Protesting Colombians call for chief prosecutor to resign

January 16, 2019

January, 11 2019 (Ottawa Citizen)

BOGOTA — Thousands of Colombians staged protests in several cities Friday to demand the resignation of the country’s chief prosecutor.

Nestor Humberto Martinez is a key U.S. ally in the war on drugs, but his critics at home say he has withheld information that links Colombian politicians and business groups with Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, which is at the centre of a mammoth regional corruption scandal involving bribes to win government contracts.

As the sun set on Colombia’s capital, protesters gathered outside Martinez’s heavily guarded office carrying flashlights to “shine a light” on what they called the country’s corrupt institutions. They also carried Odebrecht signs and held posters claiming Martinez was a stooge of the company.

“We want Colombia to be a decent country, and having someone like Martinez as our chief prosecutor is simply unethical,” said Diego Carrero, a university professor at the protest.

Protesters said they were encouraged by recent developments in Peru, where Attorney General Pedro Chavarry was forced to resign amid allegations that he tried to obstruct an Odebrecht investigation in that nation.

Opposition parties in Colombia have long claimed that Martinez is riddled with conflicts of interest that make him unsuitable for his job.

Before becoming Colombia’s chief prosecutor in 2016, he was legal counsel for the Aval Group, a New York Stock Exchange-listed banking conglomerate that partnered with Odebrecht to develop a $2 billion highway project in central Colombia whose financing is currently under investigation.

Martinez’s reputation nosedived in November when a local news channel aired a recording of a phone call in which Martinez can be heard berating an internal auditor who had suggested Odebrecht was bribing politicians to secure the lucrative highway contract. Martinez screams profanities at the auditor and tells him not to discuss his findings with anyone else.

The recording dates from 2015, when Martinez was a lawyer for Aval. But it wasn’t released until after the auditor, Jorge Enrique Pizano, was found dead in his home. Pizano’s son died a few days later after drinking a glass of water laced with cyanide that he found on his father’s desk, sparking a series of conspiracy theories. Martinez has said he had nothing to do with Pizano’s death.

After he became chief prosecutor, Martinez formally recused himself from the Oderbrecht investigation. His office has charged a deputy minister and a former senator with taking bribes and issued arrest orders for several middlemen. Martinez also has accused Odebrecht of paying almost $50 million in bribes in Colombia, or more than four times what the company acknowledged in a 2016 plea bargain with U.S authorities admitting to paying $788 million in bribes to win contracts in 12 nations.

Martinez’s reputation also was hurt last year when his top anti-corruption prosecutor was arrested on a U.S. warrant alleging he extorted bribes from politicians in exchange for soft-pedaling investigations against them.