As explosive testimonies from the Odebrecht corruption case continue to reveal the conglomerate's bribery schemes in Brazil and beyond, former company head Marcelo Odebrecht admitted that the construction giant had also paid illegal armed groups across Latin America to prevent kidnappings and secure the release of hostages in the 1990s.
“We had problems at the beginning of the 90s. So the current modus operandi was created,” said Odebrecht in a video released by Brazilian media outlet Globo.
“You don’t get to act in a country where there’s a guerrilla group or in the favelas of Rio (de Janeiro) without paying those militias … So a lot of money circulated. You even pay kidnappings, there are people who paid kidnappings in Colombia, kidnappings in Peru,” Odebrecht continued.
Brazilian media has previously reported that Odebrecht was paying a so-called “guerilla tax” in Colombia to prevent its workers from being kidnapped and its facilities being attacked during the 1990s.
According to Brazilian magazine Veja, Odebrecht paid US$50 to US$100 million to armed groups in Colombia. The payments were registered as “territorial contributions” while the construction giant operated in a number of Colombian provinces including Cesar, Magdalena and Casanare. The company denied the allegations, saying in a statement that Veja's report was "speculation."
In his testimony, Odebrecht did not specify which armed groups were paid. However, the disbanding Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the country's second-biggest and still active rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, have had control over areas in which Odebrecht was known to operate.
Corruption in Brazil
A number of Odebrecht employees in Colombia were kidnapped over the years amid the country's armed conflict between guerrilla forces and the government, including engineer Gobis Denubio Acevedo, who was kidnapped by the ELN in 1997.
Odebrecht has denied having any relationship with Colombian guerrillas and the FARC remains tight-lipped. Former FARC commanders Jesus Santrich and Felix Antonio Muñoz, commonly known as Pastor Alape, said that the guerrilla group could not make “any statement in favor or against Odebrecht.”
The new revelations have reignited the debate of third-party liability in Colombia’s more than 50-year civil war, as the FARC continues to carry out its demobilization and prepares to appear — along with members of the military — before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace for crimes committed during the conflict.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace functions a the post-conflict transitional justice system, with jurisdiction over all crimes committed during the FARC’s half-century-long battle with the government with a focus on prioritizing truth over criminal prosecutions.
However, the issue of how the Special Jurisdiction for Peace will deal with third parties has been part of a continuing debate in the peace process. Many businesses, landowners, politicians and civilians were defined as parties to the conflict and helped to fund and support the conflict, ultimately leading to a number of crimes.
The scenario becomes further complicated in cases of kidnapping and extortions, where third parties were forced to pay up to armed groups.
Other corporations have already been caught up in the scandal of funding the war. Through the transitional justice system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace can investigate the role of third parties in financing and otherwise backing abuses — which puts multinational companies including Del Monte, Dole Food Company and Chiquita on the hook for knowingly financing right-wing paramilitary death squads.
Marcelo Odebrecht, former president and CEO of Brazil's largest construction conglomerate, is one of more than 70 executives that have so far testified as part of a plea bargain deal in the country’s wide-reaching Operation Car Wash investigations. The first phase of the Car Wash investigations started in March 2014, targeting figures linked to corruption schemes in Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras.
Faced with the prospect of lighter sentences, the latest part of the investigation has seen a number of Odebrecht figures give testimonies about how the company’s fraud schemes operated, which have already implicated dozens of politicians across Brazil and Latin America.
The Supreme Federal Court of Brazil has ordered the criminal investigations of over 100 politicians. The list includes eight ministers appointed by President Michel Temer — nearly one-third of the president's Cabinet, who came to power in what has been described as a parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff. Temer has been banned for running for office for eight years over electoral fraud charges.
Odebrecht also has deep roots in Colombian politics. In January, Gabriel Garcia Morales, former Colombian transportation vice minister under former far-right President Alvaro Uribe accepted charges over links to the corruption scandal and was detained.
According to the attorney general's office, Odebrecht made a US$6.5 million payment to Garcia Morales in order to win the concession of a large highway project in Colombia.
Odebrecht is also believed to have contributed to the 2014 election campaigns of current President Juan Manuel Santos and his opponent Oscar Ivan Zuluaga.