How a journalist’s story about corruption came to life after he was killed

If you have to kill me, kill me. But I’m telling you right now: you won’t be able to shut me up.”

Colombian writer Rafael Moreno said this during a 37-minute Facebook lived on July 21, 2022. He did this to prove his critics wrong and say he would die.

In the video, Moreno talks about inflated contracts, public works projects that were never done, and companies that made money from widespread corruption and theft.

After 25 years on death row, you must read in Premium | Free: “So many years lost. I don’t want time to go on.

Three weeks before he posted the video, Moreno found a bullet and a note left by an unknown person on his motorbike. Months later, on October 16, 2022, just after 7 p.m., a man in a baseball cap walked into Moreno’s bar and grill as he was finishing up. The man pulled out a gun and shot Moreno three times, immediately killing him. The killer hasn’t been caught yet.

A few days before he was killed, Moreno talked to Forbidden Stories about joining the SafeBox Network. This is a way for journalists who are in danger to share and protect sensitive information. On October 7, 2022, Moreno began telling the SafeBox Network team about parts of the last probe.

Moreno had found out through reporting that dozens of trucks were being driven to a river next to a national park in Cordoba. He said that people were stealing sand to use in public building projects. Moreno said that everything was wrong.

Late in September 2022, Moreno taped himself again, this time from what he thought was the crime scene: a piece of land owned by Carmen Aguas, who was married to Gabriel Calle, the patriarch of the Calle family. The Calles were one of six families in the Cordoba area fighting over political power.

Gabriel Calle Demoya told the group that he had nothing to do with the sand extraction in a statement.

Moreno’s last study was about the Calle family, but the politician Espedito Duque, who was also his mentor, was the journalist’s “white whale.” In 2015, Duque was chosen as mayor, and Moreno went to work for him. Eventually, he thought that the changes Duque had promised were taking too long to happen. So, in December 2018, he changed jobs and became a writer. He then started a news site called Voces de Córdoba to look into the wrongdoings of the government he used to work for. He first looked at the public contracts that Duque had signed.

Moreno’s job was made more accessible by the looser rules after the Colombian government and rebels signed the Peace Accords in 2016. This made it easy to get public money in places like Puerto Libertador, which had been hit hard by the more than 50-year armed conflict.

Since the accords, more than $100 million have been put into the five towns in the area. These were meant to be used for more than 130 public works projects, such as fixing roads, improving education and health care, and building housing and energy facilities.

Moreno wrote about what he found on his Facebook page. But this kind of news also led to threats from armed groups in the area. These groups often take a cut of the money spent on public works. Moreno called this “la vacuna,” or “the vaccine,” and it was a kind of tax to keep the peace. In that year, a group of organised criminals called the Caparrapos put Moreno on their list of people to kill. Two years later, he was taken for a short time and questioned by members of the Gulf Clan, a gang that lives in the same area as the Caparrapos.

The SafeBox Network found an important document in Moreno’s email inbox. It was a formal administrative complaint that Moreno had made against Espedito Duque and his friends on January 5, 2021, for “acts of corruption, embezzlement of public funds, influence trafficking, and clientelism.” The 21-page document says that there have been “various types of crimes against the public administration.” Moreno explains how Duque’s plan worked: he set up “a certain number of structures” for his close friends and family, then made deals with them to “make it easier to take public resources.”

Moreno’s lawsuit named dozens of NGOs; two were connected to Duque. One of them, Serviexpress ATP SAS, was started by someone who knew Julieth Arroyo Montiel, Duque’s wife. Another company, Renacer IPS SAS, got two contracts worth more than $75,000 through the son of a government worker who worked for Duque.

As part of the Rafael Project, the Colombian investigative news source Cuestión Pblica, which focused on corruption and public abuse of power, and CLIP, a group of Latin American news outlets, picked up where Moreno left off. Their research shows that between 2016 and 2022, the Duque and Soto administrations signed 99 contracts worth a total of $3 million with 13 businesses who were close to the Duque “clan.”

Of those, 96 percent of the total value went to just five companies, some of which had never been on the stock market before. Martn Montiel Mendoza, who is close to Espedito Duque, owns most of these businesses. Between 2016 and 2022, the mayor’s office signed 56 contracts with three companies owned by Mendoza. More than half of these contracts were signed by mutual agreement, which means that a public offer was never made. These contracts were worth just under $1 million.

The first of these companies, Corporación Visión Juvenil, was started as a charity in 2014, just one and a half years before Duque was elected mayor. As of this writing, the company has signed 36 contracts worth about $600,000 for transportation services for sporting and cultural events. A second business, Innova Construcciones e Inmobiliaria, was started in 2017 and has since signed four contracts with the mayor to take care of parks, libraries, and the town hall. Ten months after being listed with the Chamber of Commerce, these first contracts were signed. The third business, Serviexpress Colombia, was also started in 2017. It offers services like transportation, advertising, human resources, and help for the old and people with disabilities. From 2019 to 2022, Serviexpress signed no less than 16 contracts worth a total of $200,000, mostly to supply the mayor’s office with food and cleaning supplies.

The consortium asked Montiel Mendoza to speak more than once, but he didn’t answer.

Cuestión Pblica and CLIP also looked into the company that cleans up the water in Puerto Libertador, Agualcas. During a city council meeting, Moreno pointed out a difference between the number of streets in Puerto Libertador with sewers and the number shown on official plans from the mayor’s office. Even though Agualcas is meant to build the infrastructure, it got several public contracts to put in sewers.

The consortium’s research showed that this company, too, was controlled by the Duque “clan.” Since Duque was elected mayor, three people close to him who worked on his election campaigns have owned this company. During this time, Agualcas got 13 contracts from the government that was worth about $800,000. Agualcas did not answer to multiple requests for comment.

By looking into city contracts, Cuestión Pblica and CLIP were also able to find a suspected member of the notorious Gulf Clan in Duque’s group. The Gulf Clan is one of the groups thought to have been involved in Moreno’s kidnapping.

Conversely, Duque is said to be thinking about running for office in Puerto Libertador in October. When asked about his possible candidature, he did not answer. Gabriel Calle Aguas, who is the son of the Calle “clan” that Moreno was looking into, is still running for governor in the same elections. This time, though, the two are running without Rafael Moreno’s sharp eyes on them.

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