Tag Archives: president santos

Colombia’s Carousel of Corruption

I wanted to call this Colombia’s merry-go-round of corruption, but I found it to be too well-meaning and therefore taking away from the seriousness of the issue. Colombia is currently in the grips of startling revelations of illegal pay-outs, under the table payments, obscure campaign contributions and all linking to some of the most “respectable” and “connected” families in the country. So, where to begin in explaining this carousel of corruption?


Colombia’s Carousel of Corruption. No doubt I will have overlooked people and entities, but this gives you an idea of the complications to be faced here.


Bringing down a government in Brazil, implicating premiers, presidents (they’re coming for you Alejandro Toledo!) and all sorts of executives across the Americas and beyond, the scandals now surrounding Odebrecht have reached epic proportions. In Colombia alone pay-outs thus far revealed have taken down the former Minister of Transport Daniel Garcia Moreno (allegedly having received US$6.5 million) and politician Otto Bula (hailing from Cordoba Bula took over Mario Uribe’s seat, the latter being jailed for parapolitica. Bula is also signalled as being the “Ejecutivo de Cobros” by US authorities for the Oficina de Envigado. Bula’s empire extends through Cordoba, Sucre and into the Montes de María).

Only this last week accusations were flung at both President Juan Manuel Santos and his opponent in the 2014 elections Oscar Ivan Zuluaga of having received funds from Odebrecht towards their campaigns.  President Santos has ordered a speedy investigation and Zuluaga’s floundering political career seems to be in a serious free fall. Abandoned seemingly by his mentor, former President Alvaro Uribe, Zuluaga is reaching out for support everywhere.

But Odebrecht’s tentacles reach even further in Colombia. Their sister company, Navalena, opened up to oversee the project to make the Magdalena River navigable once again, has been up to no good as well. Having received a loan from Colombia’s Banco Agrario to the sum of COP 120,000 million (in 2015 when it was known that Odebrecht was in serious trouble) there are links in this carousel of corruption which should effectively rock the Colombian establishment to the core. This being Colombia, and you’ll excuse my cynicism, the issue will probably just mysteriously go away. But, it’s worth noting that the Minister for Agriculture Aurelio Iragorri and the Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas are on the board of directors.


President Santos

President Santos in Mompos

Having been accused of allegedly receiving up to as much as one million dollars in his presidential campaign kitty from Odebrecht, President Santos is moving fast to quell all rumours. Whether he knew of the income remains to be seen, but, we must all never overlook the fact that the Ruta del Sol, the expansion of the Reficar Refinery in Cartagena (it has been said that Colombians are paying for this refinery 4 times over given the swindling which occurred), the dredging of the Magdalena River and more have all taken place under his watch. These are his politicians/ cabinet who are involved. As time rolls on it will become increasingly difficult for President Santos to remain untainted from this corruption fallout.


Alvaro Uribe Velez

That Uribe’s Centro Democratico party is calling for a law regarding corruption does seem laughable and set the twitter-sphere alight. One wonders how the former president and now Senator can divert attentions away from the business ventures belonging to his sons (Tomas and Geronimo, both named in the Panama Papers, both directors of off-shore panama-based companies, joint owners of a “free zone” outside of Bogotá – granted this status by the then Minister for finance Oscar Ivan Zuluaga and on a piece of land where current Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa is suggesting be linked to his expansion of Bogotá….you see where this is going right?).

Daniel Samper Ospina on twitter

There is so much to say about the carousel of corruption when Uribe’s name is mentioned that it almost becomes difficult to define how everything is connected. It was Uribe’s Minister of Transport who took the bribes, it was his Director of INVIAS (the Colombian infrastructure agency) Daniel Garcia Arizabaleta who oversaw the Odebrecht bid on the Ruta del Sol contract and of course his protégé who received monies, allegedly, in his campaign fund. Not to mention the “hacker-gate” scandals to name another issue.


