Active and imprisoned military commanders have been embezzling millions of dollars from Colombia’s defense budget, weekly Semana reported on Sunday, further discrediting the armed forces that only two weeks ago were accused of illegally wiretapping peace negotiators, politicians and journalists.
According to Semana, which had investigated hundreds of hours of 2012 and 2013 recordings between generals, colonels and lieutenant colonels, corrupt officials received kickbacks of distributed military contracts that in some cases were worth 50% of the entire contract.
The kickbacks were skimmed from budgets meant for fuel, subsidies for active soldiers, fighting gear and spare parts for helicopters, said Semana.
According to the recordings, the embezzlement scheme also implicates Ecuador’s Defense Ministry and military contractors from Venezuela.
Colombia’s top military commander implicated
The magazine also released recordings of the commander of the Armed Forces, General Leonardo Barrero, in which Colombia’s highest military officials calls on an imprisoned colonel to “create a mafia to discredit prosecutors” investigating the colonel and colleagues for the extrajudicial killing of civilians, a practice that became widespread under the administration of former President Alvaro Uribe and has killed at least 4,000 civilians in the eight years Uribe was in power.
FACT SHEET: False Positives
The imprisoned colonel featured in a number of the recordings is Robinson Gonzalez del Rio, a former army commander currently in jail for his alleged participation in the killing of civilians, known in Colombia as “false positives.” The official is a nephew of former General Rito Alejo Del Rio, imprisoned for his ties to the now-defunct paramilitary group AUC.
Hush money for ‘false positives’ suspects
According to recordings of Semana, Gonzalez — who as a prisoner is not allowed to have a cell phone — was in constant touch with a number of top military commanders, subordinates and others to organize the payments and favors for other imprisoned members of the military and their families. The payments and favors allegedly were to prevent imprisoned soldiers from blowing the whistle on superiors in court.
Defense attorneys of imprisoned members of the military reportedly received airplane tickets and paid trips to casinos.
While Semana did not reveal how much money might have been embezzled by the military, in one case Gonzalez mentioned keeping 30% of a $2.6 million contract.
Military commander apologizes
In a response on the website of the Colombian army, the implicated armed forces commander said that “none of the recordings revealed by Semana allow to deduce that the General Commander of the Armed Forces has participated in acts of corruption.”
Barrero did apologize to the country’s prosecutor general for his recommendation to discredit prosecutors.
“As a man of honor, and for the sake of the responsibilities belonging to my position, I offer public apologies to the Mr. Prosecutor General and to officials of his institution, and to the country as a whole, for the unfortunate use of expressions that I consider rushed and derogatory.”
Barrero — who appeared to have quite a friendly relation with the imprisoned Barrero and ignored the fact detainees are not allowed cell phones — did not respond to media reports indicating he might resign over the scandal.
Corruption scandal ‘unacceptable’: Santos
In a response published on the presidential website, President Juan Manuel Santos said the evidence presented by Semana was “unacceptable.”
“I have ordered the Minister of Defense to immediately proceed to take thorough and exemplary decisions … and to inform the country on these. I am asking the Prosecutor General’s Office, like the Inspector General’s Office and the Comptroller General’s Office, to prioritize this investigation as acts of corruption like this under no circumstance should be investigated by the military justice.”
Semana’s revelations are the second major blow to the Colombian military this year; Two weeks ago, the same magazine reported that Military Intelligence had illegally been wiretapping members of negotiating teams taking part in peace talks between the state and rebel group FARC, journalists and politicians.