Colombia’s politicians continue to fall foul of the law in terms of corruption, many suspect the 2018 presidential elections will be less transparent than ever before
In July, former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe Velez, outspoken at the best of times in his opinions regarding and opposition to this nation’s peace deal with the FARC guerrillas, tested the elasticity of the Colombian public’s moral tolerance for his viper tongued outbursts. In a socially unacceptable twitter paroxysm he accused journalist Daniel Samper Ospina of Revista Semana of being a “child rapist.”
Apparently, child rape is where the majority of Colombians draw the line.
The country’s already caustic social media-sphere was alight with criticisms from fine people on both sides supporting the former president’s comments and eschewing of Samper’s openly critical stance of Uribe and vice versa. Common decency appeared to prevail as Senator Uribe was ordered by the court in August to retract his vitriolic statement, which he did so, unapologetically.
“Despite my disagreement and out of the respect I owe to the administration of justice, I abide by the decision of the Bogotá court. Consequently, as justice requires me, I correct that he is not a child molester. I never wanted to accuse him of physical or sexual rape of children. As far as child pornography is concerned, my judgment of value is rejected by the Court in a ruling that prevails over my opinion, an ordinance I accept, therefore, I have to accept that legally, according to criteria of the authority, it did not constitute child pornography,” Uribe’s retraction began.
More interesting perhaps is that Uribe’s unacceptable outburst has been the dip in Uribe’s seemingly impenetrable and unwavering bank of support which faltered somewhat in the aftermath. However, Uribe described as “bookish” in much of the international press due to his trademark studious appearance – a break, one supposes from previous Colombian premiers such as the bon vivant and boulevardier Andrés Pastrana and the ebullience of Ernesto Samper – is said to possess a steel-trap photographic memory, never forgetting a face nor a name is, as you would expect from a politician possessing far more than nine-lives, the master strategist.
Whether you maintain a steadfast support of Uribe or rise up in vocal opposition, what is abundantly clear is that Uribe is three or four steps ahead in the game that is centred firmly on the presidential elections in 2018 and how he will fight for his side to win. There will be no repeat of the 2010 elections, when is handpicked successor, current President Juan Manuel Santos, once Uribe’s Minister of Defence, shirked all responsibilities of uribismo albeit in spite of inheriting the former president’s support to win the top job and then moving to engage the FARC guerrillas in peace dialogues.
The game taking place now is not only about how to ensure that the right person is put in the Palacio de Nariño, but how to irreparably damage any opposition. To an extent, the previous practice of tarring those who stand up to him as castrochavista (Uribe may well have invented this term, the careful blending of two political doctrines, Cuba’s Castro and Venezuela’s Chavez, and ideal as a political marketing tool for Uribismo) and pointing to the tragic ills occurring in Venezuela will appeal to his core base but is too naïve to hold too much sway. Uribe can no longer target other politicians as pro FARC or guerrilla sympathisers as he has in the past such as last May when he labelled Noticias Uno reporter Julián Martínez as “pro FARC.” It came after the publication of a story that reported Uribe allegedly used state money on his properties while still a president.
For the majority of Uribistas, it has been simple: Chavez was from the left, the guerrillas are left-wing, Venezuela is suffering its crisis due to leftist politics, therefore, the guerrilla will lead Colombia into crisis.
But, officially at least, a militarised FARC no longer exists having handed over the last of their weapons in August after four years of negotiations in Havana, Cuba stemming back to November 2012 bringing to an end – on paper at least – 53 years of conflict with this guerrilla group.
How can you now accuse someone of being a guerrilla sympathiser when that version of the rebel group is no longer active? Sure, there’s a deep stigma attached to the guerrillas which will take several generations to remedy, but the younger, tech savvy, urban elites across Colombia just graduating from university will have lived through nothing akin to the experiences of their parents. The era in Colombia when kidnappings, drive by shootings, extortions, disappearances and the need to flee the country were everyday occurrences has now passed.
Uribe knew this and has changed his tune, moving from accusations of opponents belonging to defunct soviet conglomerates to alleging links to drug traffickers, corrupt business deals and most recently hurling the unthinkable damnation of “child rapist” at Samper Ospina.
