An alleged drug trafficking and paramilitary capo known by the alias “Will the Ghost,” who got his start in Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel, was captured in Colombia after a career that spanned over three decades.
The arrest in Bogota on June 25 of Guillermo Acevedo, 48, comes a little more than a year after a blockbuster report by a think tank identified him as the elusive figure who at the height of his power was a leader of a paramilitary group and one of the country’s biggest cocaine smugglers.
“The significance for Colombia is that an invisible drug trafficker and paramilitary chieftain, after a criminal career of more than three decades, has finally been arrested and hopefully will be answering for his crimes,” said Jeremy McDermott, leader of the investigation by InSightCrime that exposed Acevedo. The group studies organized crime in Latin America.
Without the report, it’s likely Acevedo would have continued living up to his nickname as a ghost.
“The meaning for Insight Crime and for me is that finally everything we put in our investigation has proven to be true,” said McDermott.
Following the publication of the report, Acevedo sued McDermott for defamation, which is still pending. McDermott was also sued by current Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez over allegations that a company she owned had been used by Acevedo to launder money, but that suit has since been withdrawn.
According to Insight Crime, Acevedo allegedly got his start in around 1990 on one of the bottom rungs of the Medellin Cartel, receiving shipments of cocaine from one of the group’s leaders in New York, where he would distribute the product to local dealers.
In July 1992, while living in a prison he had custom built for himself called the Cathedral, Pablo Escobar became paranoid that he was being shorted by the brothers he’d entrusted with running his cocaine empire. He summoned them to the prison and had them executed on the spot.
The move that would lead to the infamous kingpin’s downfall, and Acevedo, who had been working for one of the brothers, suddenly found himself with a shipment of drugs he’d just received with no one around expecting payment.
Acevedo used the financial windfall as a launchpad, rocketing up the ranks of the drug trafficking underworld. Several years later, in 1998, he helped found the Central Bolivar Bloc, which became one of the most powerful fronts of the right-wing paramilitary group the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. He adopted another alias, Sebastián Colmenares, and used the private army to expand his drug trafficking territory.
The group’s tactics were so brutal that it was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States. Such ruthlessness was on full display in 2001 when the Bloc moved to take control of a town controlled by a Marxist guerrilla group. Jobs were offered to any fighters who wanted to flip sides and rewards were given to any of them who identified their former comrades. At the peak of the violence, the Bloc murdered up to ten rival guerrillas and collaborators per day.
In 2006, multiple paramilitary groups demobilized as part of a peace process aimed at ending decades of conflict. While Acevedo’s associates turned over their weapons, he shed his paramilitary alias and vanished into the shadows.
At some point over the next couple of years, it’s believed that he made a deal with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, likely providing information on his former partners in exchange for not being arrested for extradition. By 2010, he had quit drug trafficking, which carries a five-year statute of limitations in the U.S.
Out of the game but with tons of illicit money, Acevedo allegedly focused on money laundering and attempted to blend into Colombian high society as a legitimate businessman. He married a woman from a prominent family and Vice President Ramírez allegedly pulled strings to get their daughters into an exclusive private school.
Meanwhile, in 2015 Colombian journalist Ana María Cristancho published a pair of reports that picked up on the trail of the missing paramilitary leader “Sebastian Colmenares,” who was the only one of five from the Bloc who hadn’t faced justice. She was able to partially identify Acevedo, but did not yet have his full name correct.
A couple years later, Cristancho joined Insight Crime and the investigation continued. One of the biggest breaks came when Acevedo unwittingly appeared on a TV show with an undercover segment filmed at a café where he happened to be having a meeting. The show was a favorite in Colombian prisons and he was instantly recognized by former associates. The notoriously camera-shy ghost now had a face that journalists could use to make more connections.
Eventually they caught up to Acevedo in Spain, where he was living the high life in a mansion and driving luxury vehicles. He apparently returned to Colombia after he was outed by the report. He now faces charges of money laundering, racketeering and illicit enrichment.
“There's nothing from his paramilitary history, there's nothing of the massacres and assassinations carried out by the paramilitary block he founded, which have no statute of limitations on them,” said McDermott of the charges brought by Colombian authorities.
Even now, facing justice, it’s as though his former life never happened.