Colombia Digest III: Papal visit special

Special edition: Pope Francis’ visit to Colombia and comments on the Catholic Church’s historic role in politics and conflict in Colombia

Pope Francis’ visit

Pope Francis was in Colombia between Wednesday, September 6 and Sunday, September 10, visiting Bogotá (the capital), Villavicencio (Meta), Medellín and Cartagena. Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, is the third pope to have visited the country, after Pope Paul VI in 1968 and Pope John Paul II in 1986. The papal visit attracted heavy attention from the Colombian media, which devoted wall-to-wall live coverage of the pope’s activities (if you’re interested, the livestreams can easily be found on YouTube).

Colombia has the sixth or seventh largest Catholic population in the world and the third largest in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico. The government does not collect official statistics on religion (unlike in Mexico), but the 2014 Latinobarómetro study on religion in Latin America reported that 75% of Colombians were Catholics (down from 87% in 1996) while a 2010 Colombian survey found that 71% were Catholic. That same survey, which offers a wealth of data (though potentially outdated), also confirmed several assumptions: Colombians are religious (94% believers incl. 58% practicing believers; 48% said religion was very important), women and seniors are more religious and the percentage of declared agnostics and atheists is low (particularly compared to more secularized countries like Uruguay). As elsewhere, a good number of Catholics are ‘passive’ or ‘nominal’ Catholics who do not regularly attend religious services or feel attached the institutions of the Church. Colombia remains, on the aggregate, a conservative country on moral issues – but there are indications that views are evolving, particularly among the younger, urban educated middle-classes. The most recent Gallup poll found that 43% of (urban) respondents supported same-sex marriage (up from 31% in 2011) and 32% supported same-sex adoption (up from 19% in 2016).

The pope meeting Uribe and Santos, Dec. 2016 (source: El Espectador)

Pope Francis’ visit had been anticipated since 2015, when President Juan Manuel Santos announced the pope’s intention to visit the country sometime in the near future, an intention confirmed in 2016. In March 2017, the Vatican announced that the pope would visit the country in September. The first papal visit to Colombia in 31 years was, naturally, highly anticipated by all – particularly the politicians and the government, seeking the Pope’s blessing. President Juan Manuel Santos, whose popularity is in the dumps (25-30%) and his legacy (the peace process and its implementation) not looking very hot at the moment, explicitly sought the Pope’s blessing and public support for the peace process. Other politicians, including the opposition, also sought to make political use of the pope’s visit. As mentioned in the second edition of my Colombia Digest, the bilateral ceasefire with the ELN and Clan del Golfo’s possible surrender to authorities were timed to coincide with the pope’s arrival and both armed groups referred to the pope’s message of peace and reconciliation to support their announcements. The Catholic Church was quick to emphasize the religious, not political, character of the pope’s visit, but obviously given the themes (and even official slogan) of the visit (reconciliation, peace, non-violence, inequality, poverty, environmental protection, social justice, family, youth), everything the pope would say had a dual religious and political message. And, obviously, Pope Francis hasn’t shied away from quasi-political statements during his papacy. In Colombia, Pope Francis supported the peace process (but cautiously retained an arm’s length distance). In December 2016, the pope met with Santos and Uribe in a private audience in Rome, a strange and hastily arranged meeting which was ultimately a waste of everybody’s time and only produced memes.

Everybody took advantage of the papal visit to send their letters to Pope Francis. Uribe expressed his usual complaints about the peace process with the FARC (“we all want peace, but…”), the increase in coca cultivation (which he equates with drug trafficking and addiction), the economy and transitional justice. ‘Timochenko’, the leader of the FARC, wrote about the ex-guerrilla’s decision to surrender its weapons and leave behind hate and violence, and begged for his forgiveness for “any tears and pain we have caused”. As previously mentioned, alias ‘Otoniel’, public leader of the Clan del Golfo, addressed one short video specifically to Francis. Several social organizations and movements also wrote to the pope.

The pope landed in Bogotá late in the afternoon of September 6.  Huge crowds lined the pope’s route from the airport to the apostolic nunciature, along one of Bogotá’s main avenues (calle 26). One of the well-wishers hoping to catch a glimpse of the pope was Álvaro Uribe, accompanied by other senators of the CD. As it happened, the pope was looking the other way at the exact moment that the popemobile drove past Uribe. The unintended ‘papal snub’ to Uribe and CD senators holding up a banner asking for the pope’s blessing delighted the anti-uribistas on social media (the hashtag #MasIgnoradoQueUribe, or ‘more ignored than Uribe’, trended on Twitter in Colombia). Uribe being a parishioner among millions in Bogotá and Medellín contrasted sharply with his arch-nemesis, President Juan Manuel Santos, who greeted the pope at the airport in Bogotá, received in with the highest honours at the presidential palace the next day and bid him farewell at the airport in Cartagena.

