State of the nation: Corruption

By Steve Hide January 29, 2020

‘In post-conflict Colombia, the battles will be about corruption.’ We look at the bribes that bind, one of the issues that drove so many people to the streets.

Corruption in Colombia was one of the many reasons that drove so many people to the streets in the past weeks.
Corruption in Colombia was one of the many reasons that drove so many people to the streets in the past weeks. Photo: Lukas Kaldenhoff

When US News called Colombia the world’s most corrupt country in its ‘Best Countries’ index last week – below even Mexico and Bolivia – it caused a wave of indignation from Bogotá’s political class, but struck a chord with a country whose leaders are constantly caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

In fact, Colombia’s poor ranking is slightly unfair: The US News survey skews the stats by bundling ‘red tape’ in with ‘fraud’ perceptions. The more trusted Transparency International index gives a marginally better 37 points out of 100 for perceptions of corruption (based on business and expert data sets) and ranked it 96th in the world, above most of Latin America. 

Still, nothing to brag about. And even by the state’s own estimates, corruption costs the country a staggering US$18 billion a year. Understandably, Colombians are fed up.

In fact, the November general strikes – which lasted into December and have trickled into 2020 –  were preceded by bloody skirmishes on Bogotá’s streets between anti-riot cops and students clamouring against corruption at the Universidad Distrital.

The clashes kicked off in September when students – already angered by education cuts – got news that a Distrital boss had siphoned off USD$3 million to spend on jewellery, luxury cars, prostitutes and five-star hotels.

Added to this fraud was institutional foot-dragging. The splurge had gone undetected over four years in a fog of bureaucracy that so often enables illicit enrichment. Enough was enough.

Furious protests were met with heavy-handed policing. The clashes spread to other universities. Walking down the Septima, dodging acrid clouds of tear gas, I remembered the words of Colombia’s head of the Peace Process after the historic signing in 20016: “In post-conflict Colombia, the battles will be about corruption.”  

Perhaps combating corruption could be the unstated common cause of all the Paro Nacional protesters. In Colombia it affects everyone through a multitude of mechanisms such as price-fixing of toilet paper, or paying a small bribe to get seen at the health clinic – a cash payout known as la mordida – to losing your council job because ‘the new guy’ got elected, or multi-million-dollar backhanders for road-building contracts.

For many, compounding corruption is widespread judicial impunity, and real threats faced by anyone calling it out. Whistle-blowers face a bullet in the post or invitation to their own funeral. Just last month, Semana journalists uncovered a plan by army officers to hire assassins to kill them. This follows revelations by the weekly news magazine of high-level corruption in the military.

A recent Gallup poll reported that only 11% of Colombians trust their legal systems. The multi-million-dollar Odebrecht bribe scandal ended political careers all over Latin America but hardly touched Colombian politicos.  Even when one congresswoman was jailed for vote-buying she escaped by rope from a dentist’s window, a daring plan clearly facilitated by some of the very people locking her up.

What is the Odebrecht Case actually about?

But it is the everyday graft that upsets most people, such as the Carrusel de Contratos whereby cascades of front companies take their 10% cut from the public purse – usually feeding a politician’s pocket – leaving a pittance for the actual work. Behind every half-finished road and undug tunnel, you’ll find a roundabout.

Political control of these contracts is called mermelade, jam to be spread among key supporters and henchmen in the form of sweetened contracts. These in turn guarantee votes at the next election. This political patronage is so embedded few believe it will ever end…

Or will it? Some commentators see improvements. Mayors elected in Bogotá and Medellin are left-field candidates elected on anti-graft platforms. At a local level, technical advances are reducing corruption. Take Bogotá’s new automated traffic cameras for example: you can’t so easily bribe a computer. 

Oh, and the Distrital fraudster is now behind bars. And the vote-buying escapee detained in Caracas

Meanwhile, Colombia’s ruling party still claims the high ground. State institutions “are embarked on a battle without quarter against corruption,” said the VP last week in reaction to the US News survey. 

And thanks to the strike demonstrators – and a large army of anti-graft commentators active on social media – the issue is permanently on the table. An end to corruption is a hope that glues Colombia’s disparate protest groups in a common goal: Change.