Forbidden Stories
Rafael Project

Assassination of Rafael Moreno: Revealing the millions embezzled in Colombia

Six months after the assassination of Colombian journalist Rafael Moreno, 30 journalists, coordinated by Forbidden Stories, pursued his investigations into allegations of wide-scale corruption in the province of Córdoba, revealing a system of cronyism in public works contracts potentially to the tune of several million dollars.

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By Paloma Dupont de Dinechin

April 18, 2023

Additional reporting by Andrea Rincón (Cuestión Pública), Edier Buitrago (Cuestión Pública), Ivonne Rodriguez (CLIP), Claudia Duque (freelance), Juan Diego (El País), Felipe Morales (El Espectador), among others.

Translated by Phineas Rueckert

“If you have to kill me, kill me. But I am telling you to your face: you won’t silence me.”

It was with these words, spoken in a 37-minute Facebook live on July 21, 2022, that Colombian journalist Rafael Moreno defied his detractors and predicted his own demise.

In the video, Moreno wears a hat and a white polo shirt with the name of his online media: Voces de Córdoba. For more than half an hour, the investigative journalist, who in addition to running two Facebook pages had also recently opened a bar and grill to make ends meet, vigorously denounces corruption in the region of Córdoba. This region, north of Medellin, is one of the poorest and most violent parts of the country – and a strategic corridor for drug smuggling. It is also one of the most corrupt.

Reading from his screen, Moreno cites artificially inflated contracts, unfinished public works projects and companies profiting off rampant corruption and embezzlement. “They steal from the municipality,” he says at one point in the video. “Somebody should put their finger on the corruption in this region.”

Since the 2016 Peace Accords between the Colombian government and the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or FARC by its Spanish initials), Moreno had made reporting on corruption and drug trafficking his specialty. An obsession, even. Voces de Córdoba, launched in 2018, spared no one – from local politicians to mining companies to paramilitary groups. Sometimes bordering on the excessive, Moreno’s tone and the rising number of followers on his page – about 56,000 – did not go unnoticed.

Three weeks prior to posting the video, Moreno found an anonymous note on his motorcycle, accompanied by a bullet, which he now holds in front of the camera. “Now you know that we know all your movements, where you go, when you wake up, when you go to sleep,” he reads. “We know where you go out for drinks in Montelíbano [the city he lived in], we know everything about you and we are not going to forgive you for what you are doing. So now you know, my friend, that the rest of the magazine of this 9 mm [gun] is ready for you.”

Rafael Moreno shows the bullet he received in the trunk of his motorcycle, along with a threatening note, in a Facebook Live on July 21, 2022. (Photo: Screenshot of Voces de Córdoba page.)

Several months later, on October 16, 2022, just after 7 pm, Moreno was closing his bar and grill when a man wearing a baseball cap came into the restaurant. The man took out a revolver and fired three times at Moreno, killing him instantly. As of this writing, the assassin is still on the loose.

As he predicted, Moreno was killed. But thanks to documents and instructions left behind by the journalist, he was not silenced.

For the past six months, 30 journalists have come together to pursue Moreno’s work, in keeping with requests he made before his death. Several days before his assassination, Moreno had been in contact with Forbidden Stories with the aim of joining the Safebox Network, which allows threatened journalists to upload and protect their sensitive information. If something happens to them, Forbidden Stories and our network of partners can pursue their work and ensure that their stories are read by a maximum number of people around the world.

Hundreds of documents and emails accessed by the Forbidden Stories consortium helped us pursue Moreno’s work on corruption and embezzlement. Today, we are publishing these investigations alongside 32 media partners around the world. Through our analysis of documents Moreno left behind, as well as other public contracts obtained through freedom of information requests in the municipalities Moreno reported on, ground reporting and interviews with dozens of sources, our consortium can reveal a massive system of cronyism in the province of Córdoba and the probable embezzlement of up to several million dollars across five municipalities – a vast scheme Moreno had spent his career trying to take down and may have paid for with his life.