source: @JuanManSantos

On September 7, in Bogotá, the pope was received at the presidential palace (Casa de Nariño) in downtown Bogotá by Santos, prayed in the cathedral of Bogotá, faced a crowd of 22,000 young people on the Plaza de Bolívar and, in the late afternoon, offered a Eucharist in Bogotá’s largest downtown park (Parque Simón Bolívar). As the pope and the president walked down the ceremonial red carpet, several children and young adults with disabilities or suffering from Down syndrome approached and hugged the pope, seeking his blessing. The reception of the pope as a foreign dignitary at the presidential palace was attended by a large press contingent, all the top dignitaries of the state (ministers, magistrates, leading congressmen, former peace negotiators, heads of the independent control agencies, attorney general, prominent politicians), famous Colombian artists (Fonseca and two members of the Chocquibtown group) and the three former presidents on ‘friendly terms’ with Santos (Belisario Betancur, César Gaviria, Ernesto Samper; Uribe and Andrés Pastrana, while invited, didn’t attend and neither did any of the CD’s congressmen). The pope’s Eucharist at the park shattered all previous attendance records: 1.3 million people showed up.

On September 8, Pope Francis flew to Villavicencio, the capital of Meta department and ‘the door to the Eastern Plains’ (Llanos Orientales). Peace, reconciliation and remembrance were the main themes of the pope’s second day in Colombia – as well as the environment and natural conservation. On the tarmac at Bogotá airport, the pope saluted wounded soldiers and hoped that they could see peace consolidated in a country ‘which deserved it’. In Villavicencio, thousands awaited the pope. After a Eucharist, one the most moving events of the pope’s journey in Colombia was a meeting with victims of the armed conflict – including reintegrated former members of the guerrilla and paramilitaries. Symbolically, the pope blessed the ‘black Christ of Bojayá’, which was in the church of the small village of Bojayá (Chocó) in May 2002, when 119 civilians taking shelter inside the church were killed by an artisanal mortar fired by the FARC.

Pope Francis offered memorable comments on peace and reconciliation – “any peace effort without a sincere commitment to reconciliation will always be a failure”, “one good person is enough for there to be hope, and each one of us can be this person”, “do not lose peace because of discord (cizaña)”, “love is stronger than death and violence”, “it is time to heal wounds, build bridges, settle differences”, “do not fear truth and justice” and “truth is an inseparable companion of justice and mercy, together they are essential to build peace”. In his first night in Colombia, Pope Francis told a crowd of young people outside the apostolic nunciature “do not let yourself be defeated, do not be fooled, do not lose joy, do not lose hope”. In both Bogotá and Villavicencio, the pope also spoke out for natural conservation and environmental protection, a particularly important issue in Colombia – the second most biodiverse country in the world (and the most biodiverse per square kilometre!).

On September 9, in Medellín, often described as one of the most religious (clerical) cities in Colombia (and whose archbishop is very conservative), the pope offered another mass Eucharist attended by over 1 million people, visited a home for disadvantaged children (orphans, victims, internally displaced, disabled, sick) and spoke to priests, nuns, seminarians and their families. Addressing the clergy, the pope highlighted some of the themes that have been at the centre of his papacy: the need for the Church to leave its ‘comforts and attachments’ to renew itself, urging the clergy to involve itself in the defence of the weakest and in favour of peace, not taking advantage of their religious positions to obtain material benefits and the impossibility of ‘serving God and money’

On his last day in Colombia, the pope was in Cartagena, one of the most unequal cities in Colombia. There was controversy because the municipal administration installed fences to hide a poor neighbourhood along the pope’s route, although the pope did visit one of the city’s poorest barrios and blessed the first stone of a future homeless shelter. He later prayed and spoke at the church of San Pedro Claver in Cartagena’s colonial centre and offered a final mass Eucharist before departing Colombia.

Pope Francis’ historic visit to Colombia was effusively praised by most media commentators, who broadly agreed that the papal visit restored some degree of optimism in a difficult period where pessimism runs very high and ‘brought out the good in people‘, something perhaps too easily forgotten in Colombia and other countries (where headlines are about terrorism, corruption, violence, intolerance, suffering, evil and stupidity). The pope’s words were simple, timely, effective and spoke to the national reality. The themes he raised – peace, reconciliation, non-violence, social justice, inequalities, the environment, the youth, family – spoke not only to a religious Catholic audience but to everyone, including non-Catholics and atheists.

The question is whether or not the legacy of the pope’s visit and his messages will last. Given the highly-charged polarized political climate in a quasi-electoral year (the elections are in less than 12 months now) and the harsh reality, that appears to be unlikely.

The Catholic Church’s role in conflicts (and politics) in Colombia

The Catholic Church, obviously, has not been an innocent bystander in Colombian history. Quite to the contrary, the Catholic Church has been a prominent actor in the main events of post-independence Colombian history – much like in every other Latin American country. In a country divided by geography, regionalism, cultural diversity and the historical weakness of the state, the Catholic Church was one of the only institutions which provided some degree of social cohesion and governability. Following independence from Spain, the Catholic Church in Colombia therefore retained much of its far-reaching spiritual, political, social and economic influence.

