SEMANA/Cover Story | 11/18/2008 12:00:00 AM
Pyramid scheme head challenges the Colombian state
As the Colombian government faces the pyramid scheme crisis, David Murcia Guzmán, the head of DMG, a large pyramid investment company, threatens to send his followers to the streets. He was captured on Wednesday night in Panama.
Of course there are great differences between the two. Back then as time went by, Escobar stopped appearing to be a Robin Hood and declared a bloody war against the state, while the only thing that Murcia has announced is that he will send his thousands of investors into the streets and warns that he has all of his legal artillery prepared to make his economic emporium respected, a business which he says has completely followed the law.
Where there are similarities -given their differences in proportion- is that in both cases they became targets of the state. At least that is the way it was declared on Friday, when President Álvaro Uribe decided to lead the entire state apparatus to criminally confront DMG and try to expose the magic formula that hides behind that multimillion dollar business.
The country just became aware last week of the existence of David Murcia Guzmán, the head of the skyrocketing firm DMG, when pyramid schemes throughout the country collapsed and left nearly 2 million victims who, whether because of ignorance, foolishness or ambition, had entrusted the schemes with their savings.
None of the pyramid schemes that collapsed belonged to DMG. But the eyes of the government and of justice are focused on DMG because it has been the source of inspiration of the nearly 250 pyramid schemes that the government has identified nationwide. With its philosophy of multiplying money and thus feeding a mafia-like culture of easy money, DMG gained the confidence of its clients. It also showed the way for many other unscrupulous types who found a market willing to bet on this risky business.
Last Friday the country discovered the true character of Murcia - and just how far he seems prepared to go - when he addressed Uribe as equals, as no Colombian would dare, or at least no other businessperson. He told him on the La W radio talk program, “No, Mr. President, that’s not the way it is and I hope that you are listening to this. Because if you are going to take arbitrary measures, then allow me to tell you that I also will do arbitrary things.” And, immediately after that, he made a subtle declaration of war. “And allow me to say to you that I will also turn the people against the government.”
One of the worries of the government with DMG is that, in addition to being a pyramid scheme, it could serve as a tool for the drug trafficking business through money laundering, because it is able to introduce cash into the legal market, or by financing drug shipments. The authorities are investigating a possible link with the drug trafficker “Chupeta” through a money exchange business which opened branches in DMG offices.
Murcia immediately rejects any accusation and repeats, as he said in his first interview granted to SEMANA in February of this year, that what he has built is a brand -like Coca Cola or Google, he says- because, among others, it saves on publicity costs and for that reason it can offer great benefits to its clients.
But the story of David Murcia Guzmán goes beyond the gimmicks of pyramid schemes. For journalists who have followed his dizzying career in the last year it is clear that he is an extremely intelligent man who has evident political ambitions. His financial conglomerate is not an end unto itself, but rather a platform to build it into a social phenomenon. “Believe in God and in David Murcia Guzmán” is one of his most repeated slogans.
Murcia has had a meteoric career. He left his birthplace, the town of Ubaté in the Cundinamarca department, very early on. With only a high school degree he received in Bogotá, he traveled from city to city dedicated to earning a living. In 2003 he arrived in La Hormiga (Putumayo) and he didn’t have enough money to even pay for a room for himself in the town’s hotel. But that didn’t last long. In 2005, with an initial investment of 100 million pesos ($43,000 USD), he founded the group DMG in Bogotá. Today, 28 years old, he already has an emporium with more than 200,000 clients, branches in seven countries and partners to open new offices in 99 other countries, according to what Murcia told La W radio station.
Up until now, DMG has surrounded itself with a strategic pool of lawyers, headed by a media-savvy lawyer and known friend of the Fiscal General de la Nación (prosecutor general), Abelardo de la Espriella. DMG has also paid other respected lawyers such as the former procurador (solicitor general) Jaime Bernal and the former vice-fiscal Armando Otalora. At the same time, inside his gigantic organization he is building a cult of personality based on an image of himself as a redeemer for marginalized social classes, who have been abandoned by the state and stepped on by the banks. In a video that each of his clients is required to watch in order to have access to DMG services, he appears in the Colombian swamps helping poor children, saying that he wants to “eradicate hunger in Colombia.”
That is why, during this week’s crisis in many middle class and lower class sectors voices of support were being heard for David Murcia. “With DMG I got a house and the government hasn’t given me anything,” said a man to a television news program. Part of the fanaticism that has grown around him reflects itself in the now recurring marches of followers who protest each time an authority sanctions or questions DMG.
On Friday, for example, more than 2,000 people congregated on the Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá, the most important square in the city. “We support David Murcia. The only thieves here are the banks that don’t allow poor people to multiply their income,” said one of the protesters.
This obsession with his personality reached its climax perhaps last Wednesday when the pyramid scheme scandal broke out. Upon seeing the hordes of agitated citizens, David Murcia made a video for YouTube in which he appears in front of a backdrop worthy of a president, complete with a Colombian flag and a DMG one as well, where from behind a desk he solemnly challenges the state and the president and declares war on a banking sector which he says is responsible for all the country’s ills.
“The people have to wake up against those abuses and those slanders because the war isn’t against DMG but rather is against each one of the Colombian people,” he says. He says that “it is time for justice” and makes an appeal to “my DMG family so that we can show who really rules in this country.” He concludes with a martyr-like phrase. “I know that they can kill me, believing that eliminating me as a leader could end this family that has become an economic revolution… if I have to die for this cause, I will die proudly and peacefully, but they will never finish off the DMG family.” The state, led by Uribe, has all of its legal artillery prepared to put an end to this story. Hopefully in this transition David Murcia will not commit the error of continuing to stir up the masses and will accept what the law decides.