By Natalia Reina Villamil, RevistaRAYA, November 13, 2023

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

During the elections in October 2023, a candidate for Mayor of Quibdó said that a business owner came to him and offered him 300 million pesos (roughly USD $77,000 at current exchange rates) to finance his campaign in exchange for turning the School Feeding Program over to him if he was elected. In the capital of Chocó the operation of the program in 2023, worth 12,295 million pesos (roughly USD $3,146,000 at current exchange rates) was awarded to PAE Joint Venture 2023, a company covered by a blanket of doubts and criticisms that extended as far as the Gnecco family in Cesar Department.

Throughout the length and breadth of the country, the joint venture (UT in Spanish) is the legal concept most often used by contractors, the ace up their sleeve for the purpose of keeping it simple and putting aside a lot of the rules of the game. The School Feeding Program (PAE in Spanish) has been a victim of that concept, and the case of Quibdó (Chocó Department) is no exception. Basically, a joint venture is the association of two or more people for the purpose of presenting a single proposal for carrying out a contract. The attractive part of the concept is that you don’t need to be a legal person and have legal capacity. Joint Ventures aren’t included in the mercantile register and can’t be investigated by the Chamber of Commerce. Plus, you don’t have to pay income tax. But these points are only in effect during the period of the execution of the contract. So, after they complete the time agreed upon, each society washes their hands and goes their own way, more or less. “If I ever saw you, I don’t remember it.” All of that makes it enormously difficult to monitor the societies that have been part of these joint ventures that have benefited from public contracts.

In the capital of Chocó, the execution by PAE has been appetizing loot for politicians and contractors; in fact, two weeks before the regional elections, a candidate for Mayor of Quibdó said that a business owner had offered him 300 million pesos (roughly USD $77,000 at current exchange rates) to finance his campaign in exchange for giving him the PAE if he were to be elected. In Quibdó the operation of the program in 2023, worth 12,295,000,000 pesos (roughly USD $3,146,000 at current exchange rates) was awarded to PAE Joint Venture Quibdó 2023, after which multiple questions and “coincidences” were highlighted. This joint venture is made up of two societies, the United Nurturing Dreams Foundation and My First Steps Association, both represented by Gineth Paola Pacheco Herrera and Manuela García Maturana, respectively.

Pacheco Herrera, a young woman that many Colombians would like to be, as she is only 24 years old and has headed a foundation benefiting from PAE contracts worth 45,000,000,000 pesos (roughly USD $11,373,000 at current exchange rates) in at least four departments. Meanwhile, García Maturana was responsible for the operation of the PAE in Quibdó in 2020, a contract that got involved in legal problems because in January 2021 a municipal court in Quibdó ordered her and the current Mayor, Martin Sánchez, to be arrested and held for three days, specifically because of events related to the execution of the program at the end of 2020. In the midst of the scandal, the very same municipal administration awarded the contract again with the same objective. Added to that, García Maturana is the niece of the former Rector of the Chocó Technological University, Eduardo Antonio García Vega, who was charged in 2023 with allegedly being implicated in embezzling 38,000 million pesos (roughly USD $9,600,000 at current exchange rates) from the University.

A chart (omitted) shows that Paola Pacheco Herrera’s society owns 40% of the Quibdó PAE contract, and Manuela García Maturana’s society owns 60%.

Neither of the two societies is new to government contracting procedures. In the case of the United Nurturing Dreams Foundation, it has been able to amass PAE contracts in different parts of the country. For example, in Cesar Department the Foundation was benefited by large sums of money during the administration of suspended Governor Luis Alberto Monsalvo Gnecco (2020-2023). The Attorney General’s Office accused him of alleged corrupt acts in PAE contracting in his first term as governor between 2012 and 2015. In 2022 the United Nurturing Dreams Foundation and LE & VE Macsol Foods, S.A.S. put together the joint venture, Cesar Is All of Us, represented by Gineth Paola Pacheco Herrera. The Governor of Cesar awarded the joint venture a contract worth 20,558 million pesos (roughly USD $ 5,199,000 at current exchange rates).

(Contract document omitted.)

In January 2023, the Governor’s Office in Cesar once again awarded the PAE contract worth 20,648 million pesos (roughly USD $5,218,000 at current exchange rates) to the only bidder in the southern part of the Department, the RA Foods Joint Venture. That joint venture was composed of 20% to Pacheco Herrera’s United Nurturing Dreams Foundation and the remaining 80% to Ramfo Investments Ltd., represented legally by María Camila Sánchez.

O.K. now, the United Nurturing Dreams Foundation has made some movements that deserve attention. For example, its original name was Capital Foods Foundation, but in March 2021 it changed its identity in the midst of the scandal that shook the Santander PAE Joint Venture. That joint venture had been the subject of complaints that it had submitted contract documents containing irregularities. One of them was the resume of a food engineer who stated that he had not authorized the joint venture to use his information.

(Contract document omitted.)