However, as elsewhere in Latin America, the Church’s intransigent ultramontanism collided with the secular, liberal ideas of the Enlightenment. Religious issues underpinned most conflicts between anti-clerical liberals – opposed to the Church’s influence and political power – and conservatives throughout the nineteenth century, with repercussions into the twentieth century until La Violencia. The religious conflict in Colombia was exacerbated by the identification of both sides with the two antagonistic parties (which were inimical political subcultures): anti-clericals, Protestants, Freemasons and freethinkers with the Liberal Party; clerical Catholics and much of the Church hierarchy with the Conservative Party. The Catholic Church in Colombia was particularly conservative, identifying with integralism or integrism to resist modernism and associated socioeconomic changes. Catholic integralism has a holistic vision of the world built around Catholicism, underpinning all social and political action. The integralist/integrist clergy in Colombia stood out for the virulence of its attacks on liberalism, Protestantism, atheism and later communism. To the most radical men of the clergy, liberalism was incompatible with Catholicism – a viewpoint not unlike that of some parts of the Catholic clergy in Quebec (Canada) around the same time.

Anti-clerical liberalism triumphed with the Rionegro constitution of 1863, which separated church and state and enshrined freedom of religion. During the so-called olimpo radical – the supposed triumph of anti-clerical radical liberalism (1863-1880s) – the Jesuits were re-expelled (they had previously been expelled under a previous liberal regime, in 1850), Church assets were confiscated and a secular public education system was imposed. The latter led to one of the bloodiest civil wars in nineteenth century Colombia (1876-1877), which showed how the anti-clerical dogmatism and intransigence of the liberals polarized society and led conservatives to close ranks around the ‘defence of Catholic values’ (and the social order of the Church). Unlike in Mexico, therefore, Colombian liberals were never triumphant – a critical difference being that Colombian conservatives were never de-legitimized as ‘traitors’ for having allied with a foreign power with disastrous consequences.

The Regeneración, led by Rafael Núñez and Miguel Antonio Caro, marked the failure of the secular and federalist project of the radical liberals and institutionalized a new order in which the Catholic Church regained its previous influence and power. Rafael Núñez, the leading political figure of the Regeneración, was not an ultramontane clerical but an independent liberal (and positivist) who saw the Catholic Church as the only national institution capable of maintaining social order and cohesion and guaranteeing national integration in a fragmented country. The 1886 constitution, the antithesis of the 1863 constitution, along with the 1887 Concordat, declared Catholicism to be the ‘religion of the nation’ (but allowed for freedom of conscience and freedom of worship for “all cults which are not contrary to Christian morals and laws”), granted autonomy to the Church in the management of its internal affairs and exempted most of the Church’s real property from taxation. Moreover, public education was to be ‘organized and directed in accordance with the Catholic religion’ (with compulsory religious education managed and supervised by the Church), the Church was constitutionally authorized to carry out civil duties (civil status – marriage, births, deaths), civil marriages were abolished and annulled (the ‘Concha law’ of 1924 forced Catholics to renounce their faith if they wished to contract a civil marriage) and divorce was placed under the exclusive jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts.

The Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Religion is that of the Nation; the public powers will protect it and ensure it is respected as an essential element of the social order. It is understood that the Catholic Church is not and will not be official, and will retain its independence. (Art. 38, C.P. 1886)

The freedom of all faiths (cults) that are not contrary to Christian morals or the laws is guaranteed. Acts contrary to Christian morals or subversive of public order, which are carried out on the occasion or pretext of the exercise of a faith, are subject to the common law. (Art. 40, C.P. 1886)

The Catholic Church thus regained its political, social and moral influence over Colombian society, and Colombia – although Catholicism was not the official religion – became a ‘confessional state’. Colombian national identity, post-1886, was constructed around Catholicism and hispanismo. This Catholic national identity was institutionalized through the annual consecration of the nation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus after 1902, a legally-sanctioned tradition which continued until the Constitutional Court ruled it unconstitutional under the new constitution in 1994.

Ezequiel Moreno, pastor of Pasto (1896-1905): liberalism is a sin

The Church’s open support helps explain (in part) why the Conservatives retained power until 1930. During the War of the Thousand Days (1899-1902), for example, the bishop of Pasto, Ezequiel Moreno (canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1992), encouraged Conservatives to defend ‘Christian values’ with ‘Remington and machete’ and famously declared that liberalism is a sin. Local clergy indoctrinated parishioners and supervised election results (although the attitudes of the clergy, and their degree of rabid opposition to liberalism, varied by region), while the archbishop of Bogotá sometimes intervened to mediate internal conflicts in the ruling Conservative Party – Archbishop Ismael Perdomo’s failure to arbitrate between the two Conservative candidates in the 1930 election led to the Liberal victory in that year’s election.

The Liberal Party’s victory in 1930, and more particularly the election of Alfonso López Pumarejo in 1934 – with an ambitious reformist program, the Revolución en Marcha – revived latent religious and political conflicts, with sectors of the Conservative Party (most famously Laureano Gómez, a Catholic and hispanista sympathetic to Francisco Franco) and the Church fanning the flames. López Pumarejo’s 1936 constitutional reform removed the mention of God from the preamble and the reference to Catholicism as the ‘religion of the nation’ and ‘essential element of social order’. It – among other things – guaranteed freedom of conscience, freedom of religion (provided that it was not contrary to Christian morals) and freedom of education.

