SEMANA, September 26, 2021


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

When the temporary venture Centros Poblados (Populated Centers) won the contract worth millions with the TIC Ministry to bring Internet service to the children in the remotest schools in this country, there was jubilation in office #601 in a building near the Park on 93, in Bogotá.

Emilio Tapia, the same man who was convicted for the carousel of contracting in the country’s capital, drank a whisky toast to that day, along with some of his cronies. They have made it once again. A group of companies that he had put together had just been awarded, in December of 2020, a contract worth more than a “billon” pesos (roughly USD $ 260,245,000) to install more than 7,000 Internet access points.

That’s how Juan Carlos Ángel Cáceres Bayona described it to the Attorney General’s staff. He is the owner of the Novotics firm, and is one of those involved in the notorious scandal. He has decided to cooperate with the prosecutors, and his testimony was made available exclusively to SEMANA. “That day we were in the offices on 93 in Bogotá; Emilio was there, his wife, Robert Gómez, me, Dr. María Mónica Pino, Dr. Lucas, and one more lawyer, and it was that day that the moment to open the envelopes arrived,” Cáceres confessed to the investigators on last September 3.

Later on, when they realized that they were the winners of the juicy contract, the party started. “I immediately began to celebrate, and we all celebrated; we were screaming because we had won it. I went into an office, I prayed, I wept, I called my wife, I called Dr. Oswaldo Medina and told him that God had done justice, because we had won. I hugged Robert and we both cried, then we offered up a glass of whiskey and then Dr. Pino Ricci came in ( . . . ) At about 5:30 or 6:00 in the afternoon, all of us that were there went out to dinner,” Cáceres added to his story.

This man has exposed the fact that Emilio Tapia was the true owner of the Centros Poblados contract, which cost the resignation of Minister Karen Abudinen, and led to Tapia’s being arrested once again.

Now, this country, in the midst of its indignation, can’t understand how a man convicted of corruption, who obtained favorable treatment from the legal system, had struck again as if by magic, in getting past the control agencies and all of the authorities, and making a mockery of the people of Colombia.

But things may get even more complicated for Tapia and his partners. Just a few days ago, after measures taken by Attorney General Francisco Barbosa in the United States, an FBI committee was in Colombia, and left with all of the evidence in the case after a meeting with the Director of the Attorney General’s Office Anticorruption Unit, Edward Alirio Calderón.

In the last few hours it was confirmed that United States courts have now opened a money laundering case, considering that 58,000 million pesos (more than USD $15,000,000) of the advance payment on the Centros Poblados contract had circulated through the U.S. financial system. The bank drafts were apparently made directly by Cáceres, and his accounts have now been frozen. In the next few weeks there could be arrest warrants and requests for the extradition of some of the protagonists of this scandal.

“What role did Emilio Tapia play in the development of the contract, and in the committees that you have mentioned?” The prosecutors asked Cáceres. “He listened, everything was explained to him, what was going to be purchased, his consultants that he had with him, they gave their opinions. Luis Fernando Duque (legal representative of the temporary venture) also gave his opinion and they went aside to meet with suppliers, and they brought solutions to the table,” he answered.

It’s clear that Emilio Tapia knows everything that went on, because he was the brains behind it. Before he was arrested, he sent a communication to the Attorney General’s Office in which he stated that he was disposed to collaborate with the prosecutors. Tapia has a lot to lose because he is a repeat offender, and he had received a benefit, a plea deal, before he was convicted for the carousel of contracts. It’s expected that this kingpin will end up informing on all of those involved, including the politicians.

The investigators already have some distinct clues to a group of Members of Congress from the coast that have taken part in the crooked doings. There is suspicion about some members of the Liberal Party and the Radical Change Party. Some of them may have used pressure to avoid having the Minister find that the contract had expired. There are also concerns about high officials in the Ministry, who have now left the agency, and it appears that they may have played key roles in the network. Some were looking at activities that then-Vice Minister of TIC Iván Mantilla might have handled. The authorities are beginning to investigate whether officials were bribed. The first figure mentions 6,000 million pesos (roughly USD $1,557,000) allegedly paid under the table.

