Exposed For Verified Family Ties To Narcotraffickers, Colombia’s Vice President Files Criminal Charges Against Investigative Journalist
Colombia’s embattled Vice President Marta Lucia Ramirez has previously campaigned as a crime-fighter, though it turns out she has some secrets of her own that have come out this year. In June, La Nueva Prensa revealed that Vice President Ramirez and her husband some years ago paid $150,000 USD bail for her brother Bernardo in Miami where he was caught and convicted for trafficking in heroin.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit journal Insight Crime, which reports on and analyzes organized crime and corruption throughout Latin America and the Caribbean had been investigating Guillermo León Acevedo Giraldo: A low-profile businessman based in Madrid, Spain, also known as “Memo Fantasma” (Will The Ghost) who according to Insight Crime is “a former drug trafficker and leader of the brutal paramilitary army known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia — AUC).”
During this investigation into Memo Fantasma, Insight Crime discovered that he participated in the construction project Torre 85, a luxury building in Bogotá’s exclusive El Retiro neighborhood developed by Ramirez’ husband Alvaro Rincón by providing a portion of the land and investing in the project, built by Rincón’s construction company Hitos Urbanos Limitada. Vice President Ramirez remains a shareholder in this company, according to Insight Crime. Rincón admitted to Insight Crime his dealings with Memo Fantasma but insisted that he was unaware of his history.
“I know what story you are working on”—Marta Lucia Ramirez in a message to McDermott just hours after he confronted Memo Fantasma in Spain
After Insight Crime revealed the connections, Vice President Ramirez did an interview in April with W Radio where she insisted:
“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.”
Insight Crime published a full transcript of her interview, presenting her side of the story, where she contradicted her own husband by saying they had no dealings with Memo Fantasma, who two weeks ago (Memo Fantasma) had eight properties valued at over $2 million USD seized by Colombian prosecutors (Torre 85 was not one of them).
The Criminal Charges
On July 24, Colombia’s Attorney General notified Insight Crime’s co-director and leader of the Memo Fantasma investigation Jeremy McDermott that Vice President Marta Lucia Ramirez filed criminal charges on June 2 against him for “affecting her right to moral integrity, good name, dignity and honor.” The attorney general’s office “invited” McDermott to meet with Ramirez via videoconference to reconcile their differences before the legal proceedings went any further: This an apparent attempt to pressure McDermott to issue statements in defense of the Vice President (even though McDermott never accused Ramirez or her husband Rincón of any wrongdoing) and contradicting his reporting of her links to Memo Fantasma, whether she knew who he was or not.
In April, McDermott received a demand to remove mentions of any connections between Ramirez and Memo Fantasma from the law firm of Abelardo De la Espriella, the same attorneys so far unsuccessfully fighting to quash Matarife, a YouTube show that is vexing another of their powerful clients, former President and current Senator Alvaro Uribe; political patron of current Colombian President Ivan Duque. Vice President Ramirez served as then President Uribe’s defense minister from 2002 to 2003. Espriella has a history of attacking journalists and NGOs on behalf of Uribe, though US based media mammoth Univision has directly accused de la Espriella’s firm of corruption in the case of Nicolas Maduro ally Alex Saab, a Colombian fugitive and former de la Espriella client currently detained in Cape Verde and fighting extradition to the United States. According to the Univision report, de la Espriella’s firm bribed a police officer to provide information on Saab’s pending 2018 arrest by Colombian police so that he could escape—then turned the police officer in for bribery!
Rather than bowing to Ramirez’s tactics, McDermott went public with the Vice President’s charges against him, immediately publishing an article announcing the criminal complaint against him. A conviction would result in 16 to 54 months in prison and a fine of up to $375,000 USD under Colombian law.
The reaction from press freedom advocates was swift. The actions taken by Colombia’s Vice President were condemned by groups like Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Colombia’s Foundation for Press Freedom. Insight Crime, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) and non-profit foundation also has diplomatic support, receiving funding from the governments of countries including the UK, Germany, Canada & Sweden, and academic institutions such as American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.
Ramirez quickly felt the pressure, as evidenced by her direct response on Twitter to José Miguel Vivanco, the Executive Director, Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, who reminded her that her actions violate standards of freedom of expression; penal codes against defamation (though she was never defamed by McDermott) violate human rights norms, and the honor of public officials should never be protected with prison.
Shortly after the scolding by Vivanco, the Vice President announced on Twitter that she was withdrawing the charges against McDermott.
El caso de @jerrymcdermott me puso en una encrucijada y la defensa a mi buen nombre prevaleció. Hoy considero el caso superado y retiraré la denuncia penal. La libertad de prensa y la defensa del honor son derechos inalienables y baluarte de la democracia.
— Marta Lucía Ramírez (@mluciaramirez) July 29, 2020
“The case of @jeremymcdermott put me at a crossroad and the defense of my good name prevailed,” she announced, though Insight Crime has stood by its story in every detail, and further revelations show even closer family ties—convictions even for importing heroin into the United States by her own brother, which she bailed out during his proceedings.
“Today I consider the case overcome, and I will withdraw my penal charges. Liberty of press and the defense of honor are inalienable rights and bulwark of democracy,” she continued in her tweet.
McDermott stressed that while he is thankful, the dropping of the lawsuit does not change the fact that journalists in Colombia can still be threatened with legal action using the same law that was used against him. He questioned whether a Colombian journalist would have seen the same outcome if faced with a similar situation.
“We did not change a single word in the investigation, and this validates our work,” McDermott said from Medellín.
Headline photo: Felipe Castaño, Vicepresidency of The Republic
Lèse-majesté is a French term meaning “to do wrong to majesty” and defines an offense against the dignity of a reigning sovereign. In medieval countries and some dictatorships such as Iran & North Korea it is against the law to offend the ruler. If Colombia is to be considered a modern republic, it cannot be acceptable for anyone occupying Casa de Nariño (the presidential palace) to use their prosecutors or prisons to intimidate, menace & bully journalists simply for reporting verified & true but embarrassing facts. As the Washington Post reminds us: “Democracy dies in darkness.”