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Latin America & Caribbean

Attorney for Alex Saab in Colombia approved deals with corrupt policeman who tipped off plan to arrest his client

Saab's capture was thwarted in Colombia in 2018 after an attorney for the office of his lawyer, Abelardo de la Espriella, and an assistant to Saab, secretely received information about the imminent arrest of the businessman and his family members, according to documents obtained by Univision Investiga. Read this story in Spanish.
5 Jul 2020 – 09:42 PM EDT
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Abelardo de la Espriella, attorney for Alex Saab in Colombia. Crédito: Univision

Alex Saab, the businessman who the U.S. government is seeking to have extradited from Cape Verde for his alleged role in an international money laundering scheme, might have been arrested two years ago in Colombia.

But Saab and several of his relatives managed to avoid their capture after a corrupt police officer passed information on the raid to the law firm of Abelardo de la Espriella, Saab's lawyer in Colombia, and to a legal advisor of Saab, according court documents obtained by Univision Investiga.

María Paula Escorcia, a lawyer for the De la Espriella office, stated in a judicial complaint in Colombia that the policeman informed her of the operation to capture Saab. The information was passed to her 23 days before the raid, according the dates provided by her to the investigators.

"Then he [the policeman] told me not to say anything on the phone since they listen to everything and that I better send the Saab family on vacation, so they don't capture them," said Escorcia.

The 28-year-old lawyer said she followed instructions from her bosses to work with the police informant, Eddie Andrés Pinto Rúa. She was also authorized to give him an iPhone to communicate exclusively with her.

Pinto Rúa was convicted of bribery for accepting the cellphone from Escorcia, according to his three-year prison sentence.

On Sept 26, 2018 , when De la Espriella’s law firm had already received copious information about the confidential investigation and the possible arrest of Saab and her relatives, she filed a complaint against the policeman for extortion.

By then, the police raid had already failed.

Agents did not find any of the main suspects they planned to arrest in Barranquilla on Sept 25, including Saab or his relatives. The failure of the operation made headlines in the Colombian media, causing frustration among Colombian officials and US federal agents who had supported the investigation, said Gen. Luis Vargas, then head of the Police Criminal Investigation Directorate (DIJIN).

"It was devastating for all of us," Vargas told Univision. "It was a very serious investigation with the Money Laundering Unit, working closely with the DEA and the FBI," he added.

Univision asked De la Espriella why he had taken so long to report the policeman's criminal behavior that ended up ruining a crucial police operation.

Dates don’t match

The lawyer offered two conflicting explanations: He said the reason for the delay was because Pinto "seemed evasive until the end." But he also said that "from the first moment" when he was informed by the firm's lawyer about the approach of the police detective, he gave "precise instructions so that situation would be brought to the attention of the then director of DIJIN, General Vargas.''

To ensure this, he added, he sent a lawyer whose name he didn’t reveal, to meet with the general.

De la Espriella invited Univision to verify the information with Vargas. Univision contacted the general and found that the dates cited by De la Espriella do not match.

Vargas explained to Univision that in fact he met with a lawyer sent by de la Espriella but the meeting took place two days after the operation, on Sept 27. De la Espriella maintained that he had sent his lawyer "as soon as" he was informed by the firm's lawyer, which was on Sept 2.

De la Espriella didn’t explain to Univision why Escorcia continued talking with the policeman between Sept 2 and Sept 25 if he was concerned about his intentions. According to Escorcia , she continued talking with Pinto at the instruction of her bosses.

De la Espriella told Univision that neither Saab nor his family learned of the arrest operation through him or his office. He explained that when the arrest warrant was issued against Saab, “had been out of the country for more than eight months, well before the tip was received, and could not have “escaped” the country, “because he was simply not in Colombia'' at the time.

The authorities say otherwise. A police source close to the investigation said Saab "fled as soon as the arrest warrants were issued on a charter to Caracas with his family. This happened a day or two before the operation."

On Sept 26, Escorcia appeared before a judicial police station in Barranquilla and denounced Pinto, saying her bosses instructed her to "go along with it."

It was only amidst the scandal of the failed operation, and after his firm had already received a fair amount of confidential information from the DIJIN investigation, that De la Espriella instructed Escorcia to report the patrolman for extortion, according to the timeline described by Escorcia.

Pinto, aged 30, was convicted of bribery and unlawful violation of communications in June 2019. In his sentencing, a Bogota tribunal judge mentioned two cell phones he received as a gift, one from Escorcia and other from Saab’s legal advisor. However, the judge didn’t incriminate any of them in paying bribes. The judge confirmed that Pinto had privileged access to the Colombian police investigation as an “investigator analyst for the ‘Code Red’ [phone] interceptions room.”

According to Colombian attorneys consulted by Univision, prosecutors who investigate corrupt officials not only must act against them but also the private citizens who paid the bribe.

Nothing evasive

Escorcia stated that she was contacted by Pinto on Sept 1, 2018 through Facebook. She said she met the policeman in a criminology course she attended in Barranquilla in 2012.

"He told me that he was a judicial police officer and that he was interested in a case against a client of Dr. Abelardo de la Espriella," said Escorcia.

The next day, she added, Pinto asked her for an appointment. Escorcia says she obtained authorization from her bosses to meet him at the firm's offices in Bogotá. “They asked me to record [the meeting],” she said.

The details provided by Pinto in the first meeting with the lawyer contrast with De la Espriella's explanation to Univision that the detective was "evasive to the end."

According to the criminal complaint filed by Escorcia, at that first meeting on Sept 2, Pinto bluntly revealed that:

- The authorities "were going to capture the ex-wife of Alex Saab, someone called Cintia, the mother of Alex Saab, Luis, Emir Julio"

-Saab was facing two investigations, "one based on support for the Hezbollah group and the other for money laundering."

