Cajamarca votes NO to mining

The small Andean municipality of Cajamarca (Tolima) held a referendum (consulta popular) on mining projects in the municipality on March 26, resulting in a 98% majority against local mining projects and clearing the turnout quorum required for it to be legally binding. Despite its local nature, the vote attracted significant national attention because of its bigger implications with regards to the mining industry in Colombia, held up by some as a promising engine for economic growth but facing growing local resistance because of its nefarious environmental effects.

Mining in Colombia

Mining has been a major economic activity in Colombia since colonial times, although its overall influence and the minerals sought have varied over time. Gold was a sacred commodity for pre-Columbian peoples, particularly in the Muisca culture in the Andean highlands of Cundinamarca and Boyacá, where the pregnant myth of El Dorado originated. The extraction of precious minerals, primarily gold, formed the basis of the colonial and early republican’s weak economy. However, because mining regions (many along the remote Pacific coast) were isolated from the rest of the country, mining – except perhaps in Antioquia – did not bring substantial benefits to the rest of the economy, in terms of agricultural production or infrastructure. Mining’s importance declined over the course of the late nineteenth century, ultimately overtaken by coffee.

Since the 1980s, oil and other minerals have replaced coffee as Colombia’s main exports. In 2014, before the decline in oil prices, crude and refined oil accounted for 50% of Colombian exports, followed by coal (13%), coffee (4.7%) and gold (3.1%). In 2015, oil dropped to 37% of exports. Colombia is the third largest oil exporter in Latin America, after Venezuela and Mexico. Colombia is the world’s largest emerald producer. It is, by far, the main coal producer in Latin America and the fourth gold producer in South America. The Colombian economy was buoyed by the commodities boom in the 2000s, and growth has slowed substantially with the fall in oil prices, although Colombia has escaped recession.

According to the DANE, mining and quarrying (including oil production) accounted for 6.4% of the national GDP in 2016, down from 7% in 2015. Because of a sharp 11% fall in the oil sector in 2016, the mining sector as a whole fell by 6.5% compared to 2015.

Between the 1960s and 1990s, governments – which were broadly interventionist with developmental aspirations – saw mining as a tool for industrialization and economic development, and legislated accordingly, with substantial state intervention and direct stakes through state-owned enterprises. In the 1990s, the ‘golden age’ of economic liberalization and the ‘Washington Consensus’ in Colombia and other countries, private mining companies and foreign investors pushed for a reform of Colombia’s mining law (adopted in 1988) to reduce state participation and intervention in the sector and facilitate private participation. A new mining code (Law 685) was adopted in 2001, significantly modifying the model of mining development, reducing the role of the state in the mining industry to oversight, promotion and inspection and greatly favouring local and foreign private investment. A 2013 report by the Comptroller General’s office stated that the mining code expressed a “model of accelerated extractivism” and that mining was conceived as a “generator of income for the state and companies” rather than as a means towards economic development.

Presidents Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) and Juan Manuel Santos (2010-) have both heavily promoted the mining industry, adopting a variety of policies to favour investors, particularly multinational corporations. Mining companies benefit from a range of tax deductions, reductions and exemptions. For example, under Uribe’s administration, mining companies benefited from a 30% (later 40%) tax deduction for investments on fixed assets (scrapped in 2010, having been one of the biggest drains on state revenues), a tax deduction for payment of royalties (ruled unconstitutional), another deduction for amortization of investments and the abolition of a profit remittance tax in 2004 (on IMF recommendations). As a result of these and other tax benefits, even if Colombia has nominally high royalties and income tax rates, revenues from mining are among the lowest in Latin America and mining companies receive more in tax benefits than they pay in taxes. According to the Comptroller General’s office, for each dollar mining and oil contributes to the GDP, the state received just 16 cents in 2007-2011 – the lowest in Latin America along with Peru and Chile, compared to 34 cents in Venezuela, 42 cents in Bolivia, 77 cents in Mexico and 89 cents in Ecuador. The same report also concluded that for 100 pesos paid in taxes by mining companies, they received 200 pesos in tax benefits.

Furthermore, government ministries and regulatory agencies are weak and often fail to adequately perform their legal duties – regulation, control, oversight – leading to the delivery of concessions and contracts without due scrutiny and the complete lack of oversight over the thousands of mining titles granted. The aforecited report blamed these and other problems on the current mining code, which gave to the free market some power which “ultimately only favoured the particular interests of large mining companies” and allowed said companies to “take advantage of a globalized market and the high commodity prices.”

The number of mining titles conceded by the state increased exponentially under Álvaro Uribe. President Juan Manuel Santos’ first development plan (2010-2014) identified the mining-energy sector as one of key five ‘locomotives’ for economic growth. Besides further supporting domestic and foreign investment, however, his government has done little to address some of the main problems in the mining industry. Since 2014, Santos’ locomotora minera seems to be derailing: fall in commodity prices, fall in foreign investment in mining, substantial local opposition and growing national environmental consciousness challenging the ‘extractivist’ model of mining development which has been the norm under the 2001 mining code.

Mining titles – granted and requested in red, 2010 (source: geoactivismo)

Oil and mining has brought billions of dollars in royalties to different levels of government, which has been used to fund various projects. However, the government and mining companies’ argument that mining projects help local economic development is hardly borne out by the realities. La Guajira, the second biggest coal producing department (after neighbouring Cesar) and Chocó, the second biggest gold producing department (after Antioquia) are the two poorest departments in the country. La Guajira, which is home to the Cerrejón coal mines (33 million tonnes of coal in 2013, 4% of the global coal market), suffers from a massive humanitarian (malnutrition) crisis which killed a new record of 89 children in 2016 while millions of dollars in mining royalties have been looted by criminals moonlighting as politicians (of four governors elected since 2011, three are currently in jail). Chocó remains the tragic epitome of poverty, state abandonment, state capture by criminal networks, corruption and widespread violence.

According to the National Mining Agency, in 2014 there were 10,061 mining titles (over 5 million ha.), 74% of which belong to Colombian companies and 10% to multinationals. In 2016, there were 8,866 valid titles covering 4.377 million hectares. In 2016, Colombia produced 90.5 million tonnes of coal and 1.98 troy ounces of gold.

Illegal mining in Colombia: conflict minerals?

Mining titles, however, tell only half (or less than half) the story. Mining has been inextricably tied to the armed conflict, and, like in Africa, ‘conflict minerals’ – primarily emeralds and gold – have been one of the main sources of financing for illegal armed groups in recent years. The emerald business has been closely tied to various mafias, including Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, since the 1960s. Víctor Carranza, the ’emerald czar’ until his death in 2013, supported various paramilitary and ‘narco-para’ groups and was behind the rapid expansion of paramilitarism in the eastern plains (Meta, Casanare). The emerald industry, concentrated in Boyacá, has been wracked by repeated conflicts between emerald dealers and their mafias, the ‘green wars’.

Alluvial gold mining in Colombia

82% of gold mining in Colombia comes from alluvial gold, predominantly concentrated in the Chocó (46% of alluvial gold exploitation), the Bajo Cauca and Nordeste regions of Antioquia (33%) and southern Bolívar (9%). A 2016 report by the UNODC and the Colombian justice ministry reported that 78,939 ha. were affected by alluvial gold exploitation.

Illegal mining has become, particularly in the past 20-25 years, one of the major sources of financing for illegal groups like the FARC or criminal organizations (Bacrim). Similar to what happens with coca cultivation, a guerrilla front may charge a ‘fee’ to illegal mining operations in exchange for security or may operate the mines themselves. It is no surprise that the Chocó, northeastern Antioquia and southern Bolívar are all regions with a heavy FARC, ELN and/or Bacrim presence – and regions where the guerrilla resisted the state’s offensive under Uribe’s democratic security.

The use of machinery on land or on water (dredging, backhoes, bulldozers) and use of chemicals (mercury, cyanide) has horrifying impacts on the environment including deforestation (it is the main driver of deforestation, particularly in the Chocó, one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet) and water contamination (mercury poisoning).

The impacts of alluvial gold mining can be seen easily even with Google Maps satellite imagery around the Nechí and Cauca rivers in Antioquia or the veins of the Quito river in the Chocó (where gold mining has increased astronomically since 2001).

The 2010-2011 mining census by the Ministry of Mines (MinMinas) reported that 60% of the country’s 14,357 mining production units, including 86% of gold mines, lacked a mining title, a percentage which rises to 79% in Antioquia and 99% in the Chocó. Smaller mines – which make up the vast majority of mining operations – lack titles, do not pay royalties, lack mine safety or occupational health standards, lack environmental licenses and employ the poorest and least qualified employees.

Cajamarca’s golden future?

500px-colombia_-_tolima_-_cajamarca-svgCajamarca is a mountainous municipality in the department of Tolima with a population of 19,626 (2017 est.). It is located in the Central Cordillera of the Andes and its topography is entirely mountainous, with altitudes ranging from 1,800 to 3,500 metres. The municipal seat, Cajamarca (pop. 10,000), is located in a narrow valley where the Bermellón and Anaime rivers meet. The rest of the population lives dispersed in small veredas mostly located in lower-lying valleys along the Anaime or Bermellón rivers. 79% of the municipality is part of the central Andean forest reserve.

The highest altitudes (like above 3,500 metres) are páramos, an alpine tundra ecosystem which is of vital importance to Colombia, which includes half of the world’s páramos. Roughly 70% of Colombia’s freshwater supply comes from the páramos and their soils rich in water. Even if they may seem to be desolate mountainous tundra, over 4,700 plant species grow in the páramos – 17% of the floral diversity of Colombia, on páramos which account for 3% of the national territory. In recent years, mining titles have encroached on the páramos (even if they are legally protected areas), especially in the Central Cordillera’s páramos around Cajamarca. An article of the 2014-2018 national development plan allowed mining in the páramos, which had been prohibited since 2010. In February 2016, the Constitutional Court struck down this paragraph, therefore banning mining in the páramos.

Cajamarca borders the departmental capital, Ibagué, and is located 35km (1 hour) from the city. National road 40, which connects Buenaventura (and, indirectly, Cali) to Bogotá, passes through Cajamarca as a treacherous, winding and narrow mountain road – the departmental border between Quindío and Tolima is at nearly 3,500 metres above sea level (Alto de la Línea). Traffic on the mountain pass is often congested and it may take up to 2 hours to drive the 45km distance between Calarcá (Quindío) and Cajamarca. The road is of vital importance for commerce and regional trade, connecting Bogotá (the road also continues towards the eastern plains) to Buenaventura, the busiest seaport in the country and Cali, the third largest city. To significantly reduce travel times, an 8.6 km-long tunnel across the mountains between Calarcá and Cajamarca is under construction since 2008 – when completed, the La Línea tunnel will be the longest in South America. Completion of the tunnel has been repeatedly delayed, the new date is sometime in 2018.

Cajamarca is a predominantly agricultural municipality known as the despensa agricola de Colombia (agricultural reserve/pantry of Colombia) and is relatively prosperous: in 2005, ‘only’ 28% of households had basic needs unsatisfied.

As it so happens, Cajamarca may be sitting on one of the biggest gold reserves in South America. South Africa mining giant AngloGold Ashanti has been in the exploration phase since 2006 in Cajamarca. AngloGold Ashanti has mining operations in 11 countries in Australia, Africa and South America (Brazil and Argentina). It arrived in Colombia in 1999, although it basically operated secretly under the name of a shell company (registered in the British Virgin Islands) until 2007. In addition to the main AngloGold Ashanti subsidiary in Colombia, the company has two smaller joint ventures, five ‘unofficial’ subsidiary corporate groups (shared board members) and ties with 16 Colombian-related subsidiaries registered in tax havens. These shell companies and subsidiaries help the mining giant keep a low profile in exploratory phases, avoid environmental liabilities and avoid tax payments in Colombia. According to the left-wing British NGO Colombia Solidarity Network, “there seems to be an oligopoly of large-scale gold mining in Colombia, gravitating around AGA.” Despite AngloGold Ashanti’s flowery talk of corporate social responsibility, it has been accused of financing paramilitary groups in the DR Congo, contaminating drinking water in Ghana and faces lawsuits in South Africa.

AngloGold Ashanti has estimated that the La Colosa mining project has inferred resources of 26.8 million troy ounces, which would make it one of the 10 largest mining projects in the world and a flagship operation for AngloGold Ashanti (eclipsing the companies’ two largest operations in South Africa). The mining company is exploring alternatives, but an open-pit mine or a combination of an open-pit and underground mine have been signaled as the most likely possibilities.

The project would also entail construction of a waste rock dump, a tailings dam (storage facility for the highly toxic residues of the leaching process) and a processing plant. A waste rock dump could take the form a filled-in valley, like in West Virginia, while AngloGold Ashanti has been exploring other sites to establish a processing plant and tailings dam (which would be one of the biggest in the world), notably the municipality of Piedras in the upper Magdalena river valley. The mining company purposely underplays the toxicity of mining residue and potential risks of tailings dam. According to Semana, the concentration of gold in Cajamarca is about 0.8 grams per tonne of rock, so that a single gram of gold would generate 1.2 tonnes of waste rock which would be mixed with high quantities of cyanide to be stored in a tailings dam. Tailings dam carry major risks and have a rather high failure rate. Colombians are well aware of the Bento Rodrigues/Mariana tailings dam failure in Brazil in 2015, which caused catastrophic floods, 17 deaths and contamination of the Rio Doce and Atlantic Ocean with 60 million cubic metres of toxic waste. The disaster was described as the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history.

Gold mining requires large quantities of water. In the exploration phase, AngloGold Ashanti is using 1.7 litres of water per second and it estimates that in the production phase, it would be using 300 litres of water per second, although it claims that 60-80% of it would be recirculated and that this represents less than 1% of the flow of the Coello river. A 2016 study found that drilling during the exploration phase had already caused a deterioration in the surrounding area’s water quality because of the release of certain toxic elements. AngloGold Ashanti also allegedly used unauthorized amounts of water, drawn from local water sources.

There are major concerns about La Colosa’s impact on the surrounding Andean cloud forests and páramos. AngloGold Ashanti initially denied that any of its concession was located in a páramo, but a 2013 report by the London-based NGO Colombia Solidarity Network reported that 50 ha. of AGA’s 515 ha. concession overlapped with the protected Los Nevados páramo. Since 2008, AGA has run into trouble with the Ministry of the Environment for carrying out exploration activities without permission in the forest reserve, but this same ministry had decreed several ‘exclusions’ from the forest reserve.

Local opposition

La Colosa has generated widespread local opposition in Cajamarca and other municipalities in Tolima since at least 2009. Opposition has come at the base from local campesinos (small farmers), university students, environmentalists and some journalists with support or sympathy from certain local politicians and congressmen and government institutions (the Comptroller General’s office, local ombudsmen and the regional environmental authority Cortolima).

Opposition has not been solely concentrated in Cajamarca. Many other nearby municipalities in Tolima have opposed AngloGold Ashanti’s mining project, most notably Piedras and Ibagué (the departmental capital). In 2012, AGA announced that it was considering the possibility of installing infrastructure like the tailings dam or the processing plant in the village of Doima in the municipality of Piedras. Piedras, located 85 km (2 hours) from Cajamarca in the plains of Tolima, is a predominantly agricultural community with a unique ecosystem that is home to a species of freshwater oyster. The local community, only superficially consulted by AGA, had organized protest marches, road blockades and filed thousands of documents with Cortolima against the mining company (a Cortolima resolution forced AGA to withdraw their equipment). However, complaining that they were not being heard or taken into account by either the government or AGA, a group of citizens – supported by the local mayor – gathered signatures seeking a local referendum (consulta popular) which was approved by the town council and held in July 2013. The long question was clearly inclined towards the anti-mining option (No): voters were asked if they agreed that various mining-related activities can be carried out in Piedras, including the use of materials “harmful to health and the environment are stored or used” and water “that may affect and/or limit the supply of potable water for human consumption, and for agriculture, the traditional productive vocation of our municipality”. With strong turnout (58.7%), 99% voted against (2,971) and only 24 voted in favour of mining. The vote was legally binding, but the government – President Juan Manuel Santos and the mines ministers – quickly claimed that the vote was illegal as the issue (mining) was not within municipalities’ jurisdiction. The Inspector General’s office (Procuraduría), then led by the arch-conservative Alejandro Ordóñez, threatened disciplinary investigations and possible sanctions against other municipal governments who might have been tempted to imitate Piedras. La Silla Vacía produced a short 13-minute documentary on the Piedras case, with English subtitles. In the documentary, an AGA representative’s mea culpa is that the company did not consult with local residents enough and inform them of the mining project.

Mining was an important issue in the 2014 congressional elections and 2015 local elections in Tolima. In 2014, various national and local congressional candidates campaigned with explicitly anti-La Colosa slogans (like left-wing senator Ivan Cépeda).

In Cajamarca, local citizens also gathered sufficient signatures to present a request to organize a consulta popular to the municipal council in February 2015. Before the council was due to vote, AGA sent a letter to councillors which ‘reminded’ them of the social investments made by the mining giant in the municipality (in infrastructure, development etc.), warned of the ‘uncertainty’ a referendum would cause and threatened job losses. In private, the Procuraduría told councillors that a referendum would be illegal, threatening disciplinary investigations against them if they vote for it. The Cajamarca council voted against the organization of a referendum 10 to 1.

In 2016, a series of Constitutional Court decisions weakened mining companies and strengthened local governments. One of the underlying disputes in the Piedras and Cajamarca referendums had been whether or not local governments, within their powers over land use and territorial planning, have the right to decide over the use of the subsoil in their municipalities. In February 2016, in a series of rulings over the government’s national development plan, the Court said that while ‘strategic mining zones’ were constitutional, decisions needed to be concerted with local governments in respect to their constitutional powers over local land use. The Court also struck down an article which centralized the power to grant environmental licenses for ‘strategic projects in the national interest’ in a single central agency rather than with the regional environmental authorities. In May, the Court struck down an article of the mining code which had barred local governments from banning mining within their territory (restricting local governments’ powers over land use requires an organic law). In June, in a major blow to the ‘mining locomotive’, the Court overturned the government’s 2012 decrees which had declared over 20% of the country’s land area (mostly in Amazonia and the Chocó) to be ‘strategic mining zones’ for failing to consult local communities beforehand (consulta previa). In July, the Court decided that the mining authority, before granting a mining title, must verify compliance with labour rights and environmental standards as well as establish procedures for ‘citizen participation’ (even for non-ethnic minorities). This decision modified the legal principle of “first in time, first in right”, established by the mining code in 2001, by requiring the state to proactively verify if mining companies meet some basic labour and environmental standards (as is already the case with oil concessions).

The mining industry was the most displeased by the Court’s rulings. They claimed that the decisions weakened legal security for the industry, created greater uncertainty about mining rights and inadvertently could lead illegal groups (who disregard legal requirements and norms) to step in where legal mining companies can’t because of ‘onerous’ requirements.

Besides Cajamarca, opposition to AGA has also been strong in neighbouring Ibagué. The city’s mayor, Guillermo Alfonso Jaramillo, a left-winger who worked with former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro (2012-2015), proposed the organization of a local referendum on mining – specifically mining which implies “contamination of the soil, loss or contamination of water, or affecting the agricultural vocation of the municipality”. In February 2016, the city council voted in favour of organizing a consulta popular, despite pressure from AGA representatives, various lawyers and the Procuraduría. Opponents criticized the loaded wording of the question, saying that it would induce voters to vote No. In July, the administrative tribunal of Tolima gave the green light to the consulta, scheduled for October 2 and later delayed to October 30. However, on October 12, the Council of State accepted to hear an appeal of the administrative tribunal’s decision and temporarily suspended the consulta until it issued a ruling. The lower court’s decision had been appealed by the mining association of the department. In December, the Council of State did approve the consulta but ordered that the question be changed, proposing a ‘neutral’ wording of its own (do you approve that mining projects and activities be carried out in Ibagué?). Jaramillo disagreed with the proposed wording of the new question, complaining that it was too broad when he is only opposed to certain types of mining. In February 2017, the Council of State clarified its decision, saying that it was up to the administrative tribunal to decide if there was to be a referendum or if the question needed to be changed. In March 2017, Jaramillo withdrew the question under consideration by the administrative tribunal and has said that he will submit a new one which makes clear what type of mining he wants to limit or ban.

Cajamarca’s referendum

Following the failure of the first attempt at a consulta in Cajamarca in February 2015, local citizens tried again. Colombian law (Law 1757 of 2015) allows a local consulta popular to be requested by either the head of the local executive (mayor or governor) or by petition of 10% of registered voters in the respective territory (municipality or department). After signatures are certified by the electoral body, the local council must approve the organization of the consulta and the local administrative tribunal must declare it constitutional.

In August 2016, after 3,400 signatures were certified, Cajamarca’s municipal council voted 8-3 to approve the organization of a local referendum on mining projects. Between February 2015 and August 2016, local elections had been held in October 2015 – and mining was one of the major issues at stake. All mayoral candidates at the time supported a consulta and expressed varying degrees of skepticism with regards to La Colosa. The mayor (elected in 2015), William Poveda of the Partido de la U, was critical of the consulta and accused opponents of mining of opportunistically playing politics with an important economic issue and questioned their political priorities. Nevertheless, the council elected in 2015 – with three seats for the left-wing and adamantly anti-Colosa Polo Democrático Alternativo, three for the relatively anti-Colosa Liberals and one from the smaller left-wing MAIS – had an ‘anti-mining’ majority which returned the 8-3 majority in favour of the consulta, the negative votes coming from the mayor’s party (Partido de la U) and the single councillor of the small miscellaneous AICO. The question approved by the council was:

¿Está usted de acuerdo, Sí o No, con que en el municipio de Cajamarca se ejecuten actividades que impliquen contaminación del suelo, pérdida o contaminación de las aguas, o afectación de la vocación tradicional agropecuaria del municipio con motivos de proyectos de naturaleza minera?

Rough non-literal translation: Do you agree, yes or no, that mining projects/activities which imply contamination of the soil, loss or contamination of the waters or affect the traditional agricultural vocation of the municipality are carried out in the municipality of Cajamarca?

In November 2016, the administrative tribunal of Tolima approved the referendum with the above question, ruling that the question was not suggestive because it “laid out the scenario” in which mining is present. AngloGold Ashanti, in a communiqué, claimed that the question approved did not concern them as it only referred to illegal mining – which is a pretty weird interpretation to make. AGA later filed an acción de tutela (type of injunction/ampara to protect fundamental rights) before the Council of State.

With the question and vote approved, on November 22 mayor William Poveda announced that the vote would be held on November 27 – leaving less than seven days to organize the logistics of the referendum, register campaign committees and actually campaign. The rushed vote was criticized by the promoters of the referendum. Given the logistical impossibilities, on recommendation of the electoral body (Registraduría) the vote was delayed until January 2017.

In December 2016, the question was invalidated by the Council of State, which found that it was loaded and suggestive, and threw the ball back to the administrative tribunal. Finally, in January 2017, the administrative tribunal declared the loaded part of the question (water and soil contamination etc.) was unconstitutional and suggested a new ‘neutral’ wording. However, since the referendum had otherwise met with all legal requirements, it could go ahead with a new question. In late February, the caretaker mayor – Poveda died in December 2016 – the vote was set for March 26 with a new question:

¿Está usted de acuerdo SÍ o NO que en el municipio de Cajamarca se ejecuten proyectos y actividades mineras?

Do you agree, YES or NO, that mining projects and activities are carried out in the municipality of Cajamarca?

Cajamarca voted in a mayoral by-election two weeks prior to the referendum, on March 12. La Colosa, once again, was the main issue between the candidates. Julio Roberto Vargas, supported by the left-wing Polo, the Greens and the Liberals, explicitly and adamantly opposes La Colosa. His opponent, Pedro Pablo Marín Cruz, supported by the Partido de la U and the Conservatives, made sure not to explicitly support La Colosa and keep his views about the upcoming consulta sufficiently vague but AGA later recognized that they have an affinity with him. Pedro Marín won by 305 votes, or 50.7% to 47.5%. Turnout was 57.5%.

To be legally binding, a consulta popular requires that at least a third of registered voters turn out to vote. With 16,312 registered voters in Cajamarca, this meant that the No campaign needed at least 5,438 votes to win. As in other referendums with a turnout quorum, like in Italy, it is in the interests of those who oppose the referendum and its promoters (in this case, those who are pro or at least not anti-mining) to call for abstention. In Cajamarca, there was no Yes campaign – those who could have voted Yes to support mining were instead told not to turn out.

The No campaign was focused on the risks the La Colosa mining projects entails for the municipality and the broader region’s water, natural environment and agricultural production. As explained above, gold mining requires massive amounts of water, and despite AGA’s repeated reassurances that they would recirculate most of the water and that their water usage would be extremely minimal compared to local river flows, the local population – at least the No and its supporters – did not buy it, given claims that AGA had used local water without authorization. The No campaign also emphasized the threats posed by mining to the natural environment – the Andean cloud forests, the páramos, the nearby Los Nevados volcanoes, the stunning Valle de Cocora (Salento, Quindío – also attracting mining companies’ interest) – and Cajamarca’s traditional agricultural production. Many campesinos have been in the forefront of opposition to La Colosa, fearing for their economic livelihoods and water. The No campaign argued that Cajamarca does not need mining – besides continued agricultural production, it has potential to develop ecotourism. The No lamented that its opponents didn’t want to be ‘measured at the polls’, preventing a real debate around mining by opting for the easy option of calling on people not to vote.

The No campaign received the support of groups of university students both from Tolima and other departments, including Pereira (Risaralda) and Florencia (Caquetá). Groups of students participated in GOTV efforts on the day of the referendum, organizing transportation for campesinos from the veredas to vote. The No campaign was supported by some national politicians, most notably left-wing Polo senator Jorge Robledo and Green senator Claudia López, both incidentally 2018 presidential hopefuls. Various environmental groups, both local and national, and NGOs like Dejusticia were also active in the Cajamarca campaign and, more broadly, in the upsurge of ‘environmental activism’ in Colombia countering the ‘mining locomotive’.

