Corruption and Misinformation in Colombia

COVID-19 Reports on Latin America and the Caribbean: No. 16

Colombia has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic in much the same way as the rest of Latin America. My review of literature and media coverage has uncovered traces of another kind of virus – rising fraud, scams, and opportunism of the pernicious variety. This brief report will focus on some of the reported fraudulent activities perpetrated by public officials and private entities and individuals. 

Early Response to the Virus; Short-lived success 

On March 21, 2020, the Colombian government reported the first Covid-19 related death. The first known befallen was a 58-year old man from the city of Cartagena. Since then there have been tens of thousands more. As of Nov. 30, 2020, the number of infections is 1,308,376 and fatalities is 36,584. As of Dec. 2, 2020, Colombia has the tenth highest number of cases of any country in the world with over 1.3 million and more than 35,000 deaths.

For a time, it was believed Colombia was setting a global example of successfully containing the virus. The national lockdown implemented by the government helped to keep infection numbers down through mid-July. A study in the International Journal of Diseases published in Oct 2020 examined the reasons why Colombia had fared better than its Latin American neighbors between the months of March – July. The lockdown may be credited for some of the success, but researchers wonder if the lack of proper surveillance in indigenous areas may have also artificially suppressed the reported infection and fatality numbers in Colombia. 

Given this initially lauded response, how effective has the Colombian government been in addressing the pandemic up until recently?  The reviews are mixed. In June 2020, the World Health Organization published a case study of the country’s coordinated response. The study overwhelmingly lauded the efforts of President Ivan Duque, the governors and mayors of major cities. They received high marks for addressing the many challenges including testing, surveillance, handling cultural diversity, and for the handling of Venezuelan migrants returning to their home country.

President Duque enjoyed high approval ratings as high as 52% in April, but that level of support has since dropped to 38% as recently as October. Like most world leaders, Duque appears overwhelmed in the handling of the pandemic. The president has underdelivered on promises to supply financial and medical relief. As reported in Columbia Reports, “only $110 million dollars, 9.3% of the $1.5 billion Duque promised to inject in healthcare, actually arrived.” The ineptitude and alleged abuses of power have led citizens to the streets in protests. Indigenous peoples took to the streets in protest once the lockdown orders were lifted to bring attention to disparities in the level of care given to their communities. On October 22, 2020, protesters filled a historic square in Colombia’s capital to demonstrate against the government’s handling of a wide range of issues including the economic fallout of the pandemic and implementation of the peace accord. 

Government corruption

In a May 21, 2020 press conference, the Colombian Prosecutor General Francisco Barbosa announced investigations and charges against several governors, mayors and other public officials for improprieties related to Covid-19 emergency funds. The charges include alleged embezzlement of government funds. The attorney general reviewed over 3,000 public contracts and carried out 189 investigations and 393 inspections. The press conference of May 21st was the largest announcement in terms of dollars and number of individuals accused. Sadly, that was not the only instance. The office of Attorney General has held two other press conferences related to government corruption related to abuses of emergency funds. Prosecutor General Francisco Barbosa told Congress his office has opened 1,204 criminal investigations and forwarded the cases of Agriculture Minister Rodolfo Zea and 11 of Colombia’s 32 governors to the Supreme Court. Inspector General Fernando Carrillo said he has opened almost 900 investigations against public officials in 19 governor’s offices and 117 mayor’s offices.

The Attorney General is not the only one to call out the corruption by public officials. Public sentiment is understandably very critical of the offenses. The public is suffering from sickness, economic disparity, and loss of life. An editorial piece published in El Tiempo on Nov. 19, 2020 speaks of the disillusionment of the masses. The writer argues, “Make no mistake about it: the evil corruption that is choking this country is more perverse than the virus. The coronavirus is already known to attack the body and kill it. But corruption, in addition to the body, also kills the soul and hopes, destroys dreams and illusions, destroys the moral principles of society, destroys health, budgets, education and food, family and friends.” 

Misinformation and Scams

Misinformation and fake news is another threat that is damaging to the country’s recovery. The Colombian government maintains a web page alerting citizens of misinformation. Scams range from offers of free augmented internet bandwidth to promises of miracle cures. Religious leaders in Latin America also are contributing to harmful spread of misinformation. Pastors Miguel and Maria Paula Arrazola of Iglesia Rios De Vida in Cartagena, live broadcasted to their Instagram channel allegations that the Coronavirus vaccine is a vessel for installing a Bill Gates designed microchip called ID2020, which will usher in the era of the antichrist.

In August, Colombian officials arrested U.S. nationals in the beach town of Santa Marta where they had set up shop to manufacture and sell their toxic chlorine-dioxide based miracle cure. One of the men arrested, Mark Grenan is the archbishop of the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing, based in Bradenton, Florida. The men were wanted in the United States where at least seven have died from consuming the elixir. The group was selling the product in Colombia and shipping sales to Africa and the United States. 

Counterfeit merchandise for covid-19 treatments from China were seized by officials in Cartagena in September. The seized products were counterfeits of multinational brands with a street value of more than 250 million pesos. 

By Ramon Barajas

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