Who Is Werner Mauss?
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.
Mauss’ appearance in Colombia coincided with a trial in the case of a $10-million jewelry theft, which threatened to blow his cover in Germany. In what became his last German case, Mauss had investigated a theft reported by jeweler Rene Duee in Hanover.
After ingratiating himself with Duee, Mauss informed police that the jeweler had robbed himself. Duee was sentenced to seven years for the caper, but on appeal he was acquitted for lack of evidence. The key reason cited by the German court for the acquittal was Mauss’ refusal to testify.
Mauss’ rise had started long before the jewelry heist or the pipeline problem.
He was born in 1940 in relative poverty in Essen. His father was a salesman who died shortly afterward. The shirt factory his mother inherited then went bankrupt. Mauss became a groom in the gritty Ruhr River region, scrambling to buy his own horses. He earned a reputation for breaking wild horses, but the work did not pay well in Germany. So, he also sold vacuum cleaners door to door.
Then in 1961, shortly after his first marriage, Mauss opened a private detective service, specializing in divorce investigations. Insurance companies started hiring him to find stolen goods and investigate false claims.
During this period, Mauss made a lot of money quickly. He spent lavishly, acquiring a Porsche, a Jaguar, even a Cessna. He specialized in finding stolen luxury cars, developing excellent contacts with both police and criminals. The police would let him use their files because he usually brought back good tips from the crime underworld. And the crime community evidently trusted his discretion.
As his skills and contacts improved, the German authorities started using him to help them solve some of their most frustrating and high-profile cases. He became so skillful and well-informed that he had a major role in solving some of the most notorious crimes of the day.
In 1970, he tracked down--in Spain--two dangerous robbers who had broken out of jail and murdered a police officer. He also found two Yugoslavs who had stolen jewelry and a large, gold sacramental object--altogether worth about $6.5 million at today’s exchange rate--from the cathedral in Cologne, Germany.
Mauss infiltrated a criminal ring that had stolen a passkey to Volkswagen’s headquarters in the town of Wolfsburg, about 110 miles west of Berlin, and intended to sell it to an anarchist group that wanted to bomb Volkswagen and steal crucial tapes from its computer center. Mauss bought the passkey back, thwarting the anarchists’ plans.
In 1979, Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, put Mauss on its payroll, with an annual salary of 650,000 marks, or about $351,000 at the time.
At the time these cases occurred, they were front-page news in Germany, but somehow Mauss’ involvement was never revealed. The first time his name appeared in the media was in 1984, in connection with the jewel-heist case.
With his name known in Germany, Mauss moved to Colombia, although he still kept his three-story German castle, bought under another name.
In Colombia, he was officially a consultant to the German multinational company Siemens, a partner in the consortium that in 1983 received the contract to build the Medellin subway. The project cost $2 billion--three times more than budgeted--and has been the object of an ongoing corruption investigation that includes a renegotiation of costs.
Police who later arrested Mauss in Colombia say they found in his possession a letter directing a top official of Siemens to deposit $100,000 into a Panamanian account to ensure a favorable outcome in the renegotiation.
In the mid-1980s, foreign corporations began telling Colombian police that when their executives were kidnapped by guerrillas, the companies were contacted by a German who offered to help them negotiate.
Many legitimate security companies provide that service, but what the German offered seemed different. First, he was not connected to any known company. In addition, he seemed to have direct contacts with both the kidnappers and the German government.
“All the big companies in Colombia knew that [German Intelligence Coordinator Bernd] Schmidbauer was the way to get hostages out,” Argentina’s ambassador to Bonn, Carlos Oscar Keller Sarmiento, recently told a German newsmagazine. Schmidbauer later testified before the German parliament that Mauss was his operative.
In the case of kidnap victim Brigitte Schoene--the wife of the former head of the BASF chemical corporation subsidiary in Colombia--Mauss initiated contact with her family, police say. When Schoene’s husband told Mauss, who was using a different name, that he preferred to work with the police, all contact from the guerrilla kidnappers stopped, according to police--even though a ransom had already been negotiated through the British firm Control Risk.
“It was a clear signal: If you don’t deal with him, I won’t deal with you,” said one source close to the investigation.
After a few days, Mauss called back, and Schoene’s husband agreed to work with him, investigators allege. The $200,000 ransom jumped to $1.5 million.
Mauss had insisted that Schoene’s family cut off contact with police, investigators say. Still, the police continued their efforts independently, distributing her picture to all points of departure from the country.
Shortly after midnight one day in late November, the investigator heading the case received a call from the Rio Claro Airport, near Medellin. A woman who resembled Schoene was attempting to leave Colombia with another woman and a man.
Immigration officials stalled the trio until police got there from Medellin. The three were standing in a corridor when police arrived. The officer in charge greeted Schoene by name and led her aside.
Meanwhile, the man who was with her--Mauss--had been frantically dialing his cellular phone. A police officer grabbed the phone, snapped it shut and searched Mauss. He found six passports, the Siemens letter and an envelope bearing Schmidbauer’s address.
The second woman in the trio--Mauss’ third wife--protested, “We are on a mission of peace.”
The police officer replied, “You are with a kidnapped person and are carrying false passports.” He arrested the pair.
Now the thinning white hair, blue eyes and regular features of the sleuth who let a jewel thief go free rather than show his face in a courtroom have been plastered all over German and Colombian television and magazines.
In Germany, the Mauss affair has provided more fodder for claims that Schmidbauer oversees that country’s three intelligence agencies--foreign, domestic and military--by, in effect, carrying out his own foreign policy. Schmidbauer acknowledged in his Dec. 4 testimony before parliament that he knew of Mauss’ activities.
“This is a mix-up of jurisdictions that simply isn’t acceptable,” said Ludget Volmer, a Green Party member of the Federal Assembly, or lower house of parliament, arguing that an intelligence chief has no business meddling in foreign policy.
In Colombia, Mauss’ connection to Serpa has revived the argument about how close the interior minister--President Ernesto Samper’s link to both the legal and the insurgent political left--is to guerrilla bands.
Both Serpa and Schmidbauer appear to have ridden out the storm of Mauss’ arrest. The question is: How much more will be discovered when Mauss is brought to trial?
No trial date has been set, because as one source explained, “We still have a lot to investigate.”
Darling reported from Bogota and Walsh from Berlin.
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