Written exclusively for South Front by Daniel Edgar.
After a period of relative calm and stability in Colombian politics during President Gustavo Petro’s first year in office, over the last few months social and political tensions have surged after a compromise agreement reached between the Petro Government and many of his political opponents in the National Congress broke down. The situation could now be rapidly heading towards a renewed period of political instability and crisis as many of his political opponents and implacable enemies among opposition political parties, Colombia’s powerful oligarchs and organized crime families, and major segments of the national and regional corporate media outlets join forces in what could be a looming all-out attempt to oust Petro. To these hostile domestic forces must now be added the pending vengeance of the United States and Israel following the Colombian Government’s forthright criticism of Israel’s barbaric slaughter of the people trapped in the Gaza strip and defence of the Palestinian’s right to exist.
Since he took office in August of 2022 Colombian President Gustavo Petro has been subjected to a constant barrage of pressure, criticism and subversion from many of his most powerful opponents and enemies among the traditional ruling elites and many of the country’s corporate media outlets. Apart from the incessant complaints and criticism of the Petro Government in the mainstream media, one of the key elements of these destabilization efforts has been the activities of some of the independent agencies of accountability and control, several of which are directed by appointees and close allies of former president Iván Duque – most notably the National Offices of the Prosecutor-General (Fiscalía) and the Inspector-General (Procuraduría). Both agencies have extensive powers of investigation, prosecution and, in the case of the Inspector General, the power to suspend and dismiss State employees and even elected representatives (whether elected to the National Congress or provincial and municipal governments and assemblies).
A prior occupant of the latter office (Alejandro Ordoñez) in effect carried out a unilateral impeachment of current president Gustavo Petro after he was elected mayor of Bogotá – Petro was dismissed from office by the then Inspector General and faced a lengthy disqualification from public office before the proceeding was held to be invalid by an appellate tribunal (but much of the damage had already been done, as Petro was effectively prevented from completing his term as mayor). Ordoñez was subsequently named Colombia’s representative to the Organization of American States, one of the most sought after postings among Colombia’s Establishment apparatchiks rolo, paisa and costeña.
The orchestrated campaign to delegitimize, subvert and ultimately overthrow the Petro Government during the first year in office was generally somewhat restrained, as the President and his allied parties and factions in the Congress managed to negotiate a broadly framed working agreement with almost all of the main opposition parties (except Centro Demócratico, the party formed by former president Álvaro Uribe) pursuant to which the main opposition parties of the traditional ruling elite agreed to support several of the government’s core policies and initiatives in return for certain amendments to the government’s proposed laws and policies which were negotiated as they passed through the Congress in each instance. There were also several compromise ministerial appointments in which ministers were selected pursuant to the agreement reached with the main opposition parties.
Eventually, and inevitably, the agreement broke down due to the deep and irreconcilable ideological and programmatic differences and contradictions between the interests and objectives of the respective parties and factions supporting and opposed to the Petro Government. Ultimately the agreement was ended due to a heated dispute over the government’s proposed reforms to the health system, and the president subsequently dismissed from the Cabinet the ministers that had been appointed pursuant to the compromise agreement with the main opposition parties. Following the termination of the compromise agreement the efforts to destabilize and oust the Petro Government intensified dramatically, and they appear to be preparing for a final assault to overthrow the president.
It is clear that Gustavo Petro and his supporters are well aware of the danger he faces and the power, resources and ruthlessness of his opponents and enemies, and he has generally acted very carefully so as not to antagonize them or confront them directly as he steadily consolidated his position over the first year of his four-year term. However, his forthright defence of the right of the Palestinians to self-determination and his denunciation of the latest Israeli bombardment of Gaza may prove to be the final trigger that sets in motion one or more of the contingency plans that have presumably been prepared to overthrow his government by any means and at any cost.
The orchestrated political/ legal/ media smear campaign against the Petro Government
In terms of domestic factors and alignments, one of the most persistent and damaging sources of the systematic attacks and accusations against the Petro Government has been the National Office of the Prosecutor General, which is currently directed by an appointee and close personal acquaintance of former president Ivan Duque (Francisco Barbosa). Barbosa has dedicated almost all of the formidable powers of investigation and prosecution that he controls to a protracted series of investigations into the president’s inner circle and political allies, all the while holding regular high profile press conferences in which he has made many spurious allegations and unconfirmed claims against the President and others subject to ongoing investigations, regularly calling for the President’s resignation, impeachment, or the imposition of strict and unconstitutional limits on his powers and functions.
Barbosa’s tirades and legal persecution and harassment of the Petro Government have been actively supported and complemented by other key State officials and major media outlets who are equally hell-bent on bringing the government down any way they can, among them the Office of the Inspector General of the Republic, another very powerful ‘independent and autonomous’ State agency of accountability and control that is also headed by an appointee who is a close acquaintance and ally of former president Ivan Duque and his entourage.
Colombia has been one of the leading proponents and social laboratories for the elaboration of what has come to be called ‘Lawfare’ in Latin America. In such cases the powers and resources of key State officials and agencies are dedicated to investigating and harassing high profile political opponents in order to discredit them and if possible permanently eliminate them from the political scene. Similar techniques involving the creation of unofficial and unacknowledged inter-departmental task forces and projects formed to carry out synchronized operations of targeted surveillance, investigation, intimidation and persecution are also often used against prominent human rights and environmental organizations, trade unions and social leaders. Usually many of the mainstream media outlets actively and uncritically support such Lawfare operations. LINK
These activities are usually accompanied by a concurrent series of other parallel programs or unofficial task forces dedicated to destroying and covering up evidence and blocking or subverting active criminal and financial investigations involving or implicating their powerful allies, patrons and associates (accomplices). In any given instance the law enforcement personnel and other State officials assigned to take part in such an operation could include designated units and personnel from among the law enforcement, financial, military and intelligence agencies, tribunals and courts, the Offices of the Prosecutor General and Inspector General, among many others.
Other notable examples of these types of operations aimed at permanently eliminating rivals from the political scene include the ongoing legal, political and media persecution of former presidents Donald Trump (US), Imran Khan (former Prime Minister of Pakistan), Rafael Correa and his vice-president (Ecuador), Cristina Fernandez (Argentina), as well as the president-in-waiting of Guatemala (Bernardo Arevalo), who is due to take office in January 2024. The current President of Brazil, Lula de Silva, was eventually released after a lengthy imprisonment when the charges against him were found to be unsubstantiated.
