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

Bogota, Colombia – Ivan Velasquez first established himself as a prosecutor in Medellin in the 1990s, when he allegedly refused to accept a briefcase containing money from Pablo Escobar quit the investigation drug lord luxurious life in prison.

He became known for investigating the relationships between Colombian paramilitary forces, politicians and the business community at the height of the civil war. His work eventually led to the convictions of more than 60 politicians, including former President Alvaro Uribe’s cousin. And he’s no stranger to personal risk: In a landmark investigation into the financial ties between the Antioquia business community and paramilitary groups, 14 investigators in his office I was murdered.

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

Petro, who will become the first leftist president in Colombia’s modern history, has vowed to dramatically reform the police force and military. His appointment to Velasquez, who also served as the top United Nations official in International Commission Against Punishment in Guatemalasends a powerful message that he intends to follow.

The appointment sparked harsh criticism from critics of the Petro, who see his past as a rebel warrior with deep suspicion. Velasquez “had strong views against people in our army,” Raul Musse Pencue, a retired soldier, told Al Jazeera. “We fear he will unleash a widespread crackdown on servicemen who have undergone investigations in connection with their day-to-day duties as soldiers serving their country. .”

An activist in Guatemala City holds a sign in Spanish that says ‘Thank you CICIG’ – the Spanish acronym for the International Commission Against Punishment [File: Moises Castillo/AP]

Right-wing senator Paloma Valencia went even further, telling local media that the appointment “shows the complete absence of democratic guarantees… [and] put all of our lives in jeopardy”.

But those who worked closely with Velasquez in both Colombia and Guatemala paint a very different picture: one of those soft-spoken and apolitical anti-corruption fighters who keeps a cool head, even even in times of extreme personal danger.

“He was not politically motivated,” Gregorio Oviedo, a prosecutor who worked with Velasquez in Medellin, told Al Jazeera. “His entire career, he campaigned for human rights. He knows how to lead. He knows how to investigate, and most importantly, he knows what it’s like to live and work in parts of the country that most politicians only read from Bogota.”

Stephen McFarland, a former US ambassador to Guatemala, also welcomed the appointment: “Uribe has accused him of having a political agenda. As long as I have known him, his only agenda is to build a transparent and independent justice system.”

‘Strong message’

Velasquez’s deeds made him many enemies. His office in Medellin was illegally wiretapped by Colombian intelligence and his security team infiltrated. His personal bodyguard at the time was a spy for the country’s Bureau of Administrative Security, which was dissolved in 2011 after a series of cases of illegal surveillance of journalists and employees. human rights, politicians and judges are public.

He is said to have evaded a kidnapping plot in Guatemala when government officials are said to have illegally tried to deport him, and he has been subjected to numerous death threats. killed both himself and his family in both countries.

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

McFarland told Al Jazeera: “He arrested high-profile businessmen for financial crimes – people from the wealthiest families in Guatemala. “People before Velasquez arrived thought they were untouchable.”

Colombian President-elect Gustavo Petro recently spoke to students at the University of Externado in Bogota, Colombia [Fernando Vergara/AP]

Petro, who regularly denounced corruption while campaigning, “is sending a strong message that in the days of punishment, when the government can turn a blind eye to the excesses of the public force, is over,” said Oviedo. “Civil law will be respected.”

Abuses by police and military forces have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, investigate revealed disturbing details of rights violations, including a “false positive” scandal, in which more 6,400 civilians killed by security forceswho falsely claimed that the victims were enemy soldiers.

Velasquez has expressed support for Petro’s plan to place the police, who currently report to the military command as part of the Ministry of Defense, under civilian control. The reform was recommended by the United Nations last year following an investigation into police violence during national protests, where Dozens of people were killed in a crackdown by security forces.

Petro has also promised to re-implement aspects of the 2016 peace agreement that were delayed or torn down by the outgoing Ivan Duque administration. As part of efforts to realize “comprehensive peace”, Petro proposed negotiate new disarmament talks with rebels non-participants of the FARC peace agreement. But the plan also requires dialogue with groups like Gulf Familybecame increasingly aggressive, forcibly closing large areas of the country and killing dozens of policemen.

Are they willing to negotiate with a former guerrilla president and a prosecutor who has targeted them for decades? Oviedo is unsure, but he notes that Velasquez “has the determination, the ability and the experience to take the first steps towards true justice in Colombia. But he’s in a hell of a battle. “

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