The State guarantees freedom of conscience. No one shall be importuned by reason of their religious opinions, nor compelled to profess beliefs or observe practices contrary to their conscience. The freedom of all faiths (cults) that are not contrary to Christian morals or the laws is guaranteed. Acts contrary to Christian morals or subversive of public order, which are carried out on the occasion or pretext of the exercise of a faith, are subject to the common law. (Acto Legislativo 1 de 1936, Artículo 13).

López Pumarejo’s reforms did not separate Church and State, but they secularized the state and were aimed at reducing the Church’s power and influence, particularly over education (where the Church enjoyed extraordinary powers). Likely inspired by Mexico, López Pumarejo imagined a free, compulsory and secular public education system – open to all social classes, without discrimination (banned by law in 1936) – which would contribute to the development of a critical, rational spirit based on new pedagogical methods and open to more modern currents of Western thought. At the post-secondary level, the National University of Colombia (opened in 1867) gained greater autonomy.

The Liberal reforms were not remotely revolutionary – the Church’s power was to be reduced, but its privileged position was left untouched, while several issues (divorce, civil marriage, women’s rights) were barely addressed. Nevertheless, to the conservative Colombian Catholic Church, the Liberal reforms were a direct threat not only to their power but to the very foundations of society (threatened by the evils of laicismo, atheism, Protestant proselytizing, liberalism and communism) and they were systematically and virulently attacked by the Church (and laureanista Conservatives). The vehement opposition of much of the ecclesiastical hierarchy condemned López’s secular constitutional and educational reforms to failure, as did the opposition of ‘moderate’ Liberals who pointed to the devastating consequences of the radical reforms of the nineteenth century. In López’s second term (1942-1945), the secularizing reforms – like many other ambitious projects of Revolución en Marcha (agrarian reform…) – were effectively abandoned in favour of a flowery discourse about ‘religious peace’ (which didn’t last). During this period, Catholic integralism in Colombia sought to challenge the growing Liberal and communist influence in society by creating Catholic lay associations, reinvigorating Catholic education (the Pontifical Xavierian University in Bogotá was reopened in 1931, 164 years after it was closed with the expulsion of Jesuits from the Spanish Empire in 1767; the Pontifical Bolivarian University in Medellín, founded in 1936), creating Catholic trade unions (most prominently the Conservative-aligned UTC in 1946, to compete against the Liberal and Communist-aligned CTC) and supporting corporatism and Catholic social teachings.

The Conservative victory in 1946 dealt the final blow to the Liberal reforms of the 1930s, heightened partisan and religious tensions and led to the eruption of La Violencia – the long, confusing and savagely bloody civil war between the two traditional parties. The Conservatives’ return to power strengthened the political power and influence of the Catholic Church, which in several regions indiscriminately conflated liberalism and communism and incited parishioners to quasi-‘holy wars’ against liberalism and communism. In turn, Liberal guerrillas and mobs identified the Church with the Conservative Party and turned their ire and violence against the clergy, churches and religious schools. The assassination of Liberal tribune Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on April 9, 1948 and the subsequent Bogotazo riots which followed increased religious conflict. The Colombian Catholic Church hierarchy, vociferously anti-communist, blamed international communism – among other evils (loosening of moral norms, Protestantism) – for the violence. From the top town, the ecclesiastical hierarchy forbade parishioners from voting for ‘communists’ – although whether all Liberals were communists (or if only some were) differed from place to place.

Miguel Ángel Builes, pastor of Sta. Rosa de Osos (1924-1967): liberalism is essentially evil.

One of the most famous figures of Catholic orthodoxy intransigence was Mgr. Miguel Ángel Builes, bishop of Santa Rosa de Osos (Antioquia) between 1924 and 1967. Builes attacked modernity and ‘loosening of moral norms’ (women wearing pants or riding horses – sins that he alone could absolve, cinema, radio, books, dancing), public education and liberalism-communism. Warning against the sinister conspiratorial designs of international communism, which he explicitly equated with Colombian liberalism (‘a dress with which the communist beast covers itself’), he considered liberalism to be “essentially evil” and said that voting for liberal-leftists was a mortal sin. He spoke of the events of April 9, 1948 – the responsibility of ‘communist liberalism’ – as the sign that the forces of evil were readying to lead their last battle, against Christ and the Church, and the duty of good Catholics was to fight, until the last drop of blood if need be.

Pope Francis made implicit reference to the Violencia during his visit by beatifying Pedro María Ramírez Bustos, the pastor of Armero (Tolima) who was lynched and murdered by a Liberal mob in the town on April 10, 1948 – one day after Gaitán was murdered, when the country was being torn apart (with Liberals attacking the clergy, blaming them for Gaitán’s murder). One popular tale which spread about his murder was that, moments before dying, the priest cast a curse on the town – which was destroyed by a volcanic eruption (the Armero tragedy) which killed 20,000 in 1985. Semana had an article about the unresolved mystery around Ramírez’s death. He was, apparently, a stern and austere person and – most likely – a Conservative in a Liberal municipality (although he, apparently, didn’t discriminate on party). Semana‘s recent article focuses on an eyewitness, who died in 2016 without anybody ever having bothered listening to his story, who claims that Ramírez’s murder was ordered by the town’s Liberal doctor, incensed that the pastor had thrown his wife out of church for wearing a revealing neckline.