Kiara Sánchez (left), Rafael’s wife, and Maira Moreno (right), his sister, in Rafael’s apartment five days after his murder. (Photo: Forbidden Stories)

The Voice of Córdoba

Four days after the assassination of her husband, Kiara Sánchez went back to the apartment that had served as the journalist’s office for the first time. She was accompanied by other family members and journalists from the Forbidden Stories consortium.

The first thing that stood out was a heap of administrative documents on the table, the result of hundreds of freedom of information requests Moreno had filed asking for details about public contracts. In Colombia, these types of requests are a powerful tool for obtaining public interest information. But though they are relatively easy to fill out, they can be risky for the author – especially in dangerous regions like Córdoba. Here, Moreno was one of the few journalists brave enough to file these requests. And he did so with gusto. In the ten days prior to his murder, he had submitted four.

For Moreno, journalism alone wasn’t enough to pay the bills. In 2022, he had opened a carwash and bar and grill – the same one he’d later be shot at – which he called “Rafo Parilla.” Each week, he’d borrow a friend’s car and drive five hours to buy fish to sell to his neighbors.

Despite these activities, he also found the time to share videos and content on two Facebook pages he ran: “Rafael Moreno investigator” and “Voces de Córdoba.” On these pages, no one was untouchable. Councilors, mayors, governors, even fellow journalists, found themselves in Moreno’s line of fire. “You’re going too far,” Moreno’s sister Maira remembers telling Moreno. “You’d even be willing to denounce your own sister.” Moreno’s response: “Yes, if you did bad things.”

Moreno had no limits when it came to denouncing corruption, friends and family said. “He was constantly throwing banana peels,” Rafael Martínez, the cabinet secretary in Puerto Libertador, the region Moreno came from, and a longtime friend of the journalist, said in an interview with a member of the consortium. “Anybody could have killed him.”

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A powerful family

On October 7, 2022, Moreno, who knew he was under significant threat, started to share elements of the final investigation he was working on with administrators of Forbidden Stories’ Safebox Network team. “We are currently working on a very rigorous investigation and have come across many problems,” he said in a call nine days before his assassination. “It’s related to a strategy in which public administrators, entrepreneurs, and consortiums [of local businesses] use materials from the Uré river basin for public works projects without any type of permit, license or title.”

Through ground reporting, Moreno had discovered that dozens of trucks were being driven out to a river abutting a national park, where, he said, they pilfered sand for use in public construction projects. All of it was illegal, Moreno said. According to workers Moreno interviewed, the sand taken from the banks of the Uré River – to be used for public works projects – was collected without an environmental license, despite it being a protected area. More so, the journalist later determined, the scheme was linked to one of the most powerful political families in the region – the Calle family, which owned the land.

In late September 2022, Moreno – wearing sunglasses and a black, mesh Nike hat – again filmed himself, this time from what he believed to be the scene of the crime: a plot of land belonging to Carmen Aguas, the wife of Gabriel Calle, the patriarch of the Calle family – one of six families in the area fighting over political influence.

Moreno posted the video on his Twitter page, tagging Gabriel Calle’s son Andrés, the interior minister, the prosecutor’s office, an environmental protection agency and the president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro. In the video, he denounced the resource pilfering scheme, gesturing toward a distant backhoe. The video amassed about 1,600 views – not a ton, but enough to potentially sully the image of the powerful family.

Calle, the patriarch, is a former regional deputy and mayor of Montelíbano, a major city in the area where he served between 2012 and 2015. He is currently under investigation for several acts of corruption, including illegal conflicts of interest and illicit enrichment. His family has also been tied to drug trafficking in the past: Calle’s cousin, César Cura Demoya, was convicted on drug trafficking and money laundering charges in the United States.

In Córdoba, the Calle family’s political reach is significant. One of his sons, Gabriel Calle Aguas, previously served as a local campaign manager for current Colombian president Gustavo Petro and cabinet chief for the Minister of the Interior and is now running for governor of Córdoba in the regional elections scheduled for October 2023.