But, when it comes to alleging links to Odebrecht contracts and cocaine trafficking either on twitter, verbally or in print, he’d do well to moderate his claims. His horse in the 2014 elections Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, running at the head of the recently formed Centro Democratico party (neither central nor democratic some might say), received campaign funds from the Brazilian construction giant. As did President Santos’ re-election campaign. And indeed, it has not gone unnoticed over the years that Uribe and his cohorts have been found to possess links to the Medellin cartel under none other than the global godfather figure of international cocaine smuggling, Pablo Escobar.
So, why is Colombia’s collective memory so short? Bombarded by Netflix series such as Narcos and many more – and now including Tom Cruise vehicle, “American Made” about the former TWA pilot Barry Seal who became a drug smuggler for the Medellin in 1980s, Colombia’s image overseas is not going to undergo a change any time soon. And within Colombia politicians continue to fall from grace for bribes, bungs and further proven charges of corruption almost on a daily occurrence. There are no secrets just as there is no transparency.
Yes, Uribe rescued much of Colombia by securing the highways and byways, yes, he brought Colombia back into the international community and yes, he brought the FARC to its knees through combat and paved the way for President Santos’ peace deal, but at what cost?
Uribe did not rescue Colombia from being a failed state, this description of the country is a clear example of journalistic license and has been taken too far, it’s a lazy description to cover the complexities of Colombia. However, one cannot underestimate the impact that Uribe had on Colombia as president. Unfortunately though, through his two terms from 2002-2006 and 2006 to 2010 he really only implemented national issues from 2002 until 2004. From 2004 he was fixated upon altering the constitution to be able to run again for president in 2006. This he achieved and then for the subsequent four years he was looking to run for an additional term, hammer the FARC militarily and escape any and all imputations that he himself, his cabinet and political allies had ties to right-wing paramilitary groups involved in crimes against humanity including mass disappearances, forced displacements, land grabs and the heinous false positives scandal.
Yet, while there is ample proof of Uribista connections to all of the aforementioned crimes, investigators looking for the smoking gun to finally put paid to Uribe’s political career and influence remind you of flummoxed police workers in a poor TV drama. Bad suits and reheated coffee aside, the scene is of war-weary officials staring at a link chart on a bulletin board with a photograph of Alvaro Uribe at the top. There are a number of red strings connecting generals, middle and low ranking military officials and other politicians but as yet, not one string connects completely to the photograph of Uribe.
“That’s because you won’t find it,” said former army Colonel Julio Cesar Prieto in an exclusive interview when asked about the existence of conclusive evidence with which to convict the former president.
Prieto knows the workings of the government, military and paramilitaries having taken on all of them at one point and sent representatives from each to jail. As the officer in charge of an infamous region in the department of Santander called San Vicente de Chucuri, Prieto was able to, through dogged tenacity and some luck you suspect, see off the threat from paramilitary groups during his tenure. He was so successful that the then governor of Santander Hugo Aguilar Naranjo – now on probation having served a portion of his nine years in prison for parapolitica links and planning to commit crimes – tried to have him removed from office on several occasions. Support for Prieto’s dismissal was found in influential circles as well, from the then President Alvaro Uribe.
You have to ask yourself why? Why would the President concern himself with the political trivialities of a regional police force? Hardly definitive proof of the president’s collusion, but circumstantial evidence which has left Prieto with some doubts.
It’s here that the murky world of Colombian politics and influence comes to light once again. And it’s through a tale such as one revealed by Prieto in his recent book, “Desenmascarando al hombre que mató a Pablo Escobar,” (Unmasking the man who killed Pablo Escobar, Ediciones B 2017. Only available in Spanish) which shows the difficulties facing Colombia as the nation approaches potentially the most important presidential elections in its history in 2018.
Hugo Aguilar Naranjo was a career police officer in Santander who then rose through the ranks to become the chief of the Bloque de Búsqueda in 1993, a unit set up to hunt down and eliminate Pablo Escobar. Aguilar himself was subsequently a target for other assassins or sicarios as they are known in Colombia due his alleged connections with a group known as Los Pepes (a vigilante police group “Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar” Pursued by Pablo Escobar). Here’s where the tale gets really interesting. As a member of the search unit to find and assassinate Pablo Escobar, Aguilar was certainly present on that infamous Medellin rooftop when the cartel leader was gunned down. Aguilar was the first to pose with the corpse of Escobar for the photograph and took the capo’s Sig Saur pistol as a macabre souvenir. He then, over time, propagated the myth that it was he who in fact killed Escobar.
