BOGOTA, Colombia – A corruption scandal that has spread across Latin America is inching closer to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos amid new evidence that suggests a Brazilian construction company paid $1 million for an opinion poll carried out during his re-election campaign.
Chief Prosecutor Nestor Humberto Martinez said Monday his office had verified that Odebrecht signed a contract with a Panamanian-registered company linked to a local advertising agency hired by Santos' 2014 campaign. He said the company's goal was to curry favor with the Santos government to help it win a $100 million arbitration involving disputes over a highway project.
It's not clear what evidence existed to back up the claim or what crime, if any, may have been committed. Presidential campaign contributions by companies other than banks are illegal in Colombia, and Santos didn't report taking any contributions from individuals. But it's an open secret in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America where such restrictions exist that politicians regularly turn to companies for undeclared contributions and to pay costs associated with running for office.
Indeed, Odebrecht is also accused of covering the bill for Santos' conservative rival during the 2014 race. Martinez said his office had obtained new evidence showing how Odebrecht executives introduced the candidate, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, to a top-flight Brazilian campaign strategist during a 2014 meeting in Sao Paulo and then proceeded to pay $1.6 million for services to the candidate's campaign.
Santos has yet to comment. But just his association with Odebrecht is bound to further damage Santos with elections to choose his successor 14 months away and an uneasy coalition in congress needed to implement a peace accord with leftist rebels showing signs of fraying. Odebrecht, in a plea agreement last year with the U.S. Justice Department, admitted to paying some $800 million in bribes to win business across Latin America,
Santos' approval rating stood at 24 percent in February, near the lowest since he took office in 2010, according to a Gallup poll. The same survey found Colombians for the first time in more than 12 years of polling by Gallup listing corruption as the country's top problem, more than even the traditional concerns in the war-torn country of public safety and the lack of economic opportunity.
The fallout from Brazil's continuing investigation into Odebrecht is increasingly implicating politicians across the region. Last month, a judge in Peru ordered the arrest of former President Alejandro Toledo for allegedly receiving some $20 million in bribes for granting a lucrative contract to build a highway between Brazil and the Pacific Coast.