Otto Bula

Otto Bula, taken from semana.com

This jewel of a man is connected to everything it seems. Bula was ushered in to Mario Uribe’s political seat in Cordoba (Mario Uribe is cousin to Alvaro Uribe) when the latter was jailed for seven years for parapolitica. Supposedly Bula received US$4.6 million from Odebrecht to pay off people and entities so as to win the Brazilian firm the contract for the Gamarra to Ocaña stretch of the Ruta del Sol. But, as if the aforementioned scandals weren’t already enough. Bula is implicated in the land grabs and forced displacement of entire communities in Cordoba, Sucre and the Montes de Maria. He has also been accused by the US Attorney General’s office as being the “Ejecutivo de Cobros” for the much feared Oficina de Envigado overseen by the equally terrifying Don Berna and Jose Bayron Piedrahita. Now, monies from Odebrecht supposedly passed through Bula and on to Zuluaga through an address owned by the Oficina de Envigado. I am certain that there is more to be revealed surrounding Bula in the future.

Tune in to my podcast on “Corruption in Colombia

All of this and we haven’t even touched on the Nulle family!

I think that most Bogotanos sighed deep relief once the three Nulle’s were sentenced to jail on corruption charges. We all remember the tragedy for the city that was the Calle 26. The Nulle’s were in the running for a great deal of contracts and we can just thank our lucky stars that these did not come about. Now, we know that the Nulles also had a meeting in 2008 with the Tomas and Geronimo Uribe in Panama…and who else was in attendance? André Rabello the director of Odebrecht in Panama. The Nulle family has close Barranquillero links to the Char family as well. And on the links grow.

If I were relating all of this verbally to you I would now be short of breath. But, what you can see is that the same names keep on popping up. This is without mentioning the Ardila Lulle empire which includes RCN television, NTC television, RCN Radio, Postobón drinks, Atlético Nacional football team in Medellin and Skinco Colombit S.A to name but a small percentage. Postobon is named as having made payments to the AUC paramilitaries and supposedly these links do not end here.


This was my first effort at the carousel of corruption flow chart!

We have not yet addressed the farce of the “Deprimido de la 94” and why this single work of construction initiated in 2009 has not been completed. We have been unable to address the issue of Mayor Enrique Peñalosa’s links with Transmilenio buses and his brother’s influence on Bogotá’s bollards. And then there’s the issue of the Universidad de Cesar which seems to be enjoying a permanent teacher’s strike…and yet the educators here are allegedly cashing cheques for 12 to 14 million pesos a month, or at least this is a rumour I have heard.


Oh Colombia! El pais del sagrado corazon, where the carousel of corruption keeps on spinning.


For more information about Colombia, be sure to tune in to the Colombia Calling weekly podcast available to download and stream online at iTunes, Stitcher and Soundcloud


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Disarray and Uncertainty in Colombia after Peace Deal Rejected

Top-level negotiations take centre-stage but the real victims remain in the countryside

As Colombia stumbles from tumultuous fanfare on the international stage to national political disarray in the space of two weeks, the population is left mulling what could have been against an uncomfortable backdrop of uncertainty, polarization and an attitude of radical Pyrrhonism towards the ruling political elite. Oh, and there was a Nobel too!


President Santos signing peace on September 26. This agreement was rejected in the referendum on October 2

On September 26, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon lauded the peace agreement in white at the Cartagena Convention Centre and the twitter-sphere was replete with good-natured jesting at the expense of FARC commander-in-chief, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri alias “Timochenko” who perhaps reacted with all too realistic panic when an air force Kafir soared overhead in premature celebration. By 5.30pm on October 2 once the final results of the plebiscite referendum were made clear, there was no such witticism and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was left mulling over where it all went wrong. All roads in Colombia, it appears, lead to former President Alvaro Uribe.

With the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC guerrillas), for now, now occupying the moral high ground with regards to the possibilities of renegotiating the peace accords and the right-wing Uribista Democratic Centre party moving from spoilers to significant political protagonists, everything is on the line. What we are party to in the Colombian media is not perhaps the most telling barometer for a successful outcome to any future renegotiated peace agreement as all discussions are being held at the top-level between high-ranking political actors in government, members of the Government’s negotiating team and the FARC Secretariat.