-Saab "didn't talk much but they were going to capture his entire family to put pressure on them." At this point he gave the lawyer a list of people and a structure of the Saab companies and their workers.

- In the terrorism investigation against Saab "there was nothing" and that it had only been opened in order to facilitate its follow-ups at the international level

Pinto told the lawyer, according to her, that he knew that a man named Julio was accompanying Saab with about 150 thousand dollars in cash.

"That this was for example if Mr. Saab wanted to buy all the strawberries from the Olímpica (supermarket chain) or daily expenses," Pinto said, according to the lawyer.

De la Espriella did not respond when Univision asked if he delivered a recording of Pinto’s meeting at the firm’s office, to the authorities.

Cell phone delivery

At the beginning, Escorcia's relationship with Pinto seems to have been cordial, as reflected by the lawyer's testimony. After the conversation in the Bogotá office, Escorcia met the informant in a neighborhood in the southern part of the city and handed him the iPhone.

"After that he began to send constant messages about the case where he tells me that they went to visit or that they were going to visit people who, according to him, they were going to capture at the beginning but who had already changed their minds and were going to convince them to declare against Alex Saab and also eliminate all their problems,'' said Escorcia.

In a subsequent meeting in a Bogotá shopping center, Pinto shared with the lawyer the contents of a hard drive.

"So, he starts showing me a lot of documents from the investigations, but he just gives me a list of companies," Escorcia explained.

The lawyer added that she bought a USB memory stick on which she downloaded a recording that Pinto gave her of a call between Alex Saab and Mario García, a Saab assistant. During the conversations, according to Escorcia, the patrolman "always had an insinuating attitude since he said that he [was] very poorly paid and ill-treated, and then I told him that when he retired, he would send me a resume.”

But his attitude changed weeks later, according to Escorcia.

"He kept sending me messages on the same topics which had already begun to make me feel a degree of anxiety and intimidation, to the point that on last night (Sept 24) I told him to uninstall the chat," she said.

The police officer who received Escorcia's testimony asked the lawyer if she had previously reported the facts to the authorities.

"No, just today," she said.

Escorcia did not respond several calls from Univision.

Univision consulted two Colombian lawyers about the case without revealing the names of the people involved in order to learn from a legal and ethical perspective how De la Espriella's law firm should have acted upon learning of the deal offered by the police investigator.

José Gregorio Hernández Galindo, a former magistrate, explained that without knowing the details of the case, “if a judicial order had been frustrated, causing the flight of a person who's arrest had been ordered, that is a crime and is extremely serious because it is an obstruction of justice."

The García case

Five hours before Escorcia testified at the Barranquilla judicial police office, one of Saab’s legal assistants had provided testimony to support another extortion complaint against the same officer.

Mario Germán García Palacio stated that Pinto told him that the operation would take place on Sept 25. Pinto also anticipated that they would issue arrest warrants for Saab's wife, mother, two brothers, and an assistant. A police source confirmed to Univision that there were arrest warrants issued for those people.

Both Escorcia and García stated that Pinto wanted money in exchange for the information.

García explained in his statement to the judicial police that on Sept 22, while in Barranquilla, he received a message on his cell phone in which Pinto told him that he would like to speak to him in Bogotá "to discuss issues that he wanted to help us with and that he had a lot of good things to report to me.''

García traveled to Bogotá on Sept 23 and met Pinto at the Movich Hotel near Eldorado Airport. Pinto told him, according to García, that he was an active member of the DIJIN counter-terrorism unit and that he had tried to contact him because he had information for Saab.

The information was "about investigations that are being carried out on him and his family group due to international terrorism and being alleged funders of the Hezbollah terrorist group."

According to Pinto, the investigation had not yielded results "but for political reasons and pressure from the UIAF [anti-money laundering unit of the Colombian government] and the presidency of the Republic, they were mounting an operation to capture members of the Saab family and a Mr. Julio Ruiz who works for Mr. Saab." The president at that time was Juan Manuel Santos.

At one point, Pinto confessed to Garcia that one of his missions had been to tap Garcia's phone, although he knew "that he had done nothing wrong."

"That they wanted to unfairly link me to put pressure on Mr. Saab," Garcia said, citing Pinto.

Garcia added that the police officer pulled out a flowchart mentioning his name as a Saab partner.

When asked by the person in charge of his interrogation if he had previously denounced the facts, he also replied that it was the first time.

Within a few hours of receiving the information from the police investigator and before the raid, García met with Amir Saab, Alex Saab's brother, "to tell him what had happened" in his meeting with Pinto, according to García.

A Colombian police source told Univision that Amir Saab was one of the targets of the operation. During the meeting in a restaurant in Barranquilla, and in the presence of Amir, Pinto made a video call to García.

"He told me that the Plan Patriotas operation was going to be carried out on Thursday, but they had advanced it to Tuesday of this month because they had heard a conversation from Amir with his daughter in which he stated that he was planning a trip to Canada," Garcia said in his report to the police in the coastal city of Barranquilla.

García explained that he gave Pinto about 800,000 pesos ($250) to buy another phone. He didn’t respond to messages or calls from Univision.

Saab was indicted in a federal court in Miami in July 2019 of laundering money charges derived from alleged corrupt operations related to the acquisition of materials for government housing projects in Venezuela. According to a Treasury Department memo, he has served as an international negotiator on behalf of the regime of Nicolás Maduro for illicit deals on food, gold, oil and coal. On July 12, he was arrested in Cape Verde.
In 2018, the year of the failed police operation against Saab in Colombia, he was under investigation in the country on charges of money laundering due to fictitious exports and international terrorism, according to Pinto's sentence.