A group of 10 Colombian businessmen will face trial on charges of embezzling the Ecopetrol oil company in alliance with the ELN guerrilla group. The businessmen are accused of allegedly using their positions to allow the illegal armed group to plunder the finances of Colombia’s national oil company through the massive theft of crude oil worth $80 million.
The illegal network operated in the departments of Tolima, Cundinamarca, Santander, Bolivar, Cesar, Atlantico, and Sucre. The investigation into the case began months ago and initially implicated 17 individuals, of whom 10 will now be charged with forming a criminal organization before a judge. According to the prosecution, the network was allegedly led by businessman Hernando Silva Bickenbach.
“The Cacaos” and Their Relationship with the ELN
The prosecution has learned that the criminal network formed by the businessmen was referred to as “the cacaos” and, with the collaboration of the ELN guerrilla, managed to steal large quantities of oil from the Caño Limon-Coveñas pipeline in the Norte de Santander department.
The ELN, which has a significant presence in the region, was reportedly responsible for stealing the oil from the pipeline. Additionally, according to the accusations, the criminal organization imported very low-quality crude oil from Venezuela and Panama to introduce into their companies and legitimize the merchandise.
Furthermore, the investigation concludes that the businessmen received support from certain companies in the Free Trade Zone of Barranquilla. These Barranquilla-based companies’ role was to legalize the manipulated product, which was subsequently sold abroad.
The Network of Businessmen
The prosecuting body holds Hernando Silva Bickenbach, the legal representative of Niam Commerce, responsible for being the primary buyer of illicit oil, as well as serving as a distributor to other members of the criminal network. For this reason, the businessman will face charges of conspiracy to commit a crime, misappropriation of hydrocarbons, and private document forgery.
According to the prosecution’s indictment, another key figure in the illegal scheme was industrialist Roger Arturo Gale Gutierrez, who played a prominent role due to his position as a commercial engineer at Gunvor Colombia SAS. This engineer provided advice to give an appearance of legality to the foreign-imported product.
Other members of the network who are now facing charges include businessmen Hiklirs Abraham Rincones Joiro, Oscar Luis Pastrana Martinez, Sergio Fortich Perez, Jaime Fernandez Uribe, Jairo Hernan Devia Cubillos, Jose Gabriel Marquez Santos, Margarita Delgado de Garcia, and Paola Margarita Martinez Sanchez. The latter served as the legal representative of Swiss Terminal Barranquilla and allegedly acted as a link to the Free Trade Zone group in the capital of Atlantico.
Silva Bickenbach, the Export Mastermind
All of them will face charges from the prosecution, which asserts that Silva Bickenbach was well aware of the illicit origin of the crude oil he purchased and that he allegedly resold it to the Ministry of Mines and exported it abroad illegally.
The alleged ringleader of the criminal organization, comprised of businessmen, is a cousin of the wife of former President Andres Pastrana (1998-2002) and has maintained his innocence since the investigations against him began. He continues to assert his innocence.
According to the prosecution, Silva had the financial capacity to purchase the product and then illegally export it to Singapore and Europe using Panamanian-flagged vessels. The prosecuting body believes that Silva’s ships carried a monthly cargo equivalent to one million barrels valued at $10 million. None of these operations were recorded in the export archives.
These illegal activities would have dealt a severe financial blow to Ecopetrol, Colombia’s leading oil company and the second-largest in Latin America. They would have also had a significant impact on the finances of the Colombian state since Ecopetrol is a mixed-economy company with public participation and control.
Today, along with the other defendants, Silva Bickenbach will face a preliminary hearing before a criminal judge who will review the prosecution’s case.