Colombia Continues to Bungle Assets Seized from Drug Traffickers

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The discovery of a new corruption case linked to the handling of seized criminal assets in Colombia exposes the shortcomings of an institutional model that has not managed to overcome the ghosts of its past. 

An investigation by El Espectador revealed the existence of a corruption network within the asset forfeiture unit of the Attorney General’s Office involving high-ranking judicial officials, as well as lawyers of well-known drug traffickers and US federal agents.

According to inspections conducted by the Attorney General’s Office, lawyer Luis Valero, along with prosecutor Mónica Valencia and agents from the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), offered a number of benefits to Colombian drug trafficker Javier García Rojas, alias “Maracuyá,” in exchange for 10 percent of his seized assets. These included a get-out-of-jail-free card from the Clinton List, which bars any US individuals or entities from doing business with him.

One of the assets taken from García Rojas was a large piece of land inside the Marmonal industrial zone in Cartagena reportedly valued at 419 billion Colombian pesos ($108 million) and that had pre-existing approval for a port to be built there.

SEE ALSO: The ‘Invisibles’: Colombia’s New Generation of Drug Traffickers

Valero, who acted as the defense attorney in the asset forfeiture process against Maracuyá, directly offered the negotiated deal with US authorities. 

Maracuyá’s main business partner, José Bayron Piedrahíta Ceballos, a drug trafficker who was arrested in Argentina in 2017, also confirmed the existence of benefit packages that several US officials and agents offered to suspects. 

Maracuyá’s case was just one of several corruption cases within the asset forfeiture unit of the Attorney General’s Office. The El Espectador investigation also revealed that the former director of the unit, Andrea Malagón, was linked to corruption within the Meritage real estate project in the city of Medellín.

Insight Crime Analysis

Irregularities have pervaded the process for seizing mafia assets in Colombia for decades. But while the system has endured multiple reforms, it continues to be saturated with instances of corruption.

In 2014, the former National Narcotics Office (Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes — DNE) was dissolved under an order by then-president Juan Manuel Santos. Multiple corruption scandals involving congressmen and officials led to the creation of the Special Assets Society (Sociedad de Activos Especiales — SAE), which would manage the almost 70,000 assets seized from the mafia.

By establishing the SAE, the government intended to optimize the seizure of assets, improve the handling of goods of illicit origin and avoid the participation of politicians in said processes. 

Nevertheless, six years after its creation, the SAE became a focal point for criticisms and questions. 

An evaluation report prepared by the Comptroller General in 2020 showed a series of irregularities that have accompanied the SAE in the management of said assets. 

SEE ALSO: Asset Forfeiture in Latin America: A Moral Dilemma?

The problems identified included the absence of a budget for various programs, a lack of accountability processes, the prolonged duration of judicial processes and the difficulties in evicting seized estates, among other issues. 

“The primary issues associated with the process of asset forfeiture in Colombia are based on the absence of a supporting criminal policy and the lack of external controls that guarantee good practices. The SAE made some improvements but there continues to be a clear lack of coordination … in transferring the ownership of assets,” Jairo Ignacio Acosta, a professor and expert lawyer in asset forfeiture processes, explained to InSight Crime.

According to a 2017 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Colombia is the Latin American country with the greatest number of assets expropriated from members of organized crime and has adapted adequately to international standards.

Mexico has also faced challenges in handling seized assets. The head of its Institute to Return Stolen Goods to the People (Instituto para Devolver al Pueblo lo Robado – IDPR) resigned in September in frustration over numerous vehicles, jewelry and other items that were misused or went missing.

But the region has also seen positive examples. Authorities in Argentina used assets seized from drug traffickers to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Luxury cars formerly belonging to criminals have been used to transport patients and for security patrols while properties seized during criminal raids have been turned into medical facilities.

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