The Calle family, from right to left: Carmen Aguas, Gabriel Calle Demoya and their two children, Gabriel Calle Aguas et Andrés Calle. (Photo: Facebook page of Gabriel Calle Demoya)

Yamir Pico, Moreno’s cousin, who is also a journalist, considered Moreno’s last investigation to be “extremely sensitive,” especially in the context of the ongoing election campaign season. “Rafael had gone to the private property of the Calles, a family that most tread lightly around because we know what they’re capable of,” Pico said in an interview with Forbidden Stories. Three journalists close to Moreno, including Pico, who shared Moreno’s reporting about this family allegedly received threats after Moreno’s death.

(In a statement to the consortium, Gabriel Calle Demoya denied all responsibility for the extraction of sand. “The major problem is not Gabriel Calle, the presumed owner of the site of illegal extraction,” he said. “Rather, it is the companies that carry out work with materials from illegal quarries.” The former mayor of Montelíbano added that the trucks in question had been filmed on a public road and not his wife’s property, although the land registry does not mention the existence of a public road in this location.)

Starting from the videos Moreno filmed, in which truck license plates are visible, Forbidden Stories was able to trace the ownership of the vehicle Moreno believed was being used to pilfer resources. This truck, our investigation found, belongs to the construction company JV Ingeniería, whose legal representative is Juan Carlos Amador Carrascal. (Carrascal did not respond to requests for comment.) This same entrepreneur was previously connected to a scandal involving the renovation of a school using shoddy construction materials that led to dirty water seeping into classrooms.

On October 12, four days before his assassination, Moreno sent a freedom of information request to city hall requesting documents about the Uré river and the Calle property. The response only came two days after his death. (Contacted by Forbidden Stories, Custodio Liborio Acosta Urzola, the mayor of San Jose de Uré where the Calle’s property is located said that the municipality was “not aware of the extraction of sand in the river of Uré” and that it had been monitoring “possible points of extraction of material, without results.”)

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From mentor to enemy

If the Calle family formed the basis of Moreno’s final investigation, the journalist’s white whale was another political “clan,” as Moreno and other local journalists refer to political families in the area. This “clan,” at the center of many of Moreno’s investigations for years, was intimately connected to the journalist. It was, ironically, thanks to this family that Moreno entered journalism in the first place.

Raised in a small, backwater village in the southern region of Córdoba called Puerto Libertador, Moreno was not destined to become a journalist. As an adolescent, Moreno started working in a local mine in a neighboring village. He left to pick coca leaves and complete his military service. When he returned home, at just 20 years old, he was reintroduced to the man who changed his entire life trajectory: Espedito Duque.

Duque was a charming politician, adept at regaling crowds and inspiring the confidence of others. At the time, Duque’s goal was clear: rid Puerto Libertador of the ruling Carrascal family, who had single-handedly controlled the region for nearly a decade.

When Moreno first came across Duque, the charming politician was selling a rags-to-riches story of lemon picker to political candidate. A man of the people, he spoke of social justice and decent treatment of the poor and destitute. Moreno lapped it all up. In time, he became a bit of a second son to Duque, and brought his family to work on Duque’s campaign, too. (In an interview with Forbidden Stories, Duque reiterated this, saying: “He was like a son to me.”)

“We did everything for him,” Maira, Moreno’s younger sister, remembered. “Rafael was his right-hand man, he was practically his head of communications.”

Ad from Espedito Duque’s 2015 campaign for mayor. (Photo: Facebook page of Espedito Duque)

After two failed campaigns and 12 years of fighting, Duque was elected in 2015, and Moreno came to work for the new mayor. Moreno’s first task was important: installing generators in areas that didn’t have electricity. People who knew him say he accomplished this task with grit. As a reward, the mayoral administration helped finance a semester of law study. But people close to Moreno say that by that time he was already becoming disillusioned with Duque. The relationship was fraying around the edges.

Moreno felt that the changes Duque had promised were slow to arrive, if they arrived at all. To make matters worse, the new mayor went about naming the same corrupt functionaries who had served in past administrations, he said. By 2017, Moreno decided to leave the mayor’s office for good.

Several years later, reflecting on this experience in a Facebook post, Moreno wrote: “At the time of victory, I remember kissing Espedito Duque’s mother and thanking her for having brought to the world our source of hope. But I was wrong, and it pains me to even think about it. He made us believe he was going to change things, but he surrounded himself with the same people we had so long criticized and who slowed down our hope of getting elected.”