Throughout the course of the smear and destabilization campaign being waged against the Petro Government, a constant stream of information and details concerning the multitude of ongoing investigations being conducted by the Prosecutor General’s office have invariably found their way into the mainstream media by way of regular orchestrated leaks. The claims are swiftly incorporated into the public discourse by mainstream media outlets and social media platforms and networks, creating and sustaining a deluge of speculation about the investigations accompanied by any number of unfounded claims and dubious accusations against the Petro Government, while at the same time crowding out coverage of other topics (among them the many well-substantiated and thoroughly documented allegations of war crimes, grave human rights abuses, corruption and fraud such as those discussed in more detail below).
This aspect of the situation is reminiscent of the systematic campaign of political persecution in Pakistan against former Prime Minister Imran Khan, where a constant flow of carefully edited and redacted military and intelligence ‘audio leaks’ are sent to media agencies purporting to discredit and incriminate the former PM and senior members of the political party that he founded, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Within a few short months the political party has all but been extinguished, and the former prime minister is languishing in prison facing well over 100 trumped up charges, almost all of which are patently contrived and fabricated. LINK
In Colombia the ‘audio leaks’ and associated claims and allegations have often been published through one of the country’s (formerly) most prestigious news and current affairs magazines, Semana (currently serving as the flagship mouthpiece for some of Colombia’s more powerful regional organized crime families and oligarchs). For most of the last year the directors and editors of Semana have devoted a large part of every edition to stories, speculation and interviews criticizing and denouncing Gustavo Petro, his closest allies, and everything that the government says or does, relishing and sensationalizing each new real or fabricated scandal.
In the most damaging scandal so far, the President’s son was recently arrested and imprisoned over allegations that he knowingly received ‘drug money’ to finance the presidential campaign. While there is evidence that some of the campaign contributions received by the managers of Petro’s presidential campaign in 2022 originated from people subsequently revealed to have been involved in criminal activities, several points need to be taken into account. In the first place, it is often difficult if not impossible for campaign managers to investigate and verify the sources of all campaign contributions. Moreover, while every detail of Pacto Histórico’s campaign financing, organization and management is being scrutinized with a fine tooth comb, little or no attention has been paid to the dubious origin of many large campaign contributions received by the other major political parties.
Meanwhile, there has been little or no progress made in terms of the large number of major cases and corruption schemes involving the chronic abuse of public powers, administrative irregularities, political and financial corruption and fraud involving the activities of the Prosecutor General’s many wealthy and powerful allies, accomplices and benefactors, and the Prosecutor General’s office has repeatedly attempted to formally terminate and bury investigations involving his allies and benefactors as quickly and silently as possible – among them, the multiple outstanding cases against former president Álvaro Uribe, former Prosecutor General Nestor Humberto Martinez, the corporate empires of the Ardila Lulle and Sarmiento Angulo families, and the Odebrecht/ Grupo Aval corruption scandal (some of the details that have emerged in the Colombian media related to these cases are summarized in a series of articles published by Colombia Reports – 27 July 2021, “Colombia seeks to absolve former president despite evidence” 8 March 2021, “How to evade investigating Colombia’s richest guy”, respectively).
The latter case involves an elaborate corruption scheme related to the tendering process for major public works programs, pursuant to which Odebrecht and Grupo Aval were awarded a lucrative contract for the construction of a major highway in the north of Colombia (commonly referred to as ‘Ruta del Sol II’). Ultimately, a formal investigation was eventually initiated by the Prosecutor General’s office after the public scandal became impossible to ignore. A substantial amount of evidence subsequently emerged indicating that the two companies were awarded the contract after paying large bribes to senior government members, State officials and bureaucrats, with those implicated in the scandal including numerous members of Colombia’s most powerful and wealthy families.
Grupo Aval is part of a sprawling corporate empire owned and controlled by one of Colombia’s richest families, headed by Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo. Sarmiento Angulo’s corporate holdings include a substantial stake in Colombia’s mass media (radio, television and print). The majority of the mainstream media in Colombia is dominated by three of the country’s richest families, the Ardila Lulles, Sarmiento Angulos and Santo Domingos. Carlos Ardila Lulle owns one of Colombia’s two main television stations, RCN. The other national television broadcaster is Caracol (owned by another of Colombia’s richest families, the Santo Domingos). Meanwhile, Sarmiento Angulo owns CityTV, the third channel in the national capital, Bogota.
Between them, the owners of RCN and Caracol have somehow managed for many years to persuade the National Congress not to authorize the granting of a licence for a third national television channel, so Colombians without access to cable television still only have two television channels to choose from (complemented by one or two low budget regional broadcasters in most areas). Among their substantial corporate holdings in many other strategic and lucrative economic sectors (including infrastructure, construction, telecommunications, finance and agribusiness), both oligarchs also have a large stake in the radio and print media.
According to a study conducted by the Media Ownership Monitor and Federaciòn Colombiana de Periodistas in 2018, the two main television channels (Caracol and RCN) have around 80% of the audience share. The three dominant companies in the radio sector (a conglomerate owned by Ardila Lulle, Grupo Prisa and Organización Radio Olímpica) have over 70% of the audience/ market share. In the print media, Casa Editorial El Tiempo (owned by the Sarmiento Angulo clan), has around 31% of the newspaper audience/ market share, and the second largest print media company (National Media Group, GNM) has around 30%. Altogether, three privately-held corporate empires (owned by the Ardila Lulle, Santo Domingo, and Sarmiento Angulo families respectively) control around 57% of the TV, radio and print media markets in Colombia.
Not surprisingly, most of Colombia’s mainstream corporate media outlets have invariably been passive and compliant in their coverage of most of the largest corruption scandals in Colombia involving the upper echelons of the Establishment. They usually ignore them completely for as long as they can, then, if they receive substantial coverage from other sectors and can no longer be ignored, there is generally very limited and anecdotal reporting of the details and the gravity and consequences of the scandals are downplayed as much as possible, before they are dropped from the public discourse as quickly as possible.