On Sunday night after the results, Timochenko declared, in a brief statement from Cuba, that his organization will to continue its commitment to peace though he did not present any clear strategy. President Santos’ televised offering, most notable due to its delay in coming an hour and a half after the unanticipated outcome, was very much in the same vein: “I will not give up and will continue to strive for peace until the last-minute of my mandate,” he said, adding that a bilateral cease-fire between the two sides remains in place. The president later stated that this ceasefire will only extend to as far as October 31, but can be prolonged.

Colombian Politics

Let’s talk about peace. Seen near the Universidad Pedagogica in Bogota

The victims of the 52-year armed conflict – who, for the first time, had their voices heard in a peace dialogue –  are inconsolable and bereft of hope after the voting swung in favour, albeit marginally 50,2 per cent to 49,8 per cent representing a difference of 55,853 votes, of the No campaign. Some blame can be apportioned to Hurricane Matthew causing voters on the Caribbean coast to stay at home.

“We feel that the urban population doesn’t understand the reality and the needs to end this conflict. It was a huge opportunity for us and we missed it,” said Leyner Palacios, a survivor of the massacre in Bojayá, Choco where in May 2002, 119 people lost their lives when a FARC cylinder bomb landed on the church where townspeople were sheltering during a battle between the guerrilla and the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC, right-wing paramilitaries).

It’s important to note that voter turnout was only 37% (revealing a worrying abstention rate of some 22 million citizens), and that those regions of the country which have suffered most from the guerrilla activities (the zonas rojas) and therefore where there were most victims, overwhelmingly voted “Yes” to the peace agreement, in spite of its perceived imperfections. This included towns and regions previously strafed by violence and massacres such as Ovejas, El Salado, Bojayá, Toribio, Barbacoas, Apartado, La Macarena and Buenaventura to mention just a few of the more recognized locations.

While Colombians who backed the “No” campaign are celebrating the victory of democracy it’s hard to accept this argument since the final argument appears to be a popularity contest and three-way contest between President Juan Manuel Santos and former President Alvaro Uribe and a profound and widespread mistrust of the FARC and the nation’s staid political system.

“The negotiation should not end up being between Santos and Uribe, and neither between Uribe and the FARC,” said Dr. Silvia Mantilla of Colombia’s National University and expert in Migrations and Conflict. “The negotiation should be between all of the aforementioned and the populations of the peripheries of our society which voted Yes, they want peace. These are the people who live day-to-day in the conflict and who suffer deaths amongst their number. Between these people and those in the centre of the country, there is a huge gulf, a historical debt owed over their rightful lands, lands which need to be redistributed and these are the victims which we have to compensate,” continued Dr. Mantilla.

the distant countryside in the department of Caqueta is still heavily militarised

the distant countryside in the department of Caqueta is still heavily militarised

With merely 37 per cent of eligible voters turning out and under 51 per cent of those being the winning side, there is still a long way to go before concluding that it was true democracy. And so, as Colombia’s political landscape is in disarray as President Santos and his team scramble to protect what has been achieved with the FARC. The Government negotiating team was sent post-haste to Havana on October 3 to discuss events with their guerrilla counterparts while President Santos called upon all political parties to attend a meeting at the Palacio Nariño but Sen. Uribe’s Democratic Centre party – the referendum’s winners – has declined to attend suggesting that they too are improvising on this unexpected Plan B. Se. Uribe then agreed to some face time with President Santos three days later on October 5. Interestingly no mention has been made by Sen. Uribe on his declaration in July when the plebiscite vote was approved by the constitutional court by 7-2 that the process was “illegitimate”.

“With today’s result we know that our challenge as a political movement is even bigger,” Timochenko said on Sunday. The task ahead is nothing short of immense. How the terrain has changed since those almost halcyon days in the southern Llanos de Yari in September when the FARC was celebrating their 10th and presumably final conference as a military outfit.

