From ornamental fish trafficking to land grabbing, corruption greases the wheels of every environmental crime motor, feeding deforestation and biodiversity loss in Colombia's Amazon region.
Legal actors (corrupt individuals and networks, often in league with public officials or state authorities) act as facilitators to ensure the smooth operation of illegal logging, illicit coca crop cultivation, land grabbing, illegal mining and wildlife trafficking across the region.
Madeleine Pérez Ojeda, a public prosecutor specializing in environmental crime, shared a presentation detailing her experiences in Colombia's fight against deforestation at an international conference, "Experiences in the Fight Against Deforestation." Pérez revealed "legal actors with their double discourses and corrupt ways" have had an even greater influence in driving deforestation across Colombia than illegal groups.
"Invisibles" Corrupt the Autonomous Regional Corporations for Sustainable Development (CARs)
As previously mentioned, CARs are decentralized and semi-autonomous bodies in charge of regulating the use of natural resources - like timber - and legal trade in fauna across Colombia.
These regional agencies are highly susceptible to corruption. Corrupt agents working for CARs charged with staving off environmental crime across the nation have, instead, stoked timber and wildlife trafficking in some cases.
Evidence suggests the Amazon region's CAR – Corpoamazonia – has not escaped this behavior.
Corruption Risks Facing CARs at a National Level
At a national level, CARs have been plagued by irregularities. In July 2018, the Attorney General's Office reported it was actively carrying out 256 preliminary inquiries and 43 disciplinary investigations looking into alleged "irregularities" made by CAR officials across the country.
At the time, Attorney General Fernando Carrillo Flórez publicly expressed his concern around how some CARs had been managing sanctions against environmental crimes and the provision of forestry permits. Since then, investigations into the administration of these agencies have continued, as they have also been accused of irregular hiring practices.
CARs face a constant threat of infiltration by regional economic or political elites, who have a vested interest in looting Colombia. Numerous sources revealed such agencies have become political strongholds permeated by elites with a strong interest in profiting from environmental crime.
"Some CARs are linked to the invisibles," an expert on Colombia's forestry sector revealed on the condition of anonymity. "These are senators who represent the region in congress and act as political sponsors who protect environmental crimes."
These elites challenge laws attempting to generate greater control over forest use and legislative proposals to combat corruption within the CARs.
Bills proposed to increase transparency around the ways CARs operate have repeatedly failed to make it into law. These included Proposal 278, which was presented to the Senate in 2019 in an attempt to change the way CARs were managed. In 2020, another bill seeking to reform the CARs and eliminate the reelection of CAR directors to mitigate corruption did not make it into law after the Senate did not approve it.
More recently, in April 2021, Colombia's Lower House of Representatives passed a new proposal through to the Senate in a revived attempt to reform the CARs. However, given the long list of previous failed efforts to make such changes, this move is not particularly encouraging.
"Invisible" criminals and interests also facilitate environmental crimes by pushing for irregular hiring practices. This provides an open door through which elites can influence the work of CARs, and continue to profit from environmental crimes. The Attorney General's Office and the Office of the Comptroller General have warned that some CARs act as "political fortresses."
Researcher René López Camacho explained how in the CARs, for example, lawyers and veterinarians are hired to monitor forests. Some may not be qualified to carry this work out. "Who gives them that position? A politician, an 'invisible' that benefits from having an ally inside," Camacho explained.
Corruption Risks Facing Corpoamazonia
Corpoamazonia appears to fit into this pattern of irregular practices. Governors and mayors in office across the Amazon region use their ties to CAR officials to continue clearing forest without consequences.
"It is not convenient for governors and mayors in the Amazon region to limit the autonomy of the CARs," according to an academic who specializes in forestry issues. "They [governors and mayors] have large tracts of land and businesses on these lands. They may be deforesting, but since they are 'friends' with the CAR director, they know that they will not be investigated. It is a vicious circle."
An official from Colombia's National Parks Authority, based in the department of Amazonas, claims that the General Directorate of Corpoamazonia maintains very close ties to political clans in the department of Amazonas, including members of the elite Benjumea and Acosta families. Members of these families have been in and out of public office as mayors and deputies for around three decades.
Despite having long wielded political power across Amazonas, members of these families have been implicated in corruption investigations. For example, in 2019, it was revealed that the anti-corruption Attorney General's Office had been sitting on a lawsuit launched two decades earlier against the former mayor of Leticia, Jhon Alex Benjumea Moreno, concerning the irregular sale of land during his time in office. Benjumea allegedly sold a nine-hectare plot of public land in the capital of Amazonas for a fraction of its value.
The tentacles of the Benjumea family extend far beyond politics and into the realm of wildlife trafficking. Former congressman, Octavio Benjumea Acosta, acts as the legal representative for a wildlife park in Ikozoa (Fundación Ikozoa Bioparque Amazonas) in Leticia.
Various experts in environmental crimes confirmed that in many cases, the zoo – in place of other institutions - has received animals seized by Corpoamazonia. This has primarily occurred as a result of the relationship enjoyed between the environmental authority and the Benjumea family, according to both sources. Instead of protecting these species, Ikozoa later allegedly sells them on, both sources confirmed.
Further down the chain, there is also evidence of corrupt CAR agents on the ground facilitating illegal logging and wildlife trafficking in Colombia's Amazon and beyond. When CAR agents seize illicit shipments of timber belonging to an illegal logger who works in alliance with a "political godfather," this corruption is evident. In such instances, the so-called "godfather" reportedly calls the director of the relevant CAR agency, ordering agents to return the timber to its "owner."
