This article first appeared on El Mostrador on September 28, 2021.
It has become recurrent to hear or read the word “embezzlement” these days. Etymologically, it is formed with Latin roots, and means the “action and effect of using other people’s money for something different from what it was intended for”. In law, embezzlement is the “misappropriation of money belonging to the State by the persons in charge of its control and custody”. In short, it is one of the ways corruption operates, and as we have been seeing for some time, it acts easily in the absence of control and prevention.
In August, the Prosecutor’s Office asked for 15 years in prison for the former Commander in Chief of the Army, Juan Miguel Fuente-Alba, after six years of investigation in which it was established how he had embezzled funds from the institution’s reserved expenses, using them in properties, cars, and luxuries, without major obstacles. Later, together with his wife, he would carry out maneuvers to hide those expenses.
But this was only the first of several revelations that began to come to light. This, because although we have known for years the frauds of the Army and Carabineros, we thought that the PDI was saved, but we were very wrong and we were surprised when we learned that its former general director, Héctor Espinosa, had also embezzled the reserved expenses of the civil police, appropriating about $140 million.
It was only at this point that we understood the level of these facts, since the reserved expenses are large sums of money received by civilian and uniformed entities, and until recently they were not obliged to render or make their use transparent. Recently the law was modified, but in the same way, it does not provide for an exhaustive accounting of these expenses, which continues to hide the true destination of these monies.
In the same line, and completing the cardboard, new antecedents came to the fore about the Carabineros fraud, when the Prosecutor’s Office announced the formalization of the former Minister of Justice and former Undersecretary of Carabineros, Javiera Blanco, and three former general directors: Eduardo Gordon, Gustavo González Jure, and Bruno Villalobos, also for embezzlement of public funds, as well as forgery and use of public instruments. The modus operandi? The same: the eventual irregular use of reserved expenses, which would have been given in bonuses to the accused.
We had not heard about the envelopes since the MOP-Gate case in the early 2000s, however, the Carabineros envelopes were joined by the envelopes that the former mayor of Vitacura, Raul Torrealba, also accused of embezzlement of public funds, would have received. And as there have been months of revelations, we also found out that part of the Chilean people’s money had been misused in several municipalities of the country through ghost workers, impossible overtime, and taking advantage of the legal loophole of the municipal corporations of private law that are not obliged to be transparent or accountable. These investigations are still in progress, so there is still a long way to go to know the reality behind these irregularities.
As icing on the cake, these days we learned that, between 2013 and 2014, the Army bought helicopters with overprices for more than US $8.6 million. That is to say, once again we are talking about public money that reaches the pockets of a few, and of which we are only now finding out.
And, although on another level, I cannot fail to mention the case of the (former) constituent Rojas Vade, who although he did not embezzle public funds, spread a lie through which he managed to raise money to pay for the disease he did not have, defrauding people of goodwill who believed in him.
This has always been the case, because, as the saying goes, “the occasion makes the thief”, and when the scenario is almost tailor-made for the corrupt, lamentations seem unproductive. What is needed is a real commitment against corruption, where there is true accountability and where there is no room for people in positions of power to feel comfortable defrauding. It is essential to prevent, investigate, control and punish, but really.
When public funds are embezzled, not only money is embezzled, but opportunities that belong to everyone are taken away, public trust and faith are affected and, above all, a sense of injustice is generated that hinders the country’s progress towards development and generates a vicious circle that is very difficult to break.
Hopefully, we are at a turning point, where all the corruption that has been under the carpet for years will be revealed. At this point, we are clear that we are not jaguars, but at least let us show our claws to condemn corruption, wherever it comes from.
By Susana Sierra