In December 2018, Moreno – the coal miner turned political activist – made another career change. He became a journalist. That year, he launched Voces de Córdoba in order to investigate the excesses of the administration he had once worked for. He started by analyzing public contracts signed by his former mentor.

To Duque, who agreed to respond to the consortium, this felt like an act of personal revenge. “After I stopped supporting him, he declared that he was going to do everything possible to destroy the political project,” Duque said, adding: “He was filled with hate, rage and resentment.”

Later, Moreno turned to those enacted by Duque’s successor, Eder John Soto – widely considered to be a straw man representing the interests of the Duque “clan.” Soto, elected in 2019, benefited from a sizable investment from Duque’s family, including roughly $15,000 in campaign contributions from Duque’s sister. Duque had toppled one dynasty but created another. (“Only Mr. Eder John knows about the financing of his campaign,” Duque said in response to questions from the consortium.)

Eder John Soto on the left with Espedito Duque, image posted by Eder John Soto for the birthday of Espedito Duque. (source: Facebook of Eder John Soto)

Behind the scenes, local functionaries say, the former mayor was nonetheless pulling the strings. “Duque is the one who decides what’s important in the municipality,” one local official said, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisals. “He welcomes visitors to his home starting around 11 pm and often until 3 in the morning. Everyone goes there to ask for favors: contracts, nominations, recommendations.”

Even after Moreno’s death, the system remains in place.

The man who made the public markets tremble

From the day he left the Duque administration, Moreno had one goal in mind: uncover evidence of wide-scale, systemic corruption by his former mentor and his “clan.”

The journalist’s method was simple: navigate to the official government site that compiles public contracts, download the contracts, pour over the budget and execution proposals, and then visit the location to see if the work was being done correctly.

Moreno’s work was made easier by the lax regulatory climate that followed the 2016 Peace Accords – signed between the Colombian government and FARC rebels – which made public money easily accessible in areas like Puerto Libertador that were particularly affected by the more than 50-year armed conflict.

In total, more than $100 million has been invested in the five municipalities of the region since the 2016 Peace Agreement. In principle, these resources were earmarked for use on more than 130 public works projects, including road repairs, education, and health care, as well as housing and energy infrastructure projects. However, activists say many were never completed. “We realized that many of these works were unfinished or not even started so we started to make a list and went to see these places,” Enyer Nieves Pinto, president of the network Veedurías of southern Córdoba, a civilian oversight group, said.

Naturally, Moreno started with these five municipalities, taking advantage of progressive transparency laws to consult these contracts and his law studies to pick them apart.

Moreno typically published these investigations on his Facebook page, which quickly became a sort of reference in the area. One of his most well-known investigations concerned the renovation of the municipal stadium in Puerto Libertador. Despite a contract of more than $1 million and several extensions, the project was eventually abandoned. Moreno ironically baptized the stadium: “Eternity Stadium.”

In this poor and particularly violent region haunted by decades of guerilla warfare, the sums of money wasted on the stadium were revolting to many. Moreno’s investigation only proved what community members already knew: resources were going to waste. It also catapulted the journalist in the eyes of some, who saw Moreno as a transparency crusader.

But this type of reporting also led to threats from local armed groups. These groups regularly take a cut of the money invested into public works, a sort of keep-the-peace tax Moreno called “la vacuna,” or “the vaccine,” in conversations with Forbidden Stories. Moreno denounced “the vaccine” for what it was – corruption – which in turn led to an increase in threats starting around 2019.

That year, Moreno was designated as a target by an organized crime faction called the Caparrapos. Two years later, he was briefly kidnapped and interrogated by members of the Gulf Clan, an armed group that shares territory with the Caparrapos.

Moreno regularly shared these threats with the country’s National Protection Unit (UNP), an agency in charge of putting in place protective measures for journalists in Colombia. But the protection he received was irregular, and on the day of his assassination, inexistent.