On top of this, Ruben Moreno revealed some corrupt CAR officials expedite authorizations permitting the use of natural forests sent by applicants giving them some kind of benefit in return. They deliberately speed up the authorization process, skipping checks to verify information included in the application, and without making a visit to the territory where the applicant intends to harvest timber. "Logging permits (are given out to) cover territories where there is nothing," said René López Camacho. "There is no verification of whether requests to harvest timber coincide with reality."
Prior to 2018, when an online transit permit known as the Salvoconducto Único Nacional en Línea (SUNL), came into force, it was common for corrupt CAR officials to grant blank transit permits to intermediaries (fixers and transporters) who would later fill them out with fraudulent data to move and sell illegally sourced wood.
Ruben Moreno explained how corrupt CAR officials issue transit permits with false information to benefit intermediaries involved in the timber trade [fixers]. "The official writes down a volume of wood [to be transported] on the permit that is higher than that authorized. Instead of writing 20 meters cubed, he writes that 200 meters cubed can be moved, and with this [illegal] wood is laundered" according to a forestry expert.
As for wildlife trafficking, CAR agents under the influence of external actors have been known to turn a blind eye to the illicit trafficking of animals and improper use of species. It is increasingly clear that corrupt officials working for CAR – and other agencies, like the National Authority of Enviromental Licences (Autoridad Nacional de Licencias Ambientales – ANLA) and Colombia's Ministry of the Environment - deliberately avoid tracking animals going in and out of zoos or bio parks, largely due to pressure from "invisible" elites.
Fernando Trujillo said that congressmen have invested in projects to export ornamental fish, which are used a front for wildlife trafficking. As a part of this, politicians put pressure on regional and national environmental authorities to access permits and avoid controls, according to Trujillo.
Infiltrating Institutions: From Top to Bottom
As corrupt CAR agents stoke illegal logging and wildlife trafficking across Colombia's Amazon region, officials at other public institutions also facilitate environmental crimes. This largely occurs when political elites in office have a direct financial interest in an activity themselves, or when bribes are paid to officials in exchange for favors.
First, when elites working for public institutions have a clear stake in an environmental crime, actions taken to curb it are often scarce. For example, Alejandra María Laina Agudelo, a researcher for the technical team on law enforcement at the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (Fundación para la Conservación y el Desarrollo Sostenible - FCDS) - a non-governmental organization studying sustainable development and conservation in Colombia – said corrupt officials at a number of government ministries have interests in land grabbing across the nation's Amazon region.
SEE ALSO: Coverage on Environmental Crime
According to Laina, this explains why scarce action has been taken to combat the activity in recent years. "Systematically they have moved to not doing anything," she claimed, before adding that officials from various ministries "are not doing anything to stop Indigenous communities from getting their territories taken away from them." She put this lack of activity down to "the politicians involved" in land grabbing.
In line with this, government officials have also directly facilitated the activity in Amazonian departments, according to Laina. "Public resources have been invested in illegal roads," Laina claimed, adding that those constructing illegal routes had allegedly "borrowed" machinery used by local and regional governments to do so.
Once built, such infrastructure paves the way for forest to be cleared more easily, land to be illegally occupied and other environmental crimes to occur.
State officials and authorities have facilitated environmental crimes across the region in exchange for bribes. Rural coca growers in Colombia have revealed they "pay soldiers off to not eradicate their coca crops or only destroy part of them, while registering the eradication as complete." This dynamic is relatively common where the state maintains a weak presence, which is been the case in much of the Amazon region.
Police, army and navy officials based in mining hot spots permit the entry of machinery knowing it will be used for illegal mining. They also permit the movement of supplies such as fuel or mercury and illegal miners themselves, in exchange for bribes. Similar to their role in stoking coca cultivation, these authorities also avoid carrying out interventions targeting illicit mining when pay-offs are made.
Meanwhile, police officers at checkpoints along highways and waterways across the region receive bribes to let illegally sourced timber shipments pass through checkpoints.
"They only accept bills of 50 thousand pesos ($13) upward," said a representative of the Amazon Forestry Board (Mesa Forestal de la Amazonía), a roundtable formed to allow the private and public sector to collaborate in bringing order to the forestry sector across the region. He assured that on a trip from the western, coastal city of Buenaventura to Colombia's capital city, Bogotá, "a transporter can reach his destination without any transit permits, if he carries a million pesos ($300) to bribe the police."
In fact, different forestry experts agreed that to move wood, paying bribes to corrupt police officers and members of the army is a prerequisite. Even when it comes to wood of a legal origin, police try to profit.
The Amazon Forestry Board representative explained that approximately four years ago he hired a transporter (truck driver) to take a shipment of legally sourced timber from the department of Amazonas to Bogotá. This transporter charged him 4.5 million pesos (around $1,200). This fee included one million pesos (almost $300) to pay bribes at police highway checkpoints, because "the police wanted paying even if a shipment was legal," the representative revealed.
"They can hold up a truck for hours and say that they can only let it move on when the relevant environmental authority arrives to examine [the wood]. Since the transporter cannot wait that long, he decides pay the police a bribe and move on."
Bribes are also paid to facilitate land grabbing in the region, largely to judges. Alejandra Laina confirmed that judges may be paid to award illicit claims to land where they should not. Alejandro Reyes Posada, an expert researcher and consultant who has studied land grabbing extensively, revealed civil judges have historically been the ones who, in an "illegal" way, have given out state-owned land in Colombia.
According to Mongabay, the Superintendency of Notaries and Registration (Superintendencia de Notariado y Registro – SNR) reported over 672,000 hectares have been "legalized," thanks to judges, but "presumably they are vacant lands that belong to the nation."