Friday, April 17, 2015

Corruption: Here, There, Everywhere

La Candelaria Mayor Edilberto Guerrero,
under house arrest, speaks to supporters thru his window. 
When the La Candelaria neighborhood's mayor Edilberto Guerrero was arrested last week on corruption-related charges, I felt disappointed - but not surprised.

After all, during Guerrero's years in office, I've heard stories about apparently inflated contracts, such as one to install expensive Christmas lights, many of which didn't work. And also under his watch and with his acquiescence, ugly constructions have gone up, including a junk food chain store, a parking garage in the hills and a multi-story apartment building on a cobblestone street of single-family houses. At the very minimum, it seems, Guerrero doesn't have the historical center's patrimony and interests in mind.

Guerrero now stands accused of awarding a contract for a children's nutrition program to an unqualified company and is under house arrest. In his defense, Guerrero claims he's a victim of political persecution and denies he did anything wrong. But if the charges are correct, Guerrero's actions amount to stealing food from the mouths of babes.

Sadly, Guerrero isn't the only local Bogota official in trouble these days. The ex-mayor of Kennedy, a
Magistrate Pretelt denies corruption accusations.
huge impoverished area in southern Bogotá, was removed from office and banned from politics for 11 years, also for inappropriately awarding a contract, this one for supporting local small businesses. And Bogotá' ex-Mayor Samuel Moreno is waiting in prison under the National Park to face charges for allegedly pocketing money from government contracts.

One might not feel so bad if we had confidence that the court system could address and punish endemic corruption. However, the nation's highest court, the Constitutional Court, is engulfed in its own scandal, in which court's president Jorge Ignacio Pretelt fights an attorney's accusation that he asked for a bribe for a favorable ruling (which was not produced). According to to other reports, rural land Pretelt owns in Antioquia was violently stolen from its campesino owners.

Add to that several cases of apparent corruption I've heard about 'on the street.' An acquaintance who wants to buy a house using a government-backed loan, says the bank official who approves the loans demands a gift of a multi-million peso slice of that loan for herself.

Evidence of corruption? An old bus belches smoke
in Bogotá not far from the Ministry of the Environment.
According to Colombia Reports, 80% of Colombians consider their government corrupt, and more than half believe it's getting worse. Transparency International's reports appear to support that conclusion: Since 2002, Colombia has plummeted from 57th place to 94th in Transparency's rankings.

How corrupt is Colombia? Nobody can say exactly, but it seems to be pretty corrupt. And as important as is the corruption itself is the perception of its pervasiveness, which undermines confidence in government and produces a sensation of helplessness. I have a constant personal campaign against air pollution, as you can see here. But the evident complete apathy - if not corruption - of enforcement officials might make one shrug one's shoulders and ask 'why bother?' According to Colombia Reports, corruption has also been an important contributor to the nation's armed conflict.

The positive side to all of this is that some of the corruption cases do come to light and are investigated. When even the investigators have been completely corrupted, the situation seems hopeless. But, even tho corruption victimizes all of us, it is also a victimless crime in the sense that both people participate willingly and feel they benefit. The friend who will pay the bribe to the loan officer is happy to do so, since he's been waiting years to get a loan the legal way. He doesn't pause to reflect that such corruption can make the whole economic system disfunctional, and even collapse it.

What's the solution? Stiff penalties are part of the answer, but Colombia requires a deep, deep cultural shift.

Colombia won't soon be Sweden corruption-wise, but is being like Chile or Uruguay too much to hope for?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


wayuusaying said...

Opportunists in Colombian politics are known to accuse and fabricate to get ahead. Edilberto is being supported by the community he serves in that same picture you posted. In any other country, any service providers that don't have qualifications are held responsible, not the person paying for the service.

Let me ask you something, are in favour of the rich or the poor?

Your subjective opinion of "ugly" buildings doesn't mean it's a crime or wrong doing to allow development in the community. Junk food?? Seriously? Go kick some rocks.

Miguel said...

Hi Wayuusaying,

Thanks for your comment. I hope that Edilberto's supporters support him because they believe in his values, and not just because he got them city jobs.

Unfortunately, none of the issues discussed favor the poor. If Edilberto really did, as he's accused of, give a nutrition contract to an unqualified company, that would amount to stealing food from the mouths of babes. And the other things I mentioned aren't exactly favoring the poor, either (whether or not Edilberto had a hand in them).

The Oxxo alcohol/junk food store belongs to the Mexican Carlos Slim, one of the world's richest men, who wants to be richer. And those kinds of processed junk food particularly hurt the poor, thru obesity, heart disease, etc.

That's why Mexico passed a junk food tax. If only Colombia had the guts to do the same.

As for the constructions on the hillside - I saw a new one today - those belong to elite universities, which are progressively privatizing what should be public open space, thus excluding the low-income neighbors in order to make more room for rich students and their cars.