CORRUPTION: THE OTHER PANDEMIC THAT AFFECTS THIS COUNTRY Ricardo Ávila analyzes the increase in this scourge, as a result of the urgent measures because of Covid-19

By Ricardo Ávila, EL TIEMPO, October 4, 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

It could be that the peak of the spread of Covid-19 has passed in Colombia, but the effects of the pandemic become more evident as the months pass. Besides the negative economic and social consequences, there is growing evidence of a significant increase in corruption cases, especially at the regional and local level.

More and more officials are being accused, suspended, or investigated for the illegal use of public funds. The accusations in the last few weeks include the mayors of Villavicencio, Anapoima, Cereté, Necoclí, Malambo, San Pedro or Calarcá, as well as the governors of San Andrés and Vichada, among many others.

The statistics are eloquent. According to the Inspector General’s Office, since the beginning of the health emergency in March, there have been 837 recorded openings of disciplinary cases, covering 417 mayor’s offices, 26 governor’s offices, and 32 municipal councils.

The numbers surpass the usual rate with a vengeance. It’s enough to point out that since 2017, there have been 1,094 decisions by the Inspector General against people that had been elected by the citizens.

Even though in this case, the proceedings aren’t over with, the people that are familiar with this matter point out that the indications are strong and probably will conclude with punishments of different kinds. The Comptroller’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office are also acting, which will certainly lead to trials fixing financial responsibility and prison sentences in the near future.

Even so, the threats continue to happen; something that will affect the prestige of the institutions and the mood of the citizens. According to the survey carried out by Invamer every two months, beginning four years ago, corruption appears as one of the two principal problems that people think are getting worse.

“The pandemic didn’t paralyze the unscrupulous people who were trying to take by fraud the funds that were allocated to maintain and manage the crisis. Overcharges, no-bid contracts, covered-up favors to politicians, payments to campaign donors, or use of funds for unnecessary purposes are some of the activities that we have been investigating and penalizing,” emphasized the Inspector General, Fernando Carrillo.

Collateral effects

Even though there’s no doubt that the evil has been going on for a long time, it’s worthwhile to examine the way it extended more powerfully with the coronavirus. The explanation rests with the use of the concept of manifest emergency, based on the appearance of an extraordinary event. Because of that motive, the usual contracting protocols are not followed, which would include competitive bidding and the presence of more than one bidder for the furnishing of goods or services.

Turning to more expeditious methods had a solid justification. Given the size of the challenge, it was imperative to react quickly to acquire not just medical supplies but also protective equipment that included masks or disinfectants.

At the same time, the obligatory quarantines made mitigation measures to protect the most vulnerable homes indispensable. The purchase and distribution of food items had to operate immediately, because hunger does not wait.

Nevertheless, it’s one thing to respond speedily, and another thing to abuse or turn a blind eye to abuse. The documented examples of the 19,000 peso (about USD 5) can of tuna in Arauca, or the 45,650 peso (about USD 12) masks in Palermo (Huila Province) are far from being the only examples and they point to a considerable financial loss to the government.

Still more disturbing is the presence of networks of corruption. An article written by Jorge Gallego, Mounu Prem, and Juan Vargas, professors at Rosario University, analyzed almost 360,000 contracts signed during the first wave of the pandemic, and they found that in those locations where government capacity is less and high levels of venality have been detected previously, the presence of overcharges is elevated. Besides that, the beneficiaries of the overcharges tend to include a high proportion of campaign donors.

“No-bid contracting ends up being enabled informally by the declaration of social emergency,” points out Professor Jorge Gallego. “ We found that that authority was used especially for the purchase of goods, and mainly, food, and that the discretion was misused,” he adds.

As if the foregoing were not enough, there have been expenditures decided by a stroke of the pen that were not directly related to humanitarian or health considerations. Using that mechanism to guarantee that there would be adequate funding for a particular hospital is very different from no-bid contracts for public works, because there is no manifest urgency for that.

Such circumstances have set off alarms for observers. Andrés Hernández, Director of Transparency for Colombia, maintains that “the risk of corruption is much greater now.” According to his agency, overcharges persist, as well as the use of unqualified contractors, while at the same time there is a lack of clarity in the amount and effectiveness of funds that have been invested in attending to the pandemic.

Well-known causes

This worrisome diagnosis leads to the hypothesis that the problem is worse than before. The question is valid because the threat of the coronavirus continues to be present, including the possibility of fresh outbreaks that would imply exceptional responses like those that were seen before August 30.