The abstention campaign had less of a public face, but its main argument was that the consulta popular unnecessarily polarized people and that a No victory would have catastrophic effects on the local economy (if mining was to go). They claimed that there was insufficient information (which isn’t quite true) to decide, and besides, they weren’t the ones who could say if La Colosa is good or bad. Instead of a consulta, the abstention campaign called on more public meetings, where everybody, including the experts, could be heard; they claimed that past meetings had been sabotaged by leftist radicals. The abstention people complained of the politicization of the No campaign and its ‘romantic’ slogans (water is worth more than gold); they also disliked national politicians coming to support the No – Jorge Robledo and Claudia López.

In the post-Trump world of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, both sides complained that the other side was manipulating voters with misinformation, half-truths, lies and backhanded dirty tricks. The abstention campaign claimed that the No was manipulating voters with its simplistic arguments and romantic slogans. The No claimed that the abstention campaign, or at least murky elements opposed to the No, were using backhanded dirty tricks to prevent people from voting. Locals claimed that the mayor and/or AGA were inviting locals on a trip to the famous basilica in Buga (Valle) and had 50 buses to bring 2,000 people; others claimed that the trip was organized by the Church, which itself denied that there was any trip planned (AGA also denied). There was another unproven claim that somebody was offering people 200,000-300,000 pesos (US$69-104) to hand over their ID cards on the Saturday before the vote. There were anonymous pamphlets circulating claiming that voting No was supporting the ‘communists’ Jorge Robledo and Julio Roberto Vargas (Polo mayoral candidate in the by-election) or that voting No was supporting the FARC. On election day, text messages were being sent falsely claiming that the referendum was cancelled because of the rain. The No campaign also complained that the Registraduría decreased the number of voting locations from 35 (in the by-election) to 18, claiming that there was a deliberate plan to limit turnout or at least cause long lineups which would discourage voters. The Registraduría said that it reduced the number of voting locations because of its expectation, from past experience, that the consulta would draw lower turnout than the by-election, and that in any case they had contingency plans for high turnout.

Another major argument made by opponents of the referendum was that Cajamarca needs public works, not public votes. AngloGold Ashanti has invested millions of dollars ($370 million) in Cajamarca since it began exploratory work – not only in its actual mining-related work, but also to support the community, fund public works and so forth. A 2013 presentation by AGA said that they had invested millions of dollars in 2012 alone, created 1000 jobs per year and supported local producers. They paid to remodel the local sports stadium, which in 2015 welcomed the first local football match with a professional club – something which AGA claimed credit for. They remodeled the ER at the local hospital and paid half the price for a X-ray machine so that locals no longer need to travel to Ibagué for an x-ray. They also donated the municipality’s first ambulance, rebuilt the local marketplace, invested in a genetic improvement project for livestock, backed avocado cultivation and exports and created a program to support young farmers. Nevertheless, AGA has otherwise kept a low profile in Cajamarca since 2006, reticent to speak with the media or the general public. Instead, they have focused their comms efforts with local politicians or community/neighbourhood leaders, inviting them to visit La Colosa and try to ‘break myths’ about mining and La Colosa. AGA too has complained about misinformation, for example saying that locals associated mining with environmental destruction and disappearance of all water resources.

Before the vote, it was unclear which side would prevail – the No to mining, or abstention in the consulta which effectively meant an implicit Yes to mining. The No needed at least 5,438 votes to prevail; they aimed to get 7,000. In the mayoral by-election two weeks prior, the anti-mining Polo/Green/Liberal candidate had polled 4,451 votes, 27% of registered voters and therefore less than what the No needed to win. However, the victor of the by-election was not explicitly pro-mining and some of his 4,756 voters could therefore be anti-mining.

Cajamarca votes NO to mining

Despite some concerns by the No campaign, the vote went ahead smoothly with reports of ‘solid’ turnout despite the rain throughout the day. The Registraduría reported full results within 53 minutes of poll closings at 4pm.

Registered voters: 16,312
Turnout: 6,296 (38.6%) > over the threshold (5,438), vote validated

NO 6,165 (97.92%)
SÍ (YES) 76 (1.21%)
Unmarked 41 (0.65%)
Invalid 14 (0.22%)

With 6,165 votes for the No out of 6,296 votes cast, Cajamarca voted NO to mining – and the vote is legally binding, as Colombian law explicitly states. It was not quite the ‘resounding’ triumph some environmentalists made it out to be – turnout was still only 38.6%, much lower than the 57.5% turnout two weeks prior in the mayoral by-election. But turnout is low in Colombia, except in municipal elections, and is especially low in referendums when the political machines which operate at full throttle during local elections tend to stay silent in referendums in which they have nothing to gain. Still, only about 38% of registered voters voted No to mining, which isn’t a massive mandate and may be use by the referendum’s opponents to diminish its legitimacy.

However, of the 61% of voters who did not turn out, it’s impossible to say how many of them deliberately decided not to vote (following the abstention campaign) versus how many of them didn’t vote because they simply don’t vote for whatever reasons. It’s noteworthy to point out that, in the October 2016 peace plebiscite, turnout in Cajamarca was 37.3% – lower than in the local mining referendum (69%, or 4,084, voted No to the peace agreement). In the 2014 presidential election, turnout was 45.9% and 51.9% in the first and second rounds respectively; in the congressional election turnout was 41.9%. In the 2015 local elections, turnout was 63% – 10,143 votes were cast then. Therefore, at its lowest ebb, abstention in Cajamarca was still 37%, or about 6,000 voters who never vote (of course, studies of abstention of Colombia tell us that abstention is differential – it’s probably not the same 6,000 throughout any elections). If you accept the proposition that, in the 2014-2016 electoral cycle in Cajamarca, an estimated 6,000 people never voted, of the 10,016 who didn’t vote in the mining referendum, we may be left with at most 4,016 voters ‘unaccounted’ for who may (very tentative) have deliberately decided not to vote. Therefore, of the politically engaged local population, it seems very reasonable to claim that a substantial majority opposes mining projects, having La Colosa in mind specifically.

The No campaign, as shown in the videos above, jubilated at the results – with crowds in Cajamarca shouting queremos agua, queremos vivir, AngloGold Ashanti fuera del país – “we want water, we want to live, AGA out of the country” or, more simply, sí se pudo – “yes we could” (basically past tense of ‘yes we can’). The leaders of the No campaign argue that, as the referendum is legally binding, the municipal council now has the legal obligation to amend the municipality’s territorial planning plan (POT) to prohibit mining and the revoke AGA’s and others’ mining concessions. In sum: the municipality has voted against mining, and the will of the people must therefore be obeyed and translated into municipal by-laws.

AGA’s mea culpa was that, despite spending millions to spread its good name, it didn’t engage with the actual community enough and the government didn’t engage with the community enough either. As AGA and the abstention campaign recognized, La Colosa hasn’t resulted in enough senior jobs for locals: engineers, geographers, topographers etc. were not locally hired, because of a lack of qualified candidates in Cajamarca. I was struck by how AGA’s mea culpa post-Cajamarca was very similar to its mea culpa post-Piedras: we got the process backwards and didn’t engage the public enough. It seems as if they didn’t learn their lesson from Piedras 2013. Neither did the government. The government seems to have woefully underestimated the potency of local environmental activism and general environmental conscience. It also has, as the Constitutional Court made clear in 2016, not consulted communities enough – it has tended to impose its national master plan on all regions, without asking for questions or comments.

The reaction from the consulta‘s opponents – the most prominent of which are AGA and the Colombian government (through the Ministry of Mines and Energy) – was quite different. AGA claims that the result isn’t retroactive and does not affect existing mining concessions, a legal argument it says is supported by the Council of State’s rulings on Ibagué’s attempted mining referendum. Dejusticia disagrees, saying AGA’s concessions are mere expectations rather than acquired rights. The Minister of Mines and Energy, Germán Arce, a Conservative technocrat close to finance minister Mauricio Cárdenas, has a similar argument: the referendum means the municipal council must amend its POT to include something about the ‘popular will’ opposing mining, but that the referendum is not retroactive and “does not have the capacity to change the law”. Arce’s comments – particularly that the referendum couldn’t change the law – provoked a firestorm among the No and its sympathizers in the country, with a trending Twitter hashtag calling him out for not respecting the referendum’s outcome.

Arce’s comment was fairly disingenuous – particularly another comment about “6,000 people can’t change the law”; no, but less than 267 congressman certainly can! Less flippantly, Arce – and the government’s – reaction belies the main underlying conflict here: a battle between municipal autonomy and popular will on the one hand and the central government and its laws on the other hand. In short, can a municipality, through popular vote, decide to ban mining? If so, should a municipality be allowed to ban mining? The answer isn’t a straight yes or no – opponents of mining have made clear that they’re not dogmatically anti-mining, although some may be. Supporters of mining, like mining companies’ associations in Colombia, have reiterated the importance of concerting with local communities and increasing general public awareness of mining and its consequences (opponents of mining would also agree about raising awareness). Arce’s reaction symbolized a fairly widespread instinctive dislike of popular participation by the Bogotá political elites – referendums are fine, though it’s preferable that they remain as flowery language in the 1991 constitution and the law, and they’re very inconvenient whenever they give the “wrong answer”.


The hope (for some) and fear (for others) is that Cajamarca will have a snowball effect, giving momentum to anti-mining or environmental movements in other municipalities to launch their own consultas. The mining referendum in neighbouring Ibagué is pending, and the city’s mayor celebrated Cajamarca’s result. The Court has order a prior consultation (consulta previa) with the community over gold mining in Marmato (Caldas). The mayor of Cumaral (Meta) has just scheduled a local referendum about oil for June 4. There is local resistance with potential referendums on the horizons over oil in Caquetá (Paujil, El Doncello, Valparaíso) and Puerto Asís (Putumayo), fracking in San Martín (Cesar) and other AGA explorations in Jericó (Antioquia) and San Roque (Antioquia). The mechanism of consultas may also gain popularity for other issues – like hydroelectricity or urban development. In Bogotá, far-right municipal councillor Marco Fidel Ramírez, who is usually more focused about Emma Watson and Disney movies promoting the ‘gay agenda’, proposed holding a referendum about mayor Enrique Peñalosa’s controversial plan for urban development in an environmentally protected zone of the city.

The mining sector and the government fear the generalization of anti-resource extraction referendums throughout the country. This recent article from Semana, which has a pro-mining slant, expresses some of their fears. The main one is the spread of legal uncertainty and insecurity, growing since the 2016 Court decisions and reinforced by Cajamarca and the potential snowball effect. Obviously, if mining multinationals and other foreign investors lack confidence and legal security, they will not invest in Colombia, debilitating the main thrust of the Uribe-Santos ‘mining locomotive’ (for Uribe, ‘investor confidence’ is one of his three cherished huevitos) – which would mean less royalties. This climate of legal insecurity may favour illegal mining, who can step in – and do much greater environmental damage – where legal, ‘responsible’ mining is forced out. In Cajamarca, this fear is unrealistic because an open-pit or underground mine is required, and that requires technology which the illegals lack. In other places, it is a more realistic fear.

Time will tell if Cajamarca is the point where the ‘mining locomotive’ completely derailed, or a mere local event which had no major repercussions. Yet, Cajamarca’s referendum brought to the fore one of the major issues in Colombia’s economic development.

Reforming Colombia’s electoral system?

One of the lowest turnouts in Latin America, widespread political apathy, delegitimized and broken democratic institutions, widely disliked politicians – Colombia’s political and electoral systems aren’t working as they should be, and it becomes even clearer with every passing scandal or political incident. Reforming, improving, Colombia’s political system is one of the intentions of the recent peace agreement with the FARC, and perhaps one of the more important points of this peace agreement – how can you build peace if the ones building it aren’t seen as legitimate?

Colombia’s political and electoral systems have many problems, with deep historical roots. Historically, Colombian politicians and parties have failed – often because they were unwilling – to accommodate and effectively represent new sectors of society, which helps explains the enduring control of regional political and economic elites (caciques) over political parties, which in turn make parties weak and incoherent amalgamations of personalist and clientelist machines (rather than representative of citizen interests as the theory would like them to be). These regional and national political and economic elites have, at times, consented to democratizing the system to integrate new emerging interests and groups into the political system, as with the 1991 constitution, which has had undeniable positive effects on the quality of democracy in Colombia. At the same time, they seek to use these same reforms to fit their own interests or otherwise pretend that everything is OK, usually under the facile argument that “Colombia is Latin America’s oldest democracy”. Although Colombian politics are too dynamic and complex to be reduced merely to ‘regional and national elites’ – certainly local government in the major cities has shown that these elites may be successfully challenged – the broadly elitist nature of Colombian politics over the past several decades, as well as the armed conflict, has contributed to widespread political apathy. The last World Values Survey poll showed that 75% of Colombians were ‘not very interested’ or ‘not at all interested’ by politics – including nearly half who weren’t at all interested; in general, political interest isn’t very high in Latin America compared to ‘global north’ democracies, but Colombia has the highest levels of disinterest in the region.

Colombia is one of the few Latin Americans without compulsory voting, which makes regional comparisons more difficult, but it has one of the lowest turnouts in the region. Turnout has been below 50% in all non-local elections since 1998; it was 44% in the 2014 congressional elections, 40% in the first round of the last presidential election, 48% in the second round of the last presidential election and just 37% in the 2016 peace agreement plebiscite. Unlike in most other countries, Colombia has significantly higher turnout in local elections – 60% in 2015, which shows several things: the parochial nature of Colombia and its politics, with its long history of poorly connected regions; greater interest with local politics of direct relevance and concern to voters; the maximal influence of clientelistic (vote buying) at the local level. Usually, the bigger cities don’t show great variations in turnout between national and local elections, whereas smaller towns and villages, especially in poorer peripheral region, have very big differences. Geographic analysis of turnout shows significant differences between any given election (often due to differential mobilization of clientelistic machines), but also persistently very low turnout in peripheral and ‘forgotten’ regions with a very weak state presence, poor communications, historic guerrilla presence and large illegal economy.

Recent polling all shows how widely disliked and unpopular many leading politicians and most institutions. Congress is hated, nearly 80% had an unfavourable opinion of it in the last Gallup. Political parties in the abstract are even more widely hated, with only 9% thinking well of them – that’s less than respondents who had positive opinions of the FARC (19%) or Donald Trump (13%). In sum, it should be pretty obvious that there’s something wrong and something to fix.

The peace agreement, among other things, created a ‘special electoral mission’ to make recommendations on potential reforms to the electoral system – particularly aspects like electoral management bodies, resolution of electoral disputes (electoral justice), campaign financing and the electoral systems for different bodies. In January, the names of the six members of the special electoral mission were announced, having been selected by international and national organizations working on electoral matters (Carter Centre, Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy and the political science departments of the National University and the Universidad de los Andes) with a seventh representative from Colombia’s Electoral Observation Mission (MOE). The special electoral mission has four months to deliver its recommendations. It reported on its initial proposals today/March 24. Its presentation can be seen here.

The mission has spelled out its goals as: building strong, legitimate and professional electoral bodies; improving the quality of political representation, especially for women, youth and ethnic minorities; strengthen political parties so that they’re less personalist and clientelistic; promoting a financing system which cuts costs of politics, is transparent and more publicly funded; establishing a simpler electoral system for citizens, candidates and electoral bodies.

Its recommendations are interesting and provide a good basis for debate.

A major focus recently has been reforming the structure, responsibilities and makeup of Colombia’s electoral management bodies (EMBs), notably to make them more efficient in dealing with things like campaign finance law violations. Under the 1991 constitution, Colombia’s EMB structure is a bit peculiar in that its divided between two separate bodies, unlike in most other South American countries.

The Registraduría Nacional del Estado Civil (National Civil Registrar) has non-electoral responsibilities like vital records and identity cards (cédula), but it is in charge of voter registration, registering candidates, organizing and managing all elections/referendums and counting the votes. It is a fairly non-controversial body, as it is politically independent and counts the votes (very) quickly, which isn’t something that can be said about its equivalents in Ecuador or Venezuela.

The National Electoral Council (CNE)’s powers include reviewing vote counts, certifying election results, legally recognizing political parties (and revoke that recognition), regulating and monitoring parties’ activities, revoking the registration of candidates, regulating polling and campaign activities and overseeing campaign financing. It is an administrative body with the power to impose sanctions on parties and candidates for violating electoral laws. The CNE is made up of nine members elected by Congress for a single four-year term. Unlike in most other Latin American countries, its members are partisan – parties or coalitions of parties propose candidates, then elected by Congress through proportional representation. The CNE’s predecessors were also partisan – it’s a holdover from the two-party and National Front period, when partisan disputes over elections made a balanced partisan composition of the EMB a necessity (the alternative was murdering the other side). The CNE has been very widely criticized for its partisan composition, constant internal deadlock, general lack of professionalism, inefficiency, lack of resources to carry out its functions and inability to enforce laws (like financing rules).

In addition, since 2009 the Fifth Section of the Council of State (the supreme administrative court) hears electoral disputes and has judicial powers to overturn election results (once certified). It also decrees loss of mandates (pérdida de investidura).

The mission proposes to clearly delimit powers (administrative vs. jurisdictional), without overlap. There would be a Colombian Electoral Council (CEC), an EMB of 5 non-partisan members selected from lists (not specified who will come up with these lists) for 8 year terms. It will plan, organize and administer electoral events, administer vital records and the voter roll (as well as the register of party members), count the votes, control political financing and promote civic education. There would then be an Electoral Court (CE), part of the judicial branch, to resolve electoral disputes, arbiter party disputes and decide on loss of mandates and removal from office. It would have 6 regional tribunals with 3 career magistrates each and a national body with 5 non-partisan magistrates (8 year terms).

In sum, the CNE would disappear into the CEC, which would also take powers from the Registraduría, which would presumably be reduced to its non-electoral roles (citizen identification). The Council of State would lose its powers over electoral disputes, placed in the hands of a specialized and professional electoral court. The jealously protective and corporatist Council of State won’t like this, and chances are the Constitutional Court wouldn’t like it either, as it tends to jealously protect the ‘corporate interests’ of the judicial branch from ‘political interference’. On the other hand, the mission proposes to have the electoral court be part of the judiciary rather than be a ‘fourth branch’, as it is in Ecuador, so the judiciary may be more amenable to this – probably even moreso if the members of the CE are selected through the same mechanisms as Supreme Court and Council of State judges currently are (as the proposal suggests).

The institutional architecture would ressemble Mexico, which has an EMB running the electoral processes (the INE) and an electoral court which is part of the judicial branch (the TEPJF).

The mission also proposes to review the electoral system – how members of multimember bodies, like Congress, are elected. The current Colombian electoral system is peculiar and rather unique in the world – party-list proportional representation but with both closed and open lists, leaving it up to parties what kind of list they put up, although in any case they may only put up one list per body (which may sound obvious to everybody, but before 2003, parties could and did put up more than one list for the same body). The mix of open and closed lists and the ballot structure (each candidate identified with a number rather than by name) is confusing to voter and results in a high percentage of unmarked or invalid ballots – 16% of votes cast for Senate in 2014 were invalid or unmarked, compared to just 3% in the presidential election a few months later.

Most parties choose open lists, because that’s the only way for them to continue functioning as disparate motley crews of regional elites and personalist machines. With open lists, voters may (and almost all of them do) vote for a single candidate on the list and the ordering, which determines election, is dependent entirely on the number of individual ‘preferential votes’ for each candidate. As a result, elections for multi-member bodies like Congress have remained intensely personalistic, decided by clientelistic/personalistic machines rather than partisan/ideological identification – congressmen seek out votes for themselves and their associated candidates. The 2003 electoral reform and later laws (like the 2005 law on party caucuses) impose an artificially rigid party system on a country whose party system was completely de-institutionalized by the 1991 constitution and, prior to that, by the National Front. With the 2003 electoral reform, there has been a clear consolidation of the party system – 63 competing parties in 2002, 9 in 2014 – but these parties are not necessarily stronger.

Critics of Colombia’s electoral system (myself included) claim that open lists encourage or aggravate problems like: excessive power of individual politicians, internal fragmentation of parties, expensive campaigns, vote buying, clientelism, infiltration of illegal money or groups and lower women’s representation. The main solution proposed, time and time again, has been closed lists; this was last proposed by the government in its 2015 constitutional reform package, but Congress gleefully scrapped that idea.

The Senate (save for 2 special indigenous seats) is elected in a single national constituency. The ‘national Senate’ has allowed for the political representation of minor parties and strong national leaders have emerged, but national interests are poorly represented: many senators have regional strongholds and/or are identified with their region of origin, leading to the over/under-representation of some regions. The House of Representatives (166 seats) is elected by department with district magnitude ranging from two to 18.

The mission proposes a 100 seat ‘national Senate’ elected on closed lists, using the current system of PR (D’Hondt) and a 200 seat House elected in departments (min. 4 seats each) through a mixed system with closed lists and single-member districts (MMP or parallel voting). Parties will need to choose their candidacies and list ordering through internal democratic mechanisms like primaries. The mission talks of ‘moving towards’ gender parity on party lists, likely with requirements for gender alternation on lists as is the case in France.

Advocates of a closed list PR system in Colombia argue that it would strengthen parties, give them greater internal cohesion, make elections about parties rather than individual candidates and increase women’s representation. The most valid concern against closed lists is, like elsewhere in the world (South Africa just to give one example), placing power in the hands of the party leadership and making congressmen accountable to party leaders rather than voters. Internal party primaries is a solution, but there’s a risk the existing machines would just work within primaries instead.

The recommendation for a mixed system in the House is interesting and novel. Former Green senator John Sudarsky had proposed a mixed system for both houses in 2012 (and again in his 2014 presidential campaign in the Green primary). His idea was a 60-40 split between single-member seats and PR list seats, with single-member districts of about 410,000 people for the House (820,000 for the Senate).

The electoral mission doesn’t offer more details about how many list seats and SMDs there would be. There are 33 departments in Colombia (including Bogotá D.C.), four seats minimum per department would leave just 68 seats to be divided based (presumably) on population, so smaller departments would very much overrepresented. The four seat minimum per department is also a bit ridiculous, considering remote Vaupés and Guainía in the Amazon have populations of barely 40,000 (vs. 7.8 million in Bogotá).

Congressmen won’t like the idea of closed lists, mostly because it reduces their individual power and weakens their political machines greatly. On the other hand, they might like the idea of SMDs for the House, as they might find (especially in rural areas) that SMDs can consolidate local, individual fiefdoms. Could this be a ‘fair’ compromise to get them to agree on closed lists?

The mission does not recommend compulsory voting, an idea proposed by some politicians (recently by interior minister Juan Fernando Cristo), instead recommending some civic education and improvements in voting accessibility (more polling stations, free public transportation on election day). The EU Parliament will be able to tell you that ‘civic education campaigns’ are a waste of money and time, but the idea for free public transportation on election days is an interesting and worthwhile idea: currently local political machines are effectively in charge of transportation on election day, which perpetuates clientelism and vote buying politics.

Political financing is a complete mess in Colombia. In theory, electoral campaigns are partially publicly funded, foreign donations are banned, corporate donations to presidential campaigns are banned, anonymous donations are banned, vote buying is a criminal offence, strict sanctions (including loss of registration and removal from office) can be imposed for contravening the law and there are campaign spending limits. But, as one old Colombian saying goes (coined by old Liberal sage Darío Echandía), una cosa es Dinamarca y otra Cundinamarca – Denmark is one thing, [but] Cundinamarca (Colombian department surrounding Bogotá) is another. In practice, illegal campaign financing is widespread, public reporting systems are a smokescreen, vote buying is commonplace, nobody cares where the money comes from, candidates themselves don’t know how their campaigns are being paid for and the CNE is too useless and incompetent to do much about it. The issue of political financing has been a big focus this year, with revelations that both 2014 presidential campaigns in the runoffs – Santos and Zuluaga – probably received money from corrupt Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, or that Odebrecht through a Panamanian firm had footed the bill for Santos’ 2010 posters. The Santos 2014 campaign’s claim that they relied only on public financing and a bank loan is ludicrous and I have seafront property to sell you in Arizona if you believe that tale.

The mission proposes a mixed, predominantly public, system of financing increasing public funding to parties, half before the election and the other half after the election. It also proposes more effective control by the EMB and free airtime on TV (it already exists for public TV and radio, but most TV and radio stations in Colombia are private). These sound like noble ideas but not a very big shift from what is currently on the books: public financing already exists and its amounts are clearly defined by law. The main change would be a more effective EMB or electoral court. Public financing obviously isn’t perfect either and has a lot of problems. Mexico shows the risk of public funding turning parties into lucrative businesses for their owners – just look at the infamous example of Mexico’s “green party” PVEM.

These are only preliminary recommendations. Their transformation into reality would require a constitutional amendment, which is probably unlikely to happen before the 2018 elections even through the ‘fast-track’ mechanism for legal implementation of the peace agreement. I expect significant push back from the ‘special interests’ standing to lose from some of these ideas – the Council of State, the CNE, congressmen and maybe the Registraduría. The mission dreams of the ‘broadest possible parliamentary majority’, ‘broad political consensus’ and ‘political will’ but that’s a pipe dream, particularly in the current context of continued polarization and pre-electoral politicking between parties. However, these are interesting recommendations which would, on balance, likely help improve Colombia’s electoral and political systems.

To watch: Cajamarca (Tolima) votes in a highly anticipated local referendum on mining projects in the area tomorrow. A very important vote for the future of mining in Colombia.

Why did Colombia’s Vice President resign? Who is he?

Colombian Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras formally announced his resignation on March 14, 2017 and his resignation was duly accepted by the Senate on March 21.

Germán Vargas Lleras resigned in order to run for President in next year’s presidential election, which will be held in May and June 2018. The Colombian constitution (article 197), since a 2015 constitutional amendment, requires the vice president and any number of senior officials (like cabinet ministers, governors and mayors) to resign from office at least one year prior to the presidential election if they seek to run.

