An elusive drug trafficker has brought a criminal libel case against InSight Crime Co-director Jeremy McDermott, despite widespread official confirmation of the findings of InSight Crime's two-year investigation.
During an initial virtual hearing on April 20, David Espinosa Acuña, the lawyer representing the accuser, Guillermo León Acevedo Giraldo, alias “Memo Fantasma” -- who did not appear -- said his client is not willing to compromise and wanted to press on with criminal charges against McDermott.
“He has no desire to reconcile,” Espinosa said during what was billed as the reconciliation hearing.
The virtual meeting was hosted by Colombian public prosecutor Leonor Melendez. During the short hearing, no details were provided as to what Acevedo found to be slanderous. Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office will now begin its own investigation to determine if the InSight Crime co-director is responsible for any wrongdoing.
The case stems from a two-year investigation published in March 2020 into Acevedo. It showed how the Madrid-based businessman was once a prolific drug trafficker as well as a former leader of the infamous paramilitary army known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia -- AUC), responsible for killing tens of thousands during the country’s half-century civil conflict.
Specifically, the investigation showed Acevedo was a leader in what was known as the Central Bolívar Bloc (Bloque Central Bolívar -- BCB) from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, which doubled as a drug trafficking organization. However, he never turned himself into the tribunals that were set up to oversee the demobilization of the paramilitaries in the mid-2000s.
To hide his illicit earnings, Acevedo created numerous companies, including a property development company known as Inversiones El Cipres SA. This company eventually created a trust with Hitos Urbanos Limitada -- whose principal shareholders included Colombia's current Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez and her husband, Álvaro Rincón -- to construct the luxury Torre 85 office building in the Colombian capital of Bogotá.
In an interview with McDermott during the investigation, Rincón admitted to working with Acevedo on the Torre 85 project, but he said he had no idea about Acevedo’s criminal past. Like Acevedo, Vice President Ramírez brought criminal defamation charges against McDermott for “affecting her right to moral integrity, good name, dignity and honor.” The vice president dropped that complaint a short time later, amid national and international outcry.
If convicted of libel, McDermott faces up to 72 months in prison and a fine of up to 1,500 minimum Colombian salaries (more than $300,000). The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the case brought against him.
"Investigative journalists like Jeremy McDermott shouldn't face the possibility of jail time just for doing their job, and the subjects of investigative reports should stop trying to use the Colombian judicial system as a means to threaten or retaliate against the press," said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick.
"The fact that these kinds of criminal defamation cases continue to arise in Colombia shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the critical role of investigative journalists in society," she added.
InSight Crime Analysis
InSight Crime’s multi-year investigation to confirm the identity of Memo Fantasma stretched across Colombia, Europe and the United States. It was backed by on-the-record photo confirmation from former paramilitary operators, Colombian prosecutors and US counterdrug officials, as well as other sources. Multiple underworld sources also confirmed all the allegations against him, off the record.
Colombia’s own top prosecutor, Attorney General Francisco Barbosa, said in May 2020 that his office carried out an investigation into the assets and identity of Acevedo and confirmed he was in fact Memo Fantasma. These findings were included in a judicial police report the following month.
Barbosa also explained that testimony given by demobilized paramilitary leaders around 2011 and 2012 about the paramilitary commander known as both “Sebastián Colmenares” and Memo Fantasma led prosecutors to open an investigation to track down properties linked to him.
Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office later announced in a July 2020 press release that prosecutors seized eight properties valued at close to nine billion Colombian pesos (almost $2.5 million) linked to Memo Fantasma from the so-called Las Vegas ranch in northern Córdoba department.
“Memo Fantasma’s links to the Central Bolívar Bloc began in mid-1998 until the armed group’s demobilization in 2006, and he was singled out as being in charge of leading the BCB’s drug trafficking activities,” prosecutors wrote in the news release.
The BCB’s connections to drug trafficking were made clear in the United States as well. One BCB leader, Carlos Mario Jiménez Naranjo, alias “Macaco,” was extradited to the United States in 2008. He was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 33 years in prison for drug trafficking and narco-terrorism.