Despite the danger, Moreno continued to pressure the Duque administration, not just through publicly but also through private freedom of information requests and legal complaints. In the Colombian legal system, these types of requests can lead to legal investigations, and in extreme cases, to legal action if and when the authorities determine fraud has occurred. For Walter Álvarez, a journalist close to Moreno, it was this legal risk that exposed his friend and colleague the most. “A journalistic investigation can go away with time,” he said. “But when they can get you in prison, it’s a whole different story. I would never have dared to get messed up in that. We’re not all ready to take that kind of risk.”

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In the pockets of the “clan”

Forbidden Stories and our partners were able to consult Moreno’s email inbox. Among the thousands of emails and attachments, we discovered a key document whose existence has not been previously revealed: a formal administrative complaint Moreno filed against Espedito Duque and his cronies for “acts of corruption, embezzlement of public funds, influence trafficking and clientelism” on January 5, 2021 – about a year and a half before the journalist was killed.

According to the Colombian constitution, any citizen can lodge this type of complaint. But Moreno’s was particularly thorough. The 21-page document describes the mayor’s methods in great detail and alleges “various types of crimes against the public administration.” Moreno specifies the operative mechanism Duque put in place: creating “a certain number of structures” for his close friends and family and then contracting with them in order to “facilitate the appropriation of public resources.”

“Never before have so many nonprofit organizations been constituted in Puerto Libertador with the sole aim of winning municipal contracts,” he wrote.

Among the dozens of NGOs Moreno named in the complaint were two linked to Duque. One, Serviexpress ATP SAS, was founded by an individual close to Duque’s wife, Julieth Arroyo Montiel. Another, Renacer IPS SAS, represented by the son of a government employee who worked for Duque, obtained two contracts worth more than $75,000.

Moreno went after Duque’s personal property, as well, claiming that “his salary as mayor would not allow him to acquire all of these goods,” which included several commercial locations, a house worth around $70,000 and a farm. He also listed public works projects he said were never started.

At the end of the document, Moreno signed his name, which Forbidden Stories verified the authenticity of by matching with other freedom of information requests publicly shared by the journalist. To this day, the document has not received a response.

As part of the Rafael Project, coordinated by Forbidden Stories, the Colombian investigative news outlet Cuestión Pública, which specialized in corruption and public abuse of power, and CLIP, a consortium of Latin American news outlets, picked up where Moreno left off. Their analysis, released today as part of the Rafael Project, shows that between 2016 and 2022, the Duque and Soto administrations signed 99 contracts with 13 businesspeople close to the Duque “clan,” contracts worth a combined $3 million.

Of these contracts, just five companies, some of which had no prior experience with public markets, won 96 percent of the total value of bids put out by the mayor’s office. The majority of these companies belong to Martín Montiel Mendoza, who is close to Espedito Duque. Between 2016 and 2022, the mayor’s office signed 56 contracts, more than half of them by mutual agreement – meaning a public offer was never opened – with three companies owned by Mendoza, for a total of just under $1 million.

Espedito Duque and Martín Montiel Mendoza on Mendoza’s birthday in June 2020. (source: Facebook of Martín Montiel Mendoza)

The first of these companies, Corporación Visión Juvenil, was formed as a nonprofit in 2014, just one and a half years before Duque’s election as mayor. As of this writing, the company has provided logistics solutions for sporting and cultural events, signing 36 contracts worth about $600,000. A second company, Innova Construcciones e Inmobiliaria, founded in 2017, signed four consecutive contracts with the mayor for managing parks, libraries and the municipal town hall. The first of these contracts was signed just 10 months after it was registered with the Chamber of Commerce. The third company, Serviexpress Colombia, was also created in 2017, and provides services including transport, advertising, human resources and assistance for elderly and handicapped people. Between 2019 and 2022, Serviexpress inked no fewer than 16 contracts for a total of $200,000, primarily for providing food and cleaning products to the mayor’s office.

(Montiel Mendoza did not respond to multiple requests for comment sent by the consortium.)

Cuestión Pública and CLIP also looked into the company that treats wastewater in Puerto Libertador, Agualcas. During a municipal plenary session, Moreno had identified a discrepancy between the number of streets with sewers in Puerto Libertador and the number shown in official maps released by the mayor’s office. Agualcas, which is supposed to furnish the infrastructure, nevertheless received various public contracts for installing sewers.