Vargas Lleras is one of the early favourites for the 2018 presidential election, and has been a major player in Colombian politics since the late 1990s. Who is he? Here is his biography.

Offices held: Vice President (2014-2017), Minister of Housing (2012-2013), Minister of the Interior (2010-2012), Senator (1998-2008)
Age: 54 (1962)
Party: Cambio Radical (Radical Change, CR)
Region: Bogotá / Cundinamarca

Vargas Lleras, born in Bogotá in 1962, is the maternal grandson of former President Carlos Lleras Restrepo (1966-1970) and the nephew of Carlos Lleras de la Fuente, former ambassador to the US. He is a lawyer by profession, graduated from the Universidad del Rosario (one of the most prestigious private universities in the country, the alma mater of many famous politicians).

Growing up close to his grandfather, Vargas Lleras entered politics as a teenager – first in the ranks of the Nuevo Liberalismo (new liberalism), the dissident reformist and moralizing movement founded by Luis Carlos Galán in 1979 as a dissident faction of the Liberal Party. It virulently attacked political corruption and made its name in the 1980s by being the first to denounce the infiltration of the drug cartels (notably Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel) in Colombian politics – a battle which took the lives of several members of the movement, most famously Galán himself in 1989, shot in Soacha (Cundinamarca) by a hired assassin as he was the runaway favourite for the Colombian presidency in 1990.

Under the banner of Nuevo Liberalismo, Vargas Lleras won his first elected office – municipal councillor in the small town of Bojacá (in Cundinamarca, outside of Bogotá) – at the age of 19 in 1981. He was elected city councillor in Bogotá in 1988, reelected in 1990 and 1992. Following Galán’s assassination in 1989, Vargas Lleras rejoined the wider Liberal Party and served as secretary general of the Liberal Party between 1990 and 1992.

Vargas Lleras was elected to the Senate in 1994, with his Liberal list obtaining about 23,800 votes nationally (over 13,200 of them from Bogotá), placing in the bottom tier of successful candidates. He was reelected to a second term in 1998, again with the Liberal Party, with about 55,200 votes.

Vargas Lleras gained a national profile as a strong opponent of President Andrés Pastrana’s peace process with the FARC (1998-2002), famously detailing the FARC’s abuses and illegal activities in the Caguán demilitarized zone (zona de distensión) during a Senate debate in October 2001. His opposition to the peace process led him to leave the Liberal Party and endorse the presidential candidacy of Álvaro Uribe, a Liberal dissident with a hawkish stance against the FARC and the doomed peace process. Riding on his newfound national renown, Vargas Lleras was reelected to a third term in the Senate in 2002, with 210,500 votes, making him the third most popular candidate nationally.

In 2002, he ran with Colombia Siempre, one of a plethora of empty shell parties which had proliferated in the late ’90s (this party was led by Juan Lozano, a former galanista, now an uribista columnist). Pushed by the partisan consolidation which followed the 2003 political-electoral reform, Vargas joined Cambio Radical (CR, Radical Change), a party founded by galanista Liberal dissidents in 1998, and soon thereafter became leader of the party. Since then, though particularly since 2010, he has maintained a stronger hold over his party than any other Colombian politician (besides Uribe with his new cult-like party) and revealed himself as an excellent political operator, strategist and an expert in the art of forming political coalitions, ensuring bureaucratic representation for his people and strengthening his own party.

Vargas remained a loyal ally of Uribe during the first term, playing an important role in securing congressional support for his most important legislative initiatives. He served as president of the Senate for the 2003-2004 session, which saw the first debates on the constitutional amendment allowing for one consecutive reelection. However, the two men had some disagreements and their relations were complicated after 2005 by Uribe’s apparent preference for Juan Manuel Santos over Vargas Lleras. The latter resented the former as an opportunist and arriviste who was rapidly making his way up without having earned his stripes as Vargas, who felt that he had been with Uribe from day one (even before Uribe’s victory in 2002 became inevitable). Santos and Vargas had nasty encounters in 2005 and 2006, to the point that Uribe himself was forced to intervene. In the 2006 congressional elections, Vargas Lleras led CR’s list and won the most preferential votes of any single candidate that year – 223,330. Nevertheless, the victory of Santos’ new party Partido de la U (with 20 Senate seats against 15 for CR) was a disappointment to Vargas.

On two occasions, Vargas was the victim of terrorist attacks. In 2003, he lost fingers on his left hand from a letter bomb. In October 2005, he narrowly escaped a car bomb which severely injured several of his bodyguards. The government quickly attributed the attack to the FARC, but Vargas believed that it had been a plot involving the corrupt state intelligence agency (the DAS) and paramilitaries.

Relations between Uribe and Vargas Lleras became increasingly strained during the first half of Uribe’s second term, particularly as Uribe and his most fervent supporters began ramming through their referendum on a second reelection. Vargas Lleras – because of his own presidential ambitions – declared himself an uribista antirreeleccionista (anti-reelection uribista), something which a furious Uribe declared could not be a thing and responded by stripping Vargas’ friends of their bureaucratic positions. The issue divided Vargas’ party, with some of its members of Congress – for example, representative Roy Barreras and senator Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez – supporting Uribe’s second reelection. In the lower house, presided at the time by Vargas’ close ally Germán Varón, CR representatives contributed to to the lengthy agony of the reelection referendum bill. Vargas Lleras continued to support Uribe’s centrepiece democratic security policy, but criticized the government and its ministers on several occasions.

To make matters worse for Vargas Lleras during this time, Cambio Radical was the party hit hardest by the parapolitics scandal – no less than 6 senators and 9 representatives from the party were found guilty of having ties to paramilitary groups in the 2002 and 2006 elections. 8 of CR’s 15 senators elected in 2006 were investigated for parapolitics, the highest absolute number among any party, although not the highest percentage. Among those convicted was Javier Cáceres Leal, elected to the Senate on the CR list in 2006 and 2010 and president of the Senate in 2009-2010. He was arrested in September 2010 and sentenced to 9 years in jail in 2012. The scandal further tainted Vargas’ image, showing his willingness to ally with sleazy and contemptible people for strategic purposes.

Vargas Lleras resigned his Senate seat in June 2008, to devote all his time to preparing his 2010 presidential candidacy (which he officially announced in June 2009). He fed a lengthy suspense about his potential participation in a ‘interparty primary’ either with the opposition Liberal Party (as ‘Liberal reunification’) or uribismo, but went through to the end with his candidacy. Lacking Uribe’s official backing (which ultimately went to his rival Santos) and indeed shunned by the palace, Vargas Lleras’ campaign fared poorly in the polls and never enjoyed a spate of momentum. However, his campaign was one of the better ones that year – efficiently and smartly run, with a solid program of ideas, a memorable slogan (mejor es posible – better is possible) and a standout performance in the debates. It was not enough for a top two finish, but with 10.1% he was an unexpectedly strong third (he had polled 3-5% in the last polls).

Santos and Vargas Lleras reconciled their differences between both rounds, and he was appointed Minister of the Interior and Justice (the two portfolios had been merged by Uribe’s government reorganization in 2002, but were later separated in 2011), an appointment poorly received by Uribe. He had originally been rumoured for the Ministry of Defence, but in the face of Uribe’s frontal opposition to that idea and Santos’ pragmatic desires to avoid a spat with Uribe so early in his presidency, he received the interior and justice ministry instead. As interior and justice minister, he was in charge of mending ties between the executive and the courts, which had become appallingly bad during Uribe’s second term. On the political front, he consolidated in Congress the president-elect’s Unidad Nacional alliance with the Liberal, Conservative, U and CR parties. He was also the government’s chief advocate for the victims’ law, a royalties reform and other major legislative projects. In May 2012, Vargas was shuffled to the Ministry of Housing, where he attached his name to the government’s popular program of 100,000 free (or low-cost subsidized) houses and apartments for poor families. He saw the ministry and its most publicized program as an opportunity to add a ‘social’ angle to his image as a strict, conservative law-and-order politician. Since then, he has relished photo-ops delivering new free houses to the poor.

Vargas and Santos had a good relation throughout the first term, but questions about Vargas Lleras’ political future arose in 2013 as the 2014 electoral cycle drew closer. He was rumoured as a presidential candidate on the off chance that Santos did not run for reelection, others speculated a return to the Senate leading a CR list to oppose Uribe’s list . In May 2013, he resigned from the housing ministry to lead Santos’ reelection campaign.

In February 2014, he was announced as Santos’ running-mate. While the Colombian vice presidency has usually been a low-profile position, not a stepping stone to higher office, Vargas Lleras’ stature and the legal possibility for the vice president to be appointed to other executive positions or be delegated responsibilities opened an interesting possibility for him. Following the hard-won reelection, Vice President Vargas Lleras was given responsibility for several important domestic policy issues – infrastructure (notably the government’s multi-million dollar investments in ‘fourth generation highways’ across the country), housing, access to water and mining. The ministers of transportation and housing, appointed in 2014, were both from CR (but CR lost the transportation ministry in the April 2016 shuffle).

The vice president spent most of his time promoting the big infrastructure projects and housing photo-ops, a smart strategy given that transportation and housing are basically the only two remaining areas where the government remains popular.

In the meantime, Vargas Lleras was conspicuously silent about the Havana peace process – leading to speculation that he was uncomfortable (if not opposed) to the peace process, given his past positions, and that he was playing it cautious in anticipation of a 2018 presidential candidacy (reaping benefits of peace if it is successful, running a hardline conservative campaign if it fails or is unpopular). After the first peace agreement was announced in August 2016, Santos uncharacteristically called on Vargas Lleras to campaign for the Yes in the plebiscite – “I want to see you next week supporting the Yes”. Irked by Santos’ admonishment, Vargas gave a “yes, but” answer – that he would vote yes, but he said that he disagreed with the powers granted to the transitional justice mechanism. His actual participation in the plebiscite campaign was very limited, mostly summed up to a large campaign event in Barranquilla with Santos and mayor Alex Char in the last few days. The results of the October 2 plebiscite – the narrow unexpected No victory – showed, in the details, that the CR’s clientelistic political machines had not turned out their people for the Yes, resulting in very low turnout in regions like the Caribbean where CR has built strong machines.

Vargas spent much of his time in the vice president laying the groundwork for his quasi-certain presidential candidacy. In the 2015 local and regional elections, with the help of Alex Char, now the wildly popular CR mayor of Barranquilla, he built a strong coalition of CR candidates across the country, particularly in the Caribbean region. Many of his candidates were controversial because of past links to organized crime, illegal groups or corruption scandals, but most were successful. In Bogotá, CR endorsed the ultimately successful mayoral candidacy of former mayor Enrique Peñalosa, going against CR’s other two Unidad Nacional allies (the U and the Liberals) who supported Rafael Pardo — although given that Peñalosa’s approval rating is barely 25% and faces a serious recall effort, he isn’t an asset to any campaign. CR has also been saddled with its endorsements of two governors in the Caribbean department of La Guajira in 2011 and 2015 — in 2011 it endorsed Kiko Gómez, who was arrested in October 2013 and recently convicted for a triple homicide (with more charges pending); in 2015 it endorsed Oneida Pinto, a politician close to Kiko Gómez who was removed from office in 2016 (over a legal technicality) but is now facing several corruption charges. CR’s leaders are refusing to take responsibility for these endorsements, with the general result being bad press for the party and Vargas Lleras.

Most politicians in the Party of the U and the Liberal Party were publicly annoyed with the vice president’s barely concealed presidential aspirations and Santos’ apparent favouritism for him (in bureaucratic appointment and favours). The U and the Liberals have been exploring the possibility of forming a coalition for the 2018 elections, officially to defend the implementation of the peace agreement, unofficially to form a strong alternative to both uribismo and Vargas Lleras. However, in January 2017, Vargas Lleras allegedly offered the vice presidency (on his 2018 ticket) to Simón Gaviria, the director of the national planning department and the son of former Liberal president César Gaviria. Reportedly, Vargas Lleras made similar offers to Conservative representative David Barguil and uribista senator and 2018 candidate Iván Duque. Although little has since come of this, it shows Vargas Lleras’ remarkable abilities as a keen political strategist, working to divide potential rival parties by co-opting (poaching?) individual politicians.

Vargas Lleras is a hot-tempered man prone to fits of anger, often reprimanding subordinates or lowly politicians for unsatisfactory work or performance. In public, he is usually able to keep up appearances. However, in December 2016, Vargas Lleras, while visiting a village, hit one of his bodyguards on the head (apparently over how the bodyguard was managing a local crowd). The incident went viral and is known as the coscorrón.

Germán Vargas Lleras has typically ranked as one of the most popular politicians in the country, with a teflon-like popularity. While Santos has become extremely unpopular, with a 24% approval in the latest Gallup poll, Vargas Lleras remained quite popular, with favourable ratings in the 50-60% range – because of his identification with the government’s popular policy areas and his detachment from the more controversial areas (peace process, the economy). However, auguring poorly for his nascent presidential campaign, the last Gallup poll in February 2017 showed a major collapse in his popularity: for the first time, he has a net unfavourable rating — 44% to 40%, a 20 point swing since December. He had been hobbled by the the coscorrón, general distaste of establishment politicians like him, unfavourable media coverage and by CR’s La Guajira nightmares; even a xenophobic anti-Venezuelan schoolyard brawl with Diosdado Cabello hasn’t saved him (at an event, he said that the free houses weren’t for venecos, a pejorative term for Venezuelans in certain regions of Colombia, and Diosdado Cabello retorted by calling Vargas hijo del gran puto, or ‘son of a bitch’).

Disjointed general reflections on Colombian politics and political history

Politically, Colombia is a country of paradoxes: (one of) “the oldest democracy in South America”, but also the oldest armed conflict in the Americas (since 1964, or, more accurately, 1946-8). It is a country with a long tradition of competitive elections, civilian governments, peaceful transitions of power and – for most of its history – a fairly consensual (formal) political culture. It is also a country with a long tradition of political violence, expressed in a dozen-odd civil wars in the nineteenth century, the madness of the Violencia or the barbarity of the current armed conflict in all its plural forms. How these two, apparently self-contradictory, things can apparently coexist is one of the most interesting things (to me) about Colombian politics.

Colombian politics and history, even disregarding violence, stand out in Latin America – I mean, pick up any undergrad textbook which mentions South America, and Colombia is nothing more than a footnote or mentioned in passing, usually preceded with the word ‘except’. Despite being South America’s second most populous country, and one of its largest economies, less is commonly known about it than is known of, say, Argentina or Chile (and, obviously, Cuba). I suppose that’s because Colombia is that annoying exception which breaks down polisci theories. Colombia is practically the only Latin American country which was not carried by the Pink/Red wave a few years ago (also, Mexico, but Mexico has a strong left). Related to this point, Colombia is one of the few Latin American countries which lacks a strong left. Colombia is one of the few Latin American countries (along with minor Central American countries and basket case Paraguay) where the nineteenth century two-party, Liberal/Conservative, system survived well into the twentieth century – certainly much longer than it did in Mexico, Ecuador or Venezuela. There are plenty of other cases where Colombia is the odd man out, or unique in some way – the near-absence of military coups, the lack of an authoritarian military dictatorship in the 1970s or the oddity of the National Front, for example.

The common refrain about Colombia being “the oldest democracy in South America” isn’t entirely accurate, and if your definition of democracy is the slightest bit more demanding than “they hold elections”, then you’d probably disagree with it. At the same time, it does have a lot of truth to it – Colombia had a peaceful transition of power between two opposing sides following an election in 1836, Colombia’s change of government during the Depression era (1930) came through an election won by the opposition (because the governing party was divided) rather than a revolution or coup as in most other South American countries, presidents who don’t serve the entirety of their terms are far more the exception than the rule (hello Ecuador) and elections are a central element to political competition in Colombia (and there is a long list of closely contested elections). On the other hand, several points strike pretty big holes in the idea of “the oldest democracy” – the quasi-permanent undemocratic states of emergency under article 121 of the 1886 constitution between the 1940s and 1991 (which allowed governments, among other things, to legislate by decree), massive human rights abuses by public authorities, the widespread collusion and criminal alliances between illegal groups and politicians, the ruling elites’ inability/unwillingness to integrate new social groups (especially disadvantaged or marginalized ones) into formal political mechanisms or the exclusionary power-sharing National Front (1958-1974). Several of these factors have been causes and effects of the armed conflict.

Something must be said about the Liberal (rojos – reds) and Conservative (azules – blues, or godos) parties, and their role in Colombian politics and society. Both arose sometime in the nineteenth century, at roughly the same time, one in reaction to the other, and they remain the only two relevant political parties until the 1990s. The initial ideological differences between the two were similar to those between the same parties in other countries in the region – overstated, though with some differences on things like religion/the role of the Church, free trade and territorial organization (federalism). The Liberals of the nineteenth century got their wet dream in the 1863 constitution, of the ‘United States of Colombia’, and supported very decentralized federalism, personal freedom (with caveats), free trade (to an extent) and state-ordained secularism/laïcité; the Conservatives, on the other hand, got their wet dream in the 1886 constitution, and their foundations were family, faith and order (still reflected in the national anthem – Comprende las palabras / Del que murió en la cruz, or on the coat of arms – Libertad y Orden). In any case, both parties have always been a complex, convoluted mess of factions – who, at specific times, have jumped ship for purpose of defeating a common enemy. The differences in social makeup of the parties, at their outset, have been overstated as well – it was never a ‘landowning Conservatives’ versus ‘bourgeois merchant Liberals’ affair of the kind suggested by some old literature. Political competition between and within the Liberals and Conservatives took place in elections (i.e. 1930, 1946), but also in civil wars – like those of the nineteenth century, of the War of the Thousand Days at the turn of the last century and, most recently, the Violencia. The Liberals and Conservatives, in a country lacking a national myth or ethos, served an important function in unifying a fragmented and poorly connected country of regions. At the same time, they (and, for the godos, the Church) also created and cemented ‘inherited hatreds’, fuelling political violence. To the above list of ideological differences I would add a really important one – murdering the other side. A tour guide in Cali once told me that the Liberals and Conservatives have been the cause/root of every problem in Colombia – it’s hard to disagree.

The Liberals ruled between 1861 and the early 1880s – the ‘radical Olympus’; the Conservatives ruled from about 1886 to 1930 (in different forms) – the ‘Conservative Hegemony’ and the Liberals ruled between 1930 and 1946 – the ‘Liberal Republic’. After 1930, the Liberals became the dominant party – they were the majority party in every election until some point in the 1990s, and when they lost elections (1946 and 1982) it was because of vote splitting. The Liberals’ advantage came from their ability at integrating or (more accurately) co-opting some emerging social group into the political system – unionized workers, some peasants, new urban clienteles and parts of the political left (the Communist Party, for one, was basically an appendage of the Liberals for a good period of time). In every case, of course, the Liberals sold all of these people out – agrarian reform, the lack thereof, being the most tragic and pernicious example.

The last round of red-blue violence in The Violence having been particularly egregious even by Colombian standards, a genius power-sharing mechanism was created by Liberal and Conservative elites in 1957 and entrenched into the constitution – the National Front (Frente Nacional). Among other things, the National Front meant a guaranteed equal 50-50 division of seats in all elected bodies (from town council up to Congress) between the two parties (with other parties explicitly barred from running themselves), an alternation in the presidency (in the style of Restoration Spain’s turno pacifico) over what ended up as four terms (1958-1974), an equal division of cabinet and bureaucratic gigs at all levels between parties, requirements for inflated super-majorities to do or pass anything and an indefinite sunset clause guaranteeing bipartisan power-sharing far beyond 1974 (article 120 of the 1886 constitution) — although the National Front dispensations ended in 1974, the first single-party government was that of Virgilio Barco (1986). The National Front was hardly democratic, and although its successes should not be downplayed (i.e. the Liberals and Conservatives stopped murdering each other, although this took away their last remaining ideological difference, and other people were murdered instead), it had a fairly negative long-term impact on Colombian democracy and political participation (i.e. it’s one of the reasons why turnout is crap). That said, although other parties were excluded from political/electoral participation, this wasn’t as bad as it sounds – the other parties were jokes on their own, regardless of other things, and the other parties found ways to participate by becoming factions of the two parties. It wasn’t as if there was no democratic opposition to the system – you had the MRL and later the ANAPO, and former military dictator/poor man’s Perón Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (1953-1957) nearly won the 1970 election with his anti-FN ANAPO (amidst claims that it was #rigged, which I’m not convinced is true). The National Front turned competition from inter-party to intra-party, and this continued (and accelerated) after 1974, reinforced by Colombia’s laughably bad electoral system (changed in 2003). The Liberal and Conservative parties collapsed progressively in the 1990s – with the highly progressive 1991 constitution which favoured the fragmentation/opening of the party system, the impetus from the electoral system and the paramilitaries’ hidden hand. In any case, the Liberal and Conservative parties and their ‘traditions’ now both exist beyond the parties themselves – the Partido de la U and Cambio Radical are basically factions of the Liberals which split off, and Juan Manuel Santos, a founder and leader of the Partido de la U, is at heart a Liberal.

Colombian politics remain intensely clientelistic and patronage-driven. No president has won without support of some kind of political machine — in Colombia, ‘political machine’ really takes on its nasty pejorative connotation; Antanas Mockus came closest in 2010, and modern post-2010 uribismo has gone very far without much in the way of traditional political machines (which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have any). The machines and clientelistic networks they represent reign supreme in Congress, the lair of criminals. They are kept in line to vote for the government’s bills through pork (in Santos’ Colombia, known as marmelade, which is a superior term), bureaucratic appointments for their friends and allies (at all levels, political machines/clans expect ‘bureaucratic quotas’ for themselves in administrations) and a chance to sneak in riders to bills (known as micos, literally ‘monkeys’, again a far superior term to boring English!).  If you don’t honour your deal with these “bad hombres”, then you will get screwed over – and those people really don’t mess around (ask Kiko Gómez, former governor, convicted to 55 years for homicide).

Much more could (and should) be said about the 1991 constitution, the judiciary’s important role, the paradoxical highly legalistic tradition of a war-torn country (Colombianos las armas os han dado la independencia, pero solo las leyes os darán la libertad – Francisco de Paula Santander), US-Colombia relations, Álvaro Uribe, parapolitics or the armed conflict — but I’d probably ramble on forever…

Nobel Prize 2016: Juan Manuel Santos

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will receive the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 2016 for his efforts to bring an end to the Colombian armed conflict, more specifically through a peace agreement with the country’s largest and oldest guerrilla group, the FARC, and this in spite of the rejection of the initial peace agreement by a narrow majority of voters in a plebiscite on October 2. Below is my profile of the Nobel laureate, written prior to the plebiscite.

Juan Manuel Santos, born on August 10, 1951, is the current President of Colombia, since 2010, and until 2018. Santos comes from one of the most powerful and influential families in twentieth century Colombia, the Santos family. As such, he is the pure product of the Bogotá oligarchy.

The Santos family is large and complicated, but in broad terms it has been a leading player in Colombian journalism and politics since the 1930s. Juan Manuel Santos’ great-uncle was Eduardo Santos Montejo, most famous for having been President between 1938 and 1942, but perhaps his greatest influence came as the owner of El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest newspaper, between 1913 and his death in 1974. Eduardo Santos was a leading figure of the Liberal Party, and through El Tiempo wielded significant influence over the course of Colombian politics. Santos’ father, Enrique Santos Castillo, was hated by his uncle Eduardo because of his pro-Franco views in the Spanish Civil War (to the point that he was willing to go to Spain to fight alongside Franco’s forces), so he was relegated to a lesser position in the newspaper (general editor) when Eduardo Santos died in 1974 – his brother, Hernando Santos Castillo, who was also disliked by his uncle but had more palatable political views, did not become director of the newspaper but did inherit the largest share of the newspaper and eventually did become director, in 1981. The Santos family sold a majority of its shares in El Tiempo in 2007 to the Spanish editorial company Grupo Planeta, which in turn sold its shares to Luis Carlos Sarmiento, Colombia’s richest man, in 2012. Still, El Tiempo‘s current director, Roberto Pombo, is married to one of Santos’ cousins.

Juan Manuel Santos’ eldest brother is Enrique Santos Calderón, whose career opportunities with the family paper were complicated by his youthful left-wing views. Juan Manuel’s first cousin is Francisco ‘Pacho’ Santos Calderón, a former journalist and Vice President of Colombia (2002-2010), currently one of his biggest political opponents.

While his brother was the rebel university leftist, Juan Manuel grew up surrounded by the country’s leading political and economic leaders, and reveled in the company. After finishing his undergrad in Kansas, Santos got his first job as Colombia’s representative to the International Coffee Organization in London thanks to a family friend, where he also finished a masters’ in economy at the London School of Economics (Santos speaks English fluently). Nine years later, back in Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos became deputy director of El Tiempo, and had it not been for his political career, he almost certainly would have become director (his eldest brother being sidelined for his leftist views). With the family paper, Santos worked mostly on the editorial side, and continued to sign op-eds well after his own political career had begun.

By personality, Santos is a rigorous, disciplined, measured, tenacious and calculating man. These skills make him a redoubtable political strategist. In contrast, he is also described as vain, egocentric and cold, which explain why he is a rather poor politician and a bad campaigner in election seasons.

Santos’ political career began in earnest in 1991, when he was appointed as the country’s first Minister of Foreign Trade by President Cesar Gaviria, who was leading the country’s economic liberalization (apertura). In 1993, Santos manoeuvred his way into being elected (by Congress) as the last presidential designate, the forerunner of the vice presidency which had been done away with by the new constitution in 1991. The post was devoid of actual responsibilities, but gave its holder a good deal of notoriety and political capital. Using his newfound (relative) political notoriety, Santos auto-proclaimed himself as a presidential pre-candidate in 1994, but he was still too weak and unknown for that to go very far.

