An ongoing investigation into alleged bribery of politicians has cast a shadow over the progress of the Bogotá Metro construction project in Colombia, led by China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC). The uproar adds to a series of challenges facing the consortium with its international projects.
“It is crucial for countries to thoroughly understand Chinese operations,” Vladimir Rouvinski, an associate professor in political studies at Colombia’s Icesi University, told Diálogo on October 27. “This could lead to additional questions about how China conducts business and the challenges involved in doing business with this country.”
In September, Colombian magazine Semana exposed a classified dossier, detailing improper monetary transactions related to the construction of the metro mega-project, involving a Chinese national, a former Transport Ministry employee, and prominent political figures.
Intercepted conversations led authorities to open a file on possible corruption in the metro project, Semana reported. The most troubling recordings occurred between January and March 2022, just before Colombia’s congressional elections.
The recordings expose the payment of bribes of more than $2.7 million. Of this sum, some $2 million went to the Alianza Verde political party to finance legislative campaigns, in exchange for benefiting from contracts for the mega-project, the most important in the country’s history, according to the magazine.
The Colombian Attorney General’s Office reiterated in a statement its commitment to investigate these possible acts of corruption that could affect the public administration and put at risk the resources of the treasury. CHEC denied any connection to allegations of corruption in the construction of the metro, Colombian newspaper El Espectador reported.
CHEC, a subsidiary of state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), is responsible for the construction, operation, and maintenance of the first line of the Bogotá Metro over a 20-year period and controls 85 percent of the consortium that won the project’s bid. Both CHEC and CCCC are involved in controversies with works in other parts of the world, W Radio Colombia reported.
In January 2023, Uganda withdrew CHEC’s $2.2 million project to build a railroad connecting Kampala, Uganda, to Malaba, Kenya. This decision was due to the Chinese company’s failure to fulfill one of its contractual obligations: to provide financing for the project, Reuters reported. In view of this situation, the Ugandan government is evaluating a Turkish company as an alternative to complete the works.
In Costa Rica, CHEC’s expansion of Route 32 faces numerous challenges including delays, disputes with the contractor, expropriation and adjustment issues, since the start of construction in 2017. Despite initial expectations of completion for 2020, an extension was granted with a March 2024 deadline, Costa Rica Hoy newspaper reported.
In Panama, CHEC is part of a consortium to build a bridge over the Panama Canal. Although the project is set to begin, Panamanian authorities have already found irregularities in the contract award process, which could cause delays in the work, Argentina’s news site Infobae reported.
In Bangladesh, CHEC faces accusations of paying illegal commissions, according to members of the Bangladeshi government. It is also accused of corruption in the construction of a port in Tanzania, according to investigative journalism platform Dialogo Chino.
“Beijing benefits from the ambiguity in public perception and among Latin American leaders,” Rouvinski said. “It takes advantage of this uncertainty to present itself as a sympathetic and accessible partner, offering financial resources without imposing the same conditions as the United States or Europe, especially on compliance with human rights, labor laws, and the environment.”
From the outset, the appointment of CHEC as the leader of the Bogotá Metro consortium raised concerns due to its limited experience in the construction of mass transit systems. According to Infobae, the Bogotá metro contract involves the construction of 24 kilometers of viaduct and 16 stations.
A report by Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy, highlighted Colombians’ concerns about violations of workers’ rights and the quality of Chinese companies’ products, all the while the PRC’s presence in Colombia grew significantly in the last decade.
The report also highlighted the Colombian government’s lack of preparedness for a deeper relationship with China, both from an economic and geopolitical standpoint and in overseeing the activities of Chinese infrastructure companies, a problem present in Latin America and other parts of the world.
“Colombia is not prepared; there is a great lack of knowledge about the real China on the part of decision makers,” Rouvinski said. “In Colombia there are many misconceptions about what China represents today. Unfortunately it is not the first government to fall into that trap.”