Colombian resistance against the Odebrecht-nurtured mafia

On 27th November, an emergency
debate on Odebrecht corruption was scheduled by senators of the opposition.The raison d’être for extreme violence
and rampant corruption in Colombia was openly hung-out.

Ruta del Sol highway in Colombia / Odebrecht offices

Invisibility serves the abuse of power only too well in
the continued struggle of ordinary Colombians. Thus, understanding the context
of recent astounding events in this nation, post peace-accords, is essential, because
it is illustrative of the difficult path to be traversed towards real peace and
democracy.

In June 2018 – when it looked like an alliance of opposition
political forces (consisting of the progressive Colombia Humana / Decentes, the
Green Alliance and the left Polo Democratico) might just win the general
elections and achieve a massive turn-around for this nation – the usual lot got
back into power (54% versus 42%), to a certain degree helped by intimidation
and vote buying. [1]

Let us be clear. What Colombians now have is not just
a “right-wing” government. It is a government infused with callousness, incompetence
and deceit, where that minority who bleed the country dry, (and often literally
to death – at least 533 human rights defenders have been killed since 2016 [2]),
continue to implement a moribund and savage version of neo-liberalism. 

That is the creed: an inhumane project elaborated via a
dual minority elite business/latifundial alliance working hand-in-hand with military/narco-paramilitary
support, financed by billions of war-dollars from abroad – ostensibly, to
sequentially, and unsuccessfully, “fight communism”, “eradicate the drug-trade”
and “get rid of terrorism”.

In truth, the
billions of military funds invested have actually gone into cementing a
ruthless state and its repressive apparatus, in favour of its cronies, thriving
in a country where the “oldest democracy on the continent” paradoxically exists
alongside extreme inequality and injustice. And, even though most conflict with
the largest guerrilla organization, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia
(FARC) has now stopped, there are now persistent attempts at watering down the
Peace Agreements and negotiations with the other major guerrilla combatants,
the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN), has ground to a halt.

So it is that, this August 2018, under far-right
ex-president Alvaro Uribe’s tutelage, Ivan Duque, ex-technocrat for the
Interamerican Bank for International development (IBID) and, despite disproven
Harvard qualifications, took the presidency. In these last brief 100 days, whilst
the country convulses from crisis to crisis, Duque appears to perform with
pre-programmed ideological vacuousness.

In these last brief 100
days, whilst the country convulses from crisis to crisis, Duque appears to
perform with pre-programmed ideological vacuousness.

Now and again, he makes an appearance to threaten on-going
national protests called by beleaguered social movements and trade-unions. This
he does with the help of his new defence minister, Fernando Botero - an
industrialist and firm believer in the glyphosphate fumigation of coca
plantations and the curbing of peaceful protest, via the ESMAD riot squads, if
necessary.

Duque, via Finance Minister, Alberto Carrasquilla, has
gone back on pre-election promises to avoid over-taxing the poor and to
properly invest in education and health, to name a few. Support for
anti-corruption initiatives is tepid and the urgency of climate change has also
by-passed this administration. The national plan is to carry on with fossil
fuel exporting, including fracking [3]
.

The omens for the next four years have not been good.
His approval rating is now at 22% [4].
But Duque is not recognizably the string-puller, but part of the grand plan.
This is now even more evident, especially after the sudden deaths of Aval Group
auditor, Jorge Enrique Pizano, on 8 November 2018, and the cyanide poisoning of
his son, three days later, both key witnesses in the Odebrecht scandal in
Colombia.

As is well known, Brazilian infrastructure giant
Odebrecht has been implicated in huge bribery scandals all over Latin America [5].
In most countries judicial prosecutions are in progress. In Colombia, however,
bringing those guilty to justice has been slow and often obstructed.

But, in foreboding of his death or disappearance,
Pizano left his investigative evidence with a number of reliable journalists and
parliamentarians – including Senator Gustavo Petro of the Colombia Humana / Decentes
movement. The video, recordings and documents referred to the suspected corruption
he found in his auditing of the accounts of some of Odebrecht’s key business
partners. In particular, the Corficolombiana bank, part of the Aval group, both
owned by Colombia’s richest man, the banker Luis Carlos Sarmiento [6].  

