BOGOTA, Colombia – Colombia’s military grappled Monday with its second big scandal in less than a month after an investigation into extrajudicial killings exposed high-level corruption and raised questions over its top commander’s commitment to human rights.
The deputy joint chief, Gen. Javier Rey, resigned Monday after the country’s leading newsmagazine, Semana, reported on what it called widespread kickbacks in multimillion-dollar military contracts.
But perhaps most damaging was its publication online of an audio recording in which Gen. Leonardo Barrero, the armed forces chief, is heard verbally maligning prosecutors’ investigations into the extrajudicial killings that have brought Colombia international reproach.
Soldiers were implicated in hundreds of such killings through 2008 _ dubbed “false positives,” in which innocents were slain and presented as guerrillas who fell in combat.
The No. 2 official in Colombia’s prosecutor’s office, Jorge Perdomo, told reporters Monday that Semana’s story was based on recordings made as part of a false positives case that grew into the wider corruption investigation.
He said, without entering into details, that his office would decide “when it is appropriate to call in for questioning or interrogation the persons” mentioned in the recordings. Semana said multiple officers in different units had inflated costs and pocketed as much as 50 per cent of contracts’ values.
Semana offered just a few examples from the hundreds of hours of audio recordings made in 2012-13 that it said it obtained. A few items highlighted were harnesses and Kevlar gloves for an Army air assault unit.
The report did not accuse Ray, the former head of army aviation, of any specific wrongdoing. He said he was quitting to defend his honour. In one recording Semana published, the colonel it identifies as the corruption network’s co-ordinator discusses a helicopter part that Rey wanted.
In the most explosive recording, Barrero is heard telling the colonel, Robinson Gonzalez del Rio, that prosecutors’ probes into false positives are “a bunch of crap.” Barrero suggests that Gonzalez, who is in a military lockup facing criminal charges over the 2007 “false positives” killing of two men, mount a counterattack to discredit prosecutors.
Barrero said Sunday that he regretted making the remarks.
President Juan Manuel Santos said the allegations made in the Semana report were serious and would be investigated.
Barrero was not relieved of his command.
In one audio recording that raised eyebrows, Gonzalez is heard explaining to another man how he took a three-week family vacation in December 2012 when he was supposed to be confined to a military prison. Semana said the army paid for his gasoline.
A separate investigation by Semana earlier this month alleged that a military spy ring had eavesdropped for 15 months on emails and text messages of government negotiators involved in peace talks with leftist rebels.
Critics said the spying could undermine rebel confidence in the peace process.
Leftist congressman Ivan Cepeda said Monday that the two scandals highlight a complete lack of control over the military by Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon, whom he called on to resign.
Illegal eavesdropping has been common in Colombia in recent years, and a previous scandal over spying on journalists, judges and politicians led to the dismantling three years ago of the DAS domestic intelligence agency.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.