Santos left the government with Ernesto Samper’s election in 1994, but he began on fairly good terms with the new government – Santos solicited from Samper the embassy in Washington DC. However, Santos quickly saw an opening for himself with the government’s legitimacy crisis (the Proceso 8.000, or the alleged financing of Samper’s 1994 campaign by drug money from the Cali Cartel). In the process of laying the groundwork for a 1998 presidential candidacy, Santos met with top paramilitary and FARC leaders (Carlos Castaño and Raúl Reyes) for a sleazy political maneuver disguised as a ‘peace process’, aimed at forcing Samper to resign. Despite his self-aggrandizing efforts to make people believe he was important, his presidential aspirations in 1998 again went nowhere.

Santos’ biggest problem in his career has been the fairly accurate impression that he is not a man of the people; he is rather uncomfortable and somewhat awkward in those settings, while his natural habitats are the backrooms or high-level diplomatic or economic forums. He is uncharismatic and a poor communicator, struggling to connect to the people in the way that his predecessor as president, Álvaro Uribe, can. Despite being characterized as an egocentric megalomaniac even by his friends, Santos’ talent has been to surround himself with fairly brilliant people.

Santos was a scathing critic of President Andrés Pastrana between 1998 and 2000. In 2000, Pastrana’s government was deeply unpopular – his keystone peace process with the FARC was agonizing, the economy was in the dumps and to make matters worse he began picking fights with the Liberals in Congress – and faced a crisis of governability. The president and the Liberal opposition reached a compromise, which saw Santos enter cabinet as Minister of Finance, a post he held until the end of Pastrana’s term in 2002 (Santos was lucid enough to drop his presidential pretensions for 2002). Despite the poor shape of the country’s economy at the time, Santos gets good marks overall for his time as finance minister – advancing a good number of important reforms.

Álvaro Uribe was elected president in 2002, after Juan Manuel Santos had (officially) supported the Liberal Party’s standard-bearer, Horacio Serpa. From his columns in El Tiempo, Santos alternated between praising and cautiously criticizing the popular new president, so as to keep his own political options open. In 2004, Santos opposed Uribe’s efforts to amend the constitution to allow for one immediate re-election, but upon seeing that this amendment would pass and that Uribe would be overwhelmingly reelected in 2006, Santos understood that Uribe would define Colombian politics for the coming years and that his own political career would be best served by becoming a loyal uribista. Failing to take control of his ancestral party, the Liberals, Santos and several other uribista Liberals (many of them criminals) bolted from the old party to create a new uribista party in 2005, which became the Partido de la U (officially – Partido Social de Unidad Nacional, but nobody has ever used that name) – with no points for guessing what the U might have been referring to. Therefore, after having been a (cautious) critic of Uribe, Santos transformed himself into a loyal and dogmatic uribista, not afraid to engage in excessive hyperbole (claiming that democracy was at stake with Uribe’s reelection in 2006) or character assassination (claiming that Rafael Pardo, a rival of the President, had been plotting with the FARC to prevent Uribe’s reelection – when the only one who had plotted with the FARC to depose a president was Santos himself).

The Partido de la U became the single largest party in Congress in 2006, owing to Santos’ skills as a political tactician and his capacity to attract vote-rich regional political bosses (many of whom were tied or would become tied to the parapolítica scandal or other affairs). Making the most of his role in Uribe’s victory in 2006, Santos was appointed Minister of Defence in Uribe’s second term. Santos had sought out the highly mediatized defence ministry as his stepping stone to the presidency in 2010 as Uribe’s anointed successor, the continuity of Uribe’s popular seguridad democrática agenda.

Under his term as Minister of Defence, the Colombian military struck several debilitating blows to the FARC – the polemical death of FARC secretariat member Raúl Reyes in a crossborder raid in Ecuador, the impressive 2008 liberation of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages and the dismantling of several FARC fronts in joint military-police operations. Santos milked these military victories for all their worth, holding press conferences flanked by generals. As defence minister, Santos was confronted to the false positives scandal (the extrajudicial killing of civilians by the military to be reported as guerrillas killed in combat), but managed to escape from that scandal relatively unharmed. Santos is recognized as having ended the practice, and handled the scandal in a novel fashion (i.e. instead of shutting it up) – setting up a commission on the matter and firing 27 officers including three generals.

In 2010, Juan Manuel Santos’ years of political manoeuvring and tactical moves finally paid off, as he became the candidate of outgoing President Uribe. In reality, Santos became Uribe’s candidate because Uribe was left without alternatives – the President’s first plan had always been to have himself elected to a third term, but his controversial ‘reelection referendum’ became a disaster even before it was struck down by the Constitutional Court in early 2010. Then, his preferred dauphin, agriculture minister Andrés Felipe Arias was defeated in the Conservative primary. With other Uribe allies (Germán Vargas Lleras and Noemí Sanín) having proved insufficiently supportive of Uribe’s second reelection and/or overly eager to announce their own candidacies, Uribe was left with Santos – who adroitly announced his candidacy only once the court had killed the referendum. To the voters, unaware of these political machinations, Santos was perceived as the continuity candidate for Uribe and seguridad democrática. Santos was threatened in the first round by the ‘green wave’ of support for atypical and eccentric Green candidate Antanas Mockus, but the ola verde did not translate into actual votes in the first round and Santos trounced Mockus by a huge margin in the second round. Santos was elected president in 2010, albeit with Uribe’s votes.

Given how different Uribe and Santos are both at a personal and a political level, it is not surprising that Santos did not end up to be Uribe’s puppet. What is perhaps more surprising is the speed at which it happened. His new government’s firing salvos were badly received by Uribe – he began mending ties with Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela after an acrimonious diplomatic dispute during the election, he began talking of ‘peace’ in vague terms, promoted a ‘national unity’ government to reduce polarization and some early cabinet appointments were not taken well by Uribe (especially that of Germán Vargas Lleras as Minister of the Interior and Justice). Later on, Santos’ government and the courts went on an anti-corruption drive which saw several of Uribe’s collaborators and political allies arrested and charged for corruption.

In 2011, the government pushed through an historic victims and land restitution law which recognized the existence of an armed conflict in Colombia, extended protection and reparation to victims and made provisions for land restitution to victims dispossessed of their land during the conflict. The law, the first major Colombian law to address victims’ rights, continues to generate strong resistance in uribista and hardline conservative circles.

In September 2012, Santos publicly announced the opening of formal peace negotiations with the FARC – contact had been made in 2011, and secret meetings had already been held in Cuba in early 2012. The dialogue were set up in Havana (Cuba), with ten negotiators including five plenipotentiaries on each side. A general agreement on the format and agenda of the talks had been reached in August 2012, setting six issues on the agenda: comprehensive agrarian development, political participation, end of the conflict, solution to the problem of illicit drugs, victims and the approval/implementation/verification of a final agreement. The peace talks marked the final break with Uribe, which had been a long time coming. Given that Santos had been elected with Uribe’s votes in 2010, the break with Uribe was potentially very dangerous for Santos. However, because he controlled the state machinery and access to government funds and patronage, Santos was able to retain control of his old party (the initially uribista Partido de la U) and hold together his Unidad Nacional (national unity) coalition with the Liberal Party, Vargas Lleras’ Cambio Radical and a good chunk of the Conservative congressional bench.

Two events badly hurt Santos’ image and popularity during his first term. In June 2012, Congress approved a reform of the judiciary which had been one of the government’s big priorities, but only after adjusting the reform to suit their needs (i.e. making it tougher for them to get prosecuted or removed from office). After widespread outcry, Santos took the unprecedented decision to object to the reform and returned it to Congress, which duly repealed it (it was later ruled that Santos didn’t have the power to actually object to a constitutional reform); nevertheless, Santos’ popularity (and that of Congress) took a nosedive. In August and September 2013, a national agricultural strike (paro agrario) led by farmers, rural labourers and small producers and later joined by urban groups paralyzed most regions of the country, Bogotá included. Farmers and peasants protested the high costs of agricultural supplies, the nefarious effects of the 2011 free-trade agreement (FTA, or TLC in Spanish) with the United States and the international drop in coffee prices in 2013. The government’s response to the crisis was disastrous, a good reflection of Santos’ difficulty in relating to popular concerns and connecting with marginalized groups. Although the protest was finally ended following negotiations and agreements, Santos’ disapproval soared to over 70% in August 2013 and has never fully recovered pre-crisis popularity levels (already unimpressive).

Juan Manuel Santos ultimately won a hard-fought battle for reelection in the May-June 2014 presidential election. Following a very poor campaign, the sitting president ended up second in the first round (with a very poor 25.7%) behind Óscar Iván Zuluaga, the candidate of Uribe’s new party, the Centro Democrático (Democratic Centre, CD), and facing an uncertain fate in the runoff. The first round proved to be a wake up call for Santos, who assembled a broad-based coalition to defend ‘his’ peace process from Zuluaga, Uribe’s ‘warmonger’. Santos and his people simultaneously mobilized the power of the Unidad Nacional’s powerful regional caciques (Santos had been somewhat disdainful of them in the first round, and they had signalled their displeasure by largely sitting on their hands), and the first round left-wing vote (about 15%) by accentuating the campaign’s focus on the fuzzy notion of ‘peace’ (contrasted, in a very black and white fashion, with ‘war’ associated with uribismo). Santos’ strategy was successful on both fronts, allowing him to win a narrow reelection with 51% of the vote. It has been said that Santos was elected in 2010 with Uribe’s votes and reelected in 2014 with the left’s votes, which is accurate but not entirely so.

Over halfway through his second term, Santos’ popularity is quite low – currently in the mid-30s on average, after collapsing to the low 20s earlier in 2016. Santos has concentrated on the peace process, which he sees as his legacy. A final peace agreement with the FARC will obviously have a huge long-term effect on Colombia. In the meantime, however, Santos has suffered from the lows in the peace process and his government has been widely accused of poorly managing other issues which voters find more important in their daily lives – notably the economy, healthcare, corruption and cost of living issues.

The entire peace process appeared to be on the rocks in April 2015, after 11 soldiers were killed in an ambush by the FARC. Santos’ approval collapsed to just 30% and the public’s rejection of the peace process increased significantly. His tenacity and determination made him push forward against tremendous odds, and was rewarded with the announcements in September 2015 of an agreement on a framework for transitional justice (with an historic handshake between Santos and FARC commander ‘Timochenko’ in Havana) and then in June 2016 of a groundbreaking agreement on a permanent bilateral ceasefire and surrender of weapons (edit: and, of course, by the announcement of the initial final agreement in August 2016, its lavish signature in September 2016 and the signature of a new final agreement in November 2016 following the first agreement’s defeat in the October 2 plebiscite.

President Santos’ popularity has also suffered from a plethora of other issues: recent high-profile and highly publicized scandals (notably in the police) feeding a perception of unprecedented corruption, rising inflation (outpacing the annual minimum wage increase, leading to increases in the cost of living), high unemployment, the weak peso, widespread concerns over criminality, the controversial sale of Isagen (a major electricity generator) earlier in 2016 to a Canadian asset management company, the horrendous scandal of Wayúu indigenous children dying of malnutrition in the Guajira and recent divisions in the governing coalition as politicians get their ducks in a row for the 2018 presidential election. The government, once again, has been found wanting in its response to these issues.

Juan Manuel Santos lacks any strong ideological convictions, besides the familial Colombian liberalism – that is, technocratic, elitist and pragmatic (often meaning ‘supporting whoever is in power and the status-quo’). He has shifted his own political views several times over his career. In the 1990s, as minister of foreign trade in the days of the fall of the Soviet Union and The End of History, he enthusiastically supported neoliberalism and free-market capitalism. In the late 1990s, seeing the victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the UK, he became a self-described admirer of the ‘Third Way’ and published a book about the third way in collaboration with Blair in 1999. He has remained publicly identified with the ‘Third Way’, although that is more of a meaningless label than an actual ideological orientation. Indeed, since 2000, he has gone from being a pragmatic and moderate Colombian liberal to an uncharacteristically dogmatic right-wing uribista railing against Chávez and back to a pragmatic and moderate head of State. Santos, like many Colombian liberals, also fancies pretending to be far more progressive (reformist, or left-leaning) than he actually is – especially since needing the left’s votes to win in 2014. ‘Equality’, ‘equity’ and shared prosperity have been public priorities for both his governments since 2010 – his 2010-14 national development plan was entitled Prosperidad para Todos (prosperity for all) and his current national development plan is entitled Paz Equidad Educación (peace, equity, education). While it is true that his government has reduced poverty and delivered thousands of free or subsidized houses to poor families, his economic policy has been fairly liberal – supporting free trade agreements, privatizations – and he has close ties to almost all of the country’s leading businessmen.

The Tragic Fate of La Guajira

La Guajira, a department in northeastern Colombia along the Caribbean coast, just elected its fourth governor in five years: another episode in the political crises of Colombia’s second-poorest department, which has recently attracted national – and even international notice – for a humanitarian crisis which has affected thousands of children, primarily of the indigenous Wayúu people, Colombia’s largest indigenous nation. La Guajira’s politics are incredibly corrupt, dominated by political clans with close – personal – ties to organized crime and illegal armed groups. Of eight elected governors since 1991, six have faced administrative or criminal charges and three of them are currently in jail, including one convicted murderer.

La Guajira is a department located in the northeast of the country, in the Caribbean region. Looking something like a pinkie sticking out into the Caribbean sea, La Guajira is mostly composed of a peninsula of the same name. Punta Gallinas, in La Guajira, is mainland Colombia and South America’s northernmost point, at 12°26’46”N. It borders the Caribbean sea (for about 650 km) to the north and west, Venezuela (for 263 km) to the east and the Colombian departments of Cesar (south) and Magdalena (southwest).

Natural setting

Climate map of La Guajira (source: IDEAM Atlas)
Climate map of La Guajira (source: IDEAM Atlas)

The department’s geography is rather varied; its climates even more so. In the southwest, it includes a sizable chunk of the incredible Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the world’s highest mountain range reaching an altitude of nearly 5,700 m just 42 km from the coastline (in La Guajira, the highest point is 5,390 m). At higher altitudes, the Sierra Nevada has a cold or very cold humid climate, with average temperatures below 8 c in parts. On the border with Venezuela, in the southeast, La Guajira includes a narrow strip of the Serranía del Perijá, a mountain range of the Eastern Cordillera of the Colombian Andes. Peaking at about 3,000 m, it is the second highest point in the department and has a similar climate, albeit less extreme, to the Sierra Nevada.

Most of the department, particularly the central part thereof, is covered by a low-lying, warm, arid and semi-desertic plain. The far north – Upper Guajira (Alta Guajira) – includes the Guajira desert, one of the warmest regions in the entire country (with average annual temperatures over 28 c) and the driest region in Colombia, with less than 50 days of rain per year and less than 500 mm rainfall annually. The desert topography is varied, rocky and rugged in most parts.

La Guajira is rather small – it is twenty-fifth out of thirty three departments by land area.


Topographic map of La Guajira (source: Wikimedia)
Topographic map of La Guajira (source: Wikimedia)

La Guajira has a population of 985,498 (2016 est.), expected to break the million next year. It ranks eighteenth out of thirty three departments or their equivalents, the second smallest of the Caribbean departments behind Sucre. The capital city is Riohacha, founded 1547 and located on the Caribbean sea, with a population of 268,758 (2016 est.). The department is divided into 15 municipalities. The second-largest municipality by population is Uribia, which covers the far north of the peninsula (the desert), and has a population of 180,385. The third-largest is Maicao, a municipality close to the Caribbean region’s only land border crossing with Venezuela, with a population of 159,675.

La Guajira is one of Colombia’s most ethnically and culturally diverse departments. According to the 2005 census – the most recent source of data for ethnicity – a plurality of the population self-identified as indigenous (42.4%, or over 277,000 people), and another 12.8% self-identified as Afro-Colombian/blacks (about 84,000). 39.6% of the population – or nearly 260,000 – did not identify with any census ethnic category, which is cover for white or mestizo. The capital, Riohacha, was 53.1% white/mestizo, with a substantial Afro-Colombian (22.9%) and indigenous (19%) minority. Most of the indigenous peoples in La Guajira live in the northern municipalities of Uribia (91% indigenous) and Manaure (67.6%), although there are large minorities in Maicao (39.5%) and in most other municipalities. Almost the entire territory of the municipalities of Uribia and Manaure, and part of Maicao, are part of the indigenous reserve (resguardo) of Alta y Media Guajira, the largest reserve in the country with a population of over 200,000 (2012). Some parts of the department are also part of the resguardos of Kogui-Malayo-Arhuaco and Arhuaco de la Sierra in the Sierra Nevada, inhabited by the Wiwa, Arhuaco and Kogui peoples.

The Wayúu are the largest indigenous group in La Guajira and Colombia, estimated at about 270,000 in the country. They also live across the border in the Venezuelan state of Zulia, and Venezuela’s 2011 census pegged their numbers at over 415,000, also making them the single largest native group in that country. Their natural homeland, for hundreds of years, has been the arid desert, mountains and plains of Upper Guajira (Alta Guajira). They speak the wayuunaiki language, an Arawak language, which has been co-official with Spanish in the department since 1992. The 2005 census reported that 85% of indigenous peoples in La Guajira “spoke the language of their people”, although at the same time only 26.3% of indigenous peoples said that they spoke another language. The 2005 census also reported that 28% of the department’s indigenous population did not speak Spanish (and 62% did), a number which was as high as 40% in Uribia.

For a variety of reasons, some of which should be sadly obvious to readers, the indigenous population of La Guajira is significantly poorer than the rest of the department’s residents. In the 2005 census, 34% of the population could not read and write – but with stark racial differences: 85% of whites and mestizos could, 62.5% of natives could not. The national literacy rate in 2005 was 86%.

La Guajira’s white and mestizo population includes a large Arab Muslim population, which may make up an unquantified majority of the city of Maicao’s non-Wayúu population. Unlike other Arab (largely Syrian and Lebanese) immigrants to the Caribbean region (Barranquilla, San Andrés etc.), Maicao’s Arab population is largely Muslim (predominantly Sunni, with Shia and Druze minorities) and part of the most recent wave of Arab immigration to Colombia. Maicao’s mosque is the third largest in all of South America.

Poverty in spite of wealth

La Guajira is one of the poorest departments in Colombia. In 2015, the poverty rate was 53.3%, the second highest behind the Chocó and compared to a national average of 27.8%. 24% of the population lives in extreme poverty, compared to 8% nationally. The poverty rate has been falling in line with national trends, from 70% in 2008. Riohacha is the second poorest departmental capital behind Quibdó (Chocó) with 41% living in poverty.

In 2005, the census calculated that 65.2% of the population – 40.5% of those in municipal seats and 91.9% of those outside municipal seats – had ‘basic needs unsatisfied’ (necesidades básicas insatisfechas, NBI), a common measurement of (extreme) poverty in Latin American countries based on five indicators directly related with people’s basic needs – housing, sanitation, basic education and basic income. The comparable national average that year was 27.8%. At the municipal level, the NBI level was 49% in Riohacha, 96.1% in Uribia, 79.8% in Manaure, 68.4% in Maicao, 54.2% in Barrancas and 61% in Albania.

The first tragedy of La Guajira is that it is poor despite being rich in natural resources which bring millions in royalties to the municipal and departmental governments. Mining, principally coal, is the main economic activity in the department, contributing 48% of the departmental GDP in 2015 (the second largest sector, far behind, is services, 20%). The Cerrejón coal mines, in activity since 1984 in the municipalities of Albania, Barrancas and Hatonuevo, produced 33 million tonnes of coal worth US$ 2.4 billion in 2013, 43% of Colombia’s coal exports  – and 4% of the entire global coal market. The Cerrejón mines are part of an ‘integrated operation’ unique in Colombia, with an open-pit mine, a 150 km railway connecting the mines to Puerto Bolívar, the largest coal terminal in Latin America (a large maritime port with an airport, on the Caribbean). It’s all quite nice, but, in the meantime, Wayúu communities in the same municipalities lack access to basic healthcare services in part because of the lack of transportation infrastructure. The operation employs over 13,000 people and is run by Carbones del Cerrejón Limited, a multinational consortium owned by BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Glencore. In addition to coal mining, La Guajira’s resource-extraction industry includes quarrying, gold exploration (Dibulla), salt mines (Manaure) and natural gas production.

Criminality and armed conflict

Over 560,000 people crossed the Paraguachón border crossing with Venezuela (municipality of Maicao) in 2014, making it the busiest land border crossing in the country – ahead of Cúcuta. According to Migración Colombia’s September 2016 statistics, it was down to the third busiest land crossing. In any case, the Paraguachón border is the only formal land crossing between Venezuela and the Caribbean region of Colombia, and connects with the Troncal del Caribe, the most important highway in the Caribbean region (it stretches the entire coastline from Turbo, Antioquia to Riohacha). In August/September 2015, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro ordered the borders with Colombia closed. The border has been gradually reopened since August 2016.

In addition to being a hub for legal trade between the two countries, Paraguachón/Maicao is – perhaps more famously – a hub for all kinds of smuggling and contraband, something which predates the Chávez regime in Venezuela (and his government’s subsidies on food and petrol, oft-cited as a major cause for the smuggling of goods to Colombia). Besides the pernicious underworld of drug trafficking, everything from food and petrol (both heavily subsidized, hence cheaper, in Venezuela) to alcohol, cigarettes and whatever kind of consumer goods is smuggled into Colombia – and finds its way to practically every point of the country, sold in each city’s sanandresitos (massive markets/shopping plazas selling every sort of product, of doubtful legality and even more doubtful quality, at discount prices). Colombian illegal armed groups – guerrillas (FARC, ELN), paramilitaries and neo-paramilitaries/criminal gangs (Bacrim) – have infiltrated the lucrative market of contraband, arms and drug trafficking and extortion in the border region.

The FARC and ELN expanded into the Sierra Nevada and Serranía del Perijá beginning in the late 1980s, but paramilitary and military pressure in the late 1990s and early 2000s pushed them out of the former, but maintain a presence in the Serranía del Perijá on the Venezuelan border.

The paramilitary presence began in the 1970s with the short-lived marijuana boom (bonanza marimbera) in the Sierra Nevada, which in many ways foreshadowed the much larger cocaine ‘boom’ and the drug wars. The most prominent paramilitary leader in the region, until 2002, was Hernán Giraldo, a terrifying drug lord, paramilitary boss and notorious paedophile. Giraldo, commanding some 1,000 men, controlled drug export routes in the Sierra Nevada and the Caribbean coast around Santa Marta (Magdalena). Giraldo had an uneasy relationship with the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), the confederation of paramilitary group formed in 1997 – he was a precursor of paramilitarism and resented other paramilitaries/drug traffickers’ attempts to challenge his control of the drug trade in the region. In 2002, Giraldo lost control over his fiefdom to AUC commander ‘Jorge 40’, after a conflict which left hundreds of victims. Thereafter, ‘Jorge 40’ subordinated Giraldo and his group (renamed Bloque Resistencia Tayrona) to the AUC’s powerful Bloque Norte (which extended its power over the entire Caribbean coast to the Catatumbo) and consolidated his control over drug trafficking in the area.

Notably, under ‘Jorge 40’, the AUC expanded to Upper Guajira to seize control of the contraband and drug trafficking networks which operated along the border in Maicao, creating the Frente Contrainsurgencia Wayúu. Arnulfo Sánchez González ‘Pablo’, who moved to the department in 2001, commanded the Frente Contrainsurgencia Wayúu and is held responsible for the April 2004 Bahía Portete massacre, in which the AUC killed at least six Wayúu, four of them women, and led to hundreds of displaced persons.

Some 1,100 men under Giraldo’s command in the Bloque Resistencia Tayrona demobilized in 2006, followed some months later by the nearly 5,000 men of the Bloque Norte. In La Guajira, however, the paramilitary demobilization of 2006 had little effect on criminality and violence. The Frente Contrainsurgencia Wayúu under ‘Pablo’ did not demobilize and inherited control of drug and smuggling routes in La Guajira, until ‘Pablo’ was captured in Bogotá in 2010.

In parallel to these happenings, Marquitos Figueroa, a drug trafficker and smuggler challenged ‘Jorge 40’ and the AUC for control of the drug trafficking and smuggling networks in the Upper Guajira. Marquitos Figueroa had two sizable advantages: a native Wayúu, he had ‘insider’ knowledge of the workings of the criminal underworld and thus ran an efficient operation; he consolidated lasting alliances with politicians, many of whom were relatives by blood or marriage, offering them protection and serving as the armed wing of their electoral campaigns. Marquitos Figueroa gained a mythical following, praised by popular regional vallenato singers, and popularly nicknamed el perrero de los malcriados (‘the dogcatcher of the naughty/bad’). Marquitos Figueroa lasted longer than either ‘Jorge 40’ or ‘Pablo’ and had a more lasting political influence on La Guajira than either of them. He was arrested in Brazil in October 2014 and finally deported to Colombia in April 2016.

Drought and starvation

Upper Guajira, arid, hot and desertic, is the driest region in the entire country. Droughts have been a regular occurrence and a fact of life in for hundreds of years.

Since 2012, the region has been hit by an unusually severe drought, sometimes chalked up to the effects of El Niño. Regardless, parts of the peninsula have hardly seen rain over the past 2-4 years, river beds have dried up and wells have either dried up or become contaminated or brackish. The humanitarian impact is devastating – malnourished infants and children, animals dying, entire communities trying to subsist on what meagre food and water they can find and hundreds of children dying of thirst and hunger. The tragedy is compounded by widespread political corruption, lack of access to healthcare facilities, geographic isolation, the lack of transportation infrastructure in much of the desert, the abandonment of Wayúu communities by the State and, since 2015, the border closure with Venezuela (making it harder to access food).