This is how they pulled it off.

Cáceres said that it all started to be cooked up after Attorney Inocencio Meléndez, also convicted for the carousel of contracting, went to see Tapia in Sincelejo. Several days after that meeting, Tapia summoned Cáceres to his office in Bogotá, at the corner of 93rd and 17th Streets, to find out exactly what he was doing in the world of telecommunications and networks.

A short time later the pandemic arrived with its quarantines. Both ended up importing masks from China, because they saw a business opportunity there. Later on, Cáceres found out about the TIC Ministry’s call for bids for installing Internet service in rural schools. As the owner of Novotics, he started to look for somebody who could partner with him to take part in the bidding. However, more than one door was closed to him and it was then that he told Tapia about the opportunity. Tapia was immediately interested in the contract. “He said that building the networks was like a road concession, because if you create a telecommunications network where nobody has been before, well, you are going to be very successful,” said Cáceres in his testimony.

The two of them got to work. Tapia started to put together all of the business framework, with the help of attorneys, technicians, and insurance agents, and had meetings in Bogotá, Barranquilla, and Rionegro (Antioquia). “He tells me that he has some companies that could help with that, international, people with contacts. And he started to work on a process there with a Chinese company; I think it was China Telecom,” related Cáceres.

However, the urgency of the bidding and the delays in getting permits and documents with international companies meant we had to pass up on the Chinese firms. Tapia, an expert in cheating the government in contracting, and who a lot of people thought was done for and regretful of his plunder of Bogotá, moved quickly and put three firms on the table: ICM, Omega Building, and Intec. The meetings were coming and going.

Tapia’s house in Barranquilla, at 47th Avenue and 92d Street, beside a day care center, is where the better part of the dirty work was done. Cáceres described a meeting at that house with Alfredo Jesús Amín Yaber, a contractor from the coast who the prosecutors now have in their sights for this case. Cáceres was impressed by the number of people that visited Tapia.

“He was the one; there were several people that I don’t know who came to talk about other things. When you go to his house you will have to wait to go in, because a lot of people visit him. That day it was Robert. That was when they introduced us to the Amín fellow; Tapia calls him Little Alfred,” he said.

In his testimony, Amín Yaber himself admitted to the prosecutors that he was contacted and told to review all of the technical documentation that the temporary venture planned to present to the TIC Ministry. I noticed that they, insistently, during the structuring of the deal, they were talking about a man named “Mauricio”.

Tapia took charge of connecting the key points of the structure. Since the first day, he had not only looked to the legal counsel of Attorney Jorge Pino Ricci, but he also contacted Juan José Laverde, an insurance agent. All of that seems to indicate that Tapia’s orders were followed to the letter. For example, he wanted a payment of 100 million pesos (about USD $26,000) from each person that was involved in the business, to pay for the handling of a policy by a man identified as John González Moreno. Cáceres related all of this when the prosecutors questioned him, beginning at 9:00 o’clock in the morning and lasting nearly 12 hours.

Tapia’s communication with his partners was seamless. There were two WhatsApp groups, known as “Urgent UT Committee” and “MinTIC Policy”. The groups used them not only to send messages, but also to exchange bank accounts, charts, reports, receipts of payment, and even images of the bottles of whiskey shared with those who were already gloating.

Piñata in advance

The 70,000 million peso (about USD $18,175,000) advance on the contract with Centros Poblados turned out to have been embezzled and managed like pocket change. The confession by Cáceres to the Attorney General’s Office makes that clear, as it revealed that they bought cars, apartments, made loans to their families and, more than that, Emilio Tapia ordered remittances to accounts outside of this country, specifically Dubái. The money had been allocated exclusively for the purchase of equipment to be used to bring Internet service to the poorest children in Colombia.

The particulars described by Cáceres were outrageous. “I want to be clear about money transfers that I furnished to persons or companies that are not suppliers. I want to be clear that I furnished two loans to a family, a married couple, for USD $503,000. I did that for a personal reason, but they are now going to return the money. I want to be clear also that I took USD $1,342,000 to buy an apartment in my own name, but I have already sought the return of that money. I furnished myself with a draft in the amount of USD $75,000 for personal reasons,” he confessed.

