Columbia is a beautiful country and the people are amazing. It is the land of economic opportunity. The Free Trade Agreement, which was finally ratified by Congress, last year, became effective on May 15, 2012. The United States has quadrupled exports to Columbia in the last four years, totaling $14 billion each year. That number is expected to sky-rocket because of the Free Trade Agreement with the reduction and elimination of tariffs and duties.
At a recent World Compliance-sponsored seminar on FCPA and Anti-Money Laundering compliance, which was held in the capital city of Bogota, roughly 300 professionals attended to learn more about AML and FCPA issues. Seventy percent of the attendees were from financial institutions and thirty percent were from manufacturing industries and related industries.
The large attendance reflected the inescapable connection between economic opportunity and potential AML and anti-corruption risk. Columbia has a unique connection to the United States which goes back in history. In stark contrast to all the other Latin American countries, Columbia has never had a dictatorship.
Columbia is now booming with economic opportunity as annual growth rates have stabilized in the 3 to 4 percent range. Americans have a naïve and unsophisticated understanding of the Columbian economy and culture. Many continue to espouse concerns related to the narco-trafficking era of Pablo Escobar. Instead, the country has moved past those dark days when Pablo Escobar terrorized the citizens of Medellin (which now stands as one of the most beautiful cities in the world). Columbia’s main urban areas are relatively safe.
Businesses in the countryside, such as oil and natural gas producers, face security challenges from the threat of terrorist organizations who terrorize workers and destroy pipelines need to transport oil and natural gas. The Uribe Administration had improved security and the new Administration has lost some ground in this area. Companies which operate in the far reaches of Columbia rely on military security services, which are provided pursuant to contracts, to protect their workers and facilities.
Columbians perceive that their government is corrupt. Columbia ranked 80 out of 183 countries in the Corruption Perception Index reported by Transparency International. They complain about the corruption at all levels of government services – from the local police to the national leaders. The Bogota Mayor was run out of office based on corruption allegations. Columbians want to eliminate corruption but express frustration at the inability of the government to police itself.
In the FCPA arena, Columbia has rarely been the focus of any enforcement action, despite the public perception of corruption levels. Instead, in Latin America, Brazil and Argentina have been the focus of several FCPA enforcement actions. With the continuing focus on Brazil because of the World Cup and Summer Olympics, combined with the growing economy, Brazil is the riskiest country in Latin America.
Given this economic and corruption constellation, businesses should re-examine economic opportunities in Columbia, especially in contrast to Argentina, where the economy is slowly deteriorating into a mess, with 30 percent inflation, an unstable currency, weak economic growth, and continuing allegations of rampant corruption at the highest levels of the government.
Even with the Columbians’ own complaints of corruption, Columbia has a booming economy which requires far less compliance resources than Brazil or Argentina. In the end, companies that bet on Colombia versus other Latin American countries are likely to come out ahead.