During La Violencia, the country’s small Protestant minority (about 45,000 in 1957, still less than 1%) was often the target of persecution – either because of their partisanship (Liberals) or their faith. Several Protestant churches were burned or attacked, over 100 schools were closed and an undetermined number of faithfuls were killed. In any case, Protestantism had become one of the main targets of Catholic attacks in the 1940s, with the creation of a ‘national anti-Protestant committee’ by the Episcopal Conference in 1944. Discrimination and attacks against Protestants continued under the military regime of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (1953-1957).

Laureano Gómez, the catastrophic Conservative president from 1950 to 1953 (in the body of Roberto Urdaneta after 1951), tried – with some success – to curry favour with the Catholic Church with a corporatist, clerical, traditionalist and authoritarian program (which was never adopted) inspired by Franco and Salazar. The Church regained a great deal of power over education, but the Church hierarchy tended to keep its distance from the government and began making calls for peace. The Church, like most political forces at the time, supported the bloodless coup which brought General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla to power in 1953. Rojas Pinilla, politically conservative and anti-communist, also considered the Church vital to maintaining social order and sought to keep it on his side. However, the Church balked at Rojas Pinilla’s Peronist attempts at creating a ‘third force’ and creating a third trade union aligned with the Peronist union confederation (ATLAS).

The Catholic Church supported the National Front (1958-1974), the institutionalized power-sharing setup between Liberals and Conservatives adopted by plebiscite in 1957. The Liberal leadership made their peace with the Catholic hierarchy. The constitutional reform adopted by the 1957 plebiscite placed the word ‘God’ in the constitutional preamble once more and referenced the privileged status of the Catholic Church:

“In the name of God, supreme source of all authority, and in order to strengthen national unity, one of whose bases is the recognition made by the political parties that the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman religion is that of the nation, and as such, the public powers will protect it and make it respected as an essential element of the social order” (Decreto 247 de 1957, “Sobre plebiscito para una reforma constitucional”)

The National Front signalled the end of the Conservative-Church alliance which had characterized Colombian politics since the 1840s – and removed what was basically the last remaining difference between the Liberals and Conservatives, hastening the decrepitude of the party system. Although the National Front restored the special position the Church had enjoyed under the original 1886 constitution, the Church’s power and influence over politics and society began declining significantly during this period.

Rapid modernization and socioeconomic changes in Colombia beginning in the 1960s changed the religious dynamics of the country and weakened the Church: a demographic boom, rapid and chaotic urbanization and modernization, women participation in the workforce and peasant colonization in peripheral regions. Urbanization/modernization in Colombia was chaotic and disorderly, leading to social dislocation, anomie and the growth of informal and illegal urban economies. In rural areas, colonization and the weak presence of the state (as well as the collapse of many rural economies in the early 1990s and widening rural-urban disparities) had somewhat similar social consequences, combined with the growing urban influence in rural regions with the growth of mass media. These processes weakened traditional social structures, particularly the Church’s capacity of social control, and favoured the growth of new religious movements and ‘religious informality’ – evangelical Christian churches (more accurately Pentecostal churches) – as well as, to a lesser extent, atheism and agnosticism. Other social trends in this period also evidenced the changes in traditional values and the weakening social influence of the Church – the increase in divorce, single mothers and the use of contraception and other family planning methods.

The 2015-6 national demographic and health study by the health ministry and Profamilia showed many of these demographic changes which have weakened the Church’s social influence. The fertility rate fell from 7 in 1965 to 2 in 2015, 36% of Colombian households are headed by women, 22% of families (nuclear or extended) are monoparental, two-thirds of women (13-49) worked in the last year, about 90% of sexually active men and women have used contraception, about 36% of women and 46% of men 13-49 have never been married (only 17% of women and 15% of men 13-49 reported being legally married in the survey). However, traditional gender stereotypes and views of gender roles remain widespread and while reported discriminatory attitudes towards LGBT people is relatively low, there are still important steps to be made to reach full acceptance of basic LGBT rights. As a sign of the Church’s disengagement from political affairs and modernization, women gained full legal equality (in the civil code) in 1974 and divorce for civil marriages was introduced in 1976.

