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Colombia’s subsequent defence minister faces ‘a hell of a fight’

Bogota, Colombia – Ivan Velasquez first made a reputation for himself as a prosecutor in Medellin within the 1990s, 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 conflict. His work in the end 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 threat: During a landmark probe into monetary ties between the enterprise group in Antioquia and paramilitary teams, 14 investigators in his workplace have been murdered.

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

Petro, who will develop 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 International Commission in opposition to Impunity in Guatemala, sends a strong message that he intends to observe by way of.

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 strong position against those of us in the military”, Raul Musse Pencue, a retired profession soldier, informed Al Jazeera. “We fear he will usher in a widespread persecution of military personnel who have undergone investigations related to their everyday duties as soldiers in service to their country.”

Cicig
An activist in Guatemala City holding an indication that reads in Spanish ‘Thank you CICIG’ – the Spanish acronym for the International Commission Against Impunity [File: Moises Castillo/AP]

Right-wing Senator Paloma Valencia went additional, telling native media that the appointment “shows a complete absence of democratic guarantees … [and] puts all of our lives in danger”.

But individuals who have labored intently with Velasquez in each Colombia and Guatemala paint a really totally different image: considered one of a soft-spoken and apolitical anti-corruption crusader who all the time 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, informed Al Jazeera. “His entire career, he has advocated for human rights. He knows how to lead. He knows how to investigate, and most importantly, he knows what it is to live and work in regions of the country most politicians only read about from Bogota.”

Stephen McFarland, the previous US ambassador to Guatemala, additionally welcomed the appointment: “Uribe has accused him of having a political agenda. As long as I have known him, his only agenda has been to build a transparent and independent justice system.”

‘Powerful message’

Velasquez’s work has made him many enemies. His workplace in Medellin was illegally bugged by Colombian intelligence and his safety crew infiltrated. His private bodyguard on the time was a spy for the nation’s Administrative Department of Security, which was dissolved in 2011 after a spate of circumstances of unlawful surveillance of journalists, human rights employees, 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 dying threats in opposition to each himself and his household in each nations.

Velasquez’s anti-corruption work in Guatemala led to profitable convictions in opposition to ex-President Otto Perez Molina, his former vice chairman, 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 financial crimes – people from the richest families in Guatemala,” McFarland informed Al Jazeera. “People who before Velasquez arrived thought they were untouchable.”

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

Petro, who continuously denounced corruption whereas he was on the marketing campaign path, “is sending a powerful message that the days of impunity, when the government might turn a blind eye to the excesses of public forces, are over”, Oviedo stated. “Civilian law will be respected.”

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

Velasquez has expressed assist for Petro’s plan to position police, who presently report back to navy command as a part of the defence ministry, underneath civilian management. The reform was really helpful by the UN final 12 months after an investigation into police violence throughout nationwide protests, the place dozens have been killed in a crackdown by safety forces.

Petro has additionally promised to reimplement elements of the 2016 peace deal that have been delayed or dismantled by the outgoing administration of Ivan Duque. As a part of his efforts to implement “total peace”, Petro has supplied to negotiate new disarmament talks with rebels who weren’t a part of the FARC peace deal. But 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 drive and killing dozens of law enforcement officials.

Will they be keen 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 determination, the ability, and the experience to take the first steps towards real justice in Colombia. But he is in for a hell of a fight.”

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