Opinion: The great debaters

By Sergio Guzman November 27, 2018

The debate proposed by Senators Angelica Lozano, Gustavo Petro and Jorge Enrique Robledo to discuss the corruption scandals that involve some of the most powerful businessmen, politicians, and attorneys of the country will be one for the ages. This story involves intrigue, money, death and power. It is almost certain it will have profound ripples though our society. It is also almost certain that nobody will go to prison. This may look like another Odebrecht story, but it isn’t.

This is a story about authorities and their inability to prosecute a slam dunk case when it hits them right in the face. It is a story of how the upper echelon of Colombian society is intent on wishing away the Odebrecht case and going about the business of running the country. It is a story of two senators who – whether you like it or not – have been frustrating the political establishment through their thorough and careful research.  

Simply put, this scandal involves the top brass of Colombian politics. The non-exhaustive cast of characters includes: Attorney General Nestor Humberto Martinez – who was the legal counsel for Grupo Aval the Colombian business conglomerate that partnered with Odebrecht in the Ruta del Sol highway project; Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo – Colombia’s wealthiest man who owns Grupo Aval; Juan Manuel Santos – Former president of Colombia who has been accused of receiving campaign funds from Odebrecht; Oscar Iván Zuluaga – former presidential contender who has also been accused of receiving campaign funds from Odebrecht; Jorge Enrique Pizano – former comptroller for CorfiColombiana who denounced corruptions and died under mysterious circumstances on  November 8; and Alejandro Pizano – the son of Jorge Enrique who died after drinking a bottle of water left on his father’s desk that contained cyanide.

By now it should be clear that the Brazilian conglomerate’s deep pockets and corrupt dealings have made their mark on Latin American politics for years to come. The extent of their involvement in politics and business throughout the region has brought down influential politicians and public administrators in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Panama, among others. The debate by Lozano, Petro and Robledo on 27 November will most likely continue scandalizing the country. However, as some of the story’s protagonists are directly involved in the investigations, it becomes unlikely those responsible for corruption will ever rue the day they colluded to win government contracts.


It was the untimely death on November 11 of Alejandro Pizano, 31, an architect and soon-to-be father who was visiting Colombia for his father’s  funeral, that shocked and saddened the nation. In events more akin to a Shakespearean tragedy, the son died after drinking from a bottle containing cyanide that was intended for the father.

The two deaths need to be investigated thoroughly and quickly as the current circumstances leave the country confused and angry, particularly as the chief investigator Nestor Humberto Martinez, has also been implicated in the scandal – something that raises suspicion and gives conspiracy theorists a run for their money.

 All of the individuals involved in the scandal stand to lose their political standing, economic livelihoods – not least their freedom – should the investigations reveal that there was foul play in the death of the Pizano, that the individuals involved were well aware and complicit in collusion to award Odebrecht and its partners government contracts. None of the individuals, however, will have to pay the hefty price the Pizano family has endured.


The debate will likely focus on three main topics:

1) How much powerful individuals connected to the Grupo Aval knew of the alleged bribes to politicians?

2) How much do we actually know of the payments from Odebrecht and its partners to local politicians?

3) What are the conflicts of interest in the investigation?

According to the cooperation agreement between Odebrecht and the authorities of three countries including the US Department of Justice, the Brazilian company admitted to paying USD 11m in bribes to Colombian politicians. Former Vice Minister Gabriel García Morales, Former Senator Otto Bula and Former Senator Bernardo Miguel “Ñoño” Elías admitted to receiving bribes from Odebrecht. However, it is suspected that they were far from the top recipients of “financial aid” from the company. Former head of McKinsey Consulting and Director of the National Infrastructure Agency Luis Fernando Andrade (a US citizen) has also been suspected of receiving bribes and is currently under house arrest pending investigations. However, considering that in other countries Odebrecht’s executive engagement reached all the way to the presidential and ministerial levels, it is suspicious that the buck stopped with influential senators and high-level bureaucrats. This is something that the debaters are expected to address, and which will likely make a lot of powerful people nervous.

Odebrecht has intended to be magnanimous regarding the investigations and agreed to cooperate with authorities. Furthermore, it has offered to indemnify the state with more than COP 106bn (USD 30m) with the agreement that the government stop investigating its executives (shocking, I know). This offer is completely hypocritical when contrasted with Odebrecht’s ongoing litigation abroad against Colombia amounting to COP 3.8tn (USD 1.1bn) where the company argues it was illegally expropriated.

Under investigation at the debate will not only be the blatant slap in the face the Brazilian conglomerate is giving Colombia, but also the true dollar figure behind their corrupt dealings. Public Prosecutor Fernando Carrillo has said that according to his agency’s findings the true figure of Odebrecht’s bribes is closer to USD 50m, which means that the company not only lied to Colombian authorities, but also the US Department of Justice.

Finally, there is an evident conflict of interest from the Attorney General in the investigation (which he has recused himself from), and has led many to call for an ad hoc prosecutor – a figure similar to Special Counsel, which does not exist in Colombian law. It just so happens that Nestor Humberto Martinez is one of the country’s top corporate lawyers and former Chief of Staff to President Juan Manuel Santos. He was also formerly legal counsel to Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo, Colombia’s richest man and owner of the Grupo Aval – the country’s largest financial and business conglomerate which includes media organizations, hotels, banks, infrastructure, oil & gas, and mining companies. The whistleblower who had alerted authorities to possible knowledge of high-level executives and even the attorney general – then legal counsel – was none other than the defunct Jorge Enrique Pizano. The debate will pressure for more knowledge about the organization’s business dealings with Odebrecht and the involvement of key individuals in the actions.

 Don’t worry nothing will happen (at least in Colombia).

This intricate web of corruption, lies and death has the entire country concerned. Ninety eight percent of the country is concerned that we are indeed among the most corrupt countries on earth and two percent – seemingly – wants to brush it all under a rug.

The salvo of this all, is that many of the crimes allegedly committed in collusion by Odebrecht and Colombian public servants was routed through US financial Institutions, which means that US authorities can claim jurisdiction over some of these crimes.

The debate led by Lozano, Petro and Robledo is likely to be a source of indignation and anger, but it is not likely to lead to any convictions or prosecutorial actions in Colombia. What is really concerning is not only that the Attorney General or people under his authorities are in charge of leading the investigation, but that there seems to be little political will to see the investigation through.

As they say in Colombia, “hurt it to who hurt it”.  

Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on twitter @serguzes and @ColombiaRisk

This opinion column is intended as a space to discuss some of the most pressing issues faced by Colombia and the region in these uncertain times. All opinions and content are solely the opinion of the author and do not represent the viewpoints of The Bogotá Post.

*El Mohán is a Colombian mythological figure. He is described as a hairy humanoid figure associated with natural forces such as great rivers and the mysteries lying within the forests. It is said, El Mohán was a shaman who had an anticipated vision of the arrival of the Spanish conquerors and the terrors they brought along.