The ongoing cover-up of crimes committed by some of the main instigators, protagonists and beneficiaries of the social and armed conflict in Colombia
There are countless instances of widely reported cases involving grave human rights abuses, chronic corruption and irregular and fraudulent transactions, selling off or giving away State lands and resources to politically-connected companies and families, etc., that have never been investigated. In many cases the perpetrators and beneficiaries of the crimes have been thoroughly documented, usually by a diverse group of independent researchers, investigative journalists, civil society organizations (most of whom are Colombians fed up with the failure of State law enforcement agencies, tribunals and prosecutors to conduct formal investigations), and in some cases preliminary investigations initiated by magistrates and tribunals. Over time, independent investigators and media agencies have managed to discover and verify large amounts of evidence related to criminal activities involving vast corruption schemes or grave and persistent human rights abuses that have never been acknowledged by the authorities, or if they are forced to act by public pressure they arrange a perfunctory investigation in which the personnel assigned to investigate have no resources and the investigation goes nowhere before the case is summarily dismissed. There are also many situations where a tribunal or magistrate has ruled that certain State departments, prosecutors or officials must open a formal investigation into evidence of criminal activities and official misconduct but the rulings have been contemptuously ignored.
Major ‘foreign investors’ have been notoriously difficult for the Prosecutor General’s office – or any other tribunal, congressional committee or law enforcement agency – to investigate and prosecute. For instance, the magistrate that ordered an investigation into the Colombian directors of Nestlé (to ascertain the extent of their knowledge of and collaboration with paramilitaries and other criminal groups in the planning and organization of a long series of targeted attacks against the leaders and membership of the trade union Sinaltrainal) subsequently had to go into exile after receiving death threats.
The purpose of the numerous selective assassinations of key trade union leaders was to weaken and if possible destroy Sinaltrainal by attrition, intimidation and terror, and they were carried out in the context of a systematic and long-running operation of political, legal and bureaucratic harassment, persecution and illegal surveillance against the trade union and its members. Although some public prosecutors went through the motions of performing their duties, the investigation that the magistrate ordered prior to his forced exile was constantly delayed and eventually discretely dropped. Meanwhile, the judicial systems of the United States and Switzerland rejected attempts by Sinaltrainal to initiate legal proceedings in those countries in order to investigate evidence linking ‘Killer Coke’ and Nestlé respectively to the assassination of more than twenty of their directors and membership (described in the book Luciano Vive – Luciano Lives).
In another outstanding context and largely unreported (by the mainstream media) dimension of the armed conflict in Colombia, numerous former paramilitary commanders have provided a considerable amount of testimony (and several have expressed the willingness to provide a lot more information and details if they are given the opportunity to do so) concerning their relations and collaboration with Chiquita Brands, Dole, Del Monte, and many other extremely powerful companies and actors, including ‘foreign investors’, business and rancher federations in Colombia, and high profile military and intelligence officers and political personalities. LINK
After admitting to having collaborated with several illegal armed groups in Colombia, Chiquita Brands entered into a plea agreement with the US Department of Justice to prevent further investigation and disclosure of their extensive and long-running relations and collaboration with a succession of illegal armed groups to secure protection for their vast banana plantations in the north of the country and destroy the plantation workers’ trade union, among other documented acts the importation of thousands of automatic rifles and ammunition for the AUC paramilitary groups.
The case is exceptional because many documents related to its collaboration with paramilitary groups were disclosed following the agreement between the company and State prosecutors in the United States. Normally, such details never emerge to see the light of day. In exchange for a commitment by the federal prosecutors that they would not pursue criminal charges, Chiquita’s executives admitted that its subsidiary in Colombia (Banadex S.A.) paid approximately $1.7 million to paramilitary groups between 1997 and 2004 (including after the US government designated them as terrorist organizations in 2001) and handed over thousands of documents related to the case.
The documents testify to the extent of the collaboration of the management of Chiquita Brands in the execution of crimes against humanity committed by the paramilitary groups. They were revealed in judicial proceedings that followed the initial decision of the tribunal (in subsequent proceedings the company tried to prevent the public disclosure of the documents delivered to the Department of Justice). The court imposed a penalty of $25 million (not even amounting to half of the profits made by the Colombian subsidiary, the company’s most profitable subsidiary, during the period), and the money went to the Department of Justice – not one cent was paid to the victims in Colombia. The Lawyers’ Collective José Alvear Restrepo (CAJAR) commented with respect to the proceedings:
“These resources [the payments to the paramilitaries], which converted Chiquita Brands into one of the most important financers of the AUC [the national paramilitary structure], furthered the massive commission of crimes against humanity and grave violations of human rights committed by paramilitary organizations in the regions of Urabá and Santa Marta, including forced displacement, homicides, torture, forced disappearances, among others.
In this context, on the 5th of November 2001 approximately three thousand AK-47 rifles and 5 million rounds of ammunition, an arsenal that was transported on the ship Otterloo, were unloaded and introduced into the national territory. The ship was unloaded in the port of Zungo, specifically on the docks belonging to the company Banadex S.A. (owned by Chiquita), from where the arms departed in fourteen trucks to be delivered to the paramilitary organizations in Córdoba and Urabá. The then paramilitary commander Carlos Castaño later stated publicly that this development constituted ‘his greatest achievement’…
(Subsequent partial investigations by authorities in Panama and Colombia revealed that the shipment originated in Central America and was organized by a shadey group of Israeli intermediaries and corporate fronts.)
Apart from being documented in the Colombian and United States judicial systems, this relationship between Chiquita Brands International and the paramilitary structure in Colombia – and thereby the responsibility of this company in the commissioning of multiple crimes against humanity and grave violations of human rights – has been corroborated during the last year by different paramilitary commanders such as Salvatore Mancuso Gómez (alias Santander Lozada), Freddy Rendón Herrera (alias El Alemán), Rodrigo Tovar Pupo (alias Jorge 40), Nodier Giraldo Giraldo (alias el Cabezón or Jota), and Éver Veloza Garcia (alias HH).”