The national media and public bodies have been sounding the alarm since, at least, 2014. In July 2014, the Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo) warned in a report of 37,000 children at risk of malnutrition in the department, including 17,000 in Uribia. At the time, Semana magazine reported that, according to official statistics, 4,151 children had died in La Guajira between 2008 and 2013, 278 from lack of food and 2,671 from preventable diseases; it added that, in 2013, at least 23 minors died from dehydration and malnutrition. 7,000 animals had also died. At the time, Semana published a hard-hitting piece sounding the alarm (title: ¡La Guajira S.O.S!). It cited a chilling figure: La Guajira’s infant mortality rate was not far from that of Rwanda. An American pediatrician quoted in the article said that “the experience of malnutrition in Colombia is the same as in Ethiopia, the difference is that for decades Ethiopia has been the country known for malnutrition, and the world doesn’t know that there is also a malnutrition crisis in La Guajira.” 48 children died from malnutrition in 2014, up from 26 in 2013. The Ombudsman called it a “a disgrace for the country.” In 2015, the crisis received attention from The Guardian – basically the only major foreign media (besides Vice) to even take notice.

In February 2016, an investigation by Semana again reported on the humanitarian crisis in La Guajira, which read much like its 2014 reports on the crisis – very little has changed, and, after all the various empty promises and politicking, Wayúu men, women and children are still starving. In December 2015, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR/CIDH) urged the Colombian State to adopt urgent measures to protect children and guarantee access to water, food and health services. Critics claim that the government has adopted only stopgap, rather than structural, measures. In July 2016, the Colombian Supreme Court of Justice ordered the government to design and implement a plan to resolve the malnutrition, water and health crises.

Besides nature, who is to blame? The answer in this case is rather simple: the abandonment of Wayúu communities in Upper Guajira by the government and political corruption. The municipality of Uribia, spread over 8,200 km² and with a quasi-entirely indigenous population of over 180,000 – over 90% of which live outside the municipal seat, is one of the poorest municipalities in the entire country. For example, only 5.3% of households have access to water and sewage. Many of the rural Wayúu settlements in Upper Guajira are very remote, sometimes located over 6 hours (driving) from the closest town (Uribia) and even further from hospitals. It is hardly surprising that, in a country where large swathes have traditionally been forgotten by all public authorities, public services of any kind are basically in-existent here.

Local politicians, a class of their own when it comes to corruption, have clearly failed the people they theoretically should represent. To pretend that they’re doing something, departmental or municipal authorities build aqueducts, water cisterns, health attention centres or send water tankers. More often than not, these are only illusions. The aqueducts don’t work, the water cisterns are built but are empty (as one suggested: contractors can make money with the cement, but not with the water) and the more remote communities have never seen a water tanker. Keep in mind that it isn’t like La Guajira is a particularly poor department when it comes to public revenues, having received up to US$1 billion in coal and gas royalties, funds supposedly destined to social services.

The school nutrition program (PAE) and other nutrition/food security programs of the local government have been nests of corruption, with politicians and their friends running off with the cash. In 2016, the Comptroller General denounced that COL$ 16.792 billion pesos (US$ 5.55 million) in PAE funds had been lost, embezzled in contracts with ‘non-profit foundations’, part of a larger ‘school lunches mafia’ exposed by the Ministry of Education. A ‘food and nutrition plan’ created in 2014 by the departmental government ended up concentrated in Riohacha or with food rotting in warehouses in Santa Marta.

National institutions like the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familar, ICBF), the government agency responsible for the protection and support of children and their family, have also failed in their tasks, despite the good intentions of its national leadership. The ICBF has six locations in the department, meaning that its services are accessible to only a fraction of the population. Moreover, the regional direction of the ICBF is part of the spoils system, booty for the political clans. National and local agencies are often quite eager to pass the buck or come up with scapegoats, and one of their favourites is claiming that the Wayúu are actually responsible for the crisis because their ‘culture’ and ‘traditions’ does not allow them to bring their children to hospitals/healthcare providers.

In September 2016, El Tiempo reported that 56 minors have died from malnutrition thus far in 2016, 19 more than in 2015. Authorities have been quick to underline that many, many more have not died as a result of hospitalizations and other measures put in place.

Politics of La Guajira: An extension of organized crime?

As governor of La Guajira, your probability of being removed from office, dragged to court and even incarcerated during or after your term is very high – it’s like the governorship of Illinois, but on steroids.

The widespread corruption of the ruling elites of La Guajira – described by critics as warring mafias – has created a fertile ground for the growth of criminal organizations. But there’s more: an astoundingly large number of politicians are relatives of some of the region’s most notorious criminals, and it’s not a case of the latter being a ‘bad apple’ in an otherwise upstanding family. Politics and criminality go hand in hand, mutually reinforcing one another.

A particularly glaring example was Samuel Santander ‘Santa’ Lopesierra, the Marlboro man or ‘el hombre Marlboro‘, currently serving a 25-year sentence for drug trafficking in the United States. Santa Lopesierra made his fortune in smuggling and drug trafficking in Maicao in the 1980-90s, importing tons of cigarettes, alcohol and home appliances and supplying the sanandresitos markets of the entire country with his contraband. Unsurprisingly, the line between smuggling booze and cigarette packs and smuggling cocaine is fairly thin. Lopesierra was the Colombian ‘distributor’ of Aruba’s powerful Mansur family, through which he was tied to a money laundering scheme in Puerto Rico, dismantled in 1994. With testimony from one of his former employees, US authorities had since 1997 suspected Lopesierra of being behind a plan to smuggle cocaine into the US and launder the proceeds back to Colombia through Puerto Rico, Aruba and Venezuela. In Colombia, Lopesierra has been tied to the unresolved 1995 assassination of Conservative leader Álvaro Gómez Hurtado, drug lords and AUC leaders Salvatore Mancuso and ‘Jorge 40’ (Lopesierra had talks with both men to bring their paramilitary structures to La Guajira, and intervened to secure their release when both were briefly arrested in 1997).

In parallel to his ‘business’, Lopesierra was active in politics, first as a Liberal local councillor in Maicao (1986-1988) and departmental assemblyman (1988-1990). In 1994, he was elected to the Senate, as a Liberal, with over 41,000 votes – the most votes of any candidate in the Caribbean, despite already being known in certain milieus as the “czar of contraband”. Lopesierra was a supporter of Liberal President Ernesto Samper (1994-1998), whose entire presidency was dogged by the Proceso 8.000, the illegal financing of his 1994 campaign by the Cali cartel (the Mansur family allegedly funnelled half a million dollars to Samper’s campaign). Lopesierra was arrested in October 2002 and extradited to the United States in August 2003. He was found guilty of importing cocaine into the United States in 2006 and sentenced to 25 years in American prison in 2007.

The two cousins: Guajira local politics 1991-2011

Since the 1990s, two rival political clans have dominated politics and elections in La Guajira. The first directly-elected governor, elected in 1991, was Jorge Eliécer Ballesteros Bernier, at the time a Liberal who had previously served as representative, departmental assemblyman, mayor of Riohacha and local councillor. Ballesteros is also the uncle of Santander Lopesierra, the Marlboro man. In 1994, he was succeeded by his cousin, Jorge Pérez Bernier. Bernier was expected to return the office to his cousin in the 1997 election, but instead preferred to create his own political clan (Nueva Guajira), whose gubernatorial candidate in 1997 was Álvaro Cuello Blanchar, a jovial vallenato singer. Cuello defeated Ballesteros in 1997, winning 48% with a margin of about 8,650 votes. In May 2005, the Inspector General’s office (Procuraduría) found Cuello guilty of contract irregularities and banned from holding public office for five years.

In 2000, Nueva Guajira‘s Hernando Deluque Freyle was elected governor, winning by a margin of 5,446 votes (officially) over Jorge Ballesteros. Whatever hopes may have been vested in him, he turned out to be another dud. Ballesteros challenged his rival’s victory to the Council of State, alleging electoral fraud, and the Council of State ruled against the governor in March 2003, annulling Deluque’s victory and ordering a recount of the votes excluding precincts with irregularities (with Ballesteros as the winner). Deluque used all legal remedies at his disposal to have the Council of State’s verdict overturned, but the sentence took effect in July 2003, and Ballesteros became governor in his stead. Deluque’s appeal went up to the Constitutional Court, which in July 2004 (Auto 098/04) ruled against him. In 2006, the Procuraduría disqualified him from public office for 12 years because of contractual improprieties. In May 2016, the Supreme Court sentenced him to nine years imprisonment for contractual improprieties and embezzlement.

In the meantime, with his political clan back in control, Ballesteros’ candidate, José Luis González Crespo (Liberal), was elected governor in 2003. He too now lives in jail: in 2010, the Procuraduría disqualified him from public office for 12 years because of irregularities in a contract, and he was sentenced to ten years in jail for embezzlement by the Supreme Court in 2012. Jorge Ballesteros was elected to the Senate in 2006, re-elected in 2010.

Jorge Pérez Bernier, exceptionally supported by his estranged cousin, was elected governor in 2007. Compared to his predecessors, Pérez Bernier’s administration was perhaps somewhat ‘cleaner’, if only because he isn’t currently in jail. Nevertheless, he has faced disciplinary and judicial investigations, again for possible irregularities in a public procurement deal. More recently, the Comptroller General revealed that COL$ 150 billion – nearly US$ 50 million – in education funds were drowned in unfinished public works or just simply ‘lost’ during Pérez Bernier’s term.

Pérez Bernier’s Nueva Guajira ruled the department between 1995 and 2003, a period coinciding with the expansion of paramilitarism in La Guajira through ‘Jorge 40’ and alias ‘Pablo’. Pérez Bernier’s clan has had a complicated and murky relationship with this criminal faction. In his second term as governor, Pérez Bernier’s health secretary was the wife of Dilger Becerra, a lawyer, local money launderer for Los Rastrojos (a Bacrim successor group to the Norte del Valle cartel) and intermediary between the politicians and ‘Pablo’. Becerra was assassinated by Marquitos Figueroa in 2011.

If you think La Guajira had it pretty bad until then, wait until you see who came next.

Kiko Gómez, the governor of fear (2011-2014)

The entente between the two leading political groups in the department broke down for the 2011 election. Pérez Bernier’s Nueva Guajira ruled out supporting the aspirations of Ballesteros’ son, José María ‘Chemita’ Ballesteros, and instead supported Bladimiro Cuello Daza, a former Conservative assemblyman (1998-2002) and representative (2006-2010). Bladimiro had been elected to the lower house with the support of his political godfather, Conservative senator William Montes (1998-2008), a signatory of the infamous 2001 ‘Pacto de Ralito‘ with senior paramilitary leaders who was found guilty of parapolítica in 2012 and sentenced to 7 years, 5 months. Bladimiro Cuello has never been formally accused of any ties to illegal groups, although some ‘anonymous’ detractors did claim he was being investigated for ties to paramilitaries. Bladimiro Cuello presented himself as a ‘clean’ reformist who would improve healthcare, education and security.

Senator Jorge Ballesteros’ political group sponsored the candidacy of Juan Francisco ‘Kiko’ Gómez Cerchar, a former two-term mayor of the coal-rich town of Barrancas (1995-1997, 2001-2003). ‘Kiko’ Gómez campaigned as a ‘populist’ victimized by the ‘political establishment’, but in reality he is anything but a ‘political outsider’. Kiko Gómez is the cousin of Cielo Gnecco, the matriarch of the powerful Gnecco family, typically one of the dominant political clans in neighbouring Cesar. The Gnecco-Cerchar family, Italian immigrants who settled in southern La Guajira and Cesar (at the time all part of a single department, the Magdalena) in the nineteenth century, has always had one foot in politics and the other in various illegal activities. The family were the precursors of smuggling and contraband in La Guajira, beginning with carjackings in Venezuela and contraband smuggling across the border.

Cielo’s brother (and Kiko’s cousin), Jorge Gnecco Cerchar, was a prominent regional landowner and businessman who controlled drug trafficking networks in the entire Sierra Nevada region in tandem with Hernán Giraldo, and is held responsible for ‘bringing’ paramilitarism to Cesar and La Guajira in the 1990s. Jorge Gnecco had supported Giraldo in his war against ‘Jorge 40’ and was assassinated in a trap set by ‘Jorge 40’ in 2001. Gnecco Cerchar had an extraordinary political influence in Cesar, Magdalena and La Guajira during his lifetime. One brother, Lucas Gnecco Cerchar, was a two-term governor of Cesar (1992-1995, 1998-2000), convicted by the Supreme Court on three separate occasions between 2000 and 2009 and currently serving a 24 year sentence for corruption, the longest imposed on a public official for corruption in Colombia. Another brother, José Eduardo ‘Pepe’ Gnecco, was senator (1998-2002) and a signatory of the 2001 ‘Pacto de Ralito’ with the AUC – and curiously the only signatory to have his case dismissed. One of Jorge Gnecco’s nieces, Flor Gnecco, was elected to the Senate in 2002. His nephew Hugo Gnecco was twice elected mayor of Santa Marta, in cahoots with the paramilitaries and drug traffickers. The Gnecco clan was absent from departmental and national politics between 2003 and 2010, but came back in force in 2011, with the election of Cielo’s son, Luis Alberto Monsalvo Gnecco, to the governorship of Cesar, and Lucas Gnecco’s son José Alfredo Gnecco to the Senate in 2014.

One of the relatives who got a helping hand from Jorge Gnecco Cerchar was Kiko Gómez in Barrancas, a municipality which is a ‘royalties mecca’ because of the Cerrejón coal mines. Kiko Gómez began as municipal councillor in 1992, and won two mayoral elections (1994, 2000) and retained control of the local administration through allies during other terms. Kiko Gómez is married to Bibiana Bacci García, the first cousin of notorious drug lord Marquitos Figueroa (see above), who was Jorge Gnecco Cerchar’s chief bodyguard in the late 1990s. In the 1990s, Kiko Gómez was also supported by then-Liberal senator Santa Lopesierra (see above), the ‘Marlboro man’.

At the time of the 2011 election, there were already widespread rumours and suspicions about Kiko Gómez’s ties to illegal groups and activities, but little proofs. He had been briefly arrested in 1991 for carrying weapons without a permit and eight grams of cocaine, but strangely released very quickly. In 1997, a municipal councillor in Barrancas who claimed that Kiko was behind a fire at city hall (to disappear proofs of irregularities in his administration) was assassinated. Another critic of Kiko Gómez’s management was kidnapped and later killed in 2001. Old investigations about suspected ties to paramilitary groups gathered dust at the prosecutor’s office in Riohacha. In 2011, Semana reported on two open investigations against him, including one for conspiracy to commit a crime (concierto para delinquir), which in Colombian criminal law is widely used to prosecute ties to illegal armed groups and carries at least three to five years in jail. There existed suspicions that judicial cases against Kiko Gómez were not investigated, because he intimidated prosecutors and any potential complainants – including, in 2011, León Valencia, the head of the respected Corporación Arco Iris, a think-tank which works on the armed conflict and related issues.

After the Liberal Party and the Partido de la U had denied the nomination to Kiko Gómez, he obtained the nomination of Germán Vargas Lleras’ Cambio Radical (CR), which has a long and esteemed tradition of endorsing questionable candidates. At the time, CR’s decision irked the ‘principled’ faction of the party, namely then-party director Carlos Fernando Galán, one of the sons of assassinated Liberal icon Luis Carlos Galán. In September 2011, after nominations were closed, Galán asked the National Electoral Council (CNE) to revoke Kiko Gómez’s endorsement, on the basis of the aforementioned open investigations against the CR candidate. The CNE denied Galán’s request, but Galán continued claiming that Kiko Gómez had lost CR’s ‘political backing’ from the moment he petitioned the CNE. At the time, it is said that ‘somebody from La Guajira’ travelled to Bogotá and informed Galán that “An investigation on you could appear today in Riohacha”…

Mysteriously, in October 2011, Kiko Gómez was shot in the leg by “a guy in a baseball cap”. Gómez seized on that mysterious ‘shooting’ – either staged by himself, part of a war between narcos or a plot by then-governor Pérez Bernier (through Los Rastrojos) – to claim that he was a target because he was “denouncing corruption”, and tasked governor Pérez Bernier with investigating the matter. His cultists tried to equate his ‘shooting’ to the assassination of Luis Carlos Galán in Soacha in August 1989. Since February 2013, relatives of three suspects in the attack have been killed.

Officially, Kiko Gómez’s competitor, Bladimiro Cuello was endorsed by the Conservative Party (his own), the Party of the U, the Liberal Party, the Green Party and even had the implicit unofficial support of part of the left-wing Alternative Democratic Pole (Polo). Nevertheless, Kiko Gómez’s campaign was supported senator Jorge Ballesteros (Party of the U) and even more clearly by his son ‘Chemita’, but also received backing from large portions of the local Conservative and Liberal parties, as well as the oddly powerful rector of the University of La Guajira, Carlos Arturo Robles.

Kiko Gómez was elected with 52.3% of the vote against 44% for Bladimiro Cuello, a clear victory with a 20,319 vote margin on a strong turnout of 54.9%.

Kiko Gómez wasn’t a pleasant surprise in his governance. In May 2013, Semana and Verdad Abierta (a superb news and analysis portal on the armed conflict) published a scathing investigation about Kiko Gómez entitled “A governor of fear in La Guajira” (Un gobernador de miedo en La Guajira), focusing on two murders in which the governor was said to be involved. Yandra Brito, former mayor of Barrancas (2003-2007) elected with Kiko’s support, was assassinated in Valledupar (Cesar) in August 2012. In 2008, her husband, who had stood up to Kiko Gómez’s intense pressures on his wife for bureaucratic power (‘quotas’), had been assassinated. ‘La Chachi’ Hernández Sierra, the daughter of a recognized Wayúu leader in Maicao, was killed in November 2012 in Santa Marta (Magdalena). At the Chachi’s funeral, her 76-year old mother cried that the governor had killed her daughter, while Yandra Brito’s mother made the same claim in a letter to Bogotá. Kiko Gómez denied involvement.

Semana‘s investigation revealed that a confidential report by the DIAN, Colombia’s customs and revenue agency, explicitly said that the governor was one of the main bosses of contraband contacted by the Bloque Norte of the AUC to share power and the business. A book published by the Corporación Arco Iris on the Colombian-Venezuelan border reported that Kiko Gómez was tied to Marquitos Figueroa. In a criminal complaint filed after her husband’s murder in 2008, Yandra Brito had presented evidence that Marquitos Figueroa had obtained the weapons and had planned the assassination ten days earlier at Kiko’s house. None of these and other complaints were acted upon, and Yandra Brito was killed in August 2012.

Kiko Gómez’s time came in October 2013. In early October, the Procuraduría opened a disciplinary investigation against the governor for irregularities in public procurement and called him in for questioning on October 30. On October 12, the governor was arrested by agents of the Attorney General’s Technical Investigation Team (CTI) for three homicides (that of the municipal councillor in 1997 and two other people in 2000) and conspiracy to commit a crime for his suspected ties to drug trafficker Marquitos Figueroa.

An article in Semana detailed the evidence against the governor. Former AUC commander Salvatore Mancuso, now in jail in Virginia, claimed that Kiko Gómez had accompanied Santa Lopesierra to the jail in 1997 when the Marlboro man had intervened to secure Mancuso and Jorge 40’s release. Another ex-para leader extradited to the US, alias ‘Pablo’, commander of the Frente Contrainsurgencia Wayúuhad testified that some of his men had stayed at Kiko Gómez’s house or farm (finca) in the 1990s, and claimed that Kiko Gómez (as mayor) financed his paramilitary group, assigned them tasks and shielded them from any problems. Despite the open conflict between Kiko’s cousin-in-law Marquitos Figueroa and ‘Jorge 40’ in the early 2000s, ‘Pablo’ claimed that Kiko and ‘Jorge 40’ had agreed to a modus vivendi, guaranteeing to the AUC’s commander a share of public procurement contracts in Barrancas. After ‘Jorge 40’ was extradited to the US in May 2008 and Marquitos Figueroa returned in full force to La Guajira, becoming the department’s most feared man, Kiko Gómez had provided him with full political support through his influence over the local police and prosecutors. As if that wasn’t enough, ‘Pablo’ additionally claimed that Kiko Gómez organized the ‘tax’ levied on smugglers and traffickers.

Kiko Gómez tried every trick in the corrupt Latin American politician’s playbook. He claimed that he was the victim of a conspiracy by the “traditional political class” of his department against somebody who was nothing more than an “authentic Wayúu peasant”. Once in jail, he tried to sabotage the case through whatever means possible. In February 2014, Kiko Gómez resigned as governor (alleging ruthless persecution by the ‘politicking class’) – although the office was held in caretaker capacity by a presidential appointee since October 2013, he remained the titular governor – and his resignation was accepted by President Juan Manuel Santos. It was an attempt to escape being tried by the Supreme Court (which, by the Constitution, tries governors for crimes) and have his case handled by (potentially corrupted) judges in Riohacha, but that ultimately failed as the prosecution obtained the transfer of the cases to the Supreme Court. The Attorney General’s office has also charged Kiko Gómez with other charges in the murders of Yandra Brito and her husband – aggravated murder, attempted murder and possession of firearms. Nevertheless, the case has continued to be rocked with disruptions. In April 2015, a judge in Barranquilla (Atlántico) ordered his release in the case of Yandra Brito (he was arrested 10 minutes later on another arrest warrant, for another murder), the judge was later arrested and charged.

He claims that he is very sick – really convenient – in March 2016, his personal doctor claimed he had cardiac arrhythmia, chest pains, gastroenteritis symptoms and intestinal bleeding. Why not throw in cancer while we’re at it? In 2016, it was reported that he had become a ‘headache’ for the prison authorities. In February 2014, in the disciplinary case against him, the Procuraduría found him guilty and disqualified him from public office for 17 years.

In November 2016, Kiko Gómez was found guilty of the murder of Yandra Brito, her husband their driver.

Kiko Gómez also caused headaches for CR, the party which had nominated him. Carlos Fernando Galán reiterated that he had tried to revoke the endorsement. In Colombia, parties are constitutionally and legally responsible and liable to disciplinary sanctions for nominating candidates who may be found guilty of crimes including ties to illegal armed groups during the course of their mandate.

The 2014 by-election

Kiko Gómez’s resignation led to a gubernatorial by-election on June 1, 2014. Three candidates vied for the office: José María ‘Chemita’ Ballesteros, nominated by Opción Ciudadana (OC), Wilmer González for the Party of the U and the Conservative Party and Luis Gómez Pimienta for the Green Alliance, Patriotic Union (UP) and Polo.

Luis Gómez Pimienta is a former member of the demobilized guerrilla movement M-19, mayor of Riohacha (1995-1998) and vice-minister of health. He has been a permanent critic of the massive corruption and criminality in La Guajira’s local politics, and his very long-shot David campaign focused primarily on education and water.

José María ‘Chemita’ Ballesteros is the son of former two-term governor and outgoing senator (for the Party of the U) Jorge Ballesteros, who did not seek reelection to the Senate in 2014. He was nominated by Opción Ciudadana (OC), the current incarnation of the National Integration Party (PIN), a party founded by controversial parapolíticos and managing to survive by selling their nominations to the highest bidders, oftentimes to ‘questionable’ politicians who are rejected by the other parties, which like to put on a facade of probity (columnist María Jimena Duzán called the old PIN a ‘garbage disposal’ in 2010). In 2013, the name PIN having been sufficiently ruined, they changed their name to the innocuous sounding Opción Ciudadana (Civic or Citizen Option) to cover their tracks. Unfortunately for them, nobody has been fooled, not even Google Translate. At any rate, Ballesteros was supported by his father’s old political group as well as Kiko Gómez (from prison), the Gnecco family and other traditional politicians like former appointed governors Rodrigo Dangond Lacouture (a powerful political family in Magdalena) and Román Gómez Ovalle. ‘Chemita’ had supported and actively campaigned for Kiko Gómez in 2011 and, even more telling, he was with the governor on the day he was arrested at a festival in Barrancas.

He was also supported by representative-elect Antenor Durán, freshly elected to the House in March 2014 with Ballesteros and Kiko’s support and nominated by the Indigenous Authorities of Colombia (Autoridades Indígenas de Colombia, AICO) after being rebuffed by the Liberals, his traditional party with which he had been elected to the House in 1998. Durán’s family is accused of being involved in illicit activities since the marijuana boom of the 1970s, and Antenor Durán was the business partner of a prominent smuggler.

Chemita’s friends on the campaign trail raised eyebrows. He campaigned without problems in zones traditionally controlled by Marquitos Figueroa and appeared in a picture with Carlos Lopesierra, the brother of the Marlboro man who himself served five years in prison for drug trafficking. Chemita was also supported by Carlos Arturo Robles, the rector of the University of La Guajira and one of the main political power-brokers in Riohacha – with a large budget and said to control 15,000 votes. During the campaign, Robles tweeted that if anything happened to him or his family he would hold the “Nueva Guajira bacrim” responsible

His main rival was Wilmer González Brito, former Liberal mayor of Uribia (1995-1998) and representative (2002-2010), nominated by the Party of the U and the Conservative Party. Wilmer was the candidate of the Nueva Guajira, the rival political group to the Ballesteros/Kiko clans, led by former governors Hernando Deluque and Jorge Pérez Bernier and represented in the House by two-term representative Alfredo Deluque (U), the son of former governor Hernando Deluque and President of the House for the 2015-2016 session. Wilmer González is the brother of former Conservative representative José Manuel González (2001), who was arrested in 2011.

One of Wilmer’s most powerful allies was Cielo Redondo, former two-term mayor of Uribia (2000-2003, 2007-2011), considered to be the political boss of the second largest municipality in La Guajira. Cielo Redondo has been accused by demobilized paras and political analyst León Valencia of being the ‘political leader’ of the AUC’s Frente Contrainsurgencia Wayúu led by alias ‘Pablo’. Cielo Redondo’s brother and some of her nephews are connected to criminal organizations and drug traffickers. In 2011, Cielo Redondo had officially supported Nueva Guajira‘s Bladimiro Cuello but is said to have unofficially split her support between the two candidates, who both ended up close to 50-50 in Uribia. She demonstrated her political power in the 2014 congressional elections, supporting Alfredo Deluque for the House (he received 7,555 votes or 37.7% of all valid votes cast in Uribia, the U overall won 46.7%) and Bernardo ‘Ñoño’ Elías (who is from distant Córdoba) for Senate (who got 5,650 votes, 28.8%, in Uribia and nearly 17,000 in La Guajira despite not being from there).

