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In Colombia, unease over sleaze

To attract new investors, Colombia must kick its corruption habit.

Then, there’s the longstanding tradition of paying “commissions” to politicians once contracts are awarded.

One businessman recalled how after winning a $500,000 contract to install refrigeration units in the town of Zipaquira, a bag man for the mayor demanded a 30 percent kickback. The businessman canceled the deal and vowed to never again work in the public sector.

The situation is worse in conflict zones where left-wing guerrillas finance their war through drug trafficking and extortion schemes. In these areas, contractors often come under pressure to pay off politicians as well as the rebels, who threaten to sabotage projects if they don’t receive their cut.

For a long time, such shady deals were viewed as a problem of the provinces but not Bogota, the nation’s capital where voters have elected a string of mayors known for honest, efficient government.

But Samuel Moreno, the current Bogota mayor, is facing accusations that his administration demanded kickbacks and favored a small group of contractors who lacked the knowhow and financial muscle to tackle major public works.

One result is that a project to rebuild the highway connecting downtown to the international airport sits semi-paralyzed, making the city’s rush hour traffic jams even worse.

Members of Moreno’s own political party were so disgusted by the sleaze that they held a news conference to denounce the mayor. Moreno — whose job-approval rating has dropped to 25 percent — and 18 other city officials are now being investigated by the Office of the Inspector General, a government watchdog agency.

“If there’s one city hall that has to lead by example it’s Bogota,” said Mauricio Cardenas, a former minister of economic development. “This is a step backward.”

President Juan Manuel Santos is promoting a new anti-corruption bill but it’s met fierce resistance in the Colombian Congress, which is widely viewed as the most crooked branch of the national government.

Lawmakers have refused to even debate the bill and have come up with some head-turning excuses. One senator claimed the president’s proposal would put so many politicians behind bars that the country would dig itself a fiscal hole building new prisons.