In Prieto’s book, a bold statement of transparency with sinister photographs of victims of the paramilitaries labelled with threatening notes addressed to the former soldier, he clarifies the four accepted theories behind the death of Escobar. Perhaps he committed suicide – as his family maintains – knowing that all was lost, or paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño had killed him, or he was gunned down by another paramilitary known as alias Semilla, brother of Diego Murillo ‘Don Berna’ and finally, Gen. Oscar Naranjo (presently Colombia´s vice president and a shoe-in for a run at the presidency in 2022) of the police force claims that it the deed was done by an anonymous soldier.
So, it appears that Aguilar’s claim has been little more than a well-crafted stratagem.
Why did Aguilar invent the story? Opportunism and the opportunity to enter Colombia’s political circus of course, as it’s the only way to break the socioeconomic glass ceiling maintained by the country’s elites.
Aguilar entered the Santander Assembly in 2001 for the Convergencia Ciudadana party. He resigned from this position in 2002 to launch his bid to become the Governor of Santander and was successfully elected in 2004, holding the position until 2007. Everything, as they say, was going according to plan for Aguilar up until the arrival of Prieto to the region in 2003. Dubious contracts ended Aguilar’s political career but this did not prevent him from manipulating the outcomes of subsequent elections, oh what could have been, he was earmarked as a possible presidential candidate in 2010.
As Prieto said: “not a leaf moved in this area without the permission of the paramilitaries.” It was clear that the 301.288 votes which had come in for Aguilar had arrived due to his pacts with paramilitary groups such as the Bloque Central Bolívar and the Autodefensas de Puerto Boyacá which controlled much of the region. Just consider the ramifications from alliances with the Bloque Central Bólivar and the Autodefensas de Puerto Boyacá with their combined forces of an estimated 7,500 men and crimes which include the recruitment of minors, massacres, disappearances, forced displacement and of course the political know-how to infiltrate state and political parties (parapolitica).
Damaged by the allegations and links to parapolitica scandals, the Convergencia Ciudadana party changed their name and merged with other smaller groups, also implicated in paramilitary scandals such as Colombia Democrática, Colombia Viva, Alianza Democrática Nacional and Apertura Liberal. Eventually this conglomeration became known as the Partido de Integración Nacional, PIN. And, it seems, no party is able to declare themselves free from links to the parapolitica scourge as both the U party of President Santos and the opposition Centro Democratico of Uribe have been found decidedly wanting in this department.
With Aguilar prohibited by law to exercise any role in politics for 20 years, it’s worth mentioning that his influence, presumably, aided his son Richard Alfonso in his campaign for Governor of Santander between 2012 and 2015. And his other son, Nerthink Mauricio was elected to the Senate in 2010 and again 2014 for the PIN, now known as the Opción Ciudadana…once again changing its name due to the party’s copious links to the parapolitica scandals. On a side note, Richard Alfonso Aguilar is set to run for a Senate seat in 2018. Just imagine how Julio Cesar Prieto feels about this, having published his book about the Aguilar family?
So, this is just one window on to the complexities facing one department, that of Santander. What of the other 31 departments which together make up Colombia? Need we mention the Araujo family and their paramilitary ties in the department of Cesar, Juan Francisco ‘Kiko’ Gómez in La Guajira and his convictions for murder, Musa Besaile in Cordoba for bribery amongst other crimes, the politicians of Arauca, Casanare and Guaviare? It may come as no surprise then that a Gallup Poll taken in August 2017 showing the FARC (The Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, formerly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – but in an interesting twist, retaining their original acronym of FARC – and sporting a red rose as their emblem much like the old Labour Party in the UK) to be two points higher with 12 in opinion polls to the 10 points obtained by the country’s traditional political parties.
The icing on the cake regarding corruption in political circles in Colombia though, may well rest with the conviction of the anti-corruption czar Gustavo Moreno for overseeing and profiting from a deeply entrenched corruption racket.
