South Florida

For those suspected of corruption elsewhere, South Florida still a magnet

Former Colombian governor Alejandro Lyons.
Former Colombian governor Alejandro Lyons.

In Colombia, he was a provincial governor who has been trailed by allegations of corruption since leaving office and has found himself under a cloud in connection with the mysterious murder of a countryman.

Now, he may be the latest example of a long South Florida tradition: officials wanted for allegedly plundering their homeland who choose to migrate here, beyond the reach of authorities.

South Florida’s climate and waterfront condos make it a prime spot for former leaders under an investigative microscope back home. An investigative report published by the Miami Herald and ProPublica in December outlined some of the examples. Just last week, the former president of Panama was arrested near his $8.2 million home in Coral Gables.

“This is a really, really common practice,” said Jose Miguel Cruz, the director of research at Florida International University’s Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, of the politically powerful from elsewhere fleeing to Florida. “It has a long history in terms of cases of corrupt officials who came to the U.S. not only to evade charges in their own country, but basically to retire with the dirty money they made during their tenure.”

Alejandro Lyons Muskus, the former Colombian governor, faces 20 different counts of corruption-related charges for what prosecutors believe was an embezzlement scheme involving royalties — payments made for the right to extract natural resources. It was allegedly carried out while Lyons led the department of Córdoba on Colombia’s Caribbean coast between 2012 and 2015, according to a statement from Colombia’s attorney general.

It has a long history in terms of cases of corrupt officials who came to the U.S. not only to evade charges in their own country, but basically to retire with the dirty money they made during their tenure.

Jose Miguel Cruz, the director of research at FIU’s Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center

In a morbid twist, investigators are also trying to determine whether Lyons has any connection to the murder of Jairo Zapa, according to media reports confirmed by the Herald. Zapa oversaw Córdoba’s royalties office until he went missing in 2014. His body was later found with signs of strangulation near a farm owned by Lyons’ father, according to a lawyer representing Zapa’s family and Colombian media reports.

The former governor has yet to be formally charged with corruption — because he hasn’t shown up for his court dates.

Lyons postponed a May 11 court date and has twice rescheduled subsequent court appearances. At the most recent court date, on June 1, Lyons’ lawyer said the former governor was unable to attend because he is accompanying his pregnant wife while she undergoes medical treatment in the United States. The lawyer told Colombian media that Lyons will return to Colombia and go to court as soon as his wife’s health improves.

But there is speculation in Colombia that Lyons may be the latest in a long list of former foreign officials suspected of corruption to flee to the United States to avoid prosecution— despite a 2004 U.S. presidential proclamation barring foreign officials suspected of corruption from entering the country.

As others have in the past, Lyons’ legal representative says the allegations are the result of political persecution.

A photo that appears to show former Colombian governor Alejandro Lyons eating lunch at Smith & Wollensky, a Miami Beach restaurant. It caused a stir in his homeland.

In recent months, a man purported to be Lyons has been photographed at Smith & Wollensky, the swanky Miami Beach restaurant on the water near South Pointe Beach. The photos, published in the Colombian press and appearing to show Lyons and a female companion enjoying a steak by the water, fueled anger in Colombia. The Herald, which also was supplied with the photos, could not independently confirm that the man in the images is Lyons.

Although Lyons has kept a low profile, the former governor has also been spotted poolside at Beach Club III, a building resident who asked to remain anonymous reported. The Herald was unable to confirm that Lyons lives in the building on Ocean Drive in Hallandale Beach. No units in the building are registered under Lyons’ name or that of his wife, and no properties are registered to the couple in South Florida. The general manager for the Beach Club declined to comment.

Lyons contacted the Herald after an email was sent to his lawyer and offered to meet with a reporter in South Florida to discuss his status. The Herald waited a week for Lyons to confirm a time and place before sending written questions. Lyons responded on Monday that he was unable to answer the questions at the moment because he was at a medical clinic with his wife.

Lyons’ attorney, Oscar Julian Guerrero, did not respond to a list of questions except to say: “The information from the Attorney General’s Office [about the corruption allegations] is reserved until we arrive at the stage of being charged.”

