Corruption, embezzlement, kidnapping, money laundering and even murder, these are some of the unproven accusations against left-wing leaders in Latin America. Lies, manipulation and fabrications put together by the judiciary and conservative groups supported by some of the media. The objective: to block the possibility of an economic and political option that differs from the established one.
Virginia Moreno Molina
In September 2016 Dilma Roussef is dismissed from the presidency of Brazil, found guilty of having manipulated the public budget.
In April 2018, Lula da Silva, also in Brazil is sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption, imprisoned and prevented from re-election to the presidency.
In July 2018 a court in Ecuador issued an international arrest warrant for the ex-president Rafael Correa.
And the list of those accused goes on: Gustavo Petro in Colombia, Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, vice-president Jorge Glas in Ecuador, Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. One by one, like dominoes they have been falling victims of this right-wing strategy which aims not only at defeat in the courts but also in public opinion.
This is what is known as ‘Lawfare’, the judicial war that right-wing forces in Latin America, supported by the US and Europe, have been using with the intention of putting the brakes on progressive initiatives.
This is how the situation is described by Amauri Chamorro, analyst and consultant on international politics, with more than two decades of experience in countries including Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, El Salvador, Zimbabwe and Norway.
Chamorro, who has been an advisor to progressive governments and political parties in the Latin-American continent, visited London and the SOAS University of London. He spoke to The Prisma about what Lawfare means, how it is implemented, and its strategies and procedures in Latin America.
What is lawfare?
It is the j that conservative forces in Latin America, supported by the US and Europe have been using to try to put the brakes on this progressive path that has been getting stronger in Latin America for the past 20 years. It is the use of judicial mechanisms, together with the media, to create a judicial and informational framework which condemns in advance the most important leaders and progressive movements around the world.
I say: ‘in advance’, because they [first] claim publicly that they are guilty, not in the courts, so that later, without proof, without due process, and riding roughshod over the constitution, the judicial system can act in the knowledge that it will have the support of public opinion.
What are the mechanics of the process?
The Attorneys General begin to investigate some information that they have, and they leak it illegally to the media. It is information taken out of context or fabricated evidence.
In this way the communication media claim that there are many accusations of corruption or embezzlement in government spending.
And with this basis established, when the courts come to reach a decision, they simply sign off a guilty verdict, because the public condemnation has already happened.
This [happens], even though these guilty verdicts have no legal foundation or evidence, as is the case of President Lula in Brazil, or Vice-President Jorge Glas in Ecuador: both of them found guilty without material evidence that they had been involved in any kind of corruption.
What conditions are necessary for this to happen?
There are two principal pillars. On the one hand the judicial pillar, which is the only branch of state power that is not elected by the people.
In the great majority of countries, the judiciary – the judges and prosecutors – are not elected by the citizens, but they win through public competitions or nominations, and they remain in office until they die. They also come from an elite caste, the great majority having studied at the best colleges and universities in the world, as well as coming from rich families. Hence, they carry a strong charge of elitism [in their view of] the world. They are specific groups which have formed within the economic elite.
And then on the other hand there are the media, who work together with the judicial power, with the clear aim of making unproven accusations.
So, it is a case of the judicial power, which operates in disregard of due process, and secondly, the media which try to create an air of normality for the public, and despite not having evidence, or not being sustained juridically, they achieve a certain veracity.
At the root of this, they get progressive governments pushed into a corner, so that they end up losing support, or facing a process of destabilization, as in the cases of Brazil and Nicaragua, which impedes a fair election campaign.
Among the factors involved we have talked about the judiciary, right-wing political parties, and the media. Is there any other factor?
We have an important structure composed of these three pillars, which are powers without any counterbalance. In the great majority of countries, there doesn’t exist a body to control the workings of justice and prevent judges and prosecutors from being politically biased. In fact, among governments around the world there are hardly any counterbalances to regulate and inspect the functioning of the media.
There is a false feeling, created by the media themselves, of the need for freedom of expression, which actually does not exist. All the media and journalists act in conformity with the interests of the media owners.
In this way, the judges begin to take on functions that are beyond their role, such as debating the political, social and moral issues in their country. The judge and the prosecutor should act on legal matters, and not on social and political disputes that happen in their countries, because we have elections and political parties to do that.
When did lawfare emerge?
The concept began in South Africa during the Apartheid period, and the sentences against the leaders, among them Mandela. They were accused and sentenced in order to ensure that their political skills and power could not influence presidential elections or the government.
It is a mechanism for creating a judicial and communicational environment in which the most progressive sectors are excluded from participation.
When was the first case of this practice in Latin America?
The first time it was seen was the case of Gustavo Petro in Colombia. He was a Mayor and was accused. Colombian law requires town halls to be responsible – without appointing private contractors – for services involving water supply, sewage and rubbish collection.
When Petro won the election, one of the first decrees he signed was for the state to take over rubbish collection.
This required the collection companies to deliver their equipment to the town hall. In response, these companies, together with the media, organized a boycott of rubbish collection: they hid the lorries and stopped collecting rubbish for several days. And so, the media were in the streets, taking photos, recording, and making news stories claiming that it was Petro’s bad management which had created this situation.
How did the prosecution come about?
The judicial system ‘gave the job’ to the then prosecutor Alejandro Ordoñez (currently the Colombian ambassador to the OEA). He began a political trial against Petro, removed him from office, and banned him from being a candidate in any kind of election for 20 years. (The Public Prosecutor, which only exists in this form in Colombia, is an institution which can accuse, judge and depose, at the stroke of a pen, people who have been elected in a popular vote, and take away their political rights.)
But this led to a big popular movement in support of Petro, and pressure on the Ibero-American Court of Human Rights to respect the popular will. After a month Petro returned as mayor.
Now, Ordoñez happened to be the godfather at the wedding of one of the daughters of the owner of the rubbish collection companies that had lost the concession of a million-dollar contract.
In turn, the proprietors of the media are owners of groups which were also owners of the rubbish collection agencies in Bogotá.
So, we see the way that the judicial mechanism is used against progressive movements, in order to defend economic interests. In their turn, the media, instead of informing, distorted the truth so that the population came out in the streets demanding the sacking of the mayor. And they gave a degree of legitimacy to Ordoñez to break the law, so that despite this the public still supported him.
So, the effect of Lawfare is to destroy the reputation of an individual or a whole movement?
Yes. In the case of Ecuador, if there is a great leader like Rafael Correa – who would win the presidency in the first round if he was running – or like Lula who would do the same in Brazil, the first thing they do is to attack these leaders to prevent them from running in presidential elections. But this is always accompanied by a massive effort to destroy their reputation and the morale [of their supporters], labelling a whole movement as corrupt. There is no evidence, but the media do the job of constantly attacking the Left.
Next week: Lawfare and the Maduro case; the countries complicit in this strategy and the worst cases. How can we distinguish truth from lies? How sure are the accusations? And more…
(Translated by Graham Douglas – Email: email@example.com) –