Testimony provided by the former paramilitary commanders in the region where Chiquita Brands operated suggests that many of the companies were willing if not enthusiastic financers and in some cases active collaborators in the activities of the paramilitary groups, and also reveals the devastating effects of these activities for the workers and trade union members in the region. Among the declarations of former paramilitary commanders in judicial proceedings and interviews:
“In an interview on the 7th of May 2007, Salvatore Mancuso declared: ‘All of the banana producers paid us. All of them… A pact was made with Chiquita Brands Inc, Dole, Banacol, Uniban, Proban and Del Monte. They paid us one cent per dollar for every box that left the country. The other companies of the sector make a monthly payment. The company Dole took responsibility for receiving the money and finalizing the operation, which the companies were well aware of and which was qualified as a contribution to the ‘Convivir’ organization Papagayo… The massacres also enabled them to dismantle the social assistance programs they had pacted with the trade unions…’
In the same program ‘60 Minutes’ of the 11th of May 2008, Salvatore Mancuso assured the interviewer that ‘there was no need to exert pressure, blackmail or threats against the banana companies so that they would pay those percentages. The truth is that we never thought what would happen if they didn’t pay us, because they [the representatives of the companies] did it gladly…’
A computer belonging to Jorge 40 supposedly has files that list shipments of cocaine to Europe on ships loaded with bananas. ‘According to our intelligence reports, the company [used for these shipments] is called Chiquita’, according to a report of the national Prosecutor General’s office…
In open testimony rendered before the Justice and Peace Unit on the 10th of July 2008, Éver Veloza Garcia, alias HH, ex-paramilitary commander of the ‘Bloque Bananero’, reiterated ‘that it was the banana companies that paved the way for the arrival of the paramilitary groups to the region in order to combat the guerrilla groups.’ Furthermore, he said that the Convivir were created to legalize the payments of the companies for the military sustenance of the illegal group… And acknowledged that they forced the workers to work, by way of threats, when they organized strikes. He also acknowledged the assassination of banana workers. ‘The banana producers never paid us to assassinate trade union members, but it was clear that with the money they paid to the AUC many crimes against workers were committed’, he said…
The paramilitary commander also revealed that many of the banana ships were loaded with drugs from various ports. In some cases, divers at the service of the drug traffickers ‘secured tubes containing drugs to the hull of the ships’ in the open ocean to avoid security controls… ‘Every month, 4,000 kilos of drugs left towards Panama and Central America just from our zone’, Veloza Garcia assured…
In open testimony submitted before the Justice and Peace Unit on the 10th of July 2008, Éver Veloza Garcia (alias HH), ex paramilitary commander of the ‘Bloque Bananero’, affirmed that ‘the strikes by the workers were very damaging for them (the banana companies), they lost a lot of money when the workers protested, and when we arrived to the zone, in 1995, there was not one more strike’…
‘With the war that took place in Urabá, the only winners were the banana companies’, Éver Veloza Garcia, the former paramilitary commander in that Antioquia sub-region, affirmed before the Justice and Peace Unit…
Petro’s efforts to confront deeply entrenched corruption, nepotism and abuse of power
Faced with a situation in which his political opponents and sworn enemies effectively control, or have considerable affinity with and influence over, many of the directors and officials embedded in key posts throughout the State institutions, Petro appears to have developed a strategy that entails enduring and outlasting the constant harassment and subversion being carried out against him by his sworn enemies, while at the same time providing an opportunity for his political opponents and rivals among the traditional ruling elites to influence and actively participate in the structural, social and economic reform programs he plans to implement if they are prepared to do so, thereby alleviating the tense atmosphere somewhat and reducing the opposition to the government’s reform programs, as well as providing some breathing space while he consolidates his position.
One of the key elements of the government’s strategy to confront institutional corruption, maladministration and abuse of power involves taking incremental steps to loosen and eventually end the tight control that the traditional ruling parties and factions have established over many of the State’s most powerful mechanisms of accountability and control. In this instance, Petro is attempting to remove corrupt officials and restore the integrity and effectiveness of the accountability agencies in a series of sequential moves relying on the constitutionally limited powers and functions at his disposal (he can’t alter or reform the structures and procedures of the accountability agencies as this would require major constitutional amendments).
The independent agencies of accountability and control can be considered as constituting the fourth branch of the State, sharing some functions with the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches but also exercising other distinctive powers and functions that are just as crucial to the prevention, detection and investigation of abuses of power, administrative irregularities, fraud and corruption, and to preserving the integrity and accountability of the system of government as a whole.
The Colombian Constitution adopted in 1991 created numerous such agencies, referred to in the text as ‘Organs of State Control’ (“Organismos de Control del Estado”). Apart from the two already mentioned (the Prosecutor General and Inspector General – Fiscalía and Procuraduría respectively), among the most important are the Auditor General (Contraloría), the Ombudsman (Defensoría), the Registrar General (Registraduría), and the National Electoral Commission (Consejo Nacional Electoral). A second tier of similar entities was created to perform functions such as supervising and regulating the financial sector and corporations (‘Superintendencies’) and the mass media.
The Constitution prescribes the procedures for the nomination and appointment of the director of most of these agencies, as well as for appointments to the judicial branch. The arrangements vary according to the office involved.
|Candidates nominated by
|Constitutional Court, Supreme Court, Council of State
|President, Supreme Court, Council of State
|Congress/ political parties
|Council of State
|House of Representatives
|President, Supreme Court, Council of State
|Superior Council of the Judiciary
|Council of State
|Superior Council of the Judiciary
|Council of State
|Council of State
|Superior Council of the Judiciary
|(1) Supreme Court, Constitutional Court, Council of State
(2) President – Congress
Remaining focal points for institutional dysfunction and decay
While the relevant constitutionally-entrenched provisions are generally a considerable improvement over the methods used in many other countries (often the entire process is left to the discretion of the government of the day), they have not been entirely successful in removing appointments to key posts from the vagaries of the most powerful political factions in the National Congress and the Presidency at the time each appointment is made (this is not to suggest that many of the people appointed over time have not fulfilled their duties admirably – the Auditor General’s office in particular has produced a large number of valuable reports and investigations into major fraud and corruption schemes, however they invariably languished in obscurity once they were completed as the officials in charge of following up on the findings often were not as diligent in the performance of their functions).