In sum, the 2014 gubernatorial by-election was basically a ‘war of mafias’, an election fought between candidates representing La Guajira’s two old, traditional politico-criminal organizations. ‘Chemita’ Ballesteros won the election with 49.75% against 45.26% for Wilmer González and 3.5% for ‘Lucho’ Gómez Pimienta, with an overall turnout of 41.9% – low, but higher than in either round of the ‘parallel’ presidential election (the runoff was on June 15, turnout in the department was just 33%, it had been just 23.5% in the first round on May 25). Chemita’s margin was 9,501 votes.

The rise and fall of ‘the black princess’ (2015-2016)

The candidate who captivated regional and even national attention in La Guajira in 2015 was Oneida Pinto, the ‘black princess’ and former two-term mayor of Albania (2004-2007 and 2012-2015). Albania, population 27,000, is a resource-rich town in the heart of the Cerrejón coal basin. The Cerrejón mine is the municipality’s main employer, and has given millions of dollars in royalties to the municipal government over the years – but, in 2005, 60% of households in Albania still had basic needs unsatisfied.

Oneida Pinto began as municipal councillor in Maicao (1997-2000), at the time when Albania was part of the municipality of Maicao, and narrowly lost the first mayoral election in the newly-created municipality of Albania in 2000. She was elected mayor, with the Liberal Party’s nomination, in 2003. In 2007, she supported the successful mayoral candidacy of her former driver and bodyguard, who was elected with the nomination of Alas – Equipo Colombia, a party founded by Álvaro Araújo Castro (from Cesar, guilty of parapolítica) and Luis Alfredo Ramos (from Antioquia, in jail since 2013 for parapolítica) but later disqualified from public office by the Procuraduría for contractual irregularities (and now awaiting criminal charges).

In 2011, Oneida Pinto launched her second mayoral bid and campaigned alongside Kiko Gómez and, like Kiko, was nominated by Cambio Radical (CR). Alongside Riohacha and Maicao, Oneida Pinto’s landslide victory in Albania in 2011 was, at the time, seen as a ‘trophy’ for Kiko Gómez. Oneida Pinto’s cousin, CR departmental assemblyman Hilber Pinto (who looks strangely like Marquitos Figueroa) was one of Kiko Gómez’s closest allies and was with him when he was arrested in October 2013. Oneida Pinto denied close ties to Kiko Gómez, but as one person told La Silla Vacía, she was one of her allies when everybody in La Guajira knew who he was. She also denied having any open investigations, even if she was accused in up to seven disciplinary investigations (all closed). As most populist mayors in Latin America, Oneida Pinto became popular by building new roads, parks, housing developments and even a sports/recreation centre.

Besides Kiko Gómez, Oneida Pinto’s candidacy was supported locally by the Ballesteros clan, Uniguajira rector Carlos Arturo Robles, representative Antenor Durán (AICO), the outgoing Liberal mayor of Riohacha Rafael Ceballos, former Liberal senator (1991-2002) and former mines minister (2013-2014) Amilkar Acosta Medina. Another of Oneida Pinto’s prominent supporters was former senator (1986-1990, 1998-2002, 2005-2008) Miguel Pinedo Vidal, a veteran political boss from Magdalena found guilty of ties to the paramilitaries in 2012 and sentenced to nine years in prison. Oneida Pinto began her political career in the 1990s under Pinedo Vidal’s personal party, ‘Moral’, and today Pinedo Vidal is a close ally of Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras in Cambio Radical (he won his last term in the Senate with CR in 2006).

Oneida Pinto’s case became a national headache for Cambio Radical (CR), Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras’ party, the party which had supported her and Kiko in 2011. In May 2015, Oneida Pinto was given the CR nomination by Alex Char, CR candidate for mayor of Barranquilla (his election, to his second non-consecutive term as mayor, was a mere formality) and Vargas Lleras’ new powerful right-hand man for the (vote-rich) Caribbean coast. Pinto’s nomination divided CR, irritating the ‘principled’ (Bogotan) faction of the party led by senator Carlos Fernando Galán, who at the time was again national leader of the party. Char’s group claimed that the nomination was given after consultation with the national instances of the party, as its statutes require. Carlos Fernando Galán resigned as party leader, citing Oneida Pinto’s nomination as one reason. As the elections drew nearer, some folks in the ‘principled’ faction, like CR representative Rodrigo Lara Restrepo (the son of assassinated justice minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, killed by Escobar’s sicarios in 1984), forgot their earlier objections and campaigned for her. Oneida Pinto was also supported by “garbage disposal” party Opción Ciudadana, the Liberal Party and Álvaro Uribe’s Democratic Centre (CD).

Oneida Pinto was but one of several cases of ‘questionable’ candidates nominated by CR in the Caribbean region in 2015. To understand why CR nominated her, knowing her past ties to Kiko Gómez, despite the fallout it had suffered from Kiko Gómez’s arrest, things need to be put in context. Firstly, Colombia’s major parties have been forced to balance principles (i.e. not endorsing ‘questionable’, corrupt or criminal politicians) with political/electoral calculations (i.e. to win elections in Colombia you need ‘questionable’, corrupt or criminal politicians). Unsurprisingly, political expediency and calculations almost always prevail – this was, in fact, particularly the case in 2014/2015. In addition, CR’s real boss, Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras, is already unofficially running for president in 2018 and began work on assembling a formidable regional base in 2015. The Caribbean region, a particularly important region in elections and perhaps the one region most heavily controlled by old political clans and caciques, was ground-zero for Vargas Lleras’ machine-building in 2015.

Oneida Pinto’s only opponent was Ovidio Mejía Marulanda, the candidate of the Party of the U and (locally) the Nueva Guajira group – the clan of three former governors and representative Alfredo Deluque, who was President of the House of Representatives at the time of the election. Ovidio Mejía is a former two-term mayor of Maicao (2000-2003, 2007-2011). In 2006, Ovidio Mejía was suspended and disqualified from office for ten months by the Procuraduría in a disciplinary case. In 2009, his 2007 election was annulled by the Council of State for having registered as a candidate 24 days before the end of his 10 month disqualification period. Between 2007 and 2011, three of his close political allies including his brother were either wounded or killed in shootings. Ovidio’s campaign was more ‘low key’ than Oneida’s – although he still had two popular telenovela actors (from RCN’s hit Diomedes, el cacique de La Junta show about the late vallenato star Diomedes Díaz) show up for him at campaign festivities, he mostly campaigned door to door. Following the usual pattern, Ovidio denied any ties to illegal groups or other illegal activities etc. etc.

Oneida Pinto put together a formidable coalition, larger than previous ones, giving her a robust base in every major municipality. Her main ‘catch’ in this regards was Cielo Redondo, the aforementioned cacica of Uribia accused of being behind the AUC front-turned-Bacrim in Upper Guajira. Traditionally aligned with Nueva Guajira, she initially supported Ovidio, but in July she switched her support to Oneida. La Silla Vacía gave several reasons for the switch: Cielo Redondo owes nothing to Nueva Guajira and is her own political group, she has been friends with Oneida for several years (and have mutual sympathy for one another, as the rare women in local politics), Cielo Redondo began her political trajectory in the Ballesteros’ Liberal faction and – above all – she was primarily interested by securing her son’s victory in the mayoral race in Uribia. Luis Enrique Solano Redondo was the Liberal candidate for mayor of Uribia, and was filmed during the campaign distributing a truckload’s worth of bags of food to voters, which is illegal. Just ten days before the elections, however, Cielo fled (possibly to Venezuela) after a failed police operation to arrest her. She was wanted on charges including conspiracy to commit a crime (concierto para delinquir), embezzlement and malfeasance.

In Riohacha, the groups supporting Oneida Pinto’s gubernatorial candidacy were split in the mayoral race. Outgoing Liberal mayor Rafael Ceballos, the Ballesteros clan (and, hence, outgoing governor ‘Chemita’), the Gnecco clan and Kiko Gómez’s people supported Andris Salas, nominated by the Liberal Party and endorsed by Opción Ciudadana and Uribe’s CD. However, Uniguajira rector Carlos Arturo Robles, considered one of the main political power-brokers in the capital, supported the candidacy of Fabio Velásquez, who worked for the university for 15 years up until 2014 as professor, undergraduate programs director and planning office director. Velásquez was considered by most to be the “candidate of the rector” or the “candidate of Uniguajira”. Robles had broken with the Ballesteros clan (whom he had supported in 2014) for bureaucratic reasons, and seems to have a long-term interest in establishing his own political group to prepare for a possible run for governor in 2019. The University of La Guajira has about 12,000 students and 170 full-time professors, and Robles has expanded and improved the quality of the university’s programs. There were widespread allegations that Velásquez’s campaign was actively supported by the university – employees were required to support the campaign, conditioning contract renewals or student aid to support for Velásquez and even allegations that Velásquez’s campaign was generously funded by Uniguajira; all claims denied by the university and the candidate, who also dismissed claims that he was the rector’s candidate. Velásquez was nominated by Cambio Radical with the backing the Char and Pinedo groups within CR, and also supported Oneida Pinto’s candidacy, although there were suggestions that Oneida preferred Salas over him. Velásquez presented himself as an outsider, from outside the political establishment, and at least some of those claims resonated with the small left-wing, non-machine vote in the city, as former mayor Luis Gómez Pimienta gave his personal support to Velásquez, without any ‘bureaucratic expectations’ in return.

The other two candidates were Nemesio Roys, the son of a former mayor, nominated by the U and the Conservatives and supported by Nueva Guajira and its gubernatorial candidate Ovidio Mejía; and Jaider Curiel, a former mayor (2008-2011), nominated by the Independent Social Alliance (ASI) but with no machine support. As noted by Semana, three of the four candidates (all but Velásquez) were the sons of men who made fortunes during the 1970s marijuana boom in the region.

The mayoral race in Maicao, with a field of five candidates, was a contentious and rather unequal fight. Incumbent mayor Eurípides Pulido (CR), elected on his third try in 2011 with Kiko Gómez’s support, anointed José Carlos Molina as his preferred successor and was widely accused of putting the municipal administration (civil servants and contractors) at his candidate’s disposition – something which is always controversial and legally iffy in Latin America, certainly more frowned upon than in North America. La Silla Vacía detailed these accusations at length, reporting that civil servants at meetings were asked to ‘bring votes’ and voter registration events effectively serving to secure votes for Molina, among other things. There were a multitude of other accusations of ‘official bias’ in favour of Molina’s candidacy: a picture of Molina drinking whiskey with the municipal registrar (the local delegate of the body responsible for registering candidates and organizing elections), portable billboards promising new houses to over 4,000 families (latching on to the national government’s 100,000 free houses program, the pet project of Vice President Vargas Lleras) and Molina (among other candidates, in Maicao and Manaure) and using water tankers to explicitly campaign (with even more worrying accusations that access to water was conditioned to promising to vote for a candidate).

Four other candidates went up against Molina. Mohamad Dasuki Hajj, a Lebanese merchant and former assemblyman, was the candidate of the Party of the U, supported by the Nueva Guajira group (like representative Alfredo Deluque and U gubernatorial candidate Ovidio Mejía) as well as the Arab community of Maicao. Alejandro Rutto Martínez, a journalist and professor, was the candidate of the generally genuinely left-leaning Indigenous and Social Alternative Movement (MAIS) and portrayed as being “distant from clientelistic practices” despite his alleged proximity to Ovidio Mejía and former governor Hernando Deluque. Rutto had already ran in 2011, finishing third (last) with about 7,600 votes (15.7%). Aldrin Quintana, the Liberal candidate, was the runner-up in 2011 with 13,000 votes (26.6%). He too was said to have used water tankers to campaign for votes. The last candidate, Laid del Socorro Díaz, was a former councillor nominated by Opción Ciudadana without substantial political or popular backing.

In Oneida Pinto’s bastion of Albania, the mayoral contest stayed within the extended family – the two candidates were her ex-husband and political ally Pablo Parra (Opción Ciudadana) and her cousin (former councillor and local health secretary) Emerson Pinto (CR). Pinto and Parra, who had been Albania’s hegemonic power couple, divorced in 2012, but it is possible that the divorce was merely a strategic move to escape ineligibility laws. Parra has been suspected of being involved in the 2002 assassination of one of his ex-wife’s political opponents, but he has never been formally accused in a case in which investigators have still not found those guilty. Parra’s victory was a a near-certainty, in part because of his local renown (for social and charitable work under his ex-wife’s terms) and his very strong campaign (notably distributing cash to those in need). He denied being close at all to his ex-wife, claiming that she hadn’t supported his aspirations. Parra got national attention with the publication of a picture of a donkey painted with Parra’s name (the donkey served as a moving billboard!), but the candidate decried it as a plot to discredit him and even played the race card (he is black). In November, after the elections, Emerson Pinto and former mayor Yan Keller Hernández were arrested for embezzling healthcare funds (Hernández fled).

Oneida Pinto was elected governor with 65.9% of the vote against 26.2% for Ovidio Mejía and 7.8% of blank votes (which are recognized as valid votes), with high turnout of 57.7%. Oneida swept all municipalities of La Guajira without exception, taking 55.7% in Riohacha (where the blank vote reached 19%), running about 10 points ahead of Ovidio in his hometown of Maicao (53% to 42.8%) and winning a massive 80% in Uribia (and 83% in Manaure). She won 77.2% in her hometown of Albania and 63.5% in Kiko Gómez’s old base of Barrancas. In the mayoral races, Fabio Velásquez (CR) – ‘the candidate of the rector’ – won handily in the capital with 51.5% against 25.1% for Andris Salas (Liberal-OC) and 20.1% for Nemesio Roys (U-Conservative). In Maicao, the incumbent’s continuity candidate José Carlos Molina (CR) won 40.6%, far ahead of his rivals Mohamad Dasuki (25.6%), Alejandro Rutto (17.7%) and Aldrin Quintana (12.3%). In Uribia, despite his mother’s attempted arrest just ten days prior, Luis Enrique Solano Redondo (Liberal) easily won, with two-thirds of the vote. In Albania, Oneida Pinto’s ex-husband Pablo Parra (OC) won with 67%. In Barrancas, Kiko Gómez’s cousin Jorge Cerchiaro Figueroa (OC) was elected.

Oneida Pinto took office on January 1, 2016, but her hold on the office was shaky because of the multitude of legal challenges she was facing. Among her first decisions was appointing Kiko Gómez’s cousin as her secretary of public works, although the opposition group (Nueva Guajira) was also treated well with appointments. Because of media scrutiny, the appointment of Kiko’s cousin was quickly rescinded, which showed to the extent Oneida Pinto needed to balance between her eagerness to project a better image nationally and delivering on her commitments to Kiko Gómez’s people. The public works portfolio was ultimately given to Kiko Gómez’s clan, through a little-known figurehead. In June, in one of her last acts as governor, Oneida Pinto gave a multi-million dollar road maintenance contract to an old ally of Kiko Gómez from Barranas.

In an evaluation of her first 100 days, in April, La Silla Vacía opined that Oneida Pinto had dedicated more time to putting out fires than to govern with a clear road map. Her administration had thus far been characterized by photo-ops, but without any clear direction. While she made the malnutrition crisis one of her priorities, she was mostly responding to events and the measures advanced by all levels of government have been mostly palliative.

One reason why Oneida Pinto’s government lacked direction was because she devoted considerable energy to fighting the legal challenges against her election before the Council of State in Bogotá. The plaintiffs were unable to prevent her from taking office in January 2016 or in suspending her from office while the case was examined, but on June 7, 2016, the Council of State (Fifth Section) nullified Oneida Pinto’s election for having registered her candidacy while ineligible. The situation emerged because of contradictions and confusions in the law and jurisprudence: the law (numeral 7 of article 38 of Law 617 of 2000) states that mayors cannot register as candidates for any other elected office while they remain in office or within the 12 months following their resignation from office (this is legally considered an ‘incompatibility’); the same law, confusingly, also says that anybody who has held public office within the 12 months prior to the election is ineligible to be governor. Oneida Pinto registered as a candidate eleven months after resigning as mayor, and the Council of State ruled that this was in violation of the law on incompatibilities. Basically, she should have resigned a month earlier.

Oneida Pinto’s downfall and the hypocrisy of Bogotá politicians

Oneida Pinto’s removal from office raised questions about CR’s responsibility in endorsing her, knowing that there were already serious challenges to her legal eligibility for the office. CR’s political rivals jumped at the opportunity to land a low blow, but some voices within the party also spoke out against the difficulties in which the party was placed because a ‘careless’ endorsement. Oneida Pinto’s removal from office meant that President Santos would need to appoint a caretaker governor from a list of names presented by CR until gubernatorial by-elections could be held. Given La Guajira’s dire state, many pointed out that the money that would be spent on organizing the by-election (COL$ 4-7 billion pesos – US$ 1.28-2.24 million) could instead go a very long way in reducing poverty. Some local politicians lamented that, which is quite rich given that this is basically all their fault.

Santos appointed Jorge Enrique Vélez as caretaker governor, an outsider (from Antioquia) and close friend of Germán Vargas Lleras who was serving as Superintendent of Notaries. Vélez is a technocrat whose own political aspirations twice failed to take off – he ran, and lost, for Senate in 2006 and 2010 although he did get to the Senate between 2008 and 2010 in replacement of a sitting senator. Vélez’s appointment took the local political elites aback, unhappy that their people had been passed over in favour of a Vargas Lleras surrogate from Antioquia.

Their discontent was made even greater when Vélez came in and disturbed the established (corrupt) order of doing things. Vélez demanded that civil servants show up to work on time, introduced performance evaluations for cabinet secretaries, ended up firing four high-ranking bureaucrats (while others voluntarily resigned) and explicitly told the politicians in no uncertain terms that he would use his short term to clean up government. Doing so, he uncovered irregularities in at several public contracts amounting to millions of dollars. He refused to transfer billions of pesos to Uniguajira, the ‘fortress’ of Carlos Arturo Robles. Perhaps cause for future optimism, Vélez leaves behind new manuals and programs guiding policy-making, implementation, procurement and planning.

Ballesteros’ clan (the main ‘victims’ of the sackings) was visibly unhappy, while Vélez’s public statements about corruption and government mismanagement poisoned his relations with the departmental assembly – which is presided by Hilber Pinto (CR), Oneida Pinto’s cousin. In October, the assembly – led by Hilber Pinto and Idelfonso Medina (Liberal) – voted to subject Vélez to a psychiatric examination for being “mentally ill”, i.e. loco (crazy). Vélez also received death threats and a plot to assassinate him was unearthed. Former governor Oneida Pinto now faces charges for alleged attempted murder against Vélez.

Vélez had President Santos’ and the Bogotan leadership of CR’s full backing – in July, the national director of CR Rodrigo Lara announced that CR would not be presenting a list of names for caretaker governor (as they were legally entitled, although not obligated, to do) and fully supported Vélez. CR’s decision not to present a list of names added to the infighting between the local and national branches of the party, with the local branch resenting both the Bogotan elite’s imposition of Vélez and its eagerness to throw them under the bus at first sign of trouble.

Besides setting off corrupt local politicians and political clans, Vélez made various comments which added to local resentment and frustration of the negative stereotypes of La Guajira and its people – “everyone in La Guajira is corrupt”, “it’s a total mess” or “those people have their own customs and traditions which make them feel above Colombian law”. Not all of Vélez’s comments and claims were wrong – most were detailed accounts of the pitiful state of government mismanagement and corruption – but he did make some problematic generalizations. Blaming the mess on the individualist “customs and traditions of Wayúu family clans” often seems to be a nice cop-out for politicians to avoid any share of the blame.

Even if Oneida Pinto has questionable friends and acquaintances, and is likely personally corrupt as well, her rise and fall does illustrate how Bogotá’s politicians – who are no angels – treat the caciques of the Caribbean region: they are more than willing to tolerate them and get their votes, but they are very quick to throw them under the bus at the first sign of legal/judicial trouble. CR’s national and regional leadership endorsed Pinto’s gubernatorial candidacy in 2015, knowing that she was politically tied to Kiko Gómez. Fast forward to a year later, and CR’s national leadership brings in a technocratic outsider to “save the day” and denies its local branch the right to present a list of local names for the governorship. La Silla Vacía compared Oneida Pinto’s case to that of Yahir Acuña, another controversial politician (from Sucre) who was very useful to ensuring Juan Manuel Santos’ reelection in 2014 but was branded a pariah by the governing elites in 2015 (who banded together to defeat his wife in the 2015 gubernatorial race in Sucre). In October, after Oneida Pinto was charged with attempted murder against governor Vélez, CR expelled her from its ranks and admitted responsibility for having endorsed her. Being Colombian politicians, always looking for an opportunity to contradict themselves, CR praised Vélez’s work and decried the widespread corruption in La Guajira – worth remembering that one of CR’s past governors of La Guajira is on trial for multiple homicides. Semana matter-of-factly noted that three former governors are in jail, as well as the former mayors of four municipalities and ‘about 20’ former civil servants (“Actualmente se encuentran presos los exgobernadores Hernando Deluque, José Luis González Crespo y Juan Francisco ‘Kiko‘ Gómez; tienen detención domiciliaria las exalcaldesas de Uribia y Manaure, Cielo Redondo, Francisca Freyle y los exalcaldes de Maicao y Albania, así como una veintena de exfuncionarios de esas administraciones.“)

The November 2016 by-election

A gubernatorial by-election was set for November 6, 2016. There were three candidates, and the two favourites were, once again, representatives of the same old political clans, each backed by their share of corrupt political bosses.

Norberto ‘Tico’ Gómez, an unsuccessful candidate for mayor of Uribia in October 2015, was nominated by Opción Ciudadana (serving its purposes as an endorser for the pariah). Tico Gómez was supported by Kiko Gómez’s political group (publicly by Kiko’s son), former governor Oneida Pinto (who posted a picture of her with the ‘next governor of La Guajira’ on her Instagram), Uniguajira rector Carlos Arturo Robles (and ‘his’ CR mayor of Riohacha, Fabio Velásquez), representative Antenor Durán (AICO) and Oneida’s allies in the departmental assembly (8 out of 11 members) including assembly president Hilber Pinto (CR) and others elected for CR, the Liberal Party, ASI and OC (the same ‘coalition’ which voted to see if Vélez was crazy). Tico Gómez was also supported by the mayors of Riohacha, Albania, Maicao and Barrancas.

The Uniguajira rector is widely said to ‘control’ about 15,000 votes in Riohacha, and ‘his candidate’ won 34,400 votes in 2015. The CR mayor in Maicao won 21,400 votes in 2015. La Silla Vacía and Semana reported how the university administration actively campaigned for Tico Gómez, pressuring part-time and adjunct staff into voting (to keep their contracts) and requiring professors to ‘bring’ a certain number of votes to their assigned polling location.

Robles and Durán had weighed their options, and considered other candidates, before settling on Tico Gómez – who was, from the get-go, supported by Kiko Gómez’s clan: his campaign manager was Kiko Gómez’s old private secretary, and they shared the same image consultant from Bogotá. Yet, Tico Gómez publicly denied having anything to do with Kiko Gómez or Oneida Pinto, and vowed to withdraw if anything was proven.

While most of the local politicians from CR supported Tico Gómez, CR did not officially nominate or endorse any candidate, sign of the widespread local discontent with CR’s behaviour since Oneida Pinto’s removal from office in June and Vélez’s governorship. Most of CR’s local leadership resigned their memberships in protest. The ‘loss’ of La Guajira weakens Germán Vargas Lleras’ 2018 presidential aspirations, potentially depriving him of up to 180,000 votes (Oneida Pinto’s record high 2015 intake).

Wilmer González Brito, the former Liberal mayor of Uribia (1995-1998) and representative (2002-2010), had been the runner-up in the 2014 gubernatorial by-election. Wilmer González is the brother of former Conservative representative José Manuel González (2001), who was arrested in 2011.

As in 2014, he was nominated by the Party of the U and the Conservative Party. Like in 2014, he was supported by the old Nueva Guajira group, currently led by representative Alfredo Deluque (U) because most of its traditional figures are in jail (Deluque’s father, former governor Hernando Deluque) or worried they’ll be there soon (former governor Jorge Pérez Bernier, now facing formal criminal charges for embezzlement as part of a new anti-corruption operation). Alfredo Deluque won 51,000 votes in 2014, and Nueva Guajira‘s weak candidate got 72,500 votes in 2015.

It is reflective of how bad things are that Nueva Guajira is seen by some as the ‘least worst’ of the two traditional clans in La Guajira. Somebody once said that, basically, Nueva Guajira are crooked and dishonest bureaucrats who “like contracts”, but they’re far from being a Bacrim. It isn’t a ringing endorsement, given that Nueva Guajira‘s governors have been accused of looting billions in royalties, with the end result of that being massive poverty, malnourished children dying of hunger or thirst and widespread lack of basic public services.

Unlike in 2014, however, Wilmer González was also supported by Nueva Guajira‘s old political rivals, the Ballesteros clan behind former senator Jorge Ballesteros and his son former governor José María ‘Chemita’ Ballesteros (2014-2015). The Ballesteros clan was behind Kiko Gómez’s election in 2011 and supported Oneida Pinto in 2015, but they have been annoyed by the growing political independence and power of the Kiko-Oneida clans (and were not treated well ‘bureaucratically’ by Oneida Pinto or caretaker governor Vélez).

