Colombia’s next defense minister faces ‘one hell of a fight’ | Political news

Bogotá – Colombia – Ivan Velasquez first made a name for himself as a prosecutor in Medellin in the 1990s, when he allegedly refused to accept a briefcase of cash from Pablo Escobar to drop investigations into the luxury life of the drug lord in prison.

He made a name for himself by investigating the links between Colombian paramilitary forces, politicians and business at the height of the civil war. His work eventually led to the conviction of more than 60 politicians, including the former president’s cousin Alvaro Uribe. And he’s no stranger to personal risk: In a landmark investigation into financial ties between Antioquia’s business community and paramilitary groups, 14 investigators from his office were murdered.

On August 7, Velasquez will become defense minister in the administration of President-elect Gustavo Petro. He will take office amid a host of security challenges: rising violence in rural areas with little or no state presence, record coca production, and criminal armed groups that have risen to power since the country’s historic peace agreement in 2016 with the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. of Colombia (FARC).

Petro, who will become the first left-wing president in Colombia’s modern history, pledged during the election campaign to thoroughly reform the police and military forces. His appointment of Velasquez, who also worked as a senior United Nations official with the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, sends a powerful message that he intends to follow.

The appointment has drawn heavy criticism from Petro’s critics, who view his past as a rebel fighter with deep suspicion. Velasquez “took a tough stance against those of us in the military,” Raul Musse Pencue, a retired career soldier, told Al Jazeera. “We fear it will trigger widespread persecution of military personnel who have been investigated in connection with their daily duties as soldiers in the service of their country.”

An activist in Guatemala City holding a sign that reads in Spanish “Thank you CICIG” – the Spanish acronym for the International Commission against Impunity [File: Moises Castillo/AP]

Right-wing Senator Paloma Valencia went further, telling local media that the nomination “shows a complete lack of democratic guarantees… [and] puts all our lives in danger”.

But people who worked closely with Velasquez in Colombia and Guatemala paint a very different picture: that of a soft-spoken, apolitical anti-corruption crusader who always maintains a cool head, even in times of extreme personal danger. .

“He has no political motivation,” Gregorio Oviedo, a prosecutor who worked alongside Velasquez in Medellin, told Al Jazeera. “All his career, he campaigned for human rights. He knows how to lead. He knows how to investigate and, more importantly, he knows what it’s like to live and work in parts of the country that most politicians have only heard of in Bogota.

Stephen McFarland, the former American ambassador to Guatemala, also welcomed the appointment: “Uribe accused him of having a political agenda. Since I have known him, his sole objective has been to build a transparent and independent judicial system.

“Powerful message”

Velasquez’s work made him many enemies. His office in Medellin was illegally bugged by Colombian intelligence and his security team infiltrated. His personal bodyguard at the time was a spy for the country’s Administrative Security Department, which was disbanded in 2011 after a series of cases of illegal surveillance of journalists, human rights activists, politicians and judges have been made public.

He reportedly escaped a kidnapping attempt in Guatemala when government officials allegedly tried to extrajudicially deport him, and he faced countless death threats against himself and his family in both countries.

Velasquez’s anti-corruption work in Guatemala led to successful convictions against former president Otto Perez Molina, his former vice president, seven ministers, and dozens of politicians and businessmen. Velasquez was declared persona non grata by then-President Jimmy Morales in 2017 and exiled from the country.

“He’s arrested high profile businessmen for financial crimes – people from the wealthiest families in Guatemala,” McFarland told Al Jazeera. “People who before Velasquez came along thought they were untouchable.”

Petro
Colombian President-elect Gustavo Petro recently addressed students at Externado University in Bogota, Colombia. [Fernando Vergara/AP]

Petro, who frequently spoke out against corruption while campaigning, “sends a strong message that the days of impunity, when the government could turn a blind eye to the excesses of public forces, are over,” Oviedo said. . “Civil law will be respected.”

Abuses by police and military forces have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, as official investigations have uncovered disturbing details of rights abuses, including the “forgery” scandal. positives” in which more than 6,400 civilians were killed by security forces, who falsely claimed the victims. were enemy combatants.

Velasquez expressed support for Petro’s plan to bring the police, which currently falls under military command under the Department of Defense, under civilian control. The reform was recommended by the UN last year after an investigation into police brutality during nationwide protests, where dozens of people were killed in a crackdown by security forces.

Petro also promised to reimplement aspects of the 2016 peace accord that were delayed or dismantled by the outgoing administration of Ivan Duque. As part of his efforts to implement “total peace”, Petro offered to negotiate further disarmament talks with rebels who were not part of the FARC peace accord. But that plan also involves dialogue with groups such as the Gulf Clan, which has become increasingly aggressive, forcibly shutting down large parts of the country and killing dozens of police officers.

Will they be willing to negotiate with a former guerrilla president and prosecutor who has been targeting them for decades? Oviedo isn’t sure, but he notes that Velasquez “has the determination, the ability and the experience to take the first steps towards real justice in Colombia. But he left for a hell of a fight.

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