As one veteran Colombian constitutional and political analyst subsequently noted (Francisco Gutiérrez Sanin, 2010, 25 Años de la Decentralización en Colombia), the traditional ruling elites (as well as emerging organized crime networks and illegal armed groups) soon adjusted to the new operating environment:
“[To analyse the consequences of political, financial and administrative decentralisation on the Colombian system of government, I begin] with two statements. The first is that it radically diminished the capacity of the central government to appoint functionaries at the sub-national levels. This ended the last great mechanism of control of the political centre over the voters, but eventually it also weakened the provincial political barons whilst strengthening political chiefs at the municipal level. Consequently, it undermined the political pyramid upon which the two-party system was constructed…
The second proposition is that – as the architects of the (constitutional) reform (conducted in 1991) had suggested – it gradually smothered and limited the old forms of patronage and clientelism. This had been based on the management of nominations (of Governors and Mayors), direct retribution by the vote, and the intermediation of the political functionaries in the provision of services… New repertoires were also being superimposed on this basic formula, due to the extent to which the country was entering the world market for drugs…
The combination of the three decentralisations weakened the existing formula: the upper rungs of the public administration had lost a good part of their capacity of designation and appointment, and funds transferred to the sub-national levels now had a specific destination. It´s true that practices rapidly appeared that enabled the circumventing of such limitations. However, overall, the margin for this type of politics was reduced.
What happened is that a new type of clientelism appeared, anchored – like that which preceded it – institutionally. This new modality had various characteristics. In the first place, it was no longer primarily oriented at appointments but at the power to sign contracts. To manage the (enormous) sums of money that became available to them, the sub-national entities dedicated themselves to contracting, way beyond the capacity of the state for supervision and control… The new clientelism was also characterised by its much less pyramidal nature, being linked to a much greater extent to specific individuals. The decision-making networks typically were “short”, they were not tied to the traditional political machines, and they did not extend further than the municipality.”
With respect to the second tier of supervisory and regulatory agencies mentioned above, in most cases the Constitution delegates responsibility for establishing the operative framework defining their structures and management to the National Congress, and the directors and other senior officials are usually appointed by the relevant Minister in the conventional manner. Meanwhile, most of the appointments to the corresponding posts in the provincial and municipal governments – where practices of corruption, fraud, nepotism and arbitrary government are chronic and systematic – are usually controlled directly by the Governors and Mayors respectively.
Another crucial sector and public function that has not been included in the constitutional arrangements established in 1991, and that remains a fundamental challenge to restoring the integrity of State institutions and confronting some of the most endemic and destructive practices of corruption and fraud, is the land title system.
In his contribution to the Historic Commission (“¿Una historia simple?”, Comisión Histórica, 2015, Contribución al entendimiento del conflict armado en Colombia – Contribution to understanding the Armed Conflict in Colombia), Gutiérrez Sanin identifies another area of government that has been subject to systematic manipulation and abuse of power throughout Colombia’s history, namely the official land registers and the land title system generally. Among other things, the susceptibility of the land title system to systematic manipulation and fraud has contributed to entrenching:
“the existence of a great agrarian inequality created and processed through the political allocation of property rights to land. This is ‘the atomic bomb of the institutional designs’ in the country… [Historically, the definition and allocation of property rights has been driven by two main] opposing tendencies, in which the country is still trapped: the first was the constant accumulation of land by large landowners through a combination of political contacts, sophisticated lawyers, and violence; the second was the creation of very strong incentives for the specialists in violence to seek to enrich themselves in exactly the same way…”
The agencies of accountability and control and power politics in the Establishment
Of the independent accountability agencies and commissions, one of the most powerful is the Public Ministry (Ministerio Público), which comprises the Office of the Inspector General (Procuradía) and the Ombudsman (Defensoría). Established by Article 118 of the Constitution, the responsibilities of the Public Ministry include to guard and promote human rights, to protect and serve the public interest, to monitor the conduct of public officials and the exercise of public functions and powers, and the investigation and prosecution of instances of fraud, corruption, abuse of power, or other forms of official misconduct.
The Inspector General is the ‘Supreme Director’ of the Public Ministry, which has been described by some constitutional experts as ‘the fourth power of the State’. As recent events have clearly demonstrated, both in Colombia as well as in many other countries, the Office of the Prosecutor General is also extremely powerful and crucial to the proper functioning of the system of government. In each instance, the unilateral power over whether to investigate and prosecute criminal conduct and other offences has been chronically and extravagantly abused, often without a corresponding procedure to review or appeal specific decisions relating to the initiation – or refusal to initiate – a formal investigation, or an obligation to provide reasons for decisions taken.
As noted above, one aspect of the government’s strategy to incrementally recuperate and strengthen the State’s accountability mechanisms involves restoring the capabilities and effectiveness of the National Offices of the Prosecutor General and Inspector General (among others). The term of the current Prosecutor General expires in February 2024, and the president’s office has forwarded a list of three nominees to the Supreme Court containing candidates with a long and proven history of experience in conducting some of the most difficult investigations into organized crime, corruption, human rights abuses, and the structural violence that has plagued Colombia throughout its history.
In the past, usually most if not all of the candidates nominated by the president for such posts have been close associates and allies of either of the president himself, or of one or more of the most powerful political factions in the National Congress at the time the nomination is made. The final list of nominees is compiled after a long process of secretive lobbying, haggling and horse-trading between the respective political factions and other Establishment power brokers and King makers of the day. El Espectador, one of the Colombian media’s most widely read and influential newspapers, as well as numerous other (mostly ‘alternative media’) outlets, consistently provide a thorough analysis and interpretation of these selection processes as they wind their way through the corridors of power.
The news reports covering the nomination and appointment of the Auditor General in 2018 and the Prosecutor General in 2016 give an idea of how the formal constitutional procedures have been implemented in the tumultuous and chaotic arena of Colombian power politics. In a report produced by El Espectador (19 August 2018, “El apetecido encanto político de la Contraloría”) the authors describe the fierce competition for the appointment of the Auditor General:
“The power to sign contracts with companies and consultants, the administrative resources, and the functions of supervision, auditing and imposing sanctions have been converted into a rich prize for the politicians…
The Office of the Auditor General, with its 4,516 employees, a budget in excess of $600,000 million pesos, and 63 regional offices, has become a powerful bounty (fortin) with which to repay or bestow political favours to allies and benefactors, many of whom have a minimum of experience and efficiency in the tasks of financial management, auditing and control… Meanwhile, the majority of the appointments of auditors at the provincial and municipal level are related to prominent local political groups and families…
For the politicians involved the most important thing at stake is their personal interests and the management of the local strings of power, all of which serve as a platform for their election to the Congress, provincial assemblies and municipal councils. And, coincidentally, for the power to investigate and neutralize or control their rivals and enemies. These are the reasons why the numerous attempts to reform the Office of the Auditor General or abolish the regional offices have failed…
As a senator commented this week about the appointment of the next Auditor General, “This is no longer academic, this is political.” Another stated: “Having control over the Office of the Auditor General doesn’t guarantee anything, but not having control over the office is dangerous…”
The Auditor General audits and approves the national and regional budgets, financial accounts and the public debt. We are faced with a situation in which either someone is chosen in order to combat corruption, or someone is chosen who is a friend of the corrupt. Moreover, the successful candidate gets the power to offer a multitude of public posts and contracts to allies and benefactors, this is why the competition is so great, and the votes go to those who can offer most favours in return.