Pizano also refers in the documents and recordings to
inexplicable lack of cooperation by Sarmiento’s then lawyer, Nestor Humberto
Martinez (NHM). The paradox is that the latter is now in post, as Colombia’s Chief
Prosecutor - in charge of investigating Odebrecht corruption. And further, he
denies prior knowledge of Pizano’s accusations – despite audio recordings by
Pizano, which disprove that.[7]

Senators Jorge Robledo, Gustavo Petro and Angelica Lozano

Last week therefore, on Tuesday 27th
November 2018, a historical emergency debate on Odebrecht corruption was scheduled
by senators of the opposition. The 8-hour long session was led by opposition
Senators, Gustavo Petro, Jorge Enrique Robledo (Polo Democrático), and Angelica
Lozano (Green Party).  It was one of
those earth-shattering moments when business-as-usual came to a shuddering
halt, and the veil hiding the causes of oppression, was suddenly ripped. The raison d’etre, for extreme violence and
rampant corruption in Colombia, was openly hung-out for all to see and judge.
And
it was not a pretty sight.

Last week debate was one of those earth-shattering moments when business-as-usual came to a shuddering halt, and the veil hiding the causes of oppression, was suddenly ripped.

The debate amply illustrated the unbelievable spider’s
web of relationships between Odebrecht bribes, private enterprise and the Colombian
state. Both Uribe and Santo’s presidential campaigns appear to have been funded
by Odebrecht money. And even Duque has been identified as having been present
at a meeting in Brazil with Odebrecht functionaries, when he was Senator, in
2014. (In clarification, he did state that he had left the room to go to the
toilet, during bribery discussions [8]).

Obviously, what Odebrecht has been interested in are the
lucrative infrastructure contracts it could obtain through the allocation of strategic
bribes to politicians and ministries. Some of the largest infrastructure
projects in Colombia were handed over to Odebrecht and its collaborating
companies in Colombia [9],
through complex financial arrangements, and third parties, which render opaque
the system of bribery, through fictitious firms and through overpricing, which has
resulted. The disaster for Colombians is that, with all too frequent
regularity, infrastructure projects have either been badly executed (at times
causing loss of life [10])
and/or exponentially expensive, causing great strains on public funds.

According to the evidence presented at the Senate
debate [11],
Odebrecht’s declaration to the US Department of Justice, recently, seems to
have under-played both the number of fictitious construction contracts and
amounts of money laundered as bribes, in Colombia [12].
Only about a 1/3 of transactions seem to be accounted for, and in further the
Colombian State Prosecutors Office has been slow to investigate.

Most worryingly, the Senators’ debate indicated how
NHM with his prior myriad posts as lawyer for several of the involved companies
and subsequent work as public functionary, seems to have acted as both architect
and legislator for many of these questionable deals. 

During the debate, opposition senators strongly called
for NHM to immediately resign as Chief Prosecutor, due to undeclared conflicts
of interest. This he roundly refuses to do, and his politicized personal
defence at the Senate debate, was delivered with threats to both debating
Senators and members of the press, who had published the details of this
unsavoury and questionable labyrinth of business dealings. This includes
nationally and internationally reputable journalists such as Daniel Coronell
and Maria Jimena Duzan.

The latter, and others, have now been forced to appeal
to the UN Human Rights Commission in Colombia, to protect their freedom of
expression.

But the powerful corrupt undercurrents in Colombia
cannot forgive the Senators, most especially, Gustavo Petro. Senator Petro has
been a thorn in their side since his key debates back in 2007 revealed the
links between politicians, corrupt business and the human rights abuses of the narco-paramilitary
mafia.

The latter, and their closest allies in government – the
Centro Democratico party – have been trying to remove Gustavo Petro from
politics for years. It is as well to recall that, during his time as Mayor of
Bogota (2012-2015), they tried to destitute him at least 3 times, with unsuccessful
and archaic accusations of “threats to privatization”, “chaos in waste
disposal” (for giving jobs to recyclers) and the “crime of allocating transport
subsidies to the poor”.  

