BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The man most likely to become Colombia’s next president this Sunday has played a previously undisclosed role as a corporate officer of the company hired to run the nation’s elections over the last decade, while he was a political leader, business records obtained by the Huffington Post Investigative Fund show.
The role of Juan Manuel Santos – a former defense minister in the government of current president Alvaro Uribe and a scion of one of the nation’s most powerful families – is not widely known in the South American country, where his family controls some of the leading news organizations and there are reports of voting irregularities.
Riding on Uribe’s coattails and backed by the massive political machine of Uribe’s party, known simply as “U,” Santos is 39 points ahead in polls over Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus, a mathematician and former Bogotá mayor who vows to banish the nation’s rampant corruption and cronyism.
That has prompted Santos to counter with his own messages about fighting corruption – and to insist on transparent politics in his own campaign. “I have the most radical and convincing proposal against corruption,” Santos told reporters, adding he plans on creating special investigative units to tackle corruption.
But documents obtained from Colombia’s Camera de Comercio – the private national Chamber of Commerce – raise questions about a possible conflict of interest and show that he may not be so committed to transparency as it seems. The documents listing the board’s membership made clear that he sat for several years on the board of directors of a securities firm that manages election logistics– from printing voting cards to transporting stuffed ballot boxes – while at the same time heading Uribe’s “U” political party.
Santos’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Some Colombians contacted for this story are troubled by Santos’ mix of the elections business and politics. “None of the candidates who are vying for the presidency should have had relationships with a company carrying out elections,” said Alejandra Barrios, director of the Electoral Observation Mission, a watchdog agency. “This kind of relationship should have been disclosed for the sake of transparency.”
In 2002, within a month of stepping down as finance minister when Uribe became president, Santos joined the board of directors of Thomas Greg and the Sons de Colombia group in Colombia, part of a part of a UK-based securities firm named Thomas Greg and Sons.
The company had been hired as a government contractor to oversee logistics during the 2002 election that ushered Uribe into power. The following year, it won a contract worth $27.3 million through one of its affiliated companies to conduct municipal and departmental elections, according to Colombia news accounts.
Santos played a key part in founding the political party known as “U,” quickly rising to become its leader in August 2005. He was still on the board of Thomas Greg and Sons the same week as the May 2006 presidential elections, according to company meeting records examined by a reporter in Bogotá.
By joining with its own partners or other companies, the firm created “temporary unions” for the purpose of specific contracts. One such company, called DISPROEL 2006, ran the elections that year. The National Registry’s office offered $29 million for the job, though the final contract was not available.
Following Uribe’s re-election, Santos was appointed minister of defense, and withdrew from his role in the securities firm beforehand.
Santos is known for fighting Marxist rebels in the country sometimes said to be struggling to emerge from its reputation as a narco-democracy. During the three years as defense minister, he oversaw some of the government’s most successful blows against guerillas, and furthered his reputation as a capable manager who achieves results.
Critics have focused on his aggressive methods. Ecuador has filed a lawsuit against him for violating national sovereignty when he oversaw the bombing a FARC guerilla camp on Ecuadorian soil. He continues to be plagued by a so-called “false-positives” scandal during his term; soldiers killed civilians and framed them as guerillas in order to pump body counts and receive job perks.
Under Uribe and Santos, affiliations between government supported agribusinesses and narco-trafficking paramilitary groups have largely gone on unchecked.
During Santos’ tenure, Colombia received approximately $1.5 billion in U.S. military aid directed at wars on drugs and terrorism – only part of some $7 billion sent Colombia’s way to curb violence and coca production since 2000. Educated in the U.S., Santos was always sure to receive a warm welcome by top officials in Washington, which is now likely to welcome his election.
Santos stepped down as defense minister in May 2009 -- to run in this year’s election.
Santos no longer has official ties with Thomas Greg and Sons.
Even so, an opposition leader, the Democratic Pole party’s Gustavo Petro, complained Thursday that Santos’ undisclosed double role as politician and overseer of elections put the race under a cloud. “The company that is at the heart of the election was directed by a presidential candidate. This darkens the transparency of the election.”
Some observers aren’t surprised by Santos’ double duty. Myles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, doubt that it will harm his chances in a nation with a long tradition of dynastic politics and “stretched” ethical standards. “The concept of ethics in Colombia is not what it is in the U.S,” explained Myles Frechette.
The government awarded another contract to Thomas Greg and Sons to run this year’s elections, DISPROEL 2010, a so-called “temporary union.” The company is in charge of election kits not only for the presidential election but also for congressional and Andean Parliament races. That means the company is entrusted with printing ballots, running electronic voting stations, and transporting and guarding ballot boxes.
Thomas Greg and Sons issued a statement that said while Santos served until 2006 on the board of one of the companies that made up the DISPROEL “temporary union,” he did not sit on the board of DISPROEL itself.
Government contract records indicate that as of the end of May, Thomas Greg and Sons and its affiliated companies received at least $58 million worth of election-related tenders.
The largest contract - $49 million - was awarded to DISPROEL 2010 in a rapid bidding process that closed four business days after the tender was made public, according to the El Espectadornewspaper. Competing against only one other company making the application deadline, DISPROEL scored 100% in its evaluation, according to National Registry records.
When the May 30 election triggered the run-off vote now set for June 20, the government hired DISPROEL to manage that vote. The run-off vote will cost the government $52 million, though it is unclear how much of that will go to DISPROEL.
Colombia’s National Registrar, Carlos Sánchez Torres, said his office bore no responsibility for being unaware that Santos had served on the board of DISPROEL’s parent company.
“Why should there be a concern when there are no links to see between Santos and the company hired?” said Sánchez, referring to the 2010 contract. He added it was impossible to know that Santos intended to be a presidential candidate when the contract was signed in December 2009. [Santos resigned as defense minister in May of 2009 specifically to be able to run for president, a development widely covered by the press.]
Barrios of the Electoral Observation Mission disagrees: “The registry’s office should have had this in account,” she said. “This should not have been the result of an investigation, and Santos should have been transparent about his involvement as well.”
Though there are no official reports, there have been mounting allegations of voting fraud, coercion and widespread irregularities occurring during the May 30 vote – complaints reported by citizen groups and in the press.
A Facebook group of 70,000 has compared over 20,000 scans of the paper records of vote counts from each polling station to the immediate results published electronically by the National Registry’s office, often finding discrepancies. In almost all cases, discrepancies in the numbers are in Santos’ favor, according to citizen organizer Maureen Maya.
Based on a sample examination, Barrios said the Observation Mission believes the irregularities were the result of an error-prone voting system rather than fraud.
This week, Santos’ opponent, Mockus, filed complaints with various government agencies over voting irregularities – in particular, pressure on voters before they went to the polls May 30.
Account to press counts, multiple instances involved welfare recipients who were instructed to attend meetings in order to keep receiving their subsidies; the meetings were rallies for Santos.
Many welfare recipients told reporters they were threatened with losing their benefits if they failed to vote for Santos. Santos expressed surprise and condemned anyone who would support his campaign while taking part in such a practice.
The country’s largest newspaper, El Tiempo – the paper the Santos family held majority ownership over until recently and for whom Santos himself once worked as a columnist and editorial editor - did not cover the story.
Semana newsweekly is also tied to the Santos family.
“There is fear on the part of many journalists and their directors about publishing news that would damage the future president,” said opposition leader Petro.