In September 2016 the current Auditor General, Edgardo Maya, commented on the potential advantages of a constitutional reform to abolish the provincial and municipal offices… According to this concept, the inefficiency of the regional offices is so evident that, in the end, the only thing they serve for is to extend, instead of eradicate or at least limit, the corrupt practices linked to political nepotism, patronage and clientelism. “It is something that would benefit the country and it can be done. The auditor’s office has become a platform for extortion at the local level, that is to say, you will be investigated or not investigated depending on which political faction you belong to or whether you have something to offer in exchange…”
One of the senators interviewed by the authors of the report stated that there are three fundamental elements behind the systemic crisis affecting the Colombian State and the role of the Auditor General in particular: the politicization of the appointment process, the office’s vulnerability to intervention by the Executive branch, and the lack of a detailed framework of standards, procedures and requirements for the organization of the office and the conduct of audits and financial oversight. Hence it is often left to the discretion of the relevant officials whether to open an investigation into indications of corruption or fraud in the exercise of State powers and functions, a feature that is common to most of the other independent accountability agencies.
With respect to the Office of the Prosecutor General, an analysis published by Semana in 2016 (“La batalla por la Fiscalía”) commented of the political context and dynamics operating behind the scenes of the formal selection process:
“Last week several media agencies mentioned a visit that former president Cesar Gaviria and Senator Horacio Serpa made to president Juan Manuel Santos. On the agenda was a request that the list of candidates be composed entirely of members of the Liberal Party. According to the two Liberal patriarchs it is taken for granted that the next Ombudsman will be Carlos Negret – Secretary General of the political party La U – and that the Office of the Inspector General will remain in the hands of the Conservatives.
A Liberal Prosecutor General would therefore provide a certain balance of factional equilibrium in the State organs of control. Another factor is that the last two of Gaviria’s candidates were defeated, for the next Registrar General and Auditor General respectively… Although not all the political parties are making open claims on the post, the designation of the next Prosecutor General has become a major factional battleground in which behind every important candidate there is a diverse range of factions, interests and pressure groups. And the problem, as has already been mentioned, is that there can only be three candidates on the list, while there are half a dozen heavyweight contenders for the post…”
Another analysis (El Espectador, “La Fiscalía: un poder y un botín apetecidos”) commented of the competition to get specific candidates on the list of nominees:
“Sources from the presidential palace have assured us that Nestor Humberto Martinez is, in reality, the candidate of vice-president German Vargas Lleras and his political party Cambio Radical, a party that is doing everything possible to get control over the Prosecutor General’s office. Luis Carlos Sarmiento, for whom Martinez has served as chief legal counsel, is also very interested in his appointment as Prosecutor General…
To understand the dispute over the next appointment, the key is to remember that the agency, apart from controlling the conduct of criminal investigations in the country, constitutes a bureaucratic bounty. After the reforms made in 2014 around 3,000 additional positions were created in the agency, bringing the total number of employees to almost 29,000. The reforms were also intended to consolidate the implementation of administrative careers, and although thousands of posts have already been designated and accounted for, there is still a wide margin for the discretionary appointment or removal of officials, as well as the possibility of contracting a multitude of advisors and consultants. In 2015 the agency’s budget was $2.8 billion pesos, almost the same as the budget allocated to the entire Judicial branch.”
The political and media maelstrom over the selection of the next Prosecutor General
As mentioned above, the term of the current head of the National Office of the Prosecutor General is finally drawing to a close, and in accordance with the relevant constitutional provisions the president has forwarded a list of three candidates to the Supreme Court, which must decide which of the three candidates to select or request that an amended list of candidates be drawn up by the president. Exceptionally, all three of the candidates nominated by the presidency have extensive experience in the Prosecutor General’s Office or the judicial branch investigating some of the most difficult and dangerous criminal cases the office has had to deal with, generally performing their functions with great integrity and diligence according to most accounts.
However, controversy has erupted over one of the nominees (Amparo Ceròn) who, while having conducted or actively participated in the preparation and investigation of numerous difficult cases earlier in her career (with no suggestions that I am aware of that her work was not of a high standard), later in her career was put in charge of the controversial Odebrecht/ Grupo Aval investigation. Some journalists in the alternative media began referring to the nominee for Prosecutor General as ‘La Infiltrada’, mainly basing their accusation on the failure of the investigating team that was assigned to the Odebrecht/ Grupo Aval case under Ceron’s supervision to thoroughly investigate the abundant evidence implicating numerous extremely wealthy and powerful Establishment personalities, and suggesting that if she were appointed she would probably have acted more as an accomplice of the most powerful organized crime families and organizations, preventing and subverting investigations into their criminal activities.
With respect to the investigation into the Odebrecht/ Grupo Aval corruption case that Amparo Cerón directed, in effect the investigation of evidence implicating a multitude of extremely powerful Establishment personalities and groups (including among the extended schemes and networks of corruption and fraud former presidents, vice-presidents, presidential candidates and ministers of La U, Cambio Radical, Centro Democrático, the Liberals and Conservatives, as well as senior officials and executives of key regulatory and supervisory agencies and the corporate empires of Colombia’s most powerful oligarchs) has been discontinued after the prosecution of a number of mid-level scape goats.
Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that such cases are notoriously difficult, and the failure of the prosecutors assigned to the case to prosecute the most powerful politicians and businessmen implicated in the case could have many causes and explanations. Moreover, such high profile cases are usually subject to the direct supervision of the agency’s most senior directors and management, and it is far from clear that Amparo Cerón willingly participated in a scheme to bury the case. However, one particularly disturbing detail is that, according to media reports, in the course of the ‘investigation’ a key witness emerged who wanted to testify and requested protection for his family (Jorge Enrique Pizano). However, he was denied protection, and shortly afterwards was found dead (from ‘natural causes’ according to the Prosecutor General’s office).
While a couple of senior bureaucrats and politicians have also been prosecuted, the main sacrificial pawn who has been blamed for the elaborate corruption scheme is a mid-level corporate executive (Jose Elias Melo Acosta, director of Aval subsidiary Corficolombia during part of the period that the scheme was organized and executed). Melo’s career trajectory provides a glimpse into the machinations and extended networks of influence that are typically involved in power politics and high finance in the nation’s capital: his previous posts included a stint as Secretary of the Board of the Central Bank of the Republic, deputy minister of the Treasury and Public Credit, and Superintendent of the Financial Sector. Nonetheless, the suggestion that the accused was in effect the sole Mastermind and administrator of the entire corruption scheme is patently absurd.
Melo was duly prosecuted by Colombian authorities and convicted for his knowledge of and involvement in arranging a $6 million bribe by the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht to the then deputy transport minister (Gabriel Garcia Morales) in return for being awarded to construction contract (Ruta del Sol II). Meanwhile, Grupo Aval signed a plea bargain with the US Department of Justice and Securities Exchange Commission for corrupt practices related to the scheme and was sentenced to pay a fine of $80 million (subsequently substantially reduced).
The highly redacted information contained in the plea agreement and related proceedings identifies several other key participants and beneficiaries of the vast corruption scheme (the documents related to the plea bargain mention “one executive from Corficolombia, two Odebrecht executives and two intermediaries” who knowingly conspired with others to pay $23 million in bribes to selected Government officials and functionaries). Among others who have been implicated in the corruption scheme are Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo’s son, and Nestor Humberto Martinez – formerly chief legal counsel for Grupo Aval and subsequently Prosecutor General.
Humberto Martinez resigned from the latter post several years ago in controversial circumstances and is now in Miami, Madrid, or some other ‘promised land’ for loyal apparatchiks too well-known to be able to eliminate easily, and at this stage it appears that no further investigations will be conducted either by the Department of Justice or the Prosecutor General’s office. According to one of Colombia’s flagship newspapers, El Tempo (now owned by one of Sarmiento Angulo’s many companies) and other mainstream media, all of the other alleged suspects in the case have been cleared (as reported by La Silla Vacia, 17 August 2023, “Grupo Aval paga la factura por su corrupción y protege a sus cabezas”):
“The agreement closes the criminal proceedings in the United States… But it doesn’t explicitly exonerate the others implicated in the scheme, as was affirmed by El Tiempo (which is owned by Sarmiento). Aval agreed to pay the fine in order to end the investigation being conducted by the Department of Justice, which could be reopened if the company doesn’t comply with the terms of the agreement or if new evidence is discovered. The conclusion of the investigation protects Sarmiento’s son, Luis Carlos Sarmiento Gutierrez, who is the president of Grupo Aval, and Nestor Humberto Martinez, former Prosecutor General and legal advisor to Sarmiento. In exchange for millions of dollars, the company has managed to close a criminal investigation that could have shaken the Colombian Establishment…”
The consideration of the list of nominees could have been a golden opportunity for the Supreme Court to conduct or order a thorough investigation into the Odebrecht/ Grupo Aval corruption scandal once and for all. However, there was also the risk that the magistrates might have simply pretended that the controversy did not exist and selected one of the candidates without further comment, possibly thereby taking part in the ongoing cover-up of exactly what happened, where the money went, and who were the intellectual authors, beneficiaries and accomplices involved in the massive corruption scheme (however unwillingly – investigating certain groups, people and activities in Colombia can be extremely dangerous, particularly for magistrates who are easily identifiable and vulnerable to reprisal attacks).
However, there was also the greater risk that the allegations are not entirely unfounded, and that the Supreme court may have appointed Amparo Cerón as the next Prosecutor General without trying to ascertain what happened during the Odebrecht/ Grupo Aval investigation, thereby possible opening the way for another four years of covering up major crimes committed by some of the most powerful and dangerous people and groups (accompanied by the systematic persecution of ‘whistleblowers’, critics and political opponents). Ultimately, the president decided to withdraw Cerón from the list in favour of a different candidate (who also has a lengthy list of relevant experience and expertise).
Other aspects of the government’s strategy of incremental recuperation and reform of State institutions
One of the early achievements of the Petro government was the approval by the National Congress of several key components of his strategy for ‘Total Peace’, including an authorization to initiate negotiations with some of the largest illegal armed groups to explore alternatives for their disarmament, demobilization and reintegration into society (as occurred previously pursuant to an agreement reached with the paramilitary groups and the ‘Justice and Peace Law’ enacted during the presidency of Álvaro Uribe, and the subsequent Peace Accord signed with the FARC in 2016 during the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos – the latter has been officially registered with and guaranteed by the United Nations and other international organizations).
More recently, and just as important to the prospects for finding a solution to resolve Colombia’s interminable social and armed conflicts, the government has also requested that the UN Security Council agree to modify some of the provisions of the Peace Agreement with the FARC in order to expand and strengthen the jurisdiction of the ‘war crimes tribunal’ established pursuant to the agreement (JEP).
For over a decade a major controversy has simmered in Colombia over the extradition of many of the senior commanders of the paramilitary groups to the United States (in contravention of the agreement between the paramilitary groups and the Uribe government), which has conveniently prevented them from providing testimony about their roles and activities during the armed conflict.
Most importantly in terms of the prospects for ending the armed conflict and dealing with its devastating impacts on Colombian society and State institutions, their extradition has also prevented the paramilitary commanders from providing details about their relationships and dealings with some of the most powerful political and economic institutions and groups that together comprise the core of the Colombian Establishment, including major political parties and personalities, many senior and mid-level commanders and officials within the public security forces (the military, intelligence and police forces, including those deployed or contracted from the United States and Israel for counter-insurgency operations), as well as many prominent Colombian and foreign companies and large land-owners.