As to the murder mystery, Guerrero said reports that investigators are looking into whether Lyons might have been involved are “nothing more than journalistic speculation that appears to have not consulted the information from the investigation.”

We are committed to demonstrating Dr. Lyons’ innocence because this is an unjust persecution that is very common in politically motivated cases in Colombia.

Oscar Julian Guerrero, Alejandro Lyons’ lawyer

“We are committed to demonstrating Dr. Lyons’ innocence because this is an unjust persecution that is very common in politically motivated cases in Colombia,” Guerrero added, referring to the allegations as a whole.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined to comment.

Speculation about Lyons’ future plans comes on the heels of the arrest of former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli, who was detained in Coral Gables last week on charges that he used public funds to spy on at least 150 people. Martinelli fled to the United States in 2015 just days after his country’s Supreme Court opened an investigation into separate allegations that he had helped embezzle $45 million from a government school lunch program. Appearing in federal court last week, Martinelli argued through his lawyer that the effort to extradite him was part of a smear campaign led by political foes.

Six months before Martinelli entered the United States, former Colombian agriculture minister Andrés Felipe Arias moved to South Florida while on trial for corruption. Arias settled in Weston and applied for asylum, arguing that the corruption charges were politically motivated and that he had not received a fair trial. He was arrested last August and is out on bond awaiting a federal court decision on Colombia’s extradition request.

It’s unclear whether Lyons also plans to apply for asylum. If he does, that could make it more difficult for the Colombian government to extradite him, at least any time in the near future. Asylum applications, which are intended to protect people fleeing oppression and political persecution, can take years to wind through the backlogged immigration system. A plea for asylum does not shield defendants from extradition if they are charged in Colombia with a crime covered by the treaty between the two countries, but it could complicate the process.

Lyons told a Colombian newspaper last week that he was not requesting asylum in the United States and was not evading justice in Colombia, but was currently unable to return to his country because of his wife’s health status.

In Córdoba, the corruption was stained by blood, which demonstrates the existence of a dangerous criminality

Colombian Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez Neira

Meanwhile, the investigation in Colombia is moving forward.

Prosecutors are accusing Lyons of embezzlement, conspiracy to commit a crime, falsifying documents and other crimes related to what they describe as “the possible misuse” of more than $3 million from royalties paid to the department of Córdoba, according to a statement released in May. The funds were channeled through non-profit organizations, prosecutors said in the statement. The Colombian legal system does not consider Lyons formally accused because he has not attended the court hearing in which prosecutors formally accuse defendants.

A lawyer representing the family of Jairo Zapa asked prosecutors to formally add Lyons to the murder investigation in January. “I linked him [to the investigation] because there are witnesses who have linked him” to the murder, lawyer Mauricio Herrera Valle told the Herald.

Investigators believe they’ve already arrested the man who carried out the murder, but they are looking at whether Lyons has any connection to the murder as part of an initial investigation into the case, according to media reports the Herald has confirmed.

The corruption allegations against Lyons are part of a broader investigation into corruption in Córdoba, where the poverty rate is nearly twice the national average, according to the statement from prosecutors. “Watching over the integrity of these public resources has to be a priority in order to overcome poverty in the department,” Colombian Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez Neira said in the statement.

A nine-page summary of corruption investigations in Córdoba, many for irregularities that occurred while Lyons was governor, details complicated embezzlement schemes, including one that involved the purchase of hemophilia medicine for healthy patients and another that dealt with the enrollment of 1,500 nonexistent students to siphon off funds meant to educate the poor. Lyons has only been implicated in the alleged misuse of department royalties.

“In Córdoba, the corruption was stained by blood, which demonstrates the existence of a dangerous criminality, which in its haste to appropriate public assets did not respect the lives of others,” Martínez Neira said in a statement, referring to the corruption allegations in the department as a whole. “It has to be pulled out by the roots.”

Miami Herald staff writer Jim Wyss contributed to this report.

Kyra Gurney: 305-376-3205, @KyraGurney