The Catholic Church was challenged from the inside and the outside. At the international level, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council debilitated the conservative, integralist and traditionalist currents and divided the Colombian church. Liberation theology gained a foothold in Colombia, although less than in Brazil and the Central American civil wars, amongst sectors who criticized the ecclesiastical hierarchy’s defence of the status-quo and alliance with the political elite. The ideas from Vatican II and aspects of liberation theology influenced the conclusions issued by the second conference of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) held in Medellín in 1968, but the conservative Colombian ecclesiastical hierarchy led the counter-offensive against liberation theology (at the third CELAM conference in Puebla, Mexico in 1979). Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, Archbishop of Medellín (1979-1991), was a favourite of Pope John Paul II and a staunch opponent of liberation theology with a key role in the Puebla conference. The cardinal was accused of turning a blind eye to the proximity of local priests to Pablo Escobar and possibly collaborating with the CIA in operations against liberation theology in Nicaragua. Another influential conservative Colombian cardinal, Darío Castrillón Hoyos (bishop of Pereira, 1976-1991), controversially accepted donations from drug traffickers and did not denounce them to authorities.

Father Camilo Torres, priest and ELN guerrillero / martyr (d. 1966)

Some radical priests, convinced that the armed struggle was the only solution, joined the ELN guerrilla – which has always been influenced by liberation theology and a peculiar strain of ‘Marxist-Christianity’. The emblematic figure of the curas rebeldes (rebel priests) was father Camilo Torres, the co-founder of the National University’s sociology department and leader of a radical left-wing student movement (Frente Unido). Torres joined the new ELN but was killed in his first battle in 1966, becoming in death a mythical symbol for the guerrilla group. Other priests, several foreigners, also joined the ELN, most famously Spanish priest father Manuel Pérez, the ELN’s commander from 1983 until his death in 1998. Despite the influence of liberation theology and a certain Catholic moralist discourse, the ELN’s relationship with religion and the Church has been paradoxical – and Pope Francis highlighted it during his visit, by beatifying the late bishop of Arauca, Jesús Emilio Jaramillo Monsalve, assassinated by the ELN’s Frente Domingo Laín (ironically named after a Spanish priest in the ELN) in 1989. Jaramillo dedicated himself to helping the poor and a leading community figure in Arauca, an oil-producing department in which the ELN became rich by extorting a German company building an oil pipeline (the payment, which was used in social investments in communities, was mediated by Jaramillo). Jaramillo opposed liberation theology and the armed struggle, and with his popularity and influence he became a threat to the guerrilla. The ELN’s central command (COCE) censured and admonished the Frente Domingo Laín for the bishop’s murder, but the front was at odds with the guerrilla’s COCE at the time, particularly over the issue of Christian revolutionaries. The Diocese of Arauca, besides bishop Jaramillo, suffered during the conflict and was recently recognized as a collective victim by the government’s victims’ unit.

The 1991 constitution marked the end – in theory, at least – of the confessional state or a national identity built around Catholicism and hispanismo, and the separation (perhaps incomplete) of church and state. The current constitution’s preamble invokes the protection of God, but the constitution is proclaimed in the name of the people of Colombia, in exercise of its sovereign power (vs. in the name of God, supreme source of all authority, in 1886 and 1957). Article 18 guarantees freedom of conscience and the right not to be harrassed by reason of one’s convictions or beliefs, nor compelled to reveal them or to act against one’s conscience. Article 19 of the constitution guarantees religious freedom – the right of every person to freely profess his or her religion and to disseminate it – as well as the equality of all faiths and churches before the law. Law 133 of 1994 (religious freedom law), which implemented the constitution, extended the Catholic Church’s benefits – tax exemptions for places of worship – to all other churches (read: Protestant churches). In 1997, a ‘concordat’ was signed with evangelical churches which recognized the civil effects of religious marriages and the possibility for religious education in schools. According to a 1994 law, (Catholic) religious education in schools is optional, but many parents are unaware of their right to opt their children out and assume it is compulsory. The first Constitutional Court – particularly progressive and activist – granted consistent protection to freedom of religion. In 1993, infuriating the Catholic Church, the Court ruled many articles of the 1973 Concordat with the Holy See to be unconstitutional because it gave preferential treatment to the Catholic Church. In 1994, as aforementioned, the Court struck down the legal provision which consecrated the Colombian state to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

All of these constitutional and legal changes were spearheaded by the rapidly growing evangelical/Pentecostal movement, which ran its own lists and elected two members to the constituent assembly in 1991 and has retained major electoral influence in all elections since then. Although the evangelical movement hasn’t grown as exponentially as in Brazil or certain Central American countries, they have come to make up about 15-20% according to some estimates (but the lack of recent and reliable data makes it a tough guess). 

The issue of religion in politics since 1991 is beyond the scope of this post, which is already far too long, but should certainly be the subject of a post of its own before the 2018 elections. The electoral and political power of both traditionalist/conservative Catholicism and the evangelical movement was perhaps most stunningly apparent in 2016, with the massive demonstrations against the education ministry’s booklets on gender equality and – a knock-on effect of these marches – the evangelical community’s mobilization in the 2016 plebiscite on the peace agreement, in which it has been estimated that evangelicals ‘put’ 1 million votes for the No (more than the winning margin). Many parties, but particularly the opposition – led by Álvaro Uribe’s CD (a party closely allied to one of the largest evangelical megachurches in the country, the MCI) and anti-government Conservative dissidents – are seeking to capture the evangelical and traditionalist Catholic vote in 2018. Presidential pre-candidates like Liberal senator Viviane Morales (a prominent evangelical Christian leader) and former inspector general Alejandro Ordóñez (a lefebvriste far-right Catholic) are the two most prominent examples of 2018 hopefuls using religion for political ends.