If what is being revealed is nothing new in that Colombians neither trust the democratic process nor their politicians, then what of the rank and file of the guerrillas who have been assured of a positive exit to 52 years of conflict by the leaders? Middle-ranking guerrillas are particularly concerned that if they hand over their weapons, their top brass won’t be there to protect them.

At the location of the FARC’s 10th Conference in Yari, an area traditionally a bastion for the FARC rearguard dating back to the group’s emergence in the 1960’s, also referred to as Tranquilandia in some circles given that in the 1980s the Medellin cartel under Pablo Escobar would operate here with impunity in the production of their cocaine for exportation. It seemed appropriate that the FARC should congregate here for the conference and to discuss demobilization and the intricacies of the peace accords with their members. Top ranking combatants from the FARC’s Frente 1 – active in the departments of Guaviare and Vaupes – were in attendance, although notably absent was the holdout to the peace agreements Néstor Gregorio Vera Fernández alias ‘Iván Mordisco’ and his splinter group numbering some 90 people. Mordisco is reportedly sacking FARC camps, stealing any money found and re-investing it into further cocaine trafficking.

Mordisco and his men have made the headlines for their dissidence during the peace dialogues as in December 2015 they broke the FARC’s unilateral ceasefire, in July of this year they declared through a communique that they would not be complying with the agreements reached and during the plebiscite vote on October 2 they are believed to be responsible to an attack on the voting station in Miraflores, Guaviare.

If, as feared, the political negotiations between President Santos and members of the Democratic Centre party prolong, there are several ominous possibilities which could occur according to Adam Isacson and his team at the Washington Office on Latin America. Since the referendum was rejected, FARC guerrillas are “technically fugitives,” and their transfer to the 28 zones of concentration for 180 days and disarmament observed by the UN is now on hold. “Without verification and concentration, the ceasefire may become unstable.” And if these guerrillas, mainly middle and low-ranking members, feel that the Government won’t keep their end of the deal, then there’s the possibility of a “disintegration of the FARC into structures that would be impossible to demobilize.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a state employee for the Colombian government based in Guaviare and with contact with the FARC’s dissident Frente 1 suggested that they may be another way forward in how Mordisco and his men are dealt with before their numbers can balloon and they control completely the lucrative cocaine transshipment routes to Brazil and Venezuela.

“The FARC members keen on supporting the peace agreement signed in Havana, and seeing the threat presented by dissident groups, have suggested that Mordisco and his men are now potentially subject to a guerrilla tribunal and will be expelled from the FARC or potentially executed,” he said.

Certainly, if this is the case, then there is a proven desire from middle and high-ranking FARC combatants to exit the conflict through negotiated means.


One of the FARC’s biggest fears is that the government will not be able to protect them from paramilitary groups. Additionally, members of the guerrilla could defect to the Bacrims

But, there remain further risks should a disintegration of the FARC occurs. Not only are there reports surfacing that various newly formed criminal gangs or Bacrims such as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – formed out of the former right-wing paramilitary groups such as the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, Aguilas Negras and Urabeños – are offering large sums of money to guerrilla members to join their number. And not least, there’s the issue of Colombia’s second guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional or ELN) which numbers around 2,500 combatants. The ELN may be significantly smaller in size than that FARC but, its members are strategically positioned around the country and continue to cause major damage to infrastructure, in particular in oil-producing and complicated regions of the country such as Arauca and Norte de Santander.

The ELN reportedly has already been recruiting dissident FARC members and moving into traditional FARC territory such as in the department of Meta. Now that FARC guerrillas are all but certain about their future, it is not unlikely the ELN ranks will swell with FARC members worried about the government’s ability to see through their promises, the continued political uncertainty they face and the very real threat of reprisals attacks and killings at the hands of paramilitary groups. Peace talks with the ELN, which have been fractured at best, even through the exploratory stages, are set to go ahead soon.

