War and Corruption in Colombia

The Case of the Disappearing Aid

Colombian paramilitaries training
Members of the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) train near Abibe in northwestern Colombia, May 16, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

In the early hours of May 24, the U.S. Congress passed an act authorizing US$50 million in emergency aid to Colombia. The act also allows funds from the US$1.3 billion earmarked for anti-drug operations to be used for the Colombian government’s war against leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries.

Of the US$50 million supplemental aid package, US$3.5 million will be spent protecting the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline. Following the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, President George W. Bush had already budgeted US$98 million to protect the pipeline, judging it an important source of oil in the event that instability in the Middle East should threaten oil supplies from that region.

The new aid comes despite the revelation that perhaps 60 Colombian officials have embezzled millions of dollars from the U.S. payments. On May 10, centrist Bogotá daily El Tiempo reported that the head of Colombia's anti-narcotics police, Gen. Gustavo Socha had been relieved of his duties and transferred to another post after it came out that U.S. aid had been misappropriated.

The El Tiempo report relied heavily on an interview with William H. Duncan, sub-director of the anti-narcotics section of the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá. Three months prior, Duncan said, officials in his office detected that various members of the anti-narcotics police "had been involved in a misappropriation of funds from an embassy account."

"We discovered that they took money for personal ends," said the diplomat, who declined to confirm the amount. "The only thing I can say is that you're dealing with a very large amount of money," he added. By May 15, El Tiempo’s journalists had uncovered, they thought, the amount missing: US$2 million. But a June 12 report in independent Colombian daily El Espectador put the figure at US$5.2 million, and revealed that the head of security at the presidential palace had been implicated in the investigation. 

Duncan told reporters that after the irregularities were discovered, the "highest government officials and the police chief and anti-narcotics director" were made aware of them. In response, Luis Ernesto Gilibert Vargas, who heads Colombia’s police, transferred Socha in order to facilitate the investigation. "In light of the situation that we have gone through, it was decided to send Gen. Socha to manage the security of individuals at the Special Services directorate," Vargas said.

Socha resigned instead of accepting the new post. Explaining his decision, he told El Tiempo on May 23 that "[The police high command] condemned me without even giving me a chance to defend myself…. My resignation isn't a matter of my accepting any guilt—it was done to free the police of the waste and deterioration of their image, which has suffered demonstratively." Socha added that he had fired six officers after discovering the money had disappeared.

The scandal comes at an embarrassing time for those who support greater U.S. involvement in Colombia. Officials from a variety of U.S. government agencies have recently been attempting to recast U.S. involvement in Colombia as part of the “war on terrorism.” A May 21 State Department report listed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) as terrorist organizations.

Revelations of police corruption will add fuel to domestic objections to U.S. involvement in Colombia's bloody civil conflict. Several U.S. congressmen have complained that there is little to show for the billion dollars of aid former President Bill Clinton granted to Colombia. And, they say, further commitment could simply drag America into another Vietnam.

The news has even the staunchest supporters of U.S. involvement in Colombia up in arms. After learning of the El Tiempo story, Sen. Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Drug Control Committee, dashed off an urgent memo to State Department Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin, asking for an immediate audit tracing all U.S. funds sent to Colombia, according to a May 15 El Tiempo report.

Grassley raised his concern just as the request for additional funds and for a broader mandate arrived before Congress. He noted that two years ago he had expressed his concern about alleged "misuse" of aid to Colombia.

The scandal has been making waves in Colombia too. The May 15 edition of El Tiempo reported that Alvaro Uribe Vélez, Colombia’s newly elected president, was making political hay out of the revelations and was proposing to assign an independent organization to monitor the funds and guarantee transparency in their uses.

Though Colombian news reports indicate that perhaps 20 officers were involved, investigators have only formally accused 11 of embezzlement. Another 15 have been given notice that they are under investigation and may be charged.

Over the past two years, other scandals have embarrassed the United States and Colombia. Uncorroborated reports indicate that thousands of gallons of high-octane helicopter fuel intended to fuel efforts to eradicate drug crops were simply sold for profit. Many investigative journalists in Colombia privately say that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

In one case, the disappearance of a shipment of space blankets turned out to be the FARC's gain. According to an army source who spoke on condition of anonymity, the rebels lined umbrellas with the heat-reflecting material and then carried the umbrellas through the dense jungles of central Colombia without emitting heat that could be picked up by surveillance planes’ infrared sensors.

Then, in April of this year, a scandal arose implicating the security agencies of at least four countries in the largest clandestine arms shipment known to have entered Colombia. Under the noses of Colombian customs authorities, arms that on paper had been sold by the Nicaraguan police to the Panamanian police via Guatemalan and Israeli intermediaries made their way into the hands of Colombia's AUC paramilitary last November. The United States, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Guatemala, and the Organization of American States—all of which have distinct interests in the affair—are conducting their own investigations. To date, no high-ranking public official has been detained in any of the countries involved. Despite these nascent scandals, the US$50 million in extra aid for Colombia was approved on May 24. The only major debate centered on the $3.5 million that will be spent on protection of the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline. According to El Tiempo, various senators argued that Occidental Petroleum, which owns a 44 percent stake in the pipeline, and Repsol, which owns 6 percent, should be required to reimburse the U.S. government for the indirect subsidy that they will be receiving by way of the supplemental Plan Colombia aid package. “We do not believe that American taxpayers should pay for the protection of those companies’ investments,” one senator assured his constituents. He said nothing about the misappropriation of aid—also financed with tax revenue—to the Colombian police.