In the same way, it’s predictable that the role of the governments would be more notable this time, not just for the control of the emergency, but also to provide funds for people and companies, besides financing programs that aid in the reactivation. In the 2021 national budget, the investment will rise to 56.8 trillion pesos (about USD 14,800,000,000), the largest amount in history.

Because of that, the health of the population is at stake, as well as the very credibility of the government. As long as the citizens accept that the effort they make is for the common good, we will see the democratic system strengthened. If, on the other hand, the perception is that a few have ended up filling their pockets, the calls of those that just want to wipe the slate clean will resonate. Phenomena like populism are nurtured when the people are disillusioned.

In this context, it’s worth listening to the alarm bells. The Fedesarrollo (Foundation for Higher Education and Development) investigator, Daphne Álvarez, say that “corruption is the same as always; it’s just that there are more funds available.” As that expert sees things, starting with members of Congress and reaching local authorities, there are structures that work together to take a bite out of the treasury. And these networks take advantage of the opportunity they see whenever controls are relaxed.

Why does this scourge persist? The answer is related to the electoral system, the weakness of the parties, and the abominable combination between private contractors that finance campaigns, with the express commitment of compensation if the people they support come to power. In normal conditions there are certain formal barriers that make it a little more difficult for this evil dynamic to function, but now that the crisis has exploded, it’s time for the old refrain, “raging river, fishermen’s gain”.

On paper, there are ways to prevent abuses. In practice, the systems of oversight work to be co-opted, and in more than one case, they end up forming part of the political machinery, which ignores the failures of those in the same gang or pursues the adversaries. Perhaps the most shocking thing is the case of the regional Comptroller’s Offices, which are bastions of local power and care little for the good use of public resources.

When you add to the foregoing the lack of effectiveness of the legal system, or the shady deals between different groups that end up dividing the pie among provinces or municipalities, the diagnosis is going to be depressing. On that point, political scientist Mónica Pachón at the University of the Andes, gives a stark observation: “Corruption in Colombia is systematic and politics are not the only origin.”

Possible responses

Losing hope in the face of such a statement would be easy. It’s impossible to ignore the multiple attempts at reform that have failed, not just in the judicial area, but also in the parties and in the electoral system. The anti-corruption office of two years ago expressed frustration that was exacerbated by the lack of spirit in Congress to pass into law the remedies it had proposed.

While we have the opportunity to perform major surgery, that would demand leadership and political will. But it’s worthwhile to emphasize that not all is lost. In civil society, in the universities, and even in government agencies, there are people that will expose rotten apples and see that the thieves are punished, in spite of threats and pressure. Things would be much worse if not for some key data. The electronic public contracting system, better known as Secop, is a tool that can help a lot, because it requires all of the contract awards to be on line.

With that information available, it’s possible to cross check and design early alert systems, something that is easier now, thanks to improvements in the processing systems and the use of algorithms. In fact, part of the scandals that were revealed in the last few months is attributable to a better analytical capacity in the control agencies.

At the same time, it’s worthwhile to push for the mechanisms of Colombia Buys Efficiently, whose online store served to put some order in the acquisition of stationery, fuel, computers, and vehicles, among other things. The signing of framework agreements avoids price dispersion and even can cover public works that are small in scope. Neither can we ignore the specifications that serve to end bidding procedures made to order for only one bidder.

For María Margarita Zuleta, who was the anticorruption czar and now is part of the University of the Andes, part of the current abuses could be mitigated with several activities, including some minimal purchasing planning, requiring experienced vendors, benchmark prices, and a rationale related to the pandemic that justifies the urgency of the acquisitions. “The eagerness for speed has to be supported,” she adds.

The role of the agencies of control is also key to the equation. They are getting used to a better adoption of technology and the more effective and opportune use of their power to punish. Here, the danger is that the politicking ends up tilting toward those devoted to balancing, or that eventual decisions in international spheres will interfere with penalizing officials chosen by popular vote.

Because of that, the role of the communications media and of the citizens themselves is indispensable, not only to make known the possible irregularities, but also to demand results or apply social sanction on every mistake made in a country that rewards sharpness more than honesty. As Fernando Carrillo has pointed out, “for the future, we have to guarantee that we will continue to fight corruption with no holds barred, within parameters of absolute transparency by the government.”

For that reason, we can’t let our guard down in the struggle against the monster with a thousand heads. The coronavirus will leave consequences that in the long run will be profound and prolonged. And if you add to the unemployment, the business failures, and the lack of opportunities the sacking of public resources, that sickness will be worse than the pandemic itself.

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