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The Colombian attorney general's office is investigating 60 police officers, including top counternarcotics commanders, regarding the disappearance of more than US$2 million in US funds earmarked for the war on drugs, government officials said on June 11. The money apparently ended up in officers' pockets.

The widening scandal could shake US lawmakers' confidence in Colombia's security forces, just as the administration of President George W. Bush is asking for more than US$500 million in additional aid. It could also embarrass president-elect Alvaro Uribe as he visits Washington to lobby Congress to broaden authorized uses of US military aid to include the fight against the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.

Washington has already sunk US$1.5 billion into the Plan Colombia anti-drug offensive, but the money has yet to produce any impact on cocaine output or prices in US cities. Many US lawmakers are questioning what they see as throwing good money after bad.

High-level officers implicated in scandal

Attorney General Edgardo Maya announced on June 11 that he was opening a formal "disciplinary investigation" against 60 members of the anti-narcotics police (Unidad de Policia Antinarcoticos) to assess responsibility for the disappearance of resources donated by Washington for the drug war.

The attorney general's office, responsible for investigating wrongdoing by government officials, said the police were suspected of "presumed irregularities in the handling and spending of money handed over by the US government."

The alleged irregularities included double-billing, the purchases of unauthorized goods and services, and a lack of coordination, supervision, vigilance, follow-through, and control in the management, planning, and execution of money for operational expenses given to the agency through the anti-drug section of the US Embassy.

The list of police officers under disciplinary investigation includes Gen. Gustavo Socha Salamanca, asked by President Andres Pastrana last month to resign as head of the anti-narcotics police unit; Col. Yadira Angelica Rivera, in charge of international relations; Col. Carlos Julio Rivera, chief of police aviation; Col. Climaco Antonio Torres, chief of drug interdiction; Col. Edgar Guillermo Bejarano Chavez, private secretary to the head of the Policia Nacional; and Maj. Henry Rey Castaneda, coordinator of security for the office of the presidency. Also under investigation is Lt. Col. Henry Tibaduiza Nino, head of the Plan Colombia office with the Policia Antinarcoticos and in charge of the eradication of illicit crops.

Besides being investigated for the "unauthorized use of the name of the director of the Policia Nacional, Gen. Luis Ernesto Gilibert," Bejarano is accused of having links to the FARC.

Scandal began in March

The scandal first broke in May, when US Embassy officials in Bogota said they had suspended some US aid following evidence that monies had been "diverted."

"About two months ago, we discovered a diversion of US government funds from an account used by the Colombian anti-narcotics police to cover administrative expenses," a US Embassy official said on May 10.

The embassy said it had suspended part of the US aid in March when it discovered the problem in the account that covered expenses of the police whose job is to eradicate illegal crops and destroy drug laboratories.

The account manages about US$4 million a year, and about US$2 million had disappeared. While the account received only a small part of the hundreds of millions of dollars in incoming US aid, the scandal has already cost more than a dozen officers their posts.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington that the US had only frozen the aid that would normally enter this account. "This funding is a very, very small part of our overall assistance to Colombia and has not directly affected our counternarcotics programs, including the aerial-eradication program," he said.

When the scandal became known, Socha was transferred from his post to another job. On May 21, he submitted his resignation from active duty, reportedly at the request of Pastrana. Socha insisted that his resignation was not an admission of guilt. "The sacrifice of my police career does not constitute in any way an acceptance of any responsibility for accusations," he said.

Scandal strains relations between embassy and police

The scandal has reportedly made for tense relations between Colombian drug-fighting forces and the US Embassy. The embassy said, however, that US officials remain confident in the police.

"This type of incident can happen in any organization," the embassy said in a statement, adding that it expected the suspended aid would be resumed once the investigation of officers who were involved is completed.

On June 12, Gilibert said the police were prepared to collaborate with the attorney general in the investigation of the disappearance of the Plan Colombia funds. "We were waiting for the decision of the attorney general and now the future of each of those who have been implicated depends on the results of that investigation," said Gilibert.

Colombia's police force was hit by a fresh scandal on June 17 when the head of Pastrana's bodyguards resigned to defend himself against corruption allegations.

In his resignation letter, Lt. Col. Royne Chavez said he could not continue in the job following media stories questioning how he is paying for a construction project in downtown Bogota. He added that he had asked the attorney general to investigate him following the report in news magazine Cambio alleging that he is paying millions of dollars for the construction of the building despite a relatively modest salary. [Sources: BBC News, 05/09/02, 05/10/02; The Miami Herald, 05/10/02; Associated Press, 05/10/02, 05/22/02, 06/11/02; Notimex, 05/09/02, 06/12/02; El Nuevo Herald (Miami), 06/13/02; The Financial Times (London), 05/13/02, 06/15/02; Reuters, 05/10/02, 06/11/02, 06/15/02, 06/17/02; Inter Press Service, 06/17/02; Spanish news service EFE, 05/10/02, 05/21/02, 06/11/02, 06/16/02, 06/18/02]
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Article Details
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Publication:NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:3COLO
Date:Jun 21, 2002

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