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Who Is Werner Mauss?

COLUMN ONE

The German private investigator is known to some as a humanitarian who helps free foreign executives kidnapped by Colombian guerrillas. But police allege he is really a party to the plots.

January 16, 1997|JUANITA DARLING and MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BOGOTA, Colombia — Ian Fleming might have been proud to have created Werner Mauss.

Like Fleming's master spy 007, Mauss is an expert equestrian. He is so sophisticated and well-connected that he introduced the giants of corporate Germany to the power brokers of Colombian politics; so daring, he earned the affection of the founder of one of Colombia's most powerful guerrilla groups.

Mauss is so elusive that a dozen years ago he allowed his reputation as a top-notch private detective to be tarnished rather than risk being photographed. And he became known in some circles as a humanitarian who used his guerrilla contacts to free foreign business executives kidnapped by the insurgents.

Private investigator, international deal maker, adventurer: Mauss has the panache of a German James Bond. But his links to his government are more tenuous, his loyalties less clear.

Colombian authorities, who jailed Mauss in November and are preparing to try him for kidnapping, claim that he is a terrorist mercenary who financed his lavish lifestyle at the expense of his compatriots' safety and Colombia's stability. Police say they can prove that Mauss not only charged fees for negotiating the multimillion-dollar ransoms to free foreign executives from guerrilla abductors; he also allegedly plotted the kidnappings.

"He went from defending Germany's interests to defending his own interests while using both the [guerrillas] and multinational corporations," said a source close to the investigation. Police say that as they gather evidence to support their allegations, they are following a trail of corruption that leads from guerrilla camps to the subway in the Colombian city of Medellin to the European castle where Mauss entertained Colombian Interior Minister Horacio Serpa Uribe before escorting him around Germany's power centers.

They are also raising questions about how much the German government and corporations and even members of the Colombian government knew of Mauss' alleged efforts on behalf of guerrillas--from raising funds through kidnapping and protection rackets to funneling them through a maze of secret bank accounts in the Caribbean, Panama and Europe.

Investigators believe that as governments looked the other way, Mauss--and perhaps other agents as well--provided a crucial link that allows Colombia's leftist guerrillas to thrive.

"He was operating with the knowledge of both the Colombian and German governments," said one source close to both this investigation and counterinsurgency efforts. The political implications thus are explosive both in Colombia and Germany, where Mauss is linked to powerful and controversial figures.

At least one German government official has admitted employing Mauss. Colombian officials acknowledge that they were in contact with him, but say they did not realize how closely he was linked to guerrillas and kidnapping.

During this decade, Central American guerrilla movements of the right and left have collapsed in the absence of funding from the United States and the former Soviet Union, old enemies allied with opposing factions during the Cold War. But in the same period, Colombia's insurgents have built themselves into forces that virtually control half the country.

Cocaine and heroin trafficking have played an important role in financing this growth for some guerrilla factions. But Mauss' alleged guerrilla connection--the National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish initials ELN--has relied almost exclusively on foreign corporations to pay for weapons and provisions, through abductions and extortion.

Police suspect that foreign companies have paid guerrillas protection money to prevent them from blowing up remote oil pipelines and fields. In addition, they believe that agents such as Mauss may have helped foreign companies stage phony kidnappings to raise protection money that went to the guerrillas, who used it to fund their activities.

"The Colombian insurgent group with the most international legitimacy is the ELN," said one source, explaining why he believes that foreign executives may have entrusted their own safety to ELN "kidnappers."

In the 1984, the ELN was an obscure little dissident band led by a renegade Spanish priest, Father Manuel Perez. Then the German company Mannesmann won a $300-million contract to build an oil pipeline in Colombia, right through the small territory where the ELN operated. The guerrillas blew up the project four times and killed four workers.

To persuade the guerrillas not to sabotage their pipeline, Mannesmann paid millions in protection money, according to Colombian military officials. Police say Mauss negotiated the alleged extortion. Mannesmann has denied these allegations.

Other sources note that the abductions Mauss allegedly mediated tended to be resolved more quickly and for higher ransoms than most kidnappings, another factor that makes them suspect the complicity of the corporations.

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