Colombia’s volatile political dynamic, which had abated somewhat during the final months of the peace dialogues, has flared up to expose the fundamental problems which continue to afflict the country. The plebiscite vote, which exposed President Santos’ vanity and complacency has provided the kiss of life to a political party, the Democratic Centre, which was at risk of an early demise in the event of the Yes vote winning, has now been granted a new and powerful lease of life.

peace in Colombia

San Juan Lozada, Meta. This overlooked town voted overwhelmingly in favour of peace

What is happening in the Colombian countryside as this uncertainly continues? What the FARC wants is to be able to abandon guerrilla struggle without having its members massacred and the possibility to defend its policies via legal means. The Colombian state wants to end the armed conflict in order to create better conditions for economic investment, particularly in the countryside, including potentially attracting foreign capital.

President Santos is an extremely unpopular president, criticised both from the right by Sen. Uribe, but also from the left by the trade unions, student, farmer and social movements which have been mobilising against his policies of austerity and privatization. In this context many would have been rightly skeptical about his promises in the peace agreement.

Wide layers of the Colombian masses want a solution to their pressing problems of access to land, poverty, education, healthcare, housing, state violence, inflation, impunity of the paramilitary and army violation of human rights. They looked at Santos’ record on all those issues and couldn’t bring themselves to come out to vote.

President Santos wanted to use the referendum to receive personal legitimacy but it backfired. It is Sen. Uribe and his Democratic Centre party which have benefited. The accords have been rejected, Colombia is polarized and a peace process which included the victims of the conflict has been shot down. A viable deal can be resurrected but how to do so without compromising the guerrilla, creating a power vacuum in the countryside in traditional guerrilla territory, risking a breakup of the FARC’s more fractured Frentes in a move for self-preservation and complicating matters further by creating a situation where there is no defined central chain of command with whom to negotiate.

Now, it appears that serious decisions need to be made and as has been the practice in Colombia, those at the top will make them regardless of what the most-needy require. For now, there’s no notion of a return to war, but, the unease remains. The Santos administration must do several things. First, it must control the renegotiation agenda, and most of the deal should not be reopened, of course, the only issues which should be addressed are those which have been thorny to the No campaign. This is easier said than done when the President has a weak mandate and is unpopular. How long will the FARC wait?

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The Sentry

You could see that he was bored. It was clear that anything was going to be more interesting than what he was currently doing. So, I struck up a conversation with the Military Policeman at that moment on sentry duty three buildings down from the residence of the Colombian Minister of Defense in Rosales.

a military helicopter flies overhead

a military helicopter flies overhead

He came from Risaralda, yes, times are much better now in Colombia. He believed in the peace accords with the FARC. In his mind, the ELN (Colombia’s second guerrilla group) were not interested in striking a peace deal. We agreed on this. He was nineteen and a conscript. He remembered the bad times in Risaralda when the guerrilla ran amok at will. Being in the Military Police was a decision that was made for him. Long hours he said. He would be here on this street from 6am until 6pm and was not permitted to sit down. When he wasn’t registering the cars parked on the road, he was focused intensely on his mobile telephone or thinking about lunch. At least the day shift was better than the nighttime one from 6pm to 6am he said.

How long does it take to get to England he asked? Colombian women are indeed beautiful. What did I think of paisa women? He was suitably impressed that I had spent time at both the Tolemaida and Macarena military bases. He would have preferred to have been in a more active military unit. Yes, he said, President Santos’ son Martin had been based in Puerto Lopez and so had seen military action. We agreed that this was but a precursor to a career in politics. But yes, there are a couple of divisions specifically for the children of the wealthy. They don’t see action he said. One is the Guardia Presidencial and the other is the Division 13 he informed me.

If he went to England, he wanted to know, would he have success with the women? Dance I said. Even if you dance badly you’ll be better at it than us.

The sentry smiled.