The prosecutors asked him about one particular draft that his wife, Shirley Carolina, received for 147,595,000 pesos (roughly USD $38,500) from the Inselsa firm, one of the suppliers. Cáceres answered, “That must be the bill for at least five or seven SUV’s, I don’t know how many SUV’s my wife had rented, and I don’t know for how long the SUV’s were rented.”

But besides that, Cáceres revealed that the advance money from the contract also ended up invested in the purchase of a top-of-the-line vehicle for one of his friends. “I want it to be on record that at that time Robert Gómez needed money because he didn’t have a car, and I told the manager of Inselsa that he should give Robert a loan of 200,000,000 pesos (roughly USD $52,000) and that I would discount it from the money that I had obtained.”

Cáceres, who has already requested a plea agreement from the Attorney General’s Office, detailed with numbers and documents how the advance money ended up in accounts provided by Tapia. “Since he was representing the contractors, and they were partners in the business, that’s why I gave him that money,” he said.

The movements of money, according to his testimony, were as follows: He sent USD $120,000 to Safe Cargo International; USD $73,000 to Cimexp FZ-LLC. “I want to say about this that he emphasized to me several times that it had not yet arrived at its destination, which was Dubái; I had to go to the bank to check that transfer. He just told me that recently, and I didn’t get to the bank to verify it,” said Cáceres. Another one of the transactions was USD $30,000 to Juan Sebastián Ulloa.

The money also fell into the hands of other companies, on Tapia’s orders. “2wings Aircraft, USD $150,000; OLT Logistic, USD $300,000. I want to make clear that when I sent those drafts to those companies that he gave me, I told Emilio that those companies wouldn’t have any problems, because I was the one that was sending that money to the United States. And he told me that those companies have no problems. I sent those drafts on May 12, 2021 and May 14, 2021. And to USD $50,000 to Marcell Felipe Attomeys, and I want to make clear that that I don’t have a receipt from that person,” admitted Cáceres.

In his narrative, he also said that sometimes there was tension among the partners because the advance that was scheduled for February was a little late in arriving. They were without access to cash and they had no way to meet their payrolls and pay their suppliers. “Emilio Tapia had told me not to worry about the money because he had 60,000,000 pesos (roughly USD $15,800) approved credit at the BBVA bank, but personally, as the time passed, I realized that he didn’t actually have that. It was a lie, he said the bank had closed it off because the news about the whole business had gotten out,” explained Cáceres.

Threats From an Armed Gang

The embezzlement scandal in the MinTIC contract with Centros Poblados has all of the ingredients that belong to the mafia. Cáceres told the prosecutors that, when the scandal exploded, he met with Tapia, and Tapia was already very cagey. So much so, that Cáceres had to lift up his shirt and show him that he wasn’t going to tape the conversation. When Tapia asked Cáceres for his phone, he told Tapia that he had already turned it over to the Attorney General’s Office, with all of the chats. Tapia raised his hands to his head, knowing what was about to come down on him. In another meeting with Tapia, he asked Cáceres to agree with him on a joint defense.

For that reason, Caceres’s days became very complicated. On August 6, at 2:00 a.m., a squad of armed men burst into his house. “They gagged me, woke up my wife, and started hitting me in the chest with a pistol. They told me that if I said anything I was going to die, if I said anything, they would kill my son, if I said anything to the Police or anybody, they would be coming back.”

“Then they put my wife in the closet, grabbed all of her jewelry, two or three of my watches and some cash. During that whole time, they were hitting me and saying things. When they left they were going to put something like a hood on me, and I started telling them not to do that, because I might get a heart attack or something. My wife told them to give me an aspirin, and one of them opened the aspirin and put it in my mouth and found some water from a little refrigerator that we keep in that room. He threw it in my face, and they left,” related Cáceres.

All in all, they took 170 million pesos (roughly USD $44,700) in cash, a Piaget watch, another Cartier sport watch, three chains, seven rings, and a pair of gold earrings, as well as a crucifix encrusted with precious stones. The robbery amounted to 220 million pesos (roughly USD $58,000). “From that day on, I started to fear for my life, for my wife, and for my children,” Cáceres told the prosecutors.