An attempt to disqualify him from public office for a
period of at least 15 years was, also unsuccessful, in 2017, after intervention
from the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights. They have, though, managed
to practically bankrupt him by reviving (previously legally shelved) fines for
the above “crimes”.

Chief Prosecutor Martinez acknowledged to be using the Fiscalia to hack and spy on, what he considers to be, targets, including Senator Petro. 

So, it is unsurprising that ever since Petro and the Colombia
Humana / Decentes political movement and its allies, won 8 million votes, last 17
June 2018, compared to Duque’s 10 million, the establishment started to get a
bit concerned. The death threats and illegal set-ups against the opposition,
have therefore been stepped up once more.

During his rather inappropriate and irate defence last
Tuesday, Chief Prosecutor Martinez acknowledged to be using the Fiscalia to
hack and spy on, what he considers to be, targets, including Senator Petro. The
problem is that there appears to be little judicial control, as to who is
targeted.

To many Colombians, this harks back to the time during
Alvaro Uribe’s government (2002-2010) when the Departamento Administrativo de
Seguridad (DAS – Administrative Department of Security) was used to eavesdrop
and spy on the opposition. Back then, this was not just unlawful phone hacking –
the names and personal details of the people hacked were then passed on to
paramilitary death squads and many innocent people were, not only targeted, but
assassinated.

Things got so bad that the DAS has now been disbanded.
And now? How is this is being regulated by a Chief Prosecutor, whose role is
under severe scrutiny?

At the end of the historic debate last week, Paloma
Valencia, a somewhat unhinged Centro Democrático senator, purported to show
evidence of dodgy dealings by Gustavo Petro by playing a (conveniently silent
14-year-old) video, where he is seen to receive cash from an unknown source. 

This week, that has proved to be another fabricated set-up
against Petro. It turns out the money handed over was US$6000 meant as campaign
donations from sympathisers, which were duly declared to the National Electoral
Commission (CNE). 

But the bought-media have taken this opportunity to tone
down coverage of the Odebrecht scandal, despite its remaining improperly investigated,
and involving sums totalling, at least, US$50 million, in irregular payments.
Even so, whilst the enormity of the Odebrecht-Aval-Martinez labyrinth is
ignored, Gustavo Petro now faces a Fiscalía (Public Prosecutors) investigation,
with Nestor Humberto Martinez, as Chief Prosecutor.

It looks to everyone like the country is being manipulated by an all-encompassing mafia who have captured not just significant public works, but, quite possibly, sectors of the institutions of justice, as well.

But recent events do mean that corruption have fewer
places to hide and Colombians are unsurprisingly thoroughly disgusted at the
sight. It looks to everyone like the country is being manipulated by an
all-encompassing mafia who have captured not just significant public works, but,
quite possibly, sectors of the institutions of justice, as well [13].

In response, the corrupt networks have now launched death
threats on all cylinders. Those feeling exposed are clearly still hoping to
silence their critics and, at the very least, do a Lula-like coup on Petro, before
too long.

However, in Colombia, resistance to decades of
repression will not be silenced.

Journalist & twitter activist MaFe Carrascal and Colombia’s richest man, banker Luis Carlos Sarmiento

A national general strike by thousands of students,
trade unionists, indigenous and campesino peoples is still on-going.
Additionally, activists on twitter have this week asked everyone to move their
money and pensions from Sarmiento Angulo’s banking empire to other entities,
including the public pension system, which will actually result in better final
yields.

All this despite ESMAD violence and legal threats to
the activists from Duque’s vice-president, Marta Lucia Ramirez, “for generating
financial panic”. Ramirez’ dilemma is that her threat is in direct opposition
to her government’s much-lauded neo-liberal value of “freedom of choice”.

In any case, social media have rubbished her warnings and
thousands have closed their Aval group accounts. Sarmiento’s Aval group is dive-bombing
in the stock exchange.