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Don’t Hold Your Breath

So, news was leaked via La F.M. radio station this morning informing listeners of a mass legal process to be levied at the FARC guerrilla group in coming days. Good news on the surface, but don’t hold your breath.

the FARC emblem

the FARC emblem

The story

Apparently the Colombian Attorney General’s Office has been investigating and preparing a case against members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC rebels) as a whole and which will be presented in the coming days. This will be the first time that the FARC will have been accused as a group rather than individuals.

According to La F.M. the case will consist of more than 500,000 (yes you read that right, five hundred thousand!) crimes and more than 100 high-ranking FARC guerrillas including members of the Secretariat and FARC commander-in-chief alias ‘Timochenko’ will be accused of massacres, kidnapping, torture, forced disappearances, displacement and the recruitment of minors. Members of the Secretariat and negotiating team in Havana, Cuba (talks have been on-going since November 2012) are reportedly on the list as well.

There has been no information provided as to when the charges will date back to, but given the number of crimes said to have been compiled in the case, one can presume that the clock will be wound back as far perhaps as 1964, the “official date” of the commencement of hostilities.

The FARC’s (predictable) Response

“This action will oblige the attorney general to speed up charges and accusations for crimes committed by the state, which it has not done so far,” said chief FARC negotiator Luciano Marín Arango, alias Iván Márquez, in an interview with the same radio station (La F.M.). “They will need to accelerate processes to clarify the phenomenon of the paramilitaries. How this phenomenon came about and how it was financed leaving so much human tragedy in our country,” he added.

Aside from this we can expect the FARC in Havana to shrug their shoulders and ignore the charges as they continue to defend their position, which represents in their view a legitimate voice in the struggle against a corrupt and uncaring, landowning oligarchy. As they continue to negotiate the same arguments are repeated, that they are the “first victims in the Colombian armed conflict.”

The FARC is not wrong to demand answers for crimes committed by the state and it appears that there is movement, albeit torpid, on this front with four retired Generals being called on to provide information regarding the nefarious “False Positives” scandal where according to Human Rights Watch up to as many as 3500 civilians were killed and then presented as guerrillas during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010).

Don’t Hold Your Breath

Why do I say this? Well, as with any peace negotiation or in fact a negotiation of any type there is going to be a great deal of intrigue. Who would expect less from a government led by President Santos, the unrepentant devotee of “the Third Way?” Anyway, for starters we don’t know what has been said and agreed upon in Havana between members of the government’s negotiating team and the FARC. They have supposedly reached agreements on the issues of agrarian reform, political participation and illicit drugs. While this is to be commended, don’t think for one minute that these agreements are final. Apparently there is a phrase being employed a fair bit: “put it in the freezer.” So, when one side or the other cannot agree on a technicality, wording, phrase or so on, so as to keep the negotiations moving, they “put it in the freezer” to revisit at the end of negotiations. I would assume that the freezer is pretty full by now.

Now, we could be celebrating the Attorney General’s decision to create this case and accuse the FARC of more than 500,000 criminal acts including crimes against humanity, war crimes and violations of International Human Rights Law and so on, but, there’s a caveat. By creating this lawsuit against the FARC as a whole and as a group the Attorney General is effectively protecting the guerrilla group from International Criminal Law and Transitional Justice.

Call me cynical, but don’t think for one moment that President Santos isn’t capable of pulling a fast one to push through this thorny issue of “victims” in the dialogues so as to reestablish some forward momentum to the talks. The dialogues have been stagnated on this point for month after month and the conflict has escalated into a bloody hurting stalemate with more than 38 guerrilla attacks since they suspended their unilateral ceasefire in May 2015.

Now that it’s a national court case, once charges are presented, the International Criminal Court can stand back and watch from afar as they are only complementary and it’s in their statutes that they do not have universal jurisdiction. Even where the ICC has jurisdiction, it will not necessarily act. The principle of “complementarity” provides that certain cases will be inadmissible even though the Court has jurisdiction. In general, a case will be inadmissible if it has been or is being investigated or prosecuted by a State with jurisdiction.

So, there you have it…don’t hold your breath, what they are looking to formulate right now are “alternative sentences” for the guerrillas.

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