During the two years in which the nonprofit entity called itself “Capital Foods Foundation”, it also benefited from contracts worth millions of pesos. In 2021, for example, the Mayor’s Office in Piedecuesta, through the Secretariat of Education, awarded the contract for the municipal PAE, worth 4,283 million pesos (roughly USD $1,083,000 at current exchange rates) to Piedecuesta School Feeding 2021 Joint Venture, composed of the Capital Foods Foundation, the Social Support Foundation, New Dawn Development and Wellbeing for Children and the Elderly, and Seryalina National Food and Services. During the execution of the contract, there were serious complaints of corruption. In September of 2021, the joint venture furnished food that was not fit to eat and decomposing bread and fruit to at least 24 different schools. Hundreds of children were affected.

To summarize, in all of 2023, the young woman, Gineth Paola Pacheco Herrera, through the United Nurturing Dreams Foundation, has been the beneficiary of at least four PAE contracts in different regions of the country, and has been connected to their operation in the departments of Bolívar, 2023; and Cesar, 2022 and 2023. Likewise, in those same years, in the municipalities of El Retén (Magdalena Department), and Lorica (Córdoba Department). Right now, she’s carrying out a contract in Quibdó (Chocó).

On the other hand, the second society making up 60% of the Quibdó PAE Joint Venture is the My First Steps Association that originated in Chocó. It also has long experience in executing PAE contracts in different municipalities in the Department. It has even had a relationship with the indigenous PAE complement in some territorial entities. In December of 2019, the Mayor’s Office in Quibdó contracted with the Association to operate the 2020 PAE. However, the contract had some complications and the parties ended up in litigation.

(Contract document omitted.)

It happened when the municipal administration extended the school calendar to December 6, 2020, with the objective of combating hunger and furnishing food for preparation at home during November. In spite of that, the contractor decided to disregard the modification, arguing that the 400 million pesos (roughly USD $101,000 at current exchange rates) remaining to be paid would not be enough to cover the cost. The dispute ended up in court, and a judge ordered the parties to furnish food to the children until December 6. In spite of that order, the operators of the contract refused to give in. As a result, in the second week of January 2021, the municipal Small Employment Claims Court in Quibdó ordered three days of arrest and a fine of 3 days of minimum wage against Martin Sánchez and Manuela García as legal representatives of the contractor, because of their contempt of court in refusing to obey the court’s order that the food be supplied until the established date.

In spite of what had happened, different municipalities continued to furnish large amounts of public money to the My First Steps Association to finish the contracts in extremely short periods of time. In July of 2022, the Mayor’s Office in Bojayá awarded them a contract worth 120,784,800 pesos (roughly USD $30,500 at current exchange rates) to complete the contract in only 12 days. The object was to improve the food value of the rations being served by the indigenous PAE operator. The municipality of Lloró had also awarded the operation of the program on four occasions, in January and March of 2023, every contract worth 137,826,000 pesos (roughly USD $34,800 at current exchange rates) with a duration of 30 days. Then, in May of the same year in the amount of 161,053,900 pesos (roughly USD $41,117 at current exchange rates) to be carried out in 34 days.

Chart omitted.

Between 2022 and 2023, the My First Steps Association obtained more than 1,450,473,762 pesos (roughly USD $370,145 at current exchange rates) in contracts in that name and related to funds for the implementation of the PAE program in different municipal entities in Chocó.

It should be pointed out that the doubts and criticisms surrounding the PAE in Quibdó are not just based on the rich history of the two societies that make up the joint venture responsible for carrying out the program. Added to that, beginning in May of 2023 the suppliers of the food that was contracted for have been complaining about delays in their respective payments. One of the suppliers of the food told the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Pares) that during her connection with the PAE, appropriate payments had not been made and that, as of this date, they owed her 1,456,000 pesos (roughly USD $372). In response to her complaint, the only answer was “there’s no money”.

Meanwhile, the municipal administration maintains that that’s because of administrative bureaucracy problems. Even though, in that same month of May, the Secretariat of Education was claiming that if the operator didn’t solve the situation immediately, they would be obliged to issue sanctions, just as is stipulated in the contract clauses. However, at present, the suppliers are continuing under the same conditions. Why has the municipal administration failed to take action, in spite of having the legal tools at its disposal that could contribute to solving the problem?

In an interview with the local station Citation TV, one of the people that transport the food and is connected to the PAE operation says that they owe him more than three months salary. In the same manner, in some of the schools, like the one in the District (corregimiento) of Tutunendo (Quibdó), the community has complained that there’s not enough food available to prepare, requiring the teachers to reduce the intensity of the learning schedule because of the lack of food to furnish to the children.

Meanwhile the School Feeding Program continues turning into being one of the most appetizing banquets in Chocó, while the students and the subcontractors are the most affected. The Governors Offices, and the Mayors Offices seem to be trapped in the vicious circle of contractors who contribute money to their campaigns so they can kidnap public contracting later. Thus, the same operators with wide-ranging and questionable histories continue to insert themselves into the execution of PAE contracts, signing three or four contracts in the same year while public officials pay no attention. In fact, it looks as if these joint ventures, instead of being monitored by the control agencies or excluded from the bidding processes, instead are rewarded with new contracts.

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