The contributor of this post operates a nonprofit organization based in Colombia. He wishes to remain anonymous.
Easy money, part I
My office gets approached at least once a week, from what I assume to be international drug traffickers, who want me to launder their money.
One woman, a lawyer, upon finding out that I ran a nonprofit organization that helps at-risk youth from poor neighborhoods in and around Medellin, became utterly ecstatic. She kept bothering me to email her our bank account number so that she could make an immediate “donation” to our account. She said the transfer would be coming from somewhere in the United States, but at this point I hadn’t even told her what my nonprofit does exactly, our objectives, mission, nor what we would use the money for. I thought it was a little dodgy.
A little confused, I first emailed her a digital presentation of our nonprofit that includes an introduction, a portfolio of our previous work and our current budgetary needs. She later called me back and said that this document wasn’t what she needed; what she actually needed was just our account number and asked that we meet in person.
So I met her in person and the trick was laid bare. She said she would deposit approximately 500 million pesos (US$168,105), and that she expected 495 million pesos (US$166,424) back in cash as soon as the transfer was completed. And when I say as soon as the transfer was completed, I mean cash in a suitcase at some drop-off point. My organization would have made 5 million pesos in an instant.
“Esto es de moda,” she kept saying. Everybody’s doing it.
But it would not be so easy for me. I would have to forge receipts and pictures to submit to DIAN to prove I held a community service event that would appear to cost 500 million pesos. She eventually got tired of waiting around for me to give her my account number, probably because she perceived my reluctance to the whole deal. A couple days later, I met her again and she said she had finally “found” an NGO that helped her out, and that we missed out on a great opportunity.
Creating a fake event on paper is not too difficult, even an event on the order of 500 million pesos. I have Photoshop and Acrobat like anybody. Nonetheless, I did not launch my NGO mission to launder money for narcos.
And on the other hand, if I did take the money, I think that woman would be back in a week with another 500 million pesos. I would have to do it over and over again. I did not launch my NGO mission to launder money for narcos.
My Colombian employees know to send those people away. But sometimes I think, what if someday I just take the money and run?
Easy money, part II
The other quirk that used to come up all the time was when we would apply for government money or grants from public institutions in Colombia. So some state or municipal government would have so much of a budget to allocate to social projects, which our mission could qualify for.
With all the right documentation, we would put ties on and go in with our presentations and laptops, all the bells and whistles, and chat up some local political leader, councilman, municipal alcalde, or other bureaucrat. And then, for willing to “help” us achieve our mission, he would ask us to help him with his cut.
Time and time again, I kept finding out that for them to give you any money, they always ask for a bribe. And I mean ALWAYS. One guy asked for 40% of the budget he controlled, kicked back to him in cold hard cash. FORTY PERCENT just for him, while tens of thousands of poverty-stricken residents in his district share 60%.
Needless to say, corrupting public officials is another activity I didn’t launch a nonprofit in Colombia to participate in.
I don’t lobby for government money anymore. It’s exhausting, and most of the time they already award public funds to their close friends that have front NGOs to embezzle funds for them. I don’t do any more of those pitches. In Colombia, it is a complete waste of time, at least if you are not in bed with these so-called political leaders and willing to kick a percentage of the money back to some corrupt politician which kind of defeats the purpose.
I didn’t write this to bash Colombia. I love Colombia. I just want to give a heads up to anybody out there considering nonprofit work in Colombia. Know the terrain.