So, where does this leave Colombia now, on the threshold of presidential elections in 2018?
One of the frontrunners for the presidency is the former vice president and member of the Cambio Radical party German Vargas Lleras, a career politician and grandson of Colombia’s 22nd president Carlos Alberto Lleras Restrepo. While his standing is solid amongst leaders of industry and businesses, his public persona – having been caught on camera reprimanding and swatting his driver – has not earned him many friends. Then there’s the corruption engulfing his party which to date includes sanctions against 349 members of the Cambio Radical. Within this number there have been 19 politicians condemned for parapolitica involvement and a further 44 under investigation. There are 11 mayors and eight governors being investigated for corruption.
What is interesting though is that Vargas Lleras is taking a leaf from Uribe’s political playbook, just as the former president did prior to 2002 in appealing to businesses as the “friendly” option whilst taking an emotive route and ensuring that he’ll gain votes by appealing to base principles. It’s a proven technique, claim that Colombia and President Santos are offering impunity to the FARC rebels and that the nation is at the threshold of plunging into a Venezuela-style chaos, despite the obvious fact that Colombia neither has the oil reserves and nor is the market favourable to this product to be able to prop up a regime of this sort as in Venezuela. Who wants this? Interestingly enough, throughout the four years (2012-2016) of negotiations between the guerrillas and the Colombian government in Havana, Cuba, vice president Vargas Lleras never made his stance clear on the accords. One suspects now that his political livery is more of an Uribista bent.
But how can you renegotiate a peace accord which has been signed off, internationally lauded and has even delivered the Nobel Peace Prize to Colombian soil?
Senator Uribe knows how and is fully aware that it needs to be a thoroughly domestic affair. Due to the international guarantee of the peace accords you cannot surreptitiously change the accords behind the scenes, the only way under Colombian law would be to convene a Constituent Assembly to enable a “democratic vote”. In doing this, Uribe, Vargas Lleras and all of the others in disagreement with the accords would be subject to what is known in Colombia as La Mermelada or marmalade.
When we talk about “marmalade” in the Colombian political sense, it’s a reference to the use of public money for private and individual gain because the person doling it out is “spreading the marmalade” or funds across his supporters. But the meaning goes further.
“Yes, it sounds incredible to suggest the government used tax payers’ money to subsidize corrupt politicians to pervert the electoral process…but it’s an allegation many commentators and politicians continue to insist is true:” said Kevin Howlett, a political analyst with Colombia Politics.
“In terms of “mermelada” for votes there are various aspects at work,” said Howlett. “The accusation is that the money given to the politicians is then used directly to buy votes. Yes, directly to buy the votes.”
“Sometimes it’s indirectly, through clientelism. [That is to say], jobs or pet projects for local ‘friends,’” Howlett says.
“Some of the money is for infrastructure works … some of it is in kickbacks on contracts. Many columnists have claimed that kickback on contracts can be something in the region of 18%.”
In 2018, who commands the largest pot of marmalade? Santos and his U Party are tarnished beyond recognition and no one will want to be associated with them. Vargas Lleras may escape from too serious criticism since he has, as vice president, effectively been campaigning from his position of authority for two years in travelling the country to oversee the renovation of airports, ports and delivery of welfare housing to the neediest. When the time to vote arrives, Vargas Lleras holds an indispensable advantage that his face and name are recognised across Colombia.
So, maybe Vargas Lleras vice presidency has already spread its marmalade? And if not, does the Uribista camp possess enough clout to rival this in 2018?
And then you have the role of the international community and just glancing at this, it becomes clear why Uribe has to keep the game firmly in Colombia’s sphere of influence. His recent support for Panama’s former president Ricardo Martinelli hasn’t aided the beleaguered politician from that country just yet. Then, when Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales declared Colombian national, Judge Ivan Velasquez – who is overseeing corruption cases in the Central American country – a persona non-grata, Uribe seized the opportunity and took to the airwaves, announcing to whomever might listen on Guatemalan television and radio that: “the corruption is not defeated by judges such as Ivan Velasquez who use justice to condemn their supposed political enemies.”
It is clear, Uribe’s stock is not high in international circles.
