle face money laundering charges, including two of her children.
The seizures are based on years of investigations, during which authorities found evidence that La Gata used her gambling operations in various departments of Colombia's Atlantic Coast to launder drug money for former United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) leaders Salvatore Mancuso and Edward Cobos Tellez, alias "Diego Vecino," reported El Tiempo.
Lopez returned a percentage of the laundered funds to the paramilitary leaders, while she took the remaining profits, according to Colombian Police Chief Rodolfo Palomino.
Marta Elena Dereix, the ex-wife of Mancuso, has also been arrested for her role in the operation, reported EFE.
According to official estimates, Lopez laundered around $233 million in drug money between 2002 and 2007 through her lottery businesses.
InSight Crime Analysis
The accusations that La Gata and her associates have paramilitary ties are nothing new. At the beginning of 2011, Lopez was sentenced to nine years in prison for her links with paramilitaries in the northern departments of Bolivar and Sucre. However, the latest developments serve as further evidence of how her close collaboration with the top paramilitary leadership guaranteed her security and helped her businesses flourish, as well as marking an important step in the government's move to target her financial operations.
In 2006, Lopez and her half brother Arquimedes Romero were arrested for alleged money laundering and in 2008 they were called to trial for the same case, but both were ultimately absolved. In 2009, Colombian authorities opened a money laundering case based on information provided by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and a year later, 21 of Lopez's companies came under inspection.
At that time, the DEA already possessed information about Lopez receiving bags of cash from paramilitaries, which were brought in armored vehicles to bank accounts linked to her various lottery businesses. This information was later corroborated by paramilitary testimonies.
Despite the numerous probes and the evidence, the recent asset seizures represent the first major hit on the illicit financial empire of La Gata, who -- in addition to her 2011 sentence -- was handed 37 years in prison in 2013 for the 2000 murder of a security guard, but has since been in the hospital.