Scandal at EMCALI

Most definitely, neither the convictions nor the prison sentence have kept Tapia from turning into a government contracting octopus. Besides the carrousel in Bogotá in the time of Samuel Moreno, and the MinTIC scandal for which he was arrested again, his tentacles have also arrived at the municipal companies in Cali (Emcali).

SEMANA has in its possession the prosecutors’ evidence about two falsified credit limits in the name of the Itaú Bank, one for 1,140 million pesos (roughly USD $300,000) and another for 725,000,000 pesos (roughly USD $190,600). The documents were issued in the name of Proctor Construction, S.A. in order to win contracts with Emcali. The falsified documents are dated February 8, 2021. Those false credit limits were presented to Emcali by the Mallarino Port Clarification and the Mallarino Port Renovation Consortiums, in procedures 900-IPU-0609-2020 and 900-IPU-0610—2020. The Attorney General’s Office believes that he was using the same modus operandi in Emcali that he used in the MinTIC contract with the Centros Poblados temporary venture.

A civil engineer, Jorge Alfonso Molina García, who functioned as an intermediary in the Centros Poblados insurance policies and the credit limits for Emcali, told the prosecutors that Emilio Tapia not only was the “owner of the MinTIC contract, but he was also owner of another contract in the municipal companies in the capital of Valle. Molina García, when he was being questioned, also gave exact data as to how the insurance policy for Centros Poblados was impossible to acquire. He also revealed the way that the phony guarantee had been handled.

“A bid guarantee has to have a procedure for furnishing the documents of those involved; in this case the members of the temporary venture of Centros Poblados. He didn’t do that. He didn’t send even his cedula (official identification document), or the cedula of the legal representative, and from that fact, you can argue that it’s a document that doesn’t have the appropriate procedure and is false,” stated Molina García.

Besides that, he accused Juan José Laverde of being responsible for the falsification of the Centros Poblados guarantees, but he, in turn, blamed Molina García. García described an unusual event to the investigators. “Juan José asked me to take the blame for everything that happened in the MinTIC process. He told me, “Look, I need you to take the blame, and he was crying, and he told me that he has a family,” said Molina. Molina answered him, “The only thing I can do, Juan José, is tell the truth.” Laverde had insisted. “Make it look as if you’re the guilty one, you know that this is a very powerful group. They will support your family, pay all the legal expenses, and everything you need.”

According to Molina, the next day a lawyer with the last name González insisted that he should say that he was guilty, and he told him that he was the one that had made the false guarantees. “Emilio Tapia is the real owner of this business (Centros Poblados); he has such power that I don’t know how far he would go to do me harm. They know where I live, they know who my children are, they know my daily schedule, and in one way or another, they will try to destroy me. So I am afraid,” Molina García told the prosecutors.

He also said that Laverde, of Rave Insurance Agencies, at one point and in the midst of the scandal, took his phone away and deleted all the messages between the two of them.

Molina García told the authorities that he had expected that Tapia would help him with the subcontracts, and that was how he had had a contract with the Governor’s Office in Putumayo for the construction of a school, and another one with the Office of the Governor of Caldas.

In the case of Emcali, the authorities are investigating the meetings that took place in an office on 76th Street in Bogotá between Emilio Tapia, the former District Comptroller Miguel Ángel Moralesrussi, who had also been convicted in the contracts carousel, and Attorney Karin Stefanía Pupo Benito, daughter of the former Member of Congress Muriel Benito Rebollo, who was arrested in 2006 for her alleged connections to the paramilitaries.

The Logbook of the Chats

SEMANA has seen the whole package of chats between several people implicated in the MinTIC contract scandal. They include the cell phone messages by Juan Carlos Cáceres. What’s clear is that the camaraderie had turned to anxiety, and even the conversations show that some were distancing themselves when the lid started coming off of the pot.