Meanwhile, on the home-front, President Santos limps into his final year and the Colombian public may well be suffering from a “peace fatigue”, reflecting in his poor showings in polls, and a burnout due to the daily routine of screaming headlines of corruption from all quarters. Additionally, Santos’ government has been overselling the economic benefits of peace – as if tourism alone can pick up the slack from the collapse in global oil prices – and it appears that the country’s GDP will only grow a fraction of what Santos predicts for 2017.
So, how can the Colombian electorate vote for positive change and to maintain the status quo of “armed peace” which the country is enjoying in the latter stages of 2017? “Armed peace” is the description given for Colombia’s predicament by the Spanish conflict photographer Alvaro Ybarra Zavala, who has been covering the nation’s troubles since 2002 routinely embedding himself with the guerrillas and the army, depending on the occasion and story (a collection of Ybarra’s photographs can be seen in his 2017 book, “Macondo” published by the Editorial Ovisara). Knowing the country as well as Ybarra does, he confided that, “social peace” where justice and transparency reign is going to be almost impossible to achieve in Colombia as there’s too much at stake.
There may be some relief for Colombian voters in the coming year though, in the form of two presidential candidates from the Uribista heartlands of Medellin and the Coffee region. The Governor of Antioquia, Sergio Fajardo, who was an immensely successful Mayor of the industrial engine of Medellin and the chief negotiator of the Government’s negotiating team during the peace dialogues with the FARC, Humberto de la Calle, a former vice president to President Ernesto Samper. In De la Calle’s favour, during an era of unrelenting scandals, he remained unscathed.
If, and it’s a big if, Fajardo and De la Calle can together form a coalition government – sas is being mooted – then they have a chance despite the stigma that they will face from the hard right suggesting that they are “communists” or “guerrilla sympathisers”. And since voting patterns, when people actually turn out to vote (this fluctuates between 40-50 percent in Colombia), tend to have a strong lean towards regionalismo in Colombia, perhaps these candidates can break the hold that Uribe has over Antioquia and the Coffee Region. Of course, this will only happen if a great deal of political plays fall favourably for Fajardo and De la Calle and unfavourably for Uribe and his annointed candidate which appears, now to be Vargas Lleras.
So why is Santos’ U party on the verge of a total collapse and why have politicians from the U party and the Cambio Radical party been so open to corruption that these cases play right in to the hands of the Uribistas and their campaign?
Perhaps it’s not just a case of two parties mired in corruption? Remember, President Santos was once Uribe’s Minister of Defence and it was during this period that the horrific falsos positivos scandal came to light. The “false positives” were a chilling and nefarious practice by members of the military to augment their “guerrilla” death count for financial gain, a policy pushed and approved by the government. In their alacrity to increase numbers and benefit financially, soldiers would trick street dwellers or mentally impaired citizens from cities such as Bogotá to conflict zones with the promise of work. The military would then execute these citizens and dress them as guerrillas and call them in as guerrilla casualties.
So, one can ask, how far back does this practice of rampant and inherent corruption reach? It’s not just a Santista policy, neither is it Uribista, it is in the very fabric of Colombian society or so it seems. As Colonel Prieto said: “99.9 percent of all people enter politics in Colombia to get rich and steal.”
In Brazil, corruption brought down Dilma Rousseff’s government and may yet see off President Michel Temer, in Peru there’s a distinct possibility that three ex-presidents could end up in jail including the already incarcerated Alberto Fujimori, joined by Alfredo Toledo and Ollanta Humala. All of this stemming from Odebrecht. And in Colombia (ranked 90/176 with a score of 37/100 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2016), politicians fall, names are sullied, businesses damaged beyond repair and yet for an aspiring OECD nation, it seems like business as usual.
Bring on Colombia’s campaign season. The 2018 elections may just be the most important in Colombia’s history. What topics should we expect to hear more of? More corruption scandals, mermelada and vote-buying, hacking and phone-tapping, Venezuela, FARC impunity and the search for conclusive – yet non-existent – evidence with which to convict Senator Uribe. Convicted or not, guilty of corruption or not, the exit strategy is a tried and tested routine, change the name of your political party, alter your political affiliations and make sure your nearest and dearest follow in your footsteps.
In Colombia, Liberal and Conservative mean nothing, they are just labels. Hopefully Colombians will remember this when they go to cast their votes.
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