by Maria Isabel Garcia
(IPS) BOGOTA --
steady diet of stories of corruption in high
places, served up almost daily by the media in Colombia, is beginning to wear
this with the general public.
The weariness shows in general surveys that report many people don't even tune in to radio and TV shows that announce breathlessly yet another "revelation" or "exclusive report" into corruption or theft at some state institution.
Many citizens have expressed their disapproval through letters to the editors of newspapers, or on call-in radio programs and on TV opinion hotlines.
But despite the fact people might be getting fed up with the seemingly endless stream of stories on graft and corruption, there is no denying it is a problem.
Statistics released by the attorney-general's office on pending investigations show the number of mayors investigated for malfeasance stands at 2,633 -- greater than the total number of municipalities in the country (1,071).
Of the more than 5,000 people investigated for misuse of public funds, 4,335 were for lies of omission or deed, and 1,109 for drawing up contracts without complying with the legal requirements.
Another 536 people are being probed for illicit enrichment and 4,231 for other crimes related to embezzling public funds.
But observers believe the true figures are even higher.
statistics are based only on charges brought by whistle-blowers, as
well as people seeking revenge on those who beat them to a deal.
At two state banks with supposed social missions, the Central Mortgage Bank and the Agrarian Bank, some $295 million was found to be missing. Personal loans and favors among white collar criminals with seats on the boards of directors also involved the State Bank and the ex-ambassador to Mexico, Diego Pardo.
The case of the liquidation of the state-run Ports of Colombia was cited as an indication of the "democratization of corruption," through its eight unions and a labor federation.
Forged documents to collect pensions and financial assistance from 1993 and 1997 caused liabilities and outstanding debts to surpass the existing budget by 10 times.
The heads of the public accounting office at the time, Manuel Becerra and David Turbay, did not launch any investigation and today are in jail - not for failing in their duty but rather for being involved in "illicit enrichment" through drug trafficking.
The nation lost the equivalent of $10 million in a deal cut between the Ministry of Transportation and a private company called Dragacol, according to charges by Senator Javier Caceres.
The list seems endless, and there are Colombians who believe that corruption could be the powder keg that ignites a major crisis in the country.
Francisco Cajiao, director of the Education Division of the Foundation for Education and Development, told IPS that in the face of such widespread corruption, "the people don't have reliable access channels to the management of public affairs."
"Neither the organs of state control like the attorney general and the public accounting office, or the private sector, like superintendents, offer guaranties. And the political parties barely even exist," he added.
According to the expert, generalized corruption, evidenced in dishonest or incompetent administrators, created a climate like that in Venezuela that brought Hugo Chavez to power.
Cajiao believes, however, that Colombia has no glimmer of an alternative right now.
There is no democratic opposition or strong, organized civil society, and the guerrilla insurgency is a military option that makes it hard to believe there can be any change in the situation, he said.
In the middle of that bleak prognosis, "the middle-class citizens -- the ones who pay taxes, since the rich are evaders -- are prey to the threat of losing their home or their kid's college tuition, through the corruption of people who have led the country with so much cynicism for decades," Cajiao added.
Colombia occupies seventh place on the list of corrupt countries, surpassed only be Cameroon, Paraguay, Honduras, Tanzania, Nigeria and Indonesia -- according to Transparency International (TI).
The state, in a country of 38 million people -- 80 percent in a situation of poverty -- loses the equivalent of three percent of its national budget to greedy officials and corrupt businessmen.
In the year 2000, this amount will equal some $23.5 million.
Impunity and corruption are as dangerous or worse than the irregular armed groups, warned the nation's attorney general, Alfonso Gomez.
Pablo Gonzalez, director of the Technical Judicial Investigative Body, affirmed that "the ineffectiveness of the state through administrative or political corruption has become a highly troubling factor in democratic stability."
The ex-minister of housing, Abdon Espinosa, affirmed that "petty crime, inspired in part by necessity (corruption), has climbed to unexpected heights" and the country has become used to and even celebrates these "illicit adventures."
In an attempt to stem the tide of scandal, at the start of the month, the Ministry of Communications drafted the first contract in Colombia to conform with the model proposed by a pact between firms and contractors to reject any extra unlawful payments.
But Cajiao thinks that, for now, these are small measures that will not affect what he calls "the state of encouraged, generalized corruption."
October 11, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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