Two major corruption scandals involving Colombia’s armed forces have thrown the spotlight on military procurement, alleged illegal wiretapping and extra-judicial killings – and led to one of the biggest purges of the military leadership since 2008.
So far, nine generals from the police, air force and army have been dismissed or "sent into retirement", including the armed forces chief, General Leonardo Barrero.
The crisis began in early February, when weekly news magazine La Semana reported that military intelligence officers were alleged to have intercepted cellular phone communications and emails of government representatives who have been holding peace talks with FARC rebels in Havana for 15 months. The attorney general’s office is investigating the allegations.
Nearly two weeks later, the same magazine published transcripts of recordings of military officers’ phone calls which, it said, revealed a deep network of corruption at the highest levels of the army in 2012 and 2013.
Colombians have listened to excerpts of the calls - aired on prime-time radio and television - during which officers talk of receiving kickbacks of up to 50 percent on military procurement contracts - from special eyewear for troops, to equipment, weapons, installations and supplies.
President Juan Manuel Santos has ordered the defence ministry to investigate.
The armed forces and police total some 450,000 men and women, and the war against guerrilla groups and drug traffickers costs tens of millions of dollars every year. The United States has given Colombia $7.3 billion since 1996, most of it in the form of military hardware to fight leftist rebels and carry out anti-drug operations.
Colombia is not alone in facing a lack of transparency in military procurement and in defence ministries’ spending, according to anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International. A January 2013 TI report showed that 57 of the 82 countries it surveyed had poor controls to prevent corruption, inadequate parliamentary oversight of defence policy and a lack of basic accountability in their defence sectors.
The global cost of defence sector corruption is estimated to be at least $20 billion a year, the watchdog says.
“Clearly one cannot ask for the same transparency in the defence ministry as one can of other public entities,” says an anonymous article in the magazine La Semana. “But internal controls, decision making, the capacity to carry out internal investigations and the ability to make drastic decisions become crucial in order to combat corruption when so much of public spending is reserved for reasons of national security.”
The shake-up in the Colombian military’s top brass is not just about alleged bribery and the embezzlement of state funds, it’s also linked to what are probably the worst human rights violations to have taken place in Colombia in recent years.
In the ‘false positives’ affair that first came to light in 2008, scores of innocent men, some as young as 16, were killed by security forces who then passed them off as guerrillas killed in battle to inflate the body count in the government’s 50-year war against FARC rebels.
The United Nations said in a 2009 report on the affair the evidence indicated ‘that these killings were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military.’
In what is perhaps the most damaging phone conversation published by La Semana, then army chief Barrero is heard talking to a jailed colonel who is under investigation for killing two civilians as part of the ‘false positives’ affair.
Barrero tells the colonel that he and others should "form a mafia" to make counter-allegations against the prosecutors investigating them - remarks that prompted Santos to dismiss Barrero.
"The general commander of the armed forces is not leaving over any act of corruption, but leaves because of disrespectful and disobliging expressions used …,” Santos said.
Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon has publicly lamented Barrero’s dismissal. “In the case of General Barrero, whose leaving has deeply hurt me, he is a great soldier, a good man, a man committed to the country. As he himself recognised in a brave way, his situation was very difficult to explain on the international stage,” Pinzon was quoted as saying in a recent interview with El Tiempo newspaper.
Do the families whose sons were killed by the army in that cynical fashion see it the same way? No doubt Barrero’s remarks in the phone call with the jailed colonel hurt them far more.
Two years ago I met Luz Marina, whose 26-year-old mentally and physically disabled son, Fair Leonardo Porras, had been killed by the military. In 2012 six army officers and soldiers were found guilty of murder and the forced disappearance of Porras and were handed prison sentences of 35 to 52 years.
State prosecutors are currently investigating 2,200 cases of similar extrajudicial killings, of which 890 have resulted in a conviction.
"We have to keep working so that every family whose son has been killed by a criminal enterprise run by the state knows what really happened and can bury their sons with dignity,” Marina told me in an interview.
Scores of families are still waiting for justice.