President Santos’s efforts to root out corruption seem genuine, but given the scale of the problem, they are also risky.
As I have written in previous columns, I have been pleasantly surprised by Juan Manuel Santos’s willingness to fundamentally change Colombia’s political culture and priorities. Most, if not all, of his modifications to the Uribista agenda have been sensible and necessary. But it is much easier to build on Uribe’s successes than it is to correct the former president’s mistakes. Change, especially in Colombia, can be explosive, risky and even downright dangerous. Indeed, one of the most ambitious features of Santos’s agenda, his efforts to eradicate government corruption, is running into significant challenges.
One problem is that Santos is literally surrounded by corruption. Few leaders anywhere in the world have inherited quite so many ongoing cases of wrongdoing from their predecessors. A second and equally important problem is that Santos’s drive against corruption will likely reveal more cases of wrongdoing than many Colombians are willing to tolerate. The President will therefore score political points, but he also risks further weakening public trust in state institutions. This is highly problematic in a country just emerging from a decades-long cycle of violence, corruption and social decay.
Particularly problematic is the fact that security and law enforcement agencies have been a focal point of recent troubles. Corruption and wrongdoing in the military – traditionally among the country’s most trusted institutions – go far beyond what most people imagined. For a few years now, the army has been rocked by the “false positives” scandal, in which soldiers murdered hundreds, perhaps even thousands of innocent civilians and presented them as guerrillas killed in combat. In the past few weeks, the army has also been linked to the rape and murder of several children in Arauca, a war-torn department in the country’s Eastern plains.
Reports of army and navy battalions collaborating with neoparamilitary drug gangs have also become more common. Just this week, ten soldiers were arrested for stealing US$250,000 worth of confiscated FARC goods. Closer to home, in relatively safe cities such as Bogota, local law enforcement seems similarly to be spiraling out of control. In recent weeks, local news cameras have captured several incidents involving drunk policemen harassing and threatening innocent civilians.
Of course, the most discredited security agency in the country is the DAS, Colombia’s intelligence department. It is public knowledge that the DAS illegally wiretapped essentially every prominent member of the political opposition as well as journalists and activists critical of the government. However, under Santos, investigations into the DAS case have made rapid progress and have revealed the involvement of top Uribe-era officials in the illegal surveillance. By the time the truth is revealed – or rather if the truth is revealed – I expect that Colombians will have to seriously rethink their image of their former president.
Indeed, the DAS case is a particularly good example of the pitfalls facing the government’s war on corruption. Clearly, powerful people have a very strong interest in hiding the truth about the wiretapping. A couple of weeks ago in Medellin, unidentified gunmen murdered a key witness in the case, reportedly just as he was preparing to testify against government officials. If Colombia is ever to know the complete truth about DAS abuses, the government must invest more heavily in supporting judicial investigations, at the very least by providing more robust witness protection schemes.
Corruption in security agencies is just the tip of the iceberg. In the first hundred days of Santos’s presidency, serious allegations of wrongdoing have also hit a number of government agencies dealing with crime and agricultural policy. Take, for example, the National Narcotics Directorate, which handles assets seized from drug lords. According to new director Juan Carlos Restrepo, the agency has become “the mafia’s theme park”, a place where one drug lord can buy property seized from another.
Similarly, Incoder – a government rural development agency charged, among other things, with returning land to poor displaced farmers – has also been giving large amounts of property to the families, friends and subordinates of major drug lords and, in some cases, even to the criminals themselves. Inpec, which oversees the country’s corrections facilities, has been letting ex-politicians serving time for links to paramilitaries have access to all sorts of privileges and luxuries. In a few cases, so-called parapoliticos have been allowed an inordinate number of days outside of jail, spending literally weeks in their posh Bogota neighborhoods mingling with political and economic elites.
One other recently case of corruption – involving misallocation of public funds at Fondelibertad, an anti-kidnapping agency – reveals the full extent of tolerance for corruption under former president Uribe. Following Santos’s announcement that the government would intervene to clean up Fondelibertad, Uribe took to his Twitter account to emphasize that, while he was still in office, he had asked for the resignation of the agency’s director after finding out about his wrongdoing. However, the news media have now revealed that the former director resigned voluntarily, and that Uribe later congratulated him for his time at Fondelibertad.
The list of scandals, unfortunately, goes on endlessly. From customs projects to farm subsidies, millions of dollars worth of public funds have ended up in the pockets of prominent politicians, their allies in the business community and their supporters in the criminal underworld. Adding insult to injury, most abuses seem to be concentrated precisely in the agencies responsible for maintaining safety and dealing with the human costs of Colombia’s armed conflict.
The news reports coming out now seem like throwback to the 1980s and 1990s: narcos pocketing money intended for their victims, politicians with links to warlords living in five-star jail cells and neoparamilitary gangs working with the authorities to ship drugs abroad. Perhaps the biggest difference between today’s criminals and Pablo Escobar is that the former have discovered that it is easier to buy the political system than it is to blow it to pieces. This is plainly unacceptable, especially in a country that holds itself up as a model in the fight against drug trafficking and terrorism.
Beyond insulting the country’s dignity and intelligence and draining its public funds, corruption could have even more devastating consequences for social order and citizen security. Most obviously, as long as drug lords continue to corrupt the political establishment, Colombia will have few effective tools with which to punish and deter organized crime. Moreover, corruption severely undermines the legitimacy of the law. In the days before the American midterm elections, Santos astutely criticized a proposition to legalize marijuana in California because it would hinder his ability to prosecute poor drug growers in Colombia. By the same logic, the sheer scale of corruption in Colombia should already make it impossible to enforce any law.
Unfortunately, many commentators and officials continue to completely miss the link between corruption and respect for the law, instead blaming citizens for having some kind of cultural aversion to law and order. Some theories get even more bizarre; Attorney General Alejandro Ordonez recently told El Tiempo that lawlessness has its roots in Colombia’s loss of religiosity.
This is all nonsense. Given that Colombia’s politicians, cops and most notorious warlords get to bend the rules at will, it is remarkable that average citizens are willing to play by the rules at all. The fact that the country remains fairly functional is a testament to Colombians’ innate understanding that rules make moral and practical sense. Indeed, where some see a culture of illegality, I see a culture of shared rules and norms. For example, illegal bicycle taxis in Bogota have spontaneously organized their own license plate and “pico y placa” systems, which has been great for business.
In short, while citizens bear some responsibility, Colombia’s crisis of law and order begins with our deeply corrupt government. Despite my optimism about Colombian culture, I insist that Santos’s task will be extremely difficult. Then again, if anyone can solve this problem, it is Santos. Few people can match his strategic astuteness and knowledge of the Colombian political establishment. More importantly, with approval ratings well above eighty percent, he may just be the country’s most trusted institution.