Some of the messages get your attention. For example, in a conversation between Cáceres and Luis Fernando Duque, the legal representative of the temporary venture, you see the following message: “Lined up with the Vice President”. The other person answers: “Excellent news! Congratulations, my brother”. “We’re doing all right. We only lack the Minister,” is the answer. “Excellent” is the reply. You also see “Intervention is lined up.”

In the messages between Cáceres and Duque, you see evidence of the disorder and failure to carry out obligations at every level. “I’m going to Cúcuta to find some funds because yesterday we were checking on performance so as to be able make some progress, but you can imagine that people are getting very agitated and upset by not getting paid, and also when they found that the parafiscal taxes had not been paid. Some of them have threatened to write to MinTIC and that would mean that our whole strategy would fall apart.”

In the chats there are a number of allusions to appointments with representatives of Centros Poblados and Minister Karen Abudinen. One of them turned out to be unnerving for the investigators. “We have to take steps to see that we can get close to her in private,” says one of the messages that were passed between Duque and Cáceres. In another conversation, they were already talking about the possibility of the project lapsing, but there was another very big worry. “We haven’t prepared a line of defense, we haven’t put together a strategy. There were a lot of fronts. I asked everybody to move to get supports,” says one of the chats.

There is also evidence that Luis Fernando Duque was put in charge of looking to get the contract transferred to a different business organization. And there is another message from Emilio Tapia to Cáceres in which he says, “Last night I couldn’t sleep for thinking about the Minister.”

Even though the arrests for this scandal have barely begun, we know that there are more coming. A still unknown chapter is the one about the politicians that may have participated in some way. Even though there is no official information so far, the grapevine has mentioned several names. SEMANA contacted some of them.

Senator Mauricio Gómez Amín, of the Liberal Party, denied any connection, and insisted that he is a bosom friend of former Minister Abudinen, and he defended her honesty and innocence, and suggested that maybe what happened is that his name has been confused with that of an uncle with the same last name of Amín. Senator Daira Galvis, of the Radical Change Party, told this paper that her name has been unfairly connected with the scandal and she blamed a Representative of the Chamber, Katherine Miranda for that. Miranda has been courageous and judicious in her complaints about the MinTIC scandal. Senator Antonio Zabaraín, of the Radical Change Party, also denied any connection with those involved in the Centros Poblados scandal, and he said he only knew of Tapia through the carrousel of contracting that happened in Bogotá.

This country is barely beginning to find out the truth about one of the most shameful episodes of corruption in recent history. Everything broke down. That’s the only possible way to explain how Emilio Tapia, the boss of government contracting, was able to create a grid of crime without anybody noticing and putting a stop to it.

His criminal operation seemed to be perfect. But the bad management of his empire gave him an advance of 70,000 million pesos (roughly USD $18,175,000) and allowed discovery of the fact that he and his minions had faked the guarantees that were supposed to sustain the business. Tapia was able to move around in Bogotá, Barranquilla, and Rionegro (Antioquia) like a big businessman, surrounded by lawyers and advisers. Nobody seemed to care that he had been in prison or that he had a record. However, a few questions did arise. Were there political planners and business enterprises still more powerful than Emilio Tapia in this whole business? That’s what happened in the contracting carrousel in Bogotá, when the other brains were the former Mayor Samuel Moreno, and his brother Iván, and the Nules.

We need to understand how the bidding was designed and how those unknowns ended up with a contract for more than a “billon” pesos (roughly USD $260,245,000), beating out large companies in the sector, without arousing more suspicion. Finally, the former TIC Minister Karen Abudinen, a political veteran, to judge by the chats, had held meetings with some of these people. Did she think they seemed to be qualified and competent to carry out this contract? Didn’t she see any difference between those “impresarios” and the representatives of Claro[1], which won the other half of the contract? What were the controls that were put into effect, and why did they fail to function? There is a lot more to learn here. There is a lot more to unravel in this scandal. Now the legal system will have to go to work and find out all of the guilty parties. Tapia will have to pay for what he did, and cooperate, and identify his accomplices. Colombia wants to see a significant penalty for him and all of those implicated in this scandal. We can’t go on rewarding the corrupt.

[1] Claro is a Colombian communications business.

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