Corruption scandal rocks Colombia’s tax agency

BOGOTA,  (Reuters) – Corruption at Colombia’s  national tax and customs agency may have cost the country up to  $850 million after fake companies and fictitious exports were  used to claim back taxes, officials said yesterday.

The scandal comes at a time when President Juan Manuel  Santos’ still-high popularity in opinion polls has taken a hit  over perceptions of increased corruption and insecurity as well  as his government’s response to heavy downpours that battered  the Andean nation.

“This operation (the tax agency) will continue. It’s just  one tiny arm of a large octopus,” Santos said.

The president, who took office last August, said 12 of the  17 suspects in the scandal had been captured after officials  said former and current tax agents used fake firms to get tax  refunds for falsified sales abroad.

Tax agency director Juan Ricardo Ortega said the graft  scandal could have cost the country up to 1.5 trillion pesos  ($850 million) between 2004 and 2010.

“It’s a fairly organized assembly of shell companies and  identity theft,” Ortega said.

Santos came to power in 2010 vowing to combat corruption,  and earlier this week he signed an anti-graft law, saying a  large scandal was about to be unearthed.

In May, he said fraud estimated at $17 million was  discovered in the public health system. On Thursday Santos said  Colombia had stopped the “bleeding” of resources worth about  $340 million a year.

Colombia ranked 78th out of 178 countries in a 2010  anti-corruption index from Transparency International, scoring  3.5 out of 10 — the same as China and Greece.

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