Revelations that the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht financed Colombia's FARC rebels deepens the plot of an international corruption scandal, and raises questions about how Colombian authorities will handle the issue of criminal finances in the imminent future.
Top directors of Brazil's Odebrecht, the largest construction company in Latin America, have admitted that the company financed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) for 20 years, according to a March 4 report by the news outlet Veja.
Two executives allegedly told Brazilian federal prosecutors that the company paid the rebel group $50,000 to $100,000 per month to obtain "permission" to operate in areas under their control, AFP reported. The payments appeared in the company's books as "operational costs" or "territorial contributions."
Apparently, this scheme stems from a deal struck with the guerrillas in the 1990s by a group of intermediaries from the United States, who had been requested to negotiate the release of two Odebrecht executives kidnapped by the FARC.
Among the construction projects this would have facilitated is that of the "Ruta del Sol," a highway connecting the center of Colombia to the Caribbean coast.
On March 5, Odebrecht rebuffed the assertions as "speculation" in a communique sent to the AFP. The FARC, who are currently demobilizing as part of a peace agreement with the Colombian government, have also denied the claims.
"The company itself has clarified that none of this happened and the insurgency never had any knowledge of this," FARC Commander Félix Antonio Muñoz, alias "Pastor Alape," said at a March 6 press conference, EFE reported.
Odebrecht is at the heart of one of the biggest corruption scandals in Latin American history, which began as part of Brazil's "Operation Car Wash" investigations. This has uncovered bribery and kickback schemes in governments across the region, and Colombia's most recent presidential campaign has also been caught up in the firestorm.
Colombia's Prosecutor General's Office tweeted on March 6 that it had "evidence that confirms that Odebrecht paid for expenses that benefitted the 2014 presidential campaigns."
#Fiscalía cuenta con evidencias que acreditan asunción de gastos por parte de #Odebrecht en beneficio de campañas presidenciales de 2014
— Fiscalía Colombia (@FiscaliaCol) March 6, 2017
The man connecting the dots in the Colombian chapter of the Odebrecht saga is former Senator Otto Bula Bula, who apparently received millions from the Brazilian company. He has since been accused of also being a frontman for the Oficina de Envigado, a notorious Medellín-based criminal organization.
InSight Crime Analysis
This latest scandal appears to establish a direct link between criminal groups and Brazilian business elites, but it may still be the tip of the iceberg. Former Odebrecht executives have sealed a plea deal with Brazilian investigators whose findings have not yet been made public, and which may have even deeper repercussions in outing corruption and criminal ties at the highest levels of Latin American governance.
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In Colombia, this case also raises the question of how companies such as Odebrecht that allegedly financed the guerrillas will -- or will not -- be prosecuted under the new transitional justice system proposed to Congress by the FARC peace agreement. The new system allows for companies that were forced to pay extortion fees to armed conflict actors to essentially wipe their slate clean. However, graver cases of financing illegal groups should face the transitional peace courts, where those responsible may still receive lenient sentences. Drawing the line between willing and forced cooperation by businesses will likely prove to be a challenging process.
Furthermore, the FARC-Odebrecht connection once again spotlights the elusiveness of the FARC's finances. If the allegations against Odebrecht are true, the rebels received up to $1.2 million from a single company per year, giving a sense of the scale of the FARC's earnings countrywide. One of Colombia's main missions will now be to locate and seize these assets, which they will likely have to do without the full cooperation of the guerrillas.