Recommended: William Mauricio Beltrán. Del monopolio católico a la explosión pentecostal: Pluralización religiosa, secularización y cambio social en Colombia. Universidad Nacional de Colombia (Centro de Estudios Sociales), 2013.

More on the Church’s role in the Violencia and armed conflict: Casos de implicación de la Iglesia en la violencia en Colombia. Pacific School of Religion. 2016.


Colombia Digest II: The FARC’s new name, ELN ceasefire, the disintegration of a criminal organization and shifting Court balances

Summary: the ‘new’ name of the FARC’s new party, upcoming bilateral ceasefire with the ELN, a major criminal organization leader killed and the Constitutional Court’s shifting balances

The FARC’s new name

The foundational congress of the FARC’s new political party, the capstone in their transition from illegal guerrilla group to legal democratic political actor, ended on September 1 with a large open-air public concert in the Plaza de Bolívar, the main square of downtown Bogotá.

The ‘new’ name of the party will be Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común (something along the lines of ‘Alternative Revolutionary Force of the Commons’ or ‘Common Alternative Revolutionary Force’). The abbreviation, therefore, remains the same – FARC (without the -EP added in 1982). The name was adopted with 628 votes against 264 for Nueva Colombia, a name suggested by the FARC’s commander Rodrigo Londoño, alias ‘Timochenko’. The question of the name opposed two viewpoints. On the one hand, a majority of the new party’s base (ex-guerrilleros, urban militias, civilian sympathizers, members of the FARC’s old clandestine party, the PC3) wanted to keep the familiar abbreviation FARC as a sign of either nostalgia or continued loyalty to the ‘revolutionary ideals’ and what they still consider to have been a just cause. This position, which won out, was supported by ‘Iván Márquez’ and others like ‘Jesús Santrich’. On the other hand, ‘Timochenko’ and other members of the old Secretariat wanted to adopt a new name to project a new, conciliatory and ‘open’ image. This side, however, seemingly won with the FARC’s new logo, a red rose with a stylized star in the centre – the red rose is, of course, the familiar symbol of social democratic and socialist parties in Europe (and the rose in the fist is the logo of the Socialist International). The FARC’s new red rose logo is similar to the logo of the Danish Social Democrats, Estonian Social Democrats, Andorran Social Democrats and several others.

The name FARC carries very negative connotations, and opinions on the party’s ‘new’ name have been largely negative, considered to be a ‘political mistake’. An editorial in the Spanish conservative newspaper El Mundo said that the FARC ‘mocked the victims’ (an editorial in the Spanish centre-left newspaper El País, on the other hand, called it ‘another positive step’). Although the FARC have done public acts of contrition, sought forgiveness from the victims of some of their most atrocious war crimes (the Bojayá massacre of 2002, for example) and their commitment to peace and reconciliation appears to be genuine, they are not ashamed of their history and still believe that theirs was a just cause (and one which remains valid, but to be achieved through votes rather than bullets). Despite apologizing for some of their crimes, the FARC are not revising their history or engaging in self-criticism. For the base, the name remains a powerful marker of group identity and internal cohesion in an uncertain and disorienting transition from illegality to civilian life. For the general public, however, this same name is associated with terrorism, bombings, kidnappings, war crimes and the armed conflict in general. That said, the new party, regardless of its name, would have remained associated (or stigmatized) with this history. The choice of the name, more than anything, will just reinforce previously held opinions and views of the FARC – for the base and allied sectors, the continued validity of their ‘revolutionary’ aspirations; for opponents (who weren’t going to vote for them anyway), the arrogant lack of humility and introspection.

In Colombia and Central America, demobilized guerrilla groups which became political parties all retained their ‘war names’. In Colombia, the M-19 guerrilla became the Alianza Democrática M-19 (AD M-19) and the EPL guerrilla became Esperanza, Paz y Libertad (EPL) as a political party. In Central America, the FSLN (Nicaragua), FMLN (El Salvador) and URNG (Guatemala) not only kept the same abbreviations but also the same names.

Public concert on Sept. 1, 2017 (source: @FARC_EPueblo)

Although the new FARC declares itself to be a revolutionary party, the actual content of its party statutes (not yet published, but a draft version was obtained by El Espectador) will be far less dogmatic and more ‘reformist’ than ‘revolutionary’. Unable to settle on a single ideological reference, the new party will not define itself as a ‘Marxist-Leninist party’ and will instead acknowledge the internal diversity of political outlooks (“derived from critical and libertarian thought” etc.). The message will focus on the defence of the peace agreement and the construction of peace at the local level, with a general populist anti-establishment discourse against “the powerful who have governed and usurped the wealth we produce” and corruption. The revolutionary content is mostly anti-establishment populism with some class struggle rhetoric, and with little (for now) concrete proposals of their own. La Silla Vacía wrote that the new party has not explained its own ideas “beyond defending the idea that the peace agreement is an opportunity to democratize and re-conciliate the country, […] and a list of ideals of a country more similar to Norway without specifying the way to achieve it.” 