Although several of the former paramilitary commanders have clearly and repeatedly stated that they want to return to Colombia and are willing to provide detailed testimony on these up until now largely buried or ignore aspects of the armed conflict, they have been prevented from doing so by legal technicalities stemming from the terms of the agreement relating to the implementation of the 2016 Peace Accord.
The terms of the Peace Accord strictly limit the jurisdiction of the Jurisdicción Especial por la Paz (Special Peace Jurisdiction, an adaptation of the war crimes tribunals that have been created in other countries) to former combatants. Certain other classes of people and groups (‘third parties’) may request to participate voluntarily, but the types of cases that can be accepted by the JEP tribunal are limited and the tribunal has therefore had to exclude a large number of people directly or indirectly involved in the armed conflict who wanted to participate in the process and testify as to their activities (including grave human rights abuses such as massacres, selective assassinations, forced displacements of families and entire communities, etc.) and the sponsors, accomplices and beneficiaries of specific operations and acts in each region. If both parties to the agreement (the Colombian Government and the FARC) submit a request to amend the relevant provisions of the Accord, the Security Council would be widely expected to accede to the request.
Another initiative connected to the government’s anti-corruption strategy and process of incremental recuperation and reform is the creation of a hybrid commission against corruption in cooperation with several leading civil society organizations that have a long track record of investigating and reporting on financial crimes and related activities. Given the detailed constitutional provisions prescribing the structure and format of the main accountability agencies, the initiative of establishing a hybrid commission to complement their activities could provide a valuable source of information and debate, particularly during periods when the accountability agencies are not performing their constitutional functions.
A similar scheme could usefully be created to provide ongoing oversight and evaluation of the planning and management of ‘mega-projects’ and other major integrated development projects. The cases of Cerro Matoso and El Cerrejon are illustrative in this context. Both enormous, and hugely destructive and toxic for local communities, mining projects have been the subject of multiple determinations by the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court ordering the owners and relevant government agencies and officials to address the many grave violations of the rights of the surrounding communities. LINK
These court orders have been contemptuously ignored, and the establishment of a hybrid commission to conduct a comprehensive legal, social, financial and environmental audit of the projects and provide a quasi-institutional basis for the ongoing study and evaluation of the economic, social and environmental impacts of these and other major infrastructure and resource development projects could provide an invaluable source of information for local communities, universities, government agencies and others. This could be further consolidated by requiring the proponents of major development projects to finance and assist with the construction of a public environmental research centre in the vicinity of the project to monitor social and environmental conditions and impacts (similar to the Environmental Research Institute of the Supervising Scientist established adjacent to the Ranger uranium mine in Australia), in which local communities and universities have an institutional role in the management and conduct of relevant research programs.
Possible plots and scenarios for a major Regime Change operation
Already faced with the prospect of having a Prosecutor-General committed to investigating the most serious criminal and corruption cases (instead of refusing to investigate them), the Colombian president’s vehement criticism of Israel’s indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza and statements of solidarity with the Palestinian people could galvanize his opponents to intensify and accelerate their plots to overthrow the government in the immediate future.
If the orchestrated political, economic and media campaign to delegitimize and destabilize the Petro Government as a prelude to and pretext for the President’s impeachment or forced resignation is not successful, the activation of more extreme measures cannot be ruled out. The repertoire of ‘regime change’ strategies that have presumably been prepared by the Petro Government’s most implacable enemies (domestic and foreign, the latter now without a doubt including at the top of the list the US and Israel) would likely include among the possible strategies and alternatives one or more of the following: a ‘constitutional coup’ (generally following the script that was used to overthrow the Whitlam government in Australia in 1975, and the presidents of Paraguay in 2012 and Brazil in 2016); assassination (such as the airplane crashes that killed the presidents of Ecuador and Panama in the 1970s after they refused to continue subordinating their governments to the strategic interests of the United States, or the sudden and voracious cancer that abruptly ended the presidency of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela after an openly US-backed coup attempt in 2002 failed); the use of drones to attack the presidential palace or a public event attended by the president (there has been at least one attempt to assassinate Nicolas Maduro, Hugo Chavez’s successor as President of Venezuela, using a drone at a military parade, but the drone did not reach the target); or, a more conventional coup d’état, such as the military coup that overthrew the government and assassinated Salvador Allende in Chile in 1972, with the assistance if not direction and supervision of the United States government and the major US ‘foreign investors’ that had (and still have) many strategic and lucrative assets and installations throughout the country).
While a ‘smoking gun’ linking the United States to these untimely deaths has never been discovered, many suspect that they were assassinated due to their refusal to bow down to the constant threats and demands emanating from Washington and New York. A leaked document attributed to the US military (Plan to Overthrow the Venezuelan Dictatorship ‘Masterstroke’, United States Southern Command, 23 February 2018) gives some idea of how such contingency plans might be elaborated and put into motion. LINK
In the context of these pessimistic but probably not too far-fetched scenarios, it should be noted that apart from the deeply-entrenched strategic alliance between Colombia’s previous governments and the Establishment in the United States, US and Israeli military and intelligence forces (accompanied by a multitude of ‘private security companies’ and contractors) have been permanently deployed to many of the most important strategic military, intelligence and infrastructure facilities throughout Colombia for many years (not to mention the ubiquitous presence of companies from the US, Israel and the UK in the ownership, management and surveillance of the telecommunications networks), and the US military has developed close professional and personal relations with many of their counterparts in the Colombian public security forces over time (described in considerable detail in one of the essays of the final report of the Historic Commission created to investigate the origins and causes of the armed conflict in Colombia). LINK
Dan Cohen, a journalist from Behind the Headlines, published a report with Mintpress News in 2021 tracing the role of two notorious Israeli military experts/ mercenaries (Rafael Eitan and Yair Klein) in the Colombian conflict (“The role of Israeli agents in the political genocide in Colombia”. This is however a very small tip of a very large iceberg. Apart from a multitude of agreements and contracts for the provision of weapons and a variety of other high-tech military and intelligence products and services, as noted above the preliminary investigations into the large arms shipment that landed at Chiquita’s wharves discovered that several Israeli intermediaries and front companies arranged the shipment from Central America, where Israel has had a substantial presence for many years (described in some detail in a book published in 1987, The Iran-Contra Connection: Secret teams and covert operations in the Reagan era). The nature and possible roles of the major external actors in Colombia in pending events will be reviewed in Part II of this report.
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