Colombia now has an institutional crisis on a huge
scale, as citizens wonder what faith can be had in a government that, not only bars
the opposition from lawful debate, as happened twice this week[14],
but which also allows its Chief Prosecutor to carry on in this astonishing and
anomalous manner [15].


[1] https://colombiareports.com/colombias-leading-political-publication-confirms-election-fraud-claims/

http://www.elcolombiano.com/colombia/politica/asi-opero-la-red-criminal-de-las-elecciones-al-congreso-2018-MF8896934

[2]  Indepaz (2018) All of the
Names, All of the Faces – Human Rights status report on Leaders and defenders
of  Human Rights in the territories

http://www.indepaz.org.co/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Action-Report-Nov-19.pdf 

[3] https://amp.elespectador.com/noticias/politica/los-cien-dias-de-duque-vistos-por-petro-artificios-levedad-y-pinata-articulo-823401?__twitter_impression=true

https://www.desdeabajo.info/colombia/item/35515-la-dura-pelea-contra-el-fracking-en-colombia.html

[4] https://www.eltiempo.com/politica/gobierno/encuesta-datexto-sobre-la-desaprobacion-de-duque-300770?hootPostID=6c294bf05c1148abcb7571ade36bece4

[5] Deutsche Welle 19/11/2018 https://www.dw.com/es/la-cadena-de-corrupci%C3%B3n-de-odebrecht-los-casos-m%C3%A1s-destacados-en-am%C3%A9rica-latina/a-46367480

[6] Billionaire #123 in the World. Through Corficolombiana, Aval's
investment bank, Sarmiento owns an array of interests in infrastructure,
agribusiness, energy and tourism. https://www.bloomberg.com/billionaires/profiles/luis-c-sarmiento-angulo/

[7] After the Senators debate of 27/11/2018, and particularly Senator
Gustavo Petro’s intervention - there is now ample coverage of the various chain
of events and individual acts of bribery in Colombia and elsewhere. See for
example, Semana 27/11/2018

https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/los-cinco-hechos-de-soborno-de-odebrecht-que-no-investigo-martinez-segun-petro/592552

[8] See Semana 27/11/2018  https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/los-cinco-hechos-de-soborno-de-odebrecht-que-no-investigo-martinez-segun-petro/592552

[9] For example, the Ruta del Sol
II
- a 500 km stretch of road linking Puerto Salgar and San Roque in the
Northern Colombia region of Cesar and the Ocaña-Gamarra
route.

https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/los-cinco-hechos-de-soborno-de-odebrecht-que-no-investigo-martinez-segun-petro/592552

[10]
Not all involve Odbrecht, but Odebrecht’s partner, Corficolombiana was party to
eg: the construction of the suspension bridge Chirajara (Bogota-Villavicencio)
which collapsed in January 2018, causing 10 fatalities https://www.elespectador.com/economia/chirajara-una-dura-leccion-para-las-concesiones-viales-articulo-733703

[11] Transcript of Senator Robledo’s
intervention (Spanish) http://jorgerobledo.com/la-verdad-total-sobre-odebrecht-el-debate-transcripcion-video/

Senator Gustavo Petro’s intervention
(Spanish) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftA-GZANncg

Angelica Lozano’s intervention
(Spanish) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3T1cOPMxdrk

[12]
Odebrecht
has admitted in a plea bargain with the United States’ Department of Justice that
it paid $11m in bribes to Colombian politicians in order to obtain the Ruta del
Sol contract. Both Grupo Aval and Mr Martínez denied prior knowledge of these
payments, and of any subsequent ones
. The Economist 17 November 2018

https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2018/11/17/colombias-biggest-corruption-scandal-gets-more-complicated

[13] https://www.elespectador.com/opinion/de-conspiraciones-columna-826758

[14] https://jorgerobledo.com/mayorias-gobiernistas-en-el-senado-le-niegan-sus-derechos-a-la-oposicion-robledo/ 

[15] https://elpais.com/elpais/2018/11/28/opinion/1543432435_999841.html

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