In the United States, these past few days have seen a series of high-profile outbursts, from tennis superstar Serena Williams threatening a line judge to Congressman Joe Wilson yelling at President Obama to hip-hop icon Kanye West drunkenly questioning the judgment of the Video Music Awards. Many commentators have wondered whether these expressions of anger are indicative of increasing mistrust for authority in American society.
Something similar has happened in Colombia in the past month or so, but in our case the trend is clear and undeniable. Indeed, the question in the Colombian case is whether we should trust authority at all.
If this past week was the “week of outbursts” in the U.S., then the past month was Colombia’s “month of corruption”. Corrupt practices have always been a major problem in Colombia, but rarely has the country produced so much graft-related news in such a short period of time.
First there were revelations that 48 thousand government officials, including 800 mayors and 30 governors, were being investigated for corruption. Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez also expressed concern about the political and institutional effects of the intensifying clashes between the high courts and the executive branch, mostly over corruption investigations.
There were also allegations by former DAS official Rafael Garcia that the Colombian intelligence services facilitated paramilitary drug trafficking. In related news, former paramilitary “El Alemán” continued to reveal details of his relationships with politicians in Chocó. Mario Uribe, Alvaro’s cousin, continued to deny allegations of involvement with paramilitaries and supposed bribery related the president’s first re-election campaign. Conservative Senator Alirio Villamizar, recently accused of receiving bribes from Uribistas, was found to be hiding 1 billion pesos in his home.
These recent scandals come after a year full of dirty corruption allegations, from Guillermo Valencia Cossio’s relationship with drug trafficker Don Mario to Bogota mayor Samuel Moreno’s blatantly corrupt administration.
Many of the corruption accusations in the Uribe years have targeted the president’s supporters. In Colombia’s polarized climate, government integrity turned into a nasty political issue. What has become increasingly obvious, however, is that corruption is endemic in nearly every political party. For example, mayor Moreno of the Polo Democratico, perhaps the strongest of Colombia’s true opposition parties, is running one of the country’s most corrupt and dysfunctional city administrations.
“>Now, the effects of corruption are well known, but in Colombia’s present context they are particularly worrying.
One obvious effect of corruption is to weaken the citizenry’s already fragile trust in the government and to deepen political apathy. As Colombia attempts to emerge from its violent past, a key to lasting stability will be to strengthen its democratic institutions. This requires not only structural reforms, but also a trusting, honest relationship between the citizens and the government. Unfortunately, that relationship is in a dangerous downward spiral. In Medellin, for example, just 35 percent of people report crimes to the police, down from 52 percent in 2006. Much of the drop is due to a perception of growing police corruption.
Corruption is also endangering Colombia’s fight against drug trafficking and criminal violence. Obviously, if criminals continue to be shielded by corrupt politicians, the fight against their brutal empires is a lost cause. More worryingly, government officials’ dealings with drug traffickers and murderers send a message to citizens that crime and violence are normal and acceptable.
Finally, this upsurge in corruption could not have come at a worse time. From massive local projects like the Bogota Metro to the Justice and Peace process with demobilized paramilitaries to the second re-election referendum, the current generation of leaders is making decisions that will greatly affect Colombia’s political future.
But where is all this corruption coming from? Colombia has not traditionally been known as an extremely corrupt country, especially in comparison to some of its neighbors. What about Colombia makes it so vulnerable to corrupt practices today?
I think one factor facilitating corruption is the fact that, with some notable exceptions, it tends to go unnoticed by the mainstream media. While Pablo Escobar’s hippos are frequent stars on Colombian news, coverage of corruption does not have the appropriate urgency, persistence and clarity. Even looking beyond absurd examples like the hippos, when it comes to political coverage, the media focuses disproportionately on security issues, especially the FARC. As Sergio Fajardo said recently, corruption is probably a far bigger problem for Colombia than Mono Jojoy. Unfortunately, most mainstream television outlets and newspapers seem reluctant to expose and condemn corrupt practices.
Related to the issue above, another cause of corruption is the bad example set by the country’s top political leaders. Most of the 48,000 officials being investigated for corrupt practices are low-level officials who, seeing the extent of corruption among the country’s political elite, have no moral qualms about lying, cheating and stealing themselves. Corrupt practices seem to exhibit a trickle-down effect.
A third obstacle to ending corrupt practices is immunity. Only a very small percentage of those officials investigated for corruption are likely to suffer legal consequences anytime soon. At the lower levels of government, there is no political and legal infrastructure to deal with such a large number of investigations. Worse yet, at the upper levels, corrupt politicians are protected by political maneuvering, legal loopholes and often by their own political party. In the seven years that Uribe has been in office, very few Uribistas have had to pay for their corruption. Indeed, the de la U party recently proposed a law to protect politicians who resigned amidst parapolitics allegations from Supreme Court prosecution. Similarly, Samuel Moreno continues to govern Bogota despite being blatantly corrupt.
Finally, and most controversially, could there potentially be a so-called “cultural” factor driving Colombian corruption? Inspector General Ordóñez alluded to a general cultural tolerance for illicit enrichment last week. This topic is very much open to debate. In a sense, Ordóñez is simply confirming what was said above: the culture of corruption is contagious and spreads from the political elites all the way down to the average citizen.
But does that mean that there is something inherent in Colombian culture that drives corruption? The answer to that question is far more complex. What is clear is that corruption in Colombia seems to have gotten worse in recent years, without noticeable changes in Colombian culture. Indeed, the short-term ebbs and flows of corruption are more attributable to political and social factors than to culture.
Thankfully, despite the prevalence of corruption in Colombia, there is some cause for optimism. Most of the 48,000 investigations began with citizen complaints, suggesting that perhaps tolerance for corruption is beginning to diminish. Further, many major Presidential candidates from Andres Felipe Arias to Sergio Fajardo to Gustavo Petro have pledged that their campaigns will not be funded with any illegal money.
Nevertheless, the fight against corruption in Colombia will be a long uphill battle for years to come and, if the current re-election debate is any indication, dirty politics is here to stay.