Wilmer’s ‘political godmother’ is Cielo Redondo, the cacica of Uribia (where she was mayor 2000-2003 and 2007-2011, and where her son Luis Enrique Solano Redondo is mayor since January), who turned herself in to Colombian authorities in May 2016 facing several criminal charges. She is now under house arrest. She had fled in October 2015 after a failed police operation to arrest her, but being on the run didn’t prevent her son from being elected mayor of Uribia ten days later (defeating Tico Gómez). Cielo Redondo was allegedly the ‘political leader’ of the AUC’s Frente Contrainsurgencia Wayúu led by alias ‘Pablo’.

Cielo Redondo’s support has been key in recent gubernatorial elections – in 2011, although formally supporting Nueva Guajira‘s Bladimiro Cuello, she is said to have split her support between him and Kiko Gómez; in 2015, she switched her support to Oneida Pinto and provided her with a massive margin in Uribia. Judging by 2015 results, Cielo Redondo ‘controls’ up to 25,000 votes in Uribia, and continues to control local politics from house arrest. Her son, the mayor, pulled out all the stops for Wilmer in Uribia. Most egregiously, a video published showed two soldiers delivering humanitarian aid on a vehicle plastered with Wilmer propaganda. The two soldiers were dismissed from the military.

In an interview with Semana, Wilmer González poo-pooed accusations of fraud and official bias in his favour and insisted on the need for ‘reconciliation’ and a ‘re-establishment’ of relations with other institutions (assembly, municipalities, national government, private sector, communities) to resolve the humanitarian and political crisis. He claimed to be a ‘different alternative’, highlighting that he voted against the three previous governors.

Two options challenged the traditional clans. The first was Luis Eduardo ‘Lucho’ Gómez Pimienta, candidate of the left-wing Patriotic Union (UP). ‘Lucho’ Gómez, a pediatrician by trade, was a member of the now demobilized M-19 guerrilla. He ran for governor in 1992, placing second with 29.3% and 20,447 votes, losing to Jorge Ballesteros by about 6,200 votes. He claims, to this day, that the election was rigged. He had placed first in Riohacha, where he was elected mayor in 1994 – defeating the candidate of the Ballesteros and Bernier clans – and was, by some indications, a rather effective mayor. However, facing death threats, he was forced to leave the region and later the country between 2001 and 2007, and only returned to the regional politics in 2014, when he ran in that year’s gubernatorial by-election with the support of the left-wing Polo, Greens and UP. With little money and no machine support, he won only 3.5% (about 7,000 votes). He did not run in 2015, but encouraged by friends and supporters, he officialized his candidacy while Oneida Pinto was still trying to find legal means to stay in office despite the adverse ruling. ‘Lucho’ Gómez denounced the “immense ethical crisis” and the decades-old oligarchic nature of Guajira politics, but also blamed the double moral standards of Bogotá’s political circles. ‘Lucho’ Gómez has no known ‘questionable’ ties, although he did support Jorge Ballesteros’ 2000 gubernatorial candidacy.

‘Lucho’ Gómez denounced that ‘his’ list of scrutineers in Uribia included the wife, brothers and nephews of Wilmer González Brito. In an interview with Semana, the UP candidate questioned the fairness of the vote claiming a “fraudulent organization”, and asserted that national politicians – Bogotá – must shoulder some of the blame, given how they have tolerated political abuses to get their votes. He presented himself as a clean candidate, completely removed from the dominant political forces and the widespread corruption, and talked of the need for food security, greater investment in women’s welfare, better education and greater post-birth healthcare to resolve the humanitarian crisis.

The other option was the blank vote/none of the above (voto en blanco), legally recognized as a valid vote in all Colombian elections (with its spot on the ballot paper). The blank vote was endorsed by the national leadership of the Green Alliance, but was promoted with an actual local campaign by Fuerza Ciudadana, the left-leaning movement of Carlos Caicedo, the former anti-establishment mayor of Santa Marta (2012-2015). Caicedo, having elected an ally to succeed him last year, is seeking to expand his movement regionally eyeing the 2018 congressional elections. According to La Silla Vacía, Caicedo’s movement invested significant resources – caravans, billboards, hats and t-shirts, flyers – estimated at COL$ 22 million (US$ 7,000) just in advertising. Critics (one of the most vocal being a local RCN TV presenter) accused Caicedo of taking advantage of the crisis in La Guajira to build his own political movement (but that’s the point of politics) and asked where he was getting his money. Without any campaign in favour, there were already 21,708 blank votes in 2015 (7.8% of valid votes), most from Riohacha and probably from the small left-wing base (so-called voto de opinión, voters not ‘controlled’ by a clan or machine, voting based on individual opinions or ideology).

Widely described by the national media as yet another contest between the same old political ‘mafias’, it goes without saying that there was no great optimism about how the race would turn up. Mounting national (or at least urban/Bogotá middle-class) indignation about the humanitarian crisis in La Guajira and increasingly publicized details of the scope of political corruption in the department only added to that pessimism.

Ariel Ávila, a researcher for the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación, wrote a column calling for the elections to be suspended and detailing the extensive ties of both major candidates to organized crime and corrupt political clans. In a second piece, Ávila detailed the risk of electoral fraud from Uniguajira and Uribia. Semana, in October, asked if La Guajira was a “failed department” given the extent of the humanitarian and political disasters. To add to the situation, the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE), an acclaimed local election monitoring NGO, announced that given the absence of sufficient security guarantees it would not organize a civic election observation team on the ground. According to the MOE, the municipalities of Riohacha, Uribia, Maicao and Fonseca present evidence of electoral risks (factors which may influence the transparency of the electoral process). Uribia, Manaure and Maicao have an extreme (the first two) or high (Maicao) risk of corruption or coercion of the voter.

To ensure security during the elections, 560 policemen were brought in from outside the department, the National Registrar (the head of the body responsible for organizing the elections) and staff from the Procuraduría in Bogotá.

Turnout was 39.7%, which is generally in the range of average turnouts in non-local elections (turnout was 57.7% in 2015) – although 20% higher than in the peace agreement plebiscite held a month earlier, which isn’t surprising.

Wilmer González Brito (Partido de la U-Conservative) 45.57%
Noberto ‘Tico’ Gómez (Opción Ciudadana) 41.60%
Luis Eduardo ‘Lucho’ Gómez Pimienta (UP) 8.00%
Blank vote 4.82%

Wilmer González won by 8,660 votes, a slightly larger margin than the one he lost by back in 2014. The best summary of the results came from La Silla Vacía‘s headline: “La Guajira: perdió el de Kiko, pero ganó el de Cielo” – “La Guajira: Kiko’s one lost, but Cielo’s one won”. This is the first electoral defeat for Kiko Gómez’s clan – after him in 2011, his candidates won both the 2014 and 2015 elections. On the other hand, Wilmer’s victory is a major victory for his ‘political godmother’, Cielo Redondo.

Winning candidate’s majority (%) by municipality (own map)

Crucial to Wilmer’s victory was the municipality of Uribia, which cast 34,101 valid votes, 20,509 of them – 60.1% – for Wilmer González (37.6% for Tico Gómez). González won by a margin of 7,968 votes. Cielo Redondo’s political machinery, through her son (the mayor), worked efficiently, busing Wayúu voters from the desert and across the border from Venezuela to vote. Turnout was 35.3%, a relatively strong number considering that Uribia always has one of the lowest turnouts in the entire country because of its heavily dispersed indigenous population, many of whom don’t speak Spanish. Vote buying is also very expensive in Uribia: according to La Silla, in 2011, politicians could pay up to $350,000 pesos (US$ 110) per vote. Wilmer publicly accepted having Cielo’s support, but brushed off the idea that he owed his resounding victory in Uribia to Cielo Redondo’s machine, instead claiming that it was because of his own work in the municipality as a former mayor and congressman. Wilmer won even more convincingly in neighbouring Manaure (also predominantly indigenous), winning by 5,978 votes with 62.6% of the vote. Uribia and Manaure together provided Wilmer González with over and above his overall majority

The other key to Wilmer’s victory was Riohacha, the capital and largest city (42,800 valid votes), where he eked out a narrow 2,425 vote majority over Tico Gómez (with about 15,700 votes, or 36.8%), in what was practically a three-way race, with left-wing anti-establishment candidate Lucho Gómez winning a solid third place with 11 thousand votes (25.8%). Given that Tico Gómez had the support of the mayor and, more importantly, the university, his 13,328 votes (31.1%) in Riohacha is underwhelming and contradicts the idea that the Uniguajira rector ‘has’ 15,000 votes. Riohacha accounted for 63% of Lucho Gómez’s votes (17,425 in the entire department) – a massive concentration of support, given that Riohacha cast only 20% of the valid votes in this election.

Tico Gómez’s best major municipality was Maicao (which cast the second most valid votes: 38,181), where he won 48.8% of the vote (over 18,600 votes) and a 4,522 vote majority over Wilmer González. He had the support of the CR mayor of Maicao, José Carlos Molina, and the powerful machine which has controlled the municipal administration for two terms now. Tico Gómez also won in Albania, Oneida Pinto’s stronghold (he won 50% to 37.6%) and Barrancas, Kiko Gómez’s hometown currently governed by one of his cousins (he won 53.5% to 38.9%).

“There is a new governor in La Guajira: the same politics and old corruption changed parties” Source:

The ‘loser’ was the blank vote, of which there were 10,502 – about 50% less than in 2015, both in raw and relative terms. More than anything, this goes to confirm that the high blank vote in 2015 was due to the absence of a left-wing/anti-establishment candidate. Carlos Caicedo’s “outsider” campaign for the blank vote didn’t have much of an effect, as it wasn’t even concentrated in Riohacha. The voto de opinión opposed to the dominant political groups primarily voted for an actual candidate this time.

An optimist would note that Wilmer González was the only candidate to sign an ‘anti-corruption pledge’ presented by Camilo Enciso, the presidency’s secretary of transparency and “anti-corruption czar”. A pessimist would note that, at the end of the day, a candidate closely connected to the corrupt political clans which ran the department into the ground won the election – the only significant difference being that a different clan takes over and that the clan which had won all elections since 2011 lost.

Will the vicious cycle of political corruption, gross mismanagement and political criminality continue unabated in La Guajira?

Primer on Colombian Politics: Institutions and Constitution

Not much is known about Colombia’s political system, its political institutions and its politics in general – and the material on those topics in English seems awfully limited. It is unfortunate, because sometimes the lack of knowledge about Colombia’s institutions and political systems seems to lead to misunderstandings of current events in the country. As a sort of primer on Colombian politics, I will present the main aspects of the country’s politics: the institutional and constitutional setting, elections and the party system.

Constitutional Setting

Colombia’s current constitution is the Constitution of 1991, formally known as the Constitución Política de Colombia 1991 and informally as the Constitución del 91. It is the country’s seventh constitution – 1821 (Gran Colombia, ‘Constitution of Cúcuta’), 1843 (New Granada), 1853 (New Granada), 1858 (Grenadine Confederation), 1863 (United States of Colombia, ‘Constitution of Rionegro’) and 1886 (Republic of Colombia). It was adopted by a national constituent assembly in 1991, becoming the first Colombian constitution which was not purely the product of the political elites. It marked a fundamental change in the organization of the State and the relation between the people and the State.

The previous constitution, that of 1886, was – especially at the outset – a conservative document with autocratic pockets and very limited room for political participation outside of scheduled elections. Although it was reformed several times, moving in a more ‘progressive’ direction, particularly with the New Deal-inspired Liberal reforms of 1936, it became widely seen as inadequate in the face of Colombia’s massive challenges in 1990.

Some of the more important aspects and points of change of the Constitution of ’91:

  • Colombia is defined as an Estado social de derecho, a Spanish legal concept whose English translations all seem silly or clunky (social State under the rule of law). It is similar to the definition of Germany as a “democratic and social federal State” and Spain as a “social and democratic State, subject to the rule of law” (Estado social y democrático de Derecho). Which is not surprising, given that Colombians drew on two doctrines from continental European legal thinking – the old German Rechtsstaat (state/rule of law) and the ‘social State’. The Rechtsstaat is a model of State in which the exercise of political power is constrained by the (just) law with separation of powers, the guarantee of individual rights, legal certainty and a hierarchy of laws as the main principles. The ‘social State’ is a State which has incorporated, within their constitution and legal system, social rights (second generation rights) such as the right to health, education, work and social security. Colombian constitutionalism usually identifies the 1919 Weimar Constitution as the first Estado social de derecho, followed by the 1931 Constitution of the Second Spanish Republic and the 1936 Liberal reforms in Colombia; nevertheless, the esteemed late Colombian scholar Luis Villar Borda identified German legal scholar Hermann Heller as the forefather of the Estado social de derecho. Colombian constitutional jurisprudence holds that this definition in article 1 guides the entire text, including the ‘organic’ part of the document (i.e. the organization of the State).
  • Recognition of Colombia’s diversity and plurality. The ’91 constitution finally threw out the old exclusionary model of citizenship and nation common to Spanish America – that of a Catholic, Hispanic and Spanish-speaking nation excluding indigenous peoples and racial minorities. The Constitution has given visibility and recognition to Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples and the Raizal. Article 1 also defines the country as “democratic, participative and pluralist”.
  • Popular sovereignty, rather than national sovereignty (1886).
  • Decentralization. Colombia remains a unitary State, but a “decentralized unitary republic, with autonomy of its territorial units.” One theme in Colombia’s nineteenth century – like in that of most other Latin American countries (hi, Argentina) – was constant conflict between federalism and centralism. Colombia went all-out on federalism and 19th century liberalism with the 1863 constitution and the ‘radical Liberal era’, which wasn’t such a great idea. It led to a backlash, so the 1886 constitution took things to the other extreme, making Colombia one of the most centralized States in Latin America, inspired by France (Colombia’s administrative divisions are departments). Mayors and governors were not directly elected – they were appointed, by the governor and president respectively. A 1986 amendment allowed direct election of mayors. The Constitution of ’91 expanded direct election to governors, set the stage for the devolution of important powers to departments/municipalities and gave them the financial means to exercise these powers (at least officially).
  • Separation of Church and State. The 1886 constitution was also a backlash to liberal secularism and anti-clericalism, so it reestablished the Catholic Church as the official religion. After 1936, if the Church was no longer the State faith, it was still explicitly mentioned in the Constitution in silly verbose language (“political parties have recognized that the Church is the faith of the nation”). The current constitution mentions no religion specifically, and allows full freedom of conscience and religion.
  • The Constitution greatly expanded fundamental rights. It includes the usual right to life, ban on torture/cruel and unusual punishment, individual equality, right to privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, right to petition, freedom of movement, the right to work (not the American butchery of that term), freedom of profession, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, right to peaceful protest, right to unionize, political rights and a broad right to individual autonomy known as libre desarrollo de la personalidad. Peace is also a right and mandatory duty, reflecting the mindset and goals of those who wrote the document. There are also legal rights, similar to those founds in, say, the Canadian Charter. Famously, the constituent assembly banned extradition, responding to pressure from Pablo Escobar (among others), but this provision was amended in 1997 to allow extradition again.
  • New social and economic rights, reflecting the Estado social de derecho. These include women’s rights, children’s rights, elders’ rights, social security, right to health, right to housing, workers’ rights, collective bargaining, the right to strike, right to education, intellectual property, access to culture and artistic freedom. Property rights are limited because property has a “social and environment role which implies obligations” and the prevalence of public/social interest over individual property rights in case of legal conflict. Expropriation is allowed, with compensation and judicial authorization, for public utility or social interest.
  • Even third generation rights are enshrined in the constitution – consumer rights, the right to a healthy environment, the protection of public space for use in the common interest and a ban on the manufacture, importation, possession and use of chemical/biological/nuclear weapons.
  • The Constitution established new mechanisms for the protection and application of these rights, of which there are four. Only one of these is widely known – the acción de tutela. Don’t try to translate it, because you won’t be able to. It’s similar to a recurso de amparo in Spanish legal terminology, and similar in result to an injunction except that it is for protection of fundamental rights. It is the most popular legal mechanism in Colombia because it’s so easy to use: when a citizen feels his fundamental rights have been violated, he or a legal representative simply files an application before any judge specifying who violated what right and how, and the judge must respond within 10 days. As I said, the legal resolution is similar to an injunction – the one responsible is ordered to do or stop doing something. There were 4 million acciones de tutela between 1991 and 2011, and 454,500 in 2013 alone.
  • Semi-direct democracy, at least on paper, was introduced through new mecanismos de participación ciudadana which are elections, referendums, plebiscites, popular consultations, open council meetings, popular legislative initiative and recall (revocation of mandate). As I said, it’s mostly on paper – the legal requirements to go through with any of these forms of semi-direct democracy are so high and one needs to jump over so many fences that very little of these are used. For example, recalling a mayor or governor is theoretically possible, but the recall process is so tough that it has literally never succeeded.
  • Presidential runoff elections – since 1991, the president is elected through the two-round system.
  • National Senate constituency – since 1991, 100 of 102 senators are elected in a single national constituency rather than in each department.
  • An accusatory judicial system was established through the creation of the Fiscalía General de la Nación or Attorney General. Establishing the system took longer than expected, and after delays the full ‘switch’ was finally made in around 2004.
  • The establishment of the Constitutional Court as the supreme constitutional court. Judicial review existed since 1910, but the power was held by the Supreme Court of Justice.
  • The abolition of the state of siege (estado de sitio) from the 1886 constitution, which basically gave the president to declare a quasi-permanent state of emergency with very little legislative or judicial control. The 1991 Constitution replaced it with three states of exception – state of external warstate of internal disturbance and an economic, social and environmental emergency. The legislative and judicial oversight of the use of these states of exception is much stronger now: a state of external war requires a declaration of war by the Senate, the state of internal disturbance is valid for periods of 90 days renewable twice (the second time with senatorial approval), human rights and fundamental freedoms cannot be suspended, immediate transmittal of presidential decrees to the Constitutional Court for review, the state of emergency is valid for up to 30 days and no more than 90 days in a year, state of emergency decrees must specifically refer to the emergency etc.
  • The ways to change the constitution are less rigid – it may be changed by constitutional amendment passed by Congress, a constituent assembly or by the people in a referendum.
  • Dual citizenship is permitted.

Institutional Setting

Executive: President and Vice President

Rear view of the Casa de Nariño, the residence of the President

The President of the Republic (Presidente de la República) is the head of State, government and supreme administrative authority. Colombia is a presidential republic, like practically every other country in the mainland Americas south of the Canadian border. The president’s powers are listed in article 189.

The president must be a native-born citizen over 30 years old. He/she is elected to a single, non-renewable four year term using a two-round system. Of six presidential elections since 1991, two were won by the first round (2002, 2006). The 1991 Constitution created the office of Vice President, who, like in the United States (among others), is elected on a ticket with the winning presidential candidate. The VP takes over for the president in the case of temporary absence of permanent vacancy.

The president does not have an absolute veto power. The president may object to a bill passed by Congress for any number of reasons, in which case the Congress reconsiders it again and it is passed as law if Congress adopts it again with an absolute majority in both houses – except for objections for unconstitutionality, in which case the Constitutional Court takes it up and decides within 6 days.

The President can be impeached by the Senate if indicted by the Chamber of Representatives, but the Senate’s impeachment powers are more limited than in the US and, in the case of impeachment for common crimes, the matters goes to the Supreme Court of Justice for trial. The VP is tried by the Supreme Court of Justice after indictment by the Attorney General.

Term limits has been a hot matter of debate. The 1991 constitution initially banned reelection in full, even for non-consecutive terms. A 2004 amendment pushed by then-President Álvaro Uribe allowed for one consecutive or non-consecutive reelection, and both Uribe and the current president, Juan Manuel Santos, were reelected. A 2015 amendment repealed the 2004 amendment and returned to the initial text – consecutive or non-consecutive reelections are banned in full, except for a VP who held office for less than three months during a presidential term. In addition, the 2015 amendment ‘locked down’ this article – it can only be amended by referendum or constituent assembly (i.e., ain’t happening folks). There is also a kind of cooling-off period which states that anybody who holds a senior office of the executive, judicial, control, electoral and military branches (so, among other people, a VP, judge of any top court, minister, AG, ombudsman, comptroller, auditor, military commander, police commander) or a governor or mayor cannot run for president/vice president, unless he/she leaves office a year before.

Legislative: Congress

The Basics

Colombia has a bicameral legislature – interestingly, the only other bicameral country to border Colombia is Brazil. Shockingly, the legislature is called the Congress (Congreso de la República). Just as shocking, the upper house is the Senate. Somewhat more interestingly, the lower house is the Chamber of Representatives. The powers of Congress are straightforwards: makes the laws, controls the government (in theory), amends the constitution and elects some senior judges and officials.

The Capitolio Nacional, the seat of the Congress in Bogotá

The Senate (Senado de la República) has 102 members elected for four-year terms, 100 of which are elected from a single national constituency and the remaining two from a special national indigenous constituency. After 2018, a “loser’s seat” will be created for the second place presidential candidate in the Senate without adding to the number of seats. Senators must be natural-born citizens over 30, and indigenous senators must also have had a traditional authority role or led an indigenous organization. The electoral system is described in full detail later. The Senate’s exclusive powers include granting leaves of absence to the president, allowing the transit of foreign troops through national territory, declaring war, electing the AG, electing members of the Constitutional Court and trying of the president if indicted by the lower house.

The Chamber of Representatives (Cámara de Representantes) currently has 166 members elected for four-year terms. Currently, 161 of them were elected in territorial constituencies corresponding to the 32 departments and the capital district of Bogotá. Each territorial constituency elects at least two, with one more for every 365,000 inhabitants or fraction greater than 182,500 over and above the initial 365,000. Bogotá D.C. has the most representatives (18). 12 departments have two representatives. Only two departments besides Bogotá have more than ten (Antioquia – 17 and Valle – 13). In 2014, the remaining five seats were elected in three special constituencies: two from a national Afro-Colombian constituency, two from an international constituency for citizens abroad and one from a national indigenous constituency. In the next election, 2018, the number of expat seats will fall to one and there will be a special seat added to San Andrés and Providencia for the archipelago’s Raizal community. After 2018, a “loser’s seat” will be created for the second place vice presidential candidate in the Chamber without adding to the number of seats. Representatives must be citizens over 25. The Chamber’s exclusive powers including electing the Ombudsman, examining and finalizing the general budgetary and treasury account and bringing charges to the Senate (at the request of the investigation and accusation commission) for the impeachment of the president.

Congress as a whole can censure cabinet ministers, permanent secretaries and heads of administrative departments by approval (with an absolute majority) of a motion of censure.

Until 2015, the Chamber’s investigation and accusation commission had a broader field of action, to recommend indictment of the president but also all top court judges and the AG. Since no case ever resulted in impeachment and only one ever even made its way to the Chamber floor, the 2015 constitutional reform really weakened the commission’s powers and created a Comisión de Aforados to investigate and indict the aforementioned judges and Attorney General. It will be made up of five members elected by a joint session of Congress for individual eight-year terms, from lists sent by the Council of Judicial Government and elaborated through a public competition.

Congress has a bad reputation with Colombians – the most common word use to describe its members is ‘thief’, and the other terms are hardly better. After the parapolitics scandal of 2005-2010, in which over 70 sitting members were arrested for ties to illegal armed groups, it is understandable why many people would think of their representatives as greedy, thieving criminals. This on top of plenty of other scandals involving grubby self-serving congressmen selling their votes to the highest bidder, exchanging political support for pork-barrel spending (currently called marmalade or mermelada) or just being incompetent duds.

Rules of ineligibility and incompatibility; the investidura

In addition, there are common rules of ineligibility and incompatibility determined by the constitution for members of Congress. For example, ineligibility for election cover anybody who was judicially detained except for political crimes and culpable negligence; is a dual citizens who are not native-born; held a public employment position with political, civil, administrative or military authority or jurisdiction within the year prior the election; participated in business transactions with public entities or concluded contracts with them (or were legal representatives of entities which handled taxes or quasi-fiscal levies) within the six months prior to the election; lost their mandate (investidura) as members of Congress or anybody who holds ties of marriage or kinship with civil servants holding civil or political authority. Incompatibility bans elected congressmen from holding another public or private office outside of universities, concluding contracts with public entities or persons administering taxes or serving on boards of decentralized public entities or tax-administering institutions.

Violations of the rules of ineligibility, incompatibility, conflict of interest lead to the loss of one’s mandate (investidura) as congressmen; as does an absence (during the same session) to six plenary sessions, failing to take their seat within eight days following the first meeting of the house, improper use of public funds or duly proven influence peddling. The Council of State rules on the loss of mandate within twenty days of the request made by a citizen or the executive committee of the appropriate house.

Congressmen may only be arrested at the order of the Supreme Court of Justice and tried by said court.

What is la silla vacía?

Members of Congress do not have alternates (suplente) and are only replaced in the event of a temporary or permanent absences, as decreed by law, by the next non-elected candidate on the list from which he/she was elected ranked in order of registration or votes received. In the wake of the parapolitics scandal – more on that later – a 2009 political reform created the so-called silla vacía (empty seat) mechanism. It basically means that anyone who has been sentenced for membership, promotion or funding of illegal armed groups; drug trafficking; intentional wrongdoing against the public administration or mechanisms of democratic participation or crimes against humanity cannot be replaced by the next guy on the list. This also goes for a sneaky congressman who resigned after having been formally indicted in Colombia for any of these crimes or who is temporarily absent after an arrest warrant has been issued for any of these crimes. These rules not only apply to Congress, but to all other directly elected bodies – departmental assemblies, municipal councils and local administrative boards.

2004 and 2009 reforms ban access to public employment, elected office, electoral candidacy and participation in contracts with the State to anyone sentenced for crimes involving the State treasury, membership in illegal armed groups, drug trafficking and crimes against humanity.


Colombia has three supreme courts: the Constitutional Court, for constitutional matters; the Supreme Court of Justice, for civil and penal matters and civil and criminal procedure; and the Council of State, for administrative law.

