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Odebrecht, High-rise corruption

The bribery scheme articulated by the Brazilian construction company, in exchange for juicy contracts, stretched beyond its borders and permeated in ten Latin American and Caribbean countries
José Meléndez, corresponsal
Bogotá, Colombia
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A sophisticated and crafted bribery scheme that goes by the surname of Odebrecht, articulated to win public works construction contracts of multimillionaire proportions, stretched beyond Brazilian borders and permeated powerful governmental, political and economic layers in ten Latin American and Caribbean countries. A scheme that bought its way into a prolonged and wide influence, decision and privilege status is now at center stage as one of the major unlawful enrichment scandals worldwide.
Washington has described the Odebrecht case as the "largest scandal" of foreign bribery in history, with an estimated initial amount of USD$788m of bribes paid in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Venezuela (plus Angola and Mozambique) as established by the U.S. Department of Justice on December 2016.

In an interview with EL UNIVERSAL, Miguel Antonio Bernal, a lawyer, professor at the Law School of Panama State University and leader of a civil movement against impunity, has described Odebrecht as a "mega criminal company" that has "acted with wilful intent, malice aforethought and impunity as a result of the cooperation and complicity that it has found at the highest levels of government in various Latin American and Caribbean countries for the last decades." Panama's peculiar financial and banking system enabled to lose track of Odebrecht's multiple transactions and to serve as a key arena with the most government officials serving in its operations, "They did and undid at there will in here.", Bernal noted.


On March 6, Hilberto Mascarenhas, former top manager at Odebrecht, confessed before the Brazilian Superior Electoral Court (TSE) that the company relied on a "bribery department" that distributed some USD$3,390m in its Brazilian businesses and nine Latin American and Caribbean countries between 2006 and 2014.

"There is a risk that the whole issue goes unpunished", warned José Miguel Vivanco, Chilean and director of Human Rights Watch for the Americas, an agency based in Washington that monitors Human Rights condition around the globe. "There is an umbilical cord that brings topics of human rights and corruption together. These are two sides of the same coin.", said Vivanco in an interview with EL UNIVERSAL.

He added that "A clear indicator of issues linked with power abuse and the decay of human rights in any country is the level of corruption that prevails. This happens in Venezuela, Mexico, Guatemala or the Dominican Republic, where government institutions are very weak and thus fail to prevent or severely sanction any acts of corruption. This is the contexts where corruption and power abuse flourish."

Vivanco noted that "a central condition for the protection of Human Rights is for countries to rely on mechanisms that prevent any type of power abuse", he said that similarly to cases of torture and attacks against freedom of speech, it is also possible to "pay off" governments and politicians for a business benefit, "It is very important that in the face of this abuse, democracies rely on independent judicial powers that identify people responsible for corruption. This rule applies to human rights violations and for corruption charges alike."


Odebrecht's case is at the core of Lava Jato, an immense political, financial and fiscal maneuver considered as one of the largest 
collaborations between public officials and private companies with money laundering purposes in Brazil.

Odebrecht also stretches to continental elections and has been mentioned in helping Latin American politicians to reach the presidential seat of their respective countries, like Danilo Medina in the Dominican Republic in 2012, the late Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela in 2013, Mauricio Funes in El Salvador in 2009 plus defeated candidate José Domingo García in Panama in 2014, as revealed by continuous investigations in Brazil earlier this month.

In Mexico, Odebrecht is accused of having bribed governmental institutions with over USD$10.5m in the administration of presidents Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto, respectively. Mexican Petroleums (PEMEX) has been also implicated in the case, while investigations are currently underway.

Other politicians names that surfaced in the chain of charges are the five former  presidents, Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006), Alán García (1985-1990) and Ollanta Humala (2011-2016) from Peru, as well as their Dominican counterpart, Hipólito Mejía (2000-2004) Panamanian Ricardo Martinelli (2009- 2014) and Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos. All of whom have denied the accusations made against them.

Last March 7, "a visibly upset" Santos, noted in a foreign press conference that "a rotten apple" could never stop progress in a clear reference to the alleged public works construction contracts the Colombian government had given Odebrecht.

Experts interviewed by EL UNIVERSAL offered some final reflections: Vivanco called for a "transparent treatment" in the judicial processes related to Odebrecht case, while Bernal noted that, with very few exceptions, "both bribers and bribees outwit justice."

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