In mid-1997, Alejandra Vargas Osorio, a Colombian dentist, pleaded guilty in Miami federal court to a drug trafficking charge in which she revealed the mastermind behind the operation.
But when her sentencing day came up, the dentist failed to appear in court. The judge declared her a fugitive.
Vargas was arrested 16 years later. Her lawyer explained that one of the reasons why she decided to flee was because of her fear of the “powerful allies” in the Colombian government of the man she identified to U.S. authorities during her cooperation, according to a court document obtained by Univision Investiga.
The person who Vargas pointed out as the head of the heroin smuggling operation was Bernardo Ramírez, the brother of Colombia's current Vice President, Marta Lucía Ramírez. Bernardo Ramírez was sentenced to almost five years in U.S. prison in January 1998 on drug trafficking charges.
“The defendant’s flight precipitated by fear and other emotional concerns, including that the target of cooperation, who had powerful allies in the Colombian government, posed a threat to her as she lived alone in Miami Beach, has resulted in a substantial adverse effect on her sentencing guidelines," Richard C. Klugh, Vargas' attorney, wrote at the time.
At the time, in 1998, Marta Lucía Ramírez was the minister of foreign trade.
Klugh told Univision that he would try to contact her client.
Bernardo Ramírez's conviction 23 years ago was an episode that the vice president had not commented on publicly, despite being a high profile politician in Colombia for many years. Now that the family secret is out, the consequences are beginning to be felt. Opposition Senator Gustavo Petro has called for her resignation. Petro's request came hours after the digital website La Nueva Prensa revealed details of Bernardo Ramírez's conviction in 1997.
According to the article in La Nueva Prensa, Marta Lucía Ramírez put up the bail for her brother. She was taking courses at Harvard University at the time, and is listed as the financial guarantor of the bail along with her husband, Alvaro Rincón Muñoz. The surety bond was also signed by Luz Mireya Rodríguez, Bernardo Ramírez's ex-sister-in-law.
In the surety bond, Martha Lucía Ramírez registered an address in Massachusets. Upon her return to Colombia in 1997, she worked as director of the presidential campaign for conservative candidate Noemí Sanín. After Sanín's defeat, President Andrés Pastrana appointed her as Minister of Foreign Trade.
After La Nueva Prensa published its story, the vice president explained that she provided complete information about the fact of the case “to people who at different times in my working life considered that they should know them. They are obviously alien to me."
President Iván Duque acknowledged that the vice president and her family "lived through a tragedy for the crime committed by a loved one," and added: "Overcoming this unfortunate situation, she has served the country with honorable and patriotic dedication."
Ramírez's criminal record
Univision obtained courts documents of Bernardo Ramírez's turbulent record in the United States. Seven years before being arrested by the DEA, Ramírez was detained for a shoplifting at a JC Penney store in Fort Lauderdale. The police report identified him as a Colombian-born painter. Ramírez registered a house in Key Biscayne as an address, one of several addresses reported in the United States.
According to the Fort Lauderdale police report, which incorrectly spelled the detainee's last name, on December 12, 1990, Ramírez was arrested after the store security chief allegedly caught him leaving with a bag of men's clothing without paying.
Previously he allegedly stole another bag of women's clothing with the complicity of someone else. The merchandise was estimated to cost $560. In the United States, this sum is considered criminally as grand theft.
Apparently Ramírez did not enjoy the support of his ex-wife and ex-father-in-law. Both gave negative statements to the probation officer in his presentence investigation, according to a document filed by Gail M. Stage, Ramírez's lawyer, who rejected their opinions as irrelevant. Stage did not explain the content of the opinions.
“The statements are completely unnecessary to any sentencing determination to be made by this court" Stage stated.
It was not possible to contact Stage prior to publication of this article to seek comment on the allegations by Vargas' lawyer.
According to court documents, on the afternoon of July 16, 1997, Vargas was approached by the DEA agent Shaun Perry in his Miami Beach apartment.
Minutes earlier, the agent had questioned Aguilera Asencio, the partner with whom Vargas had returned from Aruba that same day. The agent knew that both carried heroin-filled latex pellets in their stomachs, as reported by a confidential source.
Perry arrested the pair and took them to the nearby Mount Sinai hospital. Vargas passed 65 capsules, Aguilera 35. The next day, agents discovered 30 more condoms in Aguilera's travel bag.
Before being taken to prison, Vargas and Aguilera decided to cooperate. Both identified Bernardo Ramírez as the person who was going to receive the drugs and who had sent them to Aruba to pick them up. Vargas made phone calls to Ramírez while the agents recorded.
The dentist asked how much she was going to receive for her work and Ramírez agreed that they meet at Aventura mall, in North Miami Beach, for the delivery of the drug. Several agents recorded the encounter with cameras.
At 7:52 pm Vargas and Ramírez met inside the mall. She told Ramírez to accompany her to take delivery of the drug that was inside her car in the parking lot. Ramírez stood at a short distance from Vargas's car while she removed the drug. After a brief discussion, they were arrested and taken to jail.
On July 21, Ramírez was brought before a federal court magistrate who set a bond of $150,000 and ordered him to report twice a week by phone with a parole officer. Ramírez had to hand over his passport. He was declared partially indigent, which is why the judge appointed him a public defender.
Ramírez pleaded not guilty. His sister, brother-in-law, and ex-sister-in-law guaranteed the bond, to which was added another, called a corporate bond, for $100,000.
On November 14 before Judge Edward B. Davis, Ramírez pleaded guilty. At Christmas he asked for permission to travel to New York.
The petition said: "Ramírez's sister, Marta Lucía, her husband and daughter, and Ramírez's girlfriend are spending the New Year's holiday in New York, and Ramírez seeks to spend the holidays with them."
He flew to New York on December 28 and checked into the Iroquois Hotel on 45th Street, and returned on January 2.
Vargas was declared a fugitive on August 27, 1998. The guarantee her mother had placed was seized. According to the memorandum presented by her lawyer, during those years Vargas battle addiction to drugs and alcohol that affected her professional life and led her tto drug trafficking.
According to the lawyer, Vargas overcame the addiction and devoted herself to orthodontics and reconstructive surgery in Colombia while taking care of her parents, both diagnosed with dementia. She made $3,000 a month and her car was a Daewoo. Klugh said that due to a translation problem the probation officer incorrectly stated it was a Lamborghini Diablo.
Vargas, 57, was convicted in Miami to two and half years in prison after the prosecutor of the case asked for a reduction in light of her cooperation.
Margarita Rabin contributed to this report.