The seat of the three highest courts in Bogotá

To serve as a judge on any of these three top courts, one must be a native-born citizen, a lawyer with fifteen years experience in law (in the courts, public ministry, as lawyer or professor) and have a clean criminal record. Judges of all these top courts serve non-renewable eight year terms.

The Colombian judiciary, in recent years, has tended to be very independent of the executive branch.

Constitutional Court

The Constitutional Court (Corte Constitucional) is the supreme constitutional court of Colombia, made up of nine judges or magistrates elected by the Senate to individual eight-year terms from lists of three names each presented by the President, the Supreme Court and the Council of State. The Court safeguards the integrity and supremacy of the Constitution. Its powers are:

  1. Deciding on petitions of unconstitutionality brought by citizens against constitutional amendments, only for procedural defects.
  2. Deciding, prior to the vote, on the constitutionality of acts convening a referendum or constituent assembly, only for procedural defects.
  3. Deciding on the constitutionality of referendums on laws, national consultation or national plebiscites; the latter two only for procedural defects.
  4. Deciding on petitions of unconstitutionality brought by citizens against any laws, for content or procedural defects.
  5. Deciding on petitions of unconstitutionality brought by citizens against decrees with force of law, for content or procedural defects.
  6. Deciding on the excuses for the absence of any natural or juridical person called before any permanent commission of Congress.
  7. Deciding on the constitutionality of decrees issued by the government during a state of exception.
  8. Deciding on the constitutionality of bills objected to by the government for unconstitutionality.
  9. Reviewing judicial decisions related to an acción de tutela. The Court selects a limited number of actions to be reviewed.
  10. Deciding on the constitutionality of international treaties and laws ratifying them.
  11. Resolving jurisdictional disputes arising between the different jurisdictions (new since 2015).

Any citizen may intervene to defend or challenge a legal norm. Legal challenges for procedural defects lapse after one year. Normally, the Court has 60 days to decide, although that is reduced by a third for decisions on decrees during a state of exception.

The Court’s jurisprudence has given a liberal meaning to ‘procedural grounds’ for reviewing constitutional amendments, arguing that because Congress derives its powers of amendment from the Constitution itself, it cannot replace or substitute it – and ‘replacing’/’substituting’ can mean modifying an essential or pivotal clause. In 2005, the Court ruled that allowing a second consecutive presidential term didn’t amount to a substitution of the constitutional regime, but in 2010, it ruled that allowing a third term would amount to a substitution of the constitutional regime.

The Constitutional Court has played a major role in contemporary Colombian politics, handing down landmark decisions of great importance on a number of issues, contributing to Colombia’s surprisingly progressive legislation on some ‘moral issues’. Among other things, the Court decriminalized personal possession of a small amount of drugs (1994), legalized medically-assisted suicide for terminally ill consenting patients (1997), decriminalized abortion in three cases (2006), extended legal benefits and protection to LGBT couples (beginning in 2007), struck down a law organizing a constitutional referendum on allowing the president to serve a third consecutive term (2010), declared the 2009 US-Colombia defence cooperation agreement to be unconstitutional, allowed for vague civil union-like contracts for homosexual couples (2011) and legalized gay adoption (2015).

Supreme Court of Justice

The Supreme Court of Justice (Corte Suprema de Justicia) is the highest appellate court in Colombia for the ‘ordinary jurisdiction’ – i.e. everything not falling under constitutional or administrative law. It is currently made up of a total of 23 judges, elected (co-opted) by the Court itself from a list of ten eligible names sent by the Council of Judicial Government after a public competition. It meets in full (full chamber), but is subdivided into three cassation chambers: civil and agrarian (7 judges), labour (7 judges) and criminal (9 judges) – with the presidents and vice presidents of each chamber forming a governing chamber. Its powers are:

  1. Act as a court of cassation.
  2. Try the President and members of the Comisión de Aforados.
  3. Investigate and prosecute members of Congress.
  4. Try, upon charges brought by the Attorney General or delegates thereof, the Vice President, cabinet ministers, Inspector General, Ombudsman, agents of the public ministry, directors of administrative departments, Comptroller General, ambassadors, heads of diplomatic or consular missions, governors, judges of tribunals, general and admirals for punishable acts.
  5. Take cognizance of all contentious issues of accredited diplomatic personnel in cases provided by international law.
  6. Other responsibilities assigned by law.

Council of State

The Council of State (Consejo de Estado) is the supreme appellate court for administrative law. It is currently made up of a total of 31 councillors or judges, elected (co-opted) by the Council of State itself from a list of ten eligible names sent by the Council of Judicial Government after a public competition. It meets in full (full chamber), but is subdivided into an administrative litigation chamber (27 members) and a consultation chamber (the rest). Its powers include acting as the supreme administrative court, deciding on petitions of unconstitutionality for decrees not in the purview of the Constitutional Court, acting as the supreme consultative body of the government in administrative matters (it opinion must be heard in certain matters), preparing and presenting constitutional amendment proposals, deciding on congressmen’s loss of investidura and – since 2009 – deciding on electoral disputes.

The Fiscalía General de la Nación: Attorney General

The Fiscalía General de la Nación is the office of the attorney general of Colombia, a creation of the 1991 Constitution. The Attorney General is elected to a single non-renewable four-year term by the Supreme Court of Justice from a list sent by the President, with the same rules of eligibility as for judges of the Supreme Court.

Its main duty is to investigate actions having the characteristics of a crime/offence provided that there are sufficient reasons and circumstances. Its other constitutional powers largely stem from that, including indictment or preclusion of investigations.

The incumbent AG is Eduardo Montealegre, a man of fairly left-leaning views. Among other things, he has proposed full decriminalization of abortion upon request.

Government and administration of the judicial branch

The government and administration of the judicial branch was one of the most important changes included in the 2015 constitutional reform. It abolished the Superior Council of the Judiciary (Consejo Superior de la Judicatura) and transferred its responsibilities to the new Council of Judicial Government (Consejo de Gobierno Judicial) and the National Commission of Judicial Discipline (Comisión Nacional de Disciplina Judicial). The old body mostly dealt with administering the judicial branch and disciplinary actions against judges and lawyers, but also prepared the lists of candidates for the election of judges and magistrates in most courts in the country.

The Council of Judicial Government will be in charge of defining the public policies of the judicial branch; drawing up the list of candidates for election of judges; regulating judicial and administrative procedures; setting the regulations for the control and oversight of the legal profession; approving the draft budget of the judicial branch and approving the ‘judicial map’ (basically defining the boundaries of judicial districts and circuits). It will be composed of nine members: the presidents of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court of Justice and the Council of State; a manager of the judicial branch, who must be a professional with 20 years experience including 10 in business or public administration, appointed by the Council of Judicial Government for a four year term; a representative of the tribunals and judges, elected by them for a four year term; a representative of the employees of the judicial branch, elected by them for a four year term; and three permanent full-time members elected by the other members for a four year term. These permanent full-time members will be responsible for the strategic planning of the judiciary and proposing to the Council, for its approval, public policies of the branch. They must have 10 years experience in design, evaluation and monitoring of public policies, management models or public administration. No member may be reappointed.

The Management of the Judicial Branch (Gerencia de la Rama Judicial) is subordinated to the Council of Judicial Government, which is tasked with defining its organic structure, supervising it and accountable for its performance before Congress. The Management of the Judicial Branch is in charge of implementing the decisions of the Council of Judicial Government; providing the Council of Judicial Government will administrative and logistical support; preparing the draft budget for approval by the Council of Judicial Government; implementing the budget as approved by Congress; drafting plans and programs for approval by the Council of Judicial Government; administrating the legal profession; organizing public competitions; monitoring the performance of staff and offices and other administrative tasks.

The National Commission of Judicial Discipline will exercise disciplinary functions over the officials and employees of the judicial branch, including examining the conduct and punishing misconduct of lawyers. It will be made up of seven magistrates; four of which will be elected by Congress from lists sent by the Council of Judicial Government following a public competition and the other three of which will be elected by Congress from lists submitted by the President following a public competition. They will be elected for individual terms of eight years, and they may not be reappointed.

The judicial branch was very unhappy about these reforms, largely for reasons not immediately obvious to outsiders like you and me, but perhaps boiling down to their aversion to political intervention in their business.

Control Organisms

Colombia’s organismos de control – ‘control organisms’ – are independent institutions which oversee public accounts, fiscal management, the behaviour of public officials, compliance with the Constitution, protect human rights, defend the interests of society and so forth. They are the Comptroller General of the Republic (Contraloría General de la República) and the Public Ministry (Ministerio Público), led by the Inspector General (Procuraduría General).

The Procuraduría 

The Public Ministry is chaired by the Inspector General, better known in Spanish as the Procurador General. It is very tough to accurately translate this term in English, because it can easily be translated to ‘attorney general’ or ‘prosecutor general’, but that would lead to confusion with the Fiscal GeneralInspector General seems clunky and weird, but it is perhaps the best term which is not misleading.

The Inspector General is elected by the Senate for a non-renewable four-year term from lists of candidates submitted by the President, the Supreme Court of Justice and the Council of State.

The Procuraduría‘s role is to oversee compliance with the Constitution, laws, administrative decisions and judicial decisions; protect human rights; defend societal and collective interests; ensure the diligent and efficient exercise of administrative functions; intervene before judicial or administrative authorities when necessary to defend the legal order, the public domain, or fundamental rights and guarantees and – this is perhaps the most important – oversee the conduct of public officeholders (including elected ones), holding disciplinary power to initiate the appropriate investigations and impose the appropriate sanctions in accordance with the relevant statute. Under his powers, the Inspector General can discharge any public official for ‘grave’ offences – if they clearly violate of the Constitution and the law, derive clear undue material advantage from office, impede in a serious manner the Procuraduría‘s investigations or perform with gross negligence the investigation (or reporting) and punishment of disciplinary offences of their employees. Dismissal from office also involves disqualification from holding public office, for 10 to 20 years. In the case of less serious offences, other sanctions may be imposed – including suspensions, fines or warnings. The Inspector General also provides an opinion on constitutionality of laws before the Constitutional Court.

The current Inspector General is the very controversial and divisive Alejandro Ordóñez, who has made wide use of his power to remove politicians from office. Ordóñez is an ultraconservative traditionalist Catholic, a former member of the Society of St. Pius X and follower of French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, whose thesis criticized forms of government whose source of authority does not emanate from God and advocated for a quasi-theocratic Catholic State. In office, Ordóñez has opposed same-sex unions, gay adoption, abortion in any circumstances, euthansia/assisted suicide and personal possession of drugs. Several of his decisions removing public officials from office were controversial and seen, with reason, as political persecution of opposite-minded or left-leaning politicians, most famously former senator Piedad Córdoba or former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro.

The Defensor del Pueblo or Ombudsman

The Defensor del Pueblo or Ombudsman promotes and protects the exercise of human rights, notably raising awareness for or publicizing human rights. He/she is autonomous from the Public Ministry since 2015 and is elected by the Chamber of Representatives for a four-year term from candidates proposed by the President.

The Contraloría General de la República or Comptroller General

The Comptroller General is the head of the Contraloría, which oversees the fiscal management of the public administration or individuals/entities managing public funds and goods. The Comptroller is elected for a term equivalent to that of the President by Congress from lists drawn up from public competitions. Its main duties including verifying public accounts, reporting on the national debt and ensuring accountability for civil servant’s fiscal management. Among its powers, it can initiate preliminary penal or disciplinary investigations and may the immediate suspension from office of civil servants until the end of the investigation or trials.

Territorial organization and local government

The Constitution defines the country as a “unitary, decentralized Republic with autonomy of its territorial units” (Article 1). The Constitution guarantee political, administrative and fiscal autonomy to territorial units – the right to govern themselves under their own authorities, the power to exercise the responsibilities appropriate to them, to administer their resources, establish local taxes if necessary and participate in national revenues.

The country is divided into 32 departments (departamentos), as first-level administrative divisions. According to the Constitution, departments, as an intermediate between the central government and municipalities, coordinate and complement municipal action but also deliver some devolved services, especially in smaller municipalities lacking the necessary tools and resources. Each department is administered by a governor (gobernador), directly elected for four-year terms (and are not immediately re-eligible), who is the head of the local administration but also the agent of the president to maintain public order and implement national economic policy. Each department also has a departmental assembly (asamblea departamental), with 11 to 31 members based on the department’s population, with members serving four-year terms. Assemblies are not legislative bodies – only the Congress has legislative powers in the unitary State – but rather ‘political-administrative bodies’ which issue ordinances and resolutions, not laws.

Departments are further subdivided into municipalities (municipios) – whose exact number is somebody nobody agrees on. In 2015, 1,102 municipalities or their equivalents will hold elections. Each municipality is administered by a mayor (alcalde), directly elected for four-year terms (and are not immediately re-eligible), and has a directly elected municipal council (consejo municipal) made up of 7 to 21 members according to the municipality’s population, with members serving four-year terms.

Municipalities may be further subdivided into comunas in urban areas and corregimientos municipales in rural areas, with the aim of improving service delivery and promote citizen engagement in local administration. Each comuna/corregimientos municipales will have a directly-elected junta administradora local (JAL, or local administrative board), whose members serve four-year terms. JALs deal with municipal plans and programs for their area, oversee local service delivery, request investments for their area and distribute funds assigned to them.

Gobernación de Caldas, the departmental government of Caldas department (Manizales)
Gobernación de Caldas, the departmental government of Caldas department (Manizales)

Some areas of Colombia are not part of a municipality. These are sparsely populated and extremely remote areas of the Amazonian departments of Amazonas, Guainía and Vaupés which have both regular municipalities and corregimientos departamentales, of which there are currently 20. These entities are directly administered by the department, so they do not have an elected mayor or council. The department of the Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina has only one municipality – Providencia and Santa Catalina – meaning that the main (and most populated) island, San Andrés, is not formally part of any municipality.

Bogotá, has a special status as a capital district (distrito capital). While Bogotá is also the capital of the department of Cundinamarca, the government of Cundinamarca has no authority over Bogotá’s territory (and it is not elected by Bogotá’s citizens) and the city is almost always represented as distinct from Cundinamarca. Bogotá is counted as a municipality, but it has the powers of both departments and municipalities. The capital is administered by a senior/principal mayor (alcalde mayor) elected for a four-year term (not immediately re-eligible), has a 45-member municipal council also serving a four-year term; the 20 localidades each have a directly-elected JAL with at least 7 members and a local mayor appointed by the senior mayor from a list submitted by the respective JAL.

The administrative complex of the municipality of Medellín and the department of Antioquia

While Bogotá was first recognized as a distinct special district in 1954, the ’91 Constitution recognized the cities of Barranquilla, Cartagena and Santa Marta as ‘districts‘ – Barranquilla as a ‘Special, Industrial and Port District’, Cartagena as a ‘Touristic and Cultural District’ and Santa Marta as a ‘Historic, Cultural and Touristic District’. In 2007, a constitutional amendment passed by Congress recognized Cúcuta, Popayán, Tunja, Turbo, Tumaco and Buenaventura as districts. However, most of the act was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court, leaving only Buenaventura recognized as a ‘Special, Industrial, Port, Biodiverse and Eco-touristic District’. These districts are always counted as municipalities, and are basically only municipalities with some additional powers because of their locations or economy. Their councils are often referred to as ‘district councils’ instead, which can lead to confusion, but as far as I’m concerned this is meaningless nonsense done by congressmen with too much times on their hand

Article 319 of the Constitution allows for the creation and recognition of metropolitan areas (áreas metropolitanas) when two or more municipalities share economic, social or physical ties. Although some 20 metropolitan areas have been organized, only 6 have been formally constituted and recognized by law – Medellín (the Valle de Aburrá Metropolitan Area), Bucaramanga, Barranquilla, Cúcuta, Pereira (the Centre-West Metropolitan Area) and Valledupar. Again, this is not very important.

Departments actually have relatively few powers besides general ‘coordination’ between municipalities and limited service delivery in cases where the municipality is unable to do so by itself. In most cases, the municipality is the level with the most powers including important ones over education, public utilities, public transit, culture and the environment. Both levels are still quite dependent on central transfers (SGP), most of which are strictly earmarked, although municipalities do get about 30% of their revenues from own sources including property taxes, a kind of business tax and departments do get about a quarter of theirs from royalties (which since 2013 are more evenly spread).

Electoral organization

Colombia has two independent public bodies forming the electoral organization, each responsible for different aspects of the electoral process. These are the National Electoral Council or Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) and the National Civil Registrar or Registraduría Nacional del Estado Civil.

The National Electoral Council has nine members elected by the Congress for single four-year terms following consultations with legally recognized political parties. The CNE regulates, inspects, monitors and controls the electoral activities of legally recognized parties and other political groups. Most of its activities take place before and after electoral processes – recognizing and revoking the legal status of parties, regulating parties’ participation in the media, managing public financing of campaigns, deciding on the registration of candidates potentially disqualified for violating rules of ineligibility, administering laws and norms on political parties, certifying electoral results and deciding on challenges to electoral results (the Council of State may annul an election within one year).

The National Civil Registrar is chosen by the presidents of the three highest courts through a merit-based selection process for a single four-year term. Its duties include all tasks related to the civil registry (vital records) and national citizens’ identification (cédula de ciudadanía), although as far as this blog is concerned, its most important duties are those related to elections. It mostly directs and organizes elections, from guaranteeing the right to vote, managing the voters’ list (electoral census or censo electoral) to publicizing election results. As far as finding electoral statistics, the Registraduría is where you want to look.

Electoral system

The President is elected through the usual two-round system.

Governors and mayors are elected by first-past-the-post (FPTP), with a plurality of the votes sufficing.

The Congress, departmental assemblies, municipal councils and JAL are elected by a rather complex system of optional open party-list proportional representation, which was adopted in 2003 and amended in 2009. In these elections, parties and other political groups with ballot access present lists, with a number of candidates not exceeding the number of seats to be filled except for two-member constituencies in which a list can have three names.

Parties choose whether their lists are ‘preferential‘ (open) or ‘non-preferential‘ (closed) – in most cases, parties run open lists. When a party’s list is open, voters may vote for a single candidate on the party’s list (by marking the number of the candidate with an X, or marking both the candidate number and the party logo with an X) or just vote for the party (by marking the party logo). Candidates on the party’s open list are reordered based on the results, although votes cast only for the party rather than a candidate only count for purposes of seat allocation between parties (the threshold). If the party’s list is closed, voters only mark the party’s logo.

For the Senate’s 100 national seats, the national threshold to obtain representation is 3% of valid votes. For all other bodies, the threshold is half (50%) of the electoral quotient (total votes divided by total seats) or 30% of the electoral quotient in constituencies electing only two members.

Colombia uses the D’Hondt method or cifra repartidora to distribute seats between parties over the threshold. It is difficult to understand the official constitutional explanation, but you basically order the parties over the threshold in order of total votes and dividing these vote numbers by 1, 2, 3 etc. successively until obtaining the number of seats to be filled. It is much easier to understand with this nifty table from the Registraduría:

Since there were 9 seats to assign in the example, the first nine results of the mathematical operations (from largest to smallest) are taken and the last result is your cifra repartidora. You then divide the number of votes each party won by the cifra repartidora and you get your seat tally – here, we’d be looking at 4 for the pinks (rosado), 3 for the greys and one each for the fuchsia and comunal.

Eventually, I’ll explain to you the pre-2003 electoral system – magnificently insane.

Political parties and movements must obtain at least 3% of the national vote in elections to the Chamber of Representatives to obtain legal recognition, which they lose if they do not pass this threshold. ‘Ethnic parties’, supposedly participating in elections for the special ethnic minority seats, are excluded from this requirement. A number of sneaky politicians have discovered this and registered their parties as ‘ethnic parties’ to maintain their legal recognition. Thankfully, a number of them are now in jail.

Legally recognized parties may run candidates in elections, but candidates may also gain ballot access by obtaining signatures equivalent to 20% of the number of citizens divided by the number of seats to be filled, but no more than 50,000 signatures can be required in any case. Increasingly, legally recognized parties hold primaries (consultas), organized by the electoral organization, whose results are binding and with a ‘sore loser’ clause preventing anybody who participated in a primary for running for another party in the same election.

Electoral events

There are four kinds of regularly-scheduled elections in Colombia – congressional, presidential, departmental (also commonly called ‘regional’) and municipal. The Constitution specifies that presidential elections cannot coincide with any other election, and that congressional elections are held separately from local elections. In practice, congressional and presidential elections are held in the same year, with congressional elections taking place first on the second Sunday in March and presidential elections taking place afterwards on the last Sunday in May (first round) and the third Sunday in June (second round). Local elections – for governors, mayors, assemblies, municipal councils and JAL – are organized together the year after the congressional/presidential elections on the last Sunday in October.

The other mechanisms of popular participation are:

  • Referendum: To approve a new or repeal an existing law, constitutional amendment, ordinance, resolution or agreement. May be called by the government or a group of citizens. Is passed only if 50%+1 vote in the affirmative and turnout is over 25%.
  • Plebiscite: May only be called by the President, through which the people approves or rejects an executive decision. The Congress has one month to object to the presidential decision. Is valid only if turnout is over 50%.
  • Popular consultation: A general question of national, departmental or local transcendence asked by the President, governor or mayor respectively. May also be initiated by a group of citizens. The Senate pronounces itself on national popular consultations, and has one month to object. Is passed only if 50%+1 vote in the affirmative and turnout is over a third of the number of registered voters.
  • Recall/revocation of mandate: To remove an elected governor or mayor from office, after over 12 months in office if there is still over a year left in the term. The official is recalled if 50%+1 vote in favour of recall and turnout is at least 40% of the total number of valid votes cast in the original election.
  • Open council (cabildo abierto): A public meeting of a department assembly, municipal council or JAL in which citizens may directly participate to discuss issues of interest to the community or question elected officials and civil servants. The respective body must, within a week, give an answer to the issues raised.
  • Popular initiative: A group of citizens may present a bill (including constitutional amendments) to Congress, departmental assemblies, municipal councils of JAL for their consideration, debate and potential approval.
  • Constituent assembly: Congress may pass a law asking the people if they wish to convene a constituent assembly to amend the constitution. Is approved only if the number of votes in favour of a constituent assembly is over a third of the number of registered voters.

In the cases of popularly-initiated mechanisms (referendum, popular initiative, popular consultation, recall), a support committee must be organized and approved before collection of signatures can begin. The committee has six months to gather signatures. The amount required varies but is high:

  • For a constitutional referendum, popularly-initiated bills or constitutional amendment proposals or national popular consultation to be presented before the Congress: at least 5% of registered voters. Popularly-initiated constitutional amendment may also be introduced by 30% of assemblymen or councillors in the country.
  • Derogatory referendum (repealing a law): at least 10% of registered voters.
  • Popular initiative at the local level: at least 10% of registered voters in the territorial entity.
  • Local popular consultation: at least 10% of registered voters in the territorial entity.
  • Recall: registered voters of the territorial entity equivalent to at least 30% of the votes won by the official.
  • Open council: at the request of at least 5/1,000 of registered voters in the territorial entity.

Signatures must be verified by the National Civil Registrar, who may cancel a number of them for any number of them – even illegibility. In the case of popularly-initiated referendums on bills or constitutional amendment proposals, Congress must then pass a law convening the referendum.


Colombian Reflections


I am the editor of World Elections, where I write (wrote?) about elections and referendums around the world. Over the last year, as readers of World Elections can attest to, my blogging has crumbled and the site unfortunately has fallen into inactivity, which I hope to be only temporary. Part of the reason is that I spent a good part of the last few months living in Colombia, and my political interests have become increasingly focused on that country and part of the world in particular. While I haven’t lost interest about other countries, my interest as a budding political scientist and psephologist has focused on Colombia – specifically its politics, history, elections and how they all come together.

Wishing to write about Colombia, particularly its politics, from my own perspective, I have decided to start this blog to collect my reflections on the country, its politics, its history, its future and other things which may come to mind.

A few weeks ago I was fooling around with Google Ngrams, a rather interesting tool. I looked at how often the names of major Latin American countries (save Mexico) appeared in English printed sources between 1880 and 2008. The results were interesting.

Unsurprisingly, Brazil topped the chart – it is, of course, the single largest state of the ones listed, in terms of land area or population. Cuba’s second place, given its history and political importance to the United States, is unsurprisingly. What caught my attention is that Colombia placed sixth, behind Chile, Argentina and Peru. If Mexico had been included, it would have been seventh. I feel that it reflects a general lack of (serious, reputable) accessible works about Colombia, which is studied far less than other countries such as Chile, Argentina or Peru. It is particularly unfortunate given that Colombia is, after all, the third largest country (by population) in Latin America and the second (or third) biggest Spanish-speaking country in the world. It has a larger population than Argentina, Venezuela and Chile – which are countries, in my opinion at least, which seem to receive more attention in the English press and which people tend to be more knowledgeable about. I think – or at least, I hope – that many people out there are able to name one famous president from these countries – Perón, Allende and Chávez. How many people can name one famous president from Colombia, present one excluded?

Colombia is, of course, associated with drug trafficking, violence and guerrillas. Little else. Yes, its armed conflict is one of the oldest ongoing conflicts in the world today. Yes, Colombia remains the number one (or two) producer of coca in the world. Yes, Colombia produced some of the world’s most infamous guerrillas. Yes, Colombia’s armed conflict has been an horrendous human tragedy. There is, however, much more to the country than just that. Its history stands out from the general patterns of Latin America on several occasions over time. It is a beautiful country, encompassing so much diversity – in every sense of the word.

Colombia is currently at an important moment in its history. A peace agreement between the government and the country’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC-EP, may well be signed in the next few months. An agreement which will have major repercussions for the country, its politics, its economy and obviously its future development. Yet, despite the importance of it all, the coverage in the North American media of these negotiations, their ups and downs and their implications has been simply terrible.

Through this blog, I hope to cover Colombian political developments and provide my reflections on them. I also wish to write in more detail about certain historical events, past elections or other aspects of the country. Unlike for World Elections, I will share my views as appropriate. Your comments are more than welcome.