SEMANA/Profile | 12/10/2008 12:00:00 AM
The lawyer behind recent Colombian scandals
At 30 years of age, Abelardo De la Espriella has become the ardent defender of many questionable characters. But now the Fiscalía, the prosecutor general’s office, is investigating if part of his success is due to his legal talent or rather because of his links with paramilitaries.
Barely 30 years of age and having worked professionally for just eight years, he has already found himself in the eye of the hurricane many times because of defense cases he has taken on and because of the rapid growth of his firm Lawyers Enterprise. In 2003 and 2004, this business had no earnings, but today in order for his firm to take on a case – with a few exceptions - they must be paid several hundred millions of pesos on average. The fees for those implicated in the para-politics scandal, for example, could average around 500 million pesos (about $216,000 USD). And he is defending 12 of them.
In the last few weeks, De la Espriella has again found himself under criticism because of his work as the attorney for David Murcia Guzmán, the visible head of DMG, the company at the center of the pyramid scheme scandal that has brought so many problems to the country. He is being questioned because more than just acting as his lawyer, he has helped Murcia in strategies such as that of presenting some foreign partners in a press conference and lobbying Congress.
For each of the accusations, De la Espriella has an answer. It wasn’t in vain that he boasted of being a very good litigant. Many times he says, “That isn’t illegal.” And like a mantra he repeats that all of the criticisms against him are due to the fact that they are from people who can’t accept that a young man from the provinces has become so successful. He also insists that the formula that has given him fame is that “I am not a shameful lawyer,” he says.
Without a doubt, he can also raise eyebrows among some because of his lifestyle. Above all, some of his tastes can seem extravagant, like riding around in Hummers, buying expensive works of art or paying special attention to an expensive and refined wardrobe. “People make a lot of noise about the Hummer and they don’t know that it’s only worth 130 million pesos,” he says.
But now, De la Espriella has to face a true hurricane. A man who worked with paramilitaries and who is now a protected witness of the Fiscalía, the prosecutor general’s office, says that the lawyer “was employed” by dark figures such as the paramilitary Mario Jiménez, alias “Macaco,” and that additionally he has been a front man from paramilitary leaders who are have been extradited. The witness also says he helped create the Fundación Iniciativas por la Paz (FIPAZ) and that way he was able to mask himself as a “promoter of the peace process” and thus obtain access to high levels of justice and the government. The witness adds that the foundation funds were provided by “Macaco,” who gave De la Espriella instructions that to be followed.
It was precisely when De la Espriella presided over FIPAZ that his name began to become known throughout the country. During the Ralito trials in which paramilitaries were charged under the demobilization process, this organization had a controversial role, as it held large events attended by hundreds of students. In addition, it sought to promote a referendum that, among other points, would eliminate extradition. But he said that the paramilitaries had nothing to do with its creation nor its financing. He adds, “Nobody can persecute me because of what I think,” referring to his rejection of extradition.
The Fiscalía’s witness says that Salvatore Mancuso, one of the main paramilitary leaders, took him to Ralito, the town where paramilitaries were confined during their trial, in order to strengthen his legal cases abroad. He even provides details. He tells of a meeting that paramilitary leaders had on March 15, 2005 to plan the second FIPAZ forum in Cali, with the participation of well-known people and 600 university students from the entire country, all expenses paid. “That day De la Espriella received 20 million pesos (about $8,600 USD) in bundles of $20,000 peso bills from the commander Javier Zuluaga, alias “Gordolindo,” says the witness. He says that there was also an angry complaint from Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” to the lawyer because of the poor results that they had obtained in the first forum that took place in Ralito and during which the paramilitaries spent 800 million pesos ($345,000 USD).
De la Espriella denies it all. In the first place, he says that the witness is the son of a person who works in Congress and that that testimony seeks to save the skin of some congresspeople, because in some of the testimony excerpts he says that it was about a fabrication against them by Rocío Arias, a former congresswoman who has been convicted for her links with paramilitaries.
Secondly, he explains that the Fiscalía and the DIJIN, a investigative arm of the police, had investigated him for 10 months for money laundering “and had found nothing.” Thirdly, he says that the witness is a friend of journalist Alfredo Serrano and that it could be a retaliation of Serrano against him for having criminally denounced him because of a book that Serrano wrote about so-called “pre-paid” women. Lastly, he says that the witness made mistakes, as he can prove that on March 15 he was in Bogotá because it was his first wife’s birthday and therefore he wasn’t in a meeting with paramilitaries.
He also says that he asked the Fiscal General to investigate him. “I am available for them to give me a polygraph so that they see that I am telling the truth,” he says.
Despite De la Espriella’s arguments, the Fiscalía has backed the witness as someone reliable. They not only have him in their witness protection program since last May, but also characterize the information that he has provided them with to be “truthful and effective,” according to several investigators who say that thanks to his testimony they have been able to finalize the capture of expensive properties that the paramilitaries had kept hidden.
The witness, today protected and jealously watched by the Fiscalía, spoke with SEMANA about other well-known people’s links with paramilitaries. In the interview, he reaffirmed that this is the information he has been providing authorities for the past couple of months.
Upon being consulted by this magazine, De la Espriella did not appear surprised. He told SEMANA that he knew about the witness’ statements and also even his name. That is certainly strange because if it is a witness who is protected by the Fiscalía why would the person who the witness is accusing know his name? De la Espriella says that, as journalists have their sources, so does he.
A final accusation from the witness against the lawyer is that he was in charge of influencing the ongoing investigations against paramilitary leaders in the Fiscalía, and obtaining valuable information in the Ministry of the Interior and the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace. “De la Espriella had infiltrated the Fiscalía and he was paid for that,” says the witness.
De la Espriella’s friendships with high officials have been publicly questioned. He was the best man at the wedding of Sabas Pretelt, current ambassador to the Italy and who was the minister of the interior during the Ralito negotiations. The lawyer is also close to Prosecutor General Mario Iguarán. De la Espriella claims that his friendship with Pretelt was from before, when they knew each other in Cartagena, and that his friendship with Iguarán was from the time when he was his professor. He says that if he were to use his friendships, as they claim, they wouldn’t have arrested one of his uncles for problems in the management of a coastal town.
Neither has it gone unnoticed that people like the former Vice Minister of the Interior, Ximena Peñafort, and the former advisor of the Fiscalía, Joaquín Gutiérrez Caballero, are today part of De la Espriella’s firm. According to De la Espriella, Gutiérrez was, for a time, an advisor in the Fiscalía and to his firm simultaneously.
They still don’t know which investigator has the responsibility to evaluate the information of the witness and much less if this will become a new episode which, according to De la Espriella, will demonstrate once more that he has nothing to do with the dark world that his detractors want to connect him to, and that they just can’t stand the triumphs of a young man from the provinces.