Colombia’s next defence minister faces ‘a hell of a fight’ | Politics News

Bogota, Colombia – Ivan Velasquez first made a reputation for himself as a prosecutor in Medellin within the Nineteen Nineties, when he reportedly refused to simply accept a briefcase of cash from Pablo Escobar to drop investigations into the drug lord’s lifetime of luxurious in jail.

He gained prominence by investigating the ties between Colombian paramilitary forces, politicians and the enterprise group on the peak of the civil struggle. His work finally led to the conviction of greater than 60 politicians, together with the cousin of former President Alvaro Uribe. And he’s no stranger to non-public danger: Throughout a landmark probe into monetary ties between the enterprise group in Antioquia and paramilitary teams, 14 investigators in his workplace had been murdered.

On August 7, Velasquez will turn into defence minister within the administration of President-elect Gustavo Petro. He’ll take workplace amid a bunch of safety challenges: rising violence in rural areas with little or no state presence, report coca manufacturing, and felony armed teams who’ve grown in energy because the nation’s historic 2016 peace accord with rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Petro, who will turn into the primary leftist president in Colombia’s trendy historical past, vowed on the marketing campaign path to considerably reform police and navy forces. His appointment of Velasquez, who additionally labored as the highest United Nations official on the Worldwide Fee towards Impunity in Guatemala, sends a robust message that he intends to observe via.

The appointment has sparked harsh criticism from Petro’s critics, who view his previous as a insurgent fighter with deep suspicion. Velasquez “has taken a powerful place towards these of us within the navy”, Raul Musse Pencue, a retired profession soldier, instructed Al Jazeera. “We concern he’ll usher in a widespread persecution of navy personnel who’ve undergone investigations associated to their on a regular basis duties as troopers in service to their nation.”

CICIG
An activist in Guatemala Metropolis holding an indication that reads in Spanish ‘Thanks CICIG’ – the Spanish acronym for the Worldwide Fee In opposition to Impunity [File: Moises Castillo/AP]

Proper-wing Senator Paloma Valencia went additional, telling native media that the appointment “reveals a whole absence of democratic ensures … [and] places all of our lives at risk”.

However individuals who have labored intently with Velasquez in each Colombia and Guatemala paint a really totally different image: one among a soft-spoken and apolitical anti-corruption crusader who at all times retains a cool head, even throughout instances of utmost private hazard.

“He isn’t politically motivated,” Gregorio Oviedo, a prosecutor who labored alongside Velasquez in Medellin, instructed Al Jazeera. “His whole profession, he has advocated for human rights. He is aware of the right way to lead. He is aware of the right way to examine, and most significantly, he is aware of what it’s to dwell and work in areas of the nation most politicians solely examine from Bogota.”

Stephen McFarland, the previous US ambassador to Guatemala, additionally welcomed the appointment: “Uribe has accused him of getting a political agenda. So long as I’ve identified him, his solely agenda has been to construct a clear and impartial justice system.”

‘Highly effective message’

Velasquez’s work has made him many enemies. His workplace in Medellin was illegally bugged by Colombian intelligence and his safety workforce infiltrated. His private bodyguard on the time was a spy for the nation’s Administrative Division of Safety, which was dissolved in 2011 after a spate of instances of unlawful surveillance of journalists, human rights staff, politicians and judges went public.

He reportedly evaded a kidnapping try in Guatemala when authorities officers allegedly tried to deport him extrajudicially, and he has endured numerous demise threats towards each himself and his household in each nations.

Velasquez’s anti-corruption work in Guatemala led to profitable convictions towards ex-President Otto Perez Molina, his former vp, seven ministers, and dozens of politicians and businessmen. Velasquez was declared persona non grata by then-President Jimmy Morales in 2017 and exiled from the nation.

“He arrested high-level businessmen for monetary crimes – individuals from the richest households in Guatemala,” McFarland instructed Al Jazeera. “Individuals who earlier than Velasquez arrived thought they had been untouchable.”

Petro
Colombia’s President-elect Gustavo Petro just lately spoke to college students at Externado College in Bogota, Colombia [Fernando Vergara/AP]

Petro, who incessantly denounced corruption whereas he was on the marketing campaign path, “is sending a robust message that the times of impunity, when the federal government would possibly flip a blind eye to the excesses of public forces, are over”, Oviedo mentioned. “Civilian regulation can be revered.”

Abuses by police and navy forces have come below rising scrutiny in recent times, as official investigations have revealed disturbing particulars of rights abuses, together with the “false positives” scandal through which greater than 6,400 civilians had been killed by safety forces, who falsely claimed the victims had been enemy combatants.

Velasquez has expressed assist for Petro’s plan to position police, who at the moment report back to navy command as a part of the defence ministry, below civilian management. The reform was advisable by the UN final yr after an investigation into police violence throughout nationwide protests, the place dozens had been killed in a crackdown by safety forces.

Petro has additionally promised to reimplement elements of the 2016 peace deal that had been delayed or dismantled by the outgoing administration of Ivan Duque. As a part of his efforts to implement “complete peace”, Petro has provided to barter new disarmament talks with rebels who weren’t a part of the FARC peace deal. However this plan additionally entails dialogue with teams such because the Gulf Clan, which has grown more and more aggressive, shutting down giant parts of the nation by pressure and killing dozens of law enforcement officials.

Will they be prepared to barter with an ex-guerilla president and a prosecutor who has focused them for many years? Oviedo isn’t sure, however he notes that Velasquez “has the dedication, the power, and the expertise to take the primary steps in direction of actual justice in Colombia. However he’s in for a hell of a battle.”