Colombia's 'zero tolerance' for corruption spurs major Army shakeup

The top chief of the armed forces was ousted this week. President Santos's no nonsense response could work in his favor come presidential elections in May.

Fernando Vergara / AP
In this photo taken five days before his dismissal, Colombia's armed forces chief Gen. Leonardo Barrero (center) attends a military ceremony alongside President Juan Manuel Santos (right) on Feb. 13 in Bogota. Barrero and four other generals were fired on Feb. 18 as part of President Santos's anti-corruption crackdown.

Colombia’s top chief of the armed forces and four other generals were ousted this week amid a swirl of scandals surrounding alleged spying and corruption. The move is an aggressive step by President Juan Manuel Santos, whose public show of zero tolerance for corruption could give him a popularity boost ahead of this year's elections, while helping to align top military brass with his peace goals. 

Armed forces commander Gen. Leonardo Barrero was fired Tuesday following the publication of a recorded phone call where he is heard making disparaging remarks about prosecutors investigating extrajudicial killings by the military. In the call, he tells a colonel jailed for such killings that he and others should "form a mafia" against the prosecutors investigating the more than 2,200 cases.

"I consider opportune and necessary to make a change in the military leadership," President Santos said in announcing Gen. Barrero's dismissal. "The general commander of the armed forces ... leaves because of disrespectful and disobliging expressions," Santos said.

The recording was published online by Semana magazine alongside others which indicate that senior military officers were running a lucrative kickback scheme on military contracts. Four other generals were fired for not taking steps to detect or stop the corruption.

The revelations of corruption came just two weeks after the same magazine reported the military may have spied on negotiators at peace talks between the government and the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana. The Army's top two intelligence chiefs were suspended pending investigations, although they denied doing anything illicit activities during a preliminary internal inquiry.

The scandals and subsequent upheaval have cast a pall on the country's military, but they may provide a positive boost for Santos. He has made the peace negotiations a pillar of his government's agenda, and coming off as tough on corruption may help his bid for a second term in May elections.   

"With this crisis, the president hopes to have joint chiefs of staff more aligned with the peace strategy and to get rid of elements in the military that may be uncomfortable with negotiations," says Camilo González Posso, a political analyst and director of Indepaz, a peace and development think tank.

Some members of the armed forces have expressed displeasure about the government-FARC negations from the start. The FARC has been the military’s main enemy for the nearly fifty years, and retired Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora was named to the government’s negotiating team to help put the armed forces at ease over the talks. Critics say many in the ranks are demoralized by the negotiations and believe that the FARC could – and should – be defeated militarily.

Gen. Juan Pablo Rodriguez, who replaced Barrero, led some of the most important operations against the FARC in recent years, including the raid in which senior FARC leader Alfonso Cano was killed in 2010. But he has publicly supported the peace process. "What soldiers have accomplished is what has brought us close to peace," Gen. Rodriguez said earlier this month.

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