The consortium’s investigation revealed that this company, too, was under the influence of the Duque “clan.” In the years since his election as mayor, this company has been owned by three people close to Duque, all of whom worked on his election campaigns. During this period, Agualcas benefitted from 13 public contracts worth around $800,000. (Agualcas did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Researching municipal contracts, Cuestión Pública and CLIP were also able to identify a presumed associate of the infamous Gulf Clan – one of the groups believed to have been involved in the kidnapping of Moreno – among Duque’s entourage. This individual, Julio César Ramos Ruiz, a doctor at the Puerto Libertador hospital allegedly known by the nickname “the doctor,” was arrested in October 2019 by police, and accused of aggravated conspiracy charges. According to press reports, Ramos cared for injured members of the Gulf Clan, registering them under fake names so they couldn’t be identified by authorities.

(“That’s the theory of the accusers,” Julio César Sánchez Moreno, Ramos’ lawyer, said. “The theory of the defense is that we are confronted with a case of a judicial false positive.” On September 15, 2020 Ramos was released on bail, in a highly controversial decision. His trial is scheduled for April 27, 2023.)

During the time Ramos was active at the Puerto Libertador hospital, the manager of the healthcare center was none other than Eder John Soto, Espedito Duque’s successor as mayor of Puerto Libertador. Several photos taken between 2016 and 2018 showing the two men suggest they knew each other and saw each other regularly. Ramos, Duque and Soto are all Facebook friends, confirming this association. The doctor was also in contact with Juan David Duque, Duque’s son, after his arrest.

Forbidden Stories obtained a document showing that Soto plans to testify in favor of Ramos, his former employee and friend, per his lawyer, during the upcoming trial.

Screenshots showing the links between Ramos and the Duques. (Image: Cuestión Pública)

(Eder John Soto did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment. Duque, for his part, denied having “supported the creation of entities so that they could benefit from contracts with the municipality.” “Everything is false, it is absolutely false,” he said, adding that “he has achieved great results” that have earned him “recognition as the best mayor in the department.”)

The threats come closer to home

Moreno was known for his impatience. As soon as he discovered suspicious elements, he immediately published them on his Facebook page. But by the time he was assassinated, these bits and pieces were coming together to tell a story of vast corruption and cronyism in Córdoba. The threats, in turn, also went up a notch.

On September 26, 2022, Miguel David Arrieta River, a member of Duque’s immediate entourage nicknamed “coordinator of peace workers” by the municipality, attacked Moreno and his colleague Organis Cuadrado on Facebook, a day after Moreno had published a contract for school transport that he argued was inflated. The post, which has since been deleted, included a photograph of the two journalists, along with the caption: “This pair of social media blackmail artists are neither journalists nor lawyers. They live on social media. As my grandfather would have said, they are ‘armed bums.’ They are responsible for the fact that 1,200 students find themselves without school transport.”

Miguel Rivera’s Facebook profile picture, alongside Espedito Duque (right). (Photo: Facebook page of Miguel Rivera.)

Three days later, Moreno filed a case for slander and defamation against Arrieta Rivera, whose personal connections frightened him. “His mother and stepfather were both in prison, accused of conspiracy to commit murder and drug trafficking, which puts my security and that of my family at risk,” the complaint, which Forbidden Stories is publishing for the first time, reads. It was the last complaint Moreno ever filed. (Contacted by Forbidden Stories, Rivera said that he was too ill to respond to our questions.)

A rape case and fear of collusion with a prosecutor

The increasingly virulent attacks didn’t quiet Moreno. In fact, the journalist went straight for the jugular, dredging up an old case that, according to his nephew José Fernando Bula Moreno, was “a bomb that was about to explode for the Duques.”

On September 27, 2022, Moreno posted a message on social media that was sure to frighten the Duque “clan.” It was about a rape case against a minor that implicated one of Espedito Duque’s sons, of which all charges were dropped in April 2017. Moreno began probing for elements of a cover-up.

