Colombia’s system for awarding public contracts is massively corrupt, according to protesters from the engineering sector.
What was labeled the “‘Firmathon’ for the Dignity of Colombian Engineering” was in fact a set of parallel protests that took place last week in major cities across Colombia launched with the intent of drawing attention and signatures to a letter set to be sent to President Juan Manuel Santos on behalf of engineers and related professionals.
The public demonstrations came in the aftermath of the recent announcement from Comptroller General Sandra Morelli that 42% of all public contracts are operated by only 60 engineering firms.
The Association of Risaralda Engineers were the driving force behind last week’s protests, the biggest of which took place in Pereira, the local capital.
The mission, as stated in the protest’s Facebook page, was to ask “all the engineers, architects, industry owners or employees in the construction sector, engineering students and related parties to join us and sign the letter being delivered to President Santos to make demands regarding his policies that increasingly devalue national engineering and labor, as well as the concentration and displacement of Colombian professionals by foreign and financial interests.”
The “firmathon” will remain active until Tuesday, when a letter will be sent to Santos’ office with a list of four “demands” addressing a wide range of important issues facing small and medium-sized engineering firms and their various colleagues:
- Direct anti-corruption policies to the manner in which contracts are adjudicated, ending the favored treatment of monopolies, especially those in banking
- Stop smearing the reputation of engineers in order to justify your public contract policies
- Stop disguising congressional subsidies as special contracting programs
- Give Colombian engineering its own representatives in the regimenting of Decree 1510 of 2013
The points might be simple enough, but the situation, said the protesters, is messy and multifaceted.
According to the Association of Risaralda Engineers, the entire national contracting process is fundamentally corrupt. Carlos Alfredo Crosthwaite, leader of last week’s Pereira protests, has claimed that 90% of all government contracts are “rigged.”
In an interview with Colombia Reports, Crosthwaite described a systemic tilt toward large financial bodies, and systemic exclusion of Colombian professionals, in the contracting of public projects.
The problem, as he framed it, pertains to the “constitutional right to work” guaranteed to all Colombians.
Even on relatively “uncomplicated municipal projects,” he said, the contracts are worded such that the “requirements in technical and financial terms are so high that only certain firms can meet them.” Rather than being a “democratic and competitive” process that “privileges experience, capability, quality of work, ingenuity and professional organization,” the bidding itself is skewed toward “financial interests,” in a manner indicative of the “high level of corruption” and “poor state of labor” that defines the entire contracting industry in the eyes of its protesting members.
According to Crosthwaite, “there is a lack in adequate oversight” in the way major projects are realized, and the regulatory bodies that do exist “walk hand-in-hand with the large companies.”
“This type of contracting,” he said, “with so much intermediates, is nothing more than a farce.”
One telling example, is the case of the Pereira Airport control tower reconstruction project, said the engineer.
“Of the 13 companies that presented themselves for the contract,” said Crosthwaite, “12 were eliminated,” due to unnecessary specifications built into the contract, or other “not very transparent” considerations.
The firm that eventually won the contract, Bogota-based ICSA Construction, relied on what Crosthwaite eventually revealed to be a false document to do so.
The contract was cancelled in the midst of the controversy created from Crosthwaite’s announcement, but the firm, which Crosthwaite claimed was “in league with traditional politicians,” not only “received no type of warning or punishment from the government,” but subsequently “managed to receive another nine-million-dollar contract for the expansion of that same airport, which ultimately had to be cancelled” because of delays. The Pereira Airport, meanwhile, remains in a state of disrepair.
Cases like this one lead Crosthwaite and others to ask for more direct industry input in the implementation of Decree 1510, a reform measure passed in 2013 that hugely simplifies the previous contracting law, 2012’s Decree 0734. But that would only help transparency in instances where government contracting actually moves through official channels.
“Of the investments made by the State,” said Crosthwaite, “very few are done according to the contracting statute. The great majority are done according to private regulations, as the government has been inventing a whole series of investment funds” that circumvent the public mechanisms.
“For example, they came up with the ‘Humanitarian Colombia’ program, or the ‘Adaptation Fund’ or the ‘100,000 Free Homes’ project, and all of them are done through private means.” The recent “Roads for Prosperity” campaign is another major public work that Crosthwaite criticizes for being realized outside of public regulatory laws and, therefore, outside of the public interest.
“We are in crisis,” he said, referring to the “engineers, architects, material providers and other professionals” who feel they are not being given a fair chance to practice their craft and who have, in many cases, “been forced to close their businesses or lay off workers.”
“Foreign firms come here and leave [Colombians] with unfinished work, leave suppliers without pay, and leave workers without agreed upon benefits, and you can see that clearly in all the major regions; at the end of all this corruption, all we are left with are the damages done to workers and suppliers’ rights and to the quality of [Colombia’s] works, which obviously leaves a lot to be said of, and a lot to be desired from, what is actually occurring in this country.”
“Controlling organizations don’t act, and the…political class, the directors and the public servants are at the service, complicity and deliberately, of the same engineering firms that do so much harm to the noble profession of engineering.”
- Interview with Carlos Alfredo Crosthwaite
- Colectivo de ingenieros indignados realizaran planton nacional este martes (Caracol Radio)
- Ingenieros protestan contra las licitaciones ‘sastre’ y realizaran ‘firmaton’ (La Republica)
- Ingenieros en ‘firmaton’ (La Tarde)