Moreno must have known that the case was highly sensitive, but he didn’t shy away from writing about it. Specifically, Moreno had started looking into a rental contract for an apartment between Duque and the wife of Carlos Escobar Zapa, one of the prosecutors in charge of the case. Colombian lawyers had already begun to look into this contract, but Moreno wanted to prove at all costs that the contract – signed just two months before the case was dropped – was the reason the investigation was discontinued.

According to the journalist’s nephew, Duque “had one foot in prison with this case.” Moreno, he continued, “was going to do everything possible to ensure that the charges are not dropped.” The nephew explained that a week before Moreno was killed he had warned the judges looking into the case that “if you take money, I will denounce you.”

José Fernando Bula Moreno (left), the nephew of Rafael Moreno, attends a vigil in memory of Rafael in Puerto Libertador, Córdoba, on October 26, 2022. (Photo: Diego Cuevas for El País)

Moreno felt he was getting close to his white whale. On October 12, five days before the assassination, Moreno had confided in a close friend while in the car. “If everything goes well, we will have an arrest warrant against Espedito Duque.” His friend warned him that continuing to speak out about the case was dangerous.

Forbidden Stories obtained a document from that same day. This document confirms that in the days leading up to his murder, Moreno was putting together additional elements related to this case by appealing an unanswered freedom of information request that had been sent 20 days earlier. This prior request had asked for various sensitive documents, including proof of rental payments to the mayor’s office. (Espedito Duque told the consortium that he did not know the owner of the building at the time the contract was signed.)

In an interview, Carlos Escobar Zapa, the prosecutor, told Forbidden Stories that he has been separated from his wife since 2015 and that he “never knew about” the contract with the mayor. “She rented it without my knowledge,” he said. “I don’t know how she did it.”

“They opened a disciplinary investigation and I was cleared,” he added. “I had nothing to do with it.” A judicial investigation is still ongoing.


Let’s keep in touch!

Regarding the sexual assault claims, he denies having ever made an agreement with Duque.

Looking into the case, Forbidden Stories was able to obtain additional testimonies. According to a well-placed government source, at least 10 young women accused the Duque’s son of rape or sexual assault, but only two filed a case against him. “From what I’ve seen here, the suspiciously closed cases, I don’t think there is a more corrupt city in the world than the one we live in,” the source said. “Here, we have received threats from individuals close to Duque and the prosecutor Zapa.”

(Asked about these allegations, Zapa said he was not aware of threats. “My family is made up of honest people,” he said. “I have no links to any such [criminal] organization, nor does any member of my family.”)

In 2022 alone, Córdoba’s judicial discipline commission opened three disciplinary proceedings against the former prosecutor. In the months since Moreno’s assassination, not a single journalist has published any information linking Zapa to the Duque family.

Local journalists say that since Moreno’s death, journalistic publications have become less hard-hitting. On November 2, Pico, Moreno’s cousin and fellow journalist, announced that he was closing down his media outlet on account of the threats he was receiving. (He later restarted it “without pursuing any further investigations.”)

Walter Álvarez, another journalist, decided to focus on sports and cultural coverage. He has four children and doesn’t want to “end up like Rafael.”

One journalist, however, has continued to raise his voice. Andrés Chica, who was close to Moreno, wrote on WhatsApp and Facebook that the mayor’s office in Puerto Libertador allegedly paid for the criminal investigation into Moreno’s death to not target them. The next day, Chica woke up to text messages from Duque questioning his reporting. “I weighed each word of my publication,” Chica wrote to the former mayor. Duque’s response: “You know what you’re doing. And you know how things are here in Puerto.”

Chica didn’t think twice. He left the region and is currently in hiding.

More than six months after Moreno’s death, nobody has been arrested in the murder case. The case was transferred to investigators in Medellin, in order to avoid local corruption.

For his part, Duque is allegedly thinking of running for election in Puerto Libertador this October. (He did not respond to questions about his potential candidacy.) Gabriel Calle Aguas, the son of the Calle “clan” Moreno had investigated, remains candidate for the regional governorship in those same elections. Only this time, the two will be running without the sharp eyes of Rafael Moreno trained on them.

Funeral celebration in memory of Rafael in Puerto Libertador, Córdoba on October 26, 2022. (Photo: Diego Cuevas for El País)

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