According to El Espectador, there are two major tendencies or factions in the new party: a more ‘dogmatic’ line, which supported keeping the name FARC and a revolutionary/communist orientation, led by Iván Márquez, Jesús Santrich and Mauricio Jaramillo; and a ‘conciliatory’ line, which wanted a new name and a broader political movement, led by ‘Timochenko’, Pablo Catatumbo, Carlos Antonio Lozada and Pastor Alape. That same article also underlines the ‘democratization’ of the FARC, an organization until recently run under military discipline and democratic centralism.

Although the party explicitly said that its objective is to win power and to be part of government, for now its real political focus will be on local power in the 2019 local and regional elections rather than national power in the 2018 congressional and presidential elections. The FARC will be guaranteed ten seats in Congress, regardless of its results, in the 2018 and 2022 congressional elections. For 2018, the new party’s strategy remains to participate in or support a ‘transition government’ which supports the peace agreement. This will be difficult, because nobody wants to be seen with them. No presidential candidate attended the congress (although two sent their wishes) and very few congressmen came – the most prominent one being Polo senator Iván Cepeda. The only major politician who took a picture with the new party’s leaders at the congress was former president Ernesto Samper (1994-1998), who recently returned to Colombia after being Unasur secretary-general and is working on building an electoral coalition to defend the peace agreement in 2018.

The new party also wants to influence the elections in the 16 new transitional peace constituencies which are intended to provide representation to social movements and community organizations (victims’ groups etc.) in regions which suffered heavily from the armed conflict (for the next two congressional terms); existing parties and the FARC’s new party will be banned from running candidates in these constituencies. The FARC has existing social bases of support – notably with cocalero organizations and peasant movements – in some of these regions (like Catatumbo and parts of Meta and Caquetá), and the new party will clearly seek to build on these relations with civil society and social movements in the regions. The FARC’s explicit intention to ‘influence’ the election in these 16 new single-member constituencies will reinforce uribismo‘s claims that these new seats are really 16 disguised extra seats to the FARC.

The congress didn’t announce the definite list of names which will represent the new party in Congress after 2018. In my last post, I mentioned some of the names which have been circulating – all recognized members of the ex-guerrilla’s Secretariat and/or peace negotiation team in Cuba. The names will be determined by the ‘national assembly of the commons’ (the highest leadership instance, made up of delegates from local assemblies) or the ‘national political council’ (the executive bureau).

The new party will be led by a collegial leadership of 111 members. Iván Márquez, the FARC’s main negotiator in Havana and one of the most well-known public figures of the organization, won the most votes (888) of any candidate. Pablo Catatumbo was second with 836 votes and Jesús Santrich, the only one in top 8 who wasn’t in the old Secretariat, was third with 835 votes. Timochenko, the ex-guerrilla’s top commander, won 820 votes in fifth place. The 111-member leadership includes 26 women, the most voted woman being ‘Sandra Ramírez’, the widow of the FARC’s late commander-in-chief and founder Manuel Marulanda ‘Tirofijo’, with 802 votes, followed by Victoria Sandino (797). Tanja Nijmeijer, a Dutch woman who joined the guerrilla and whose story has received some international media attention, will also be a member of the new leadership. The leadership also includes former military commanders and civilian sympathizers (from the Communist Party, Marcha Patriótica, human rights activists, trade unionists).

The new FARC begins its life as a legal political party with only 12% of favourable opinons (and 84% unfavourable) according to the last Gallup poll and over 70% saying that they would never vote for one of its candidates. On the other hand, the same Gallup poll showed that traditional political parties are even more unpopular than the FARC (10/87 favourability) at the moment (and the FARC’s favourable numbers have increased from 3% in 2015, and peaked at 19% in February 2017). The new party will struggle to gain popular acceptance and support, particularly given that it is showing little remorse and doing little in the way of introspection (and that its figures in Congress will probably be its former top commanders who will need to answer for their crimes before the new special jurisdiction for peace in 2018). On the other hand, the new party has one advantage: it will be one of the most disciplined, structured and internally coherent political parties alongside Álvaro Uribe’s CD and the Christian MIRA party.

Ceasefire with the ELN

President Juan Manuel Santos announced on September 4 a temporary bilateral ceasefire with the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army, ELN) – Colombia’s other major guerrilla group (but smaller and less well known than the FARC). It will come into force on October 1, lasting for 102 days until January 12 with further extensions conditional on advances in the negotiations and fulfillment of commitments. The announcement came days before Pope Francis’ arrival to Colombia (on Sept. 6).

Formal peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the ELN began on February 7, 2017 in Quito (Ecuador) after three years of exploratory talks. Negotiations have been deadlocked from the beginning, with the ELN showing little apparent willingness for peace, continuing attacks on police and the military, oil pipelines (one of the historic trademarks of the ELN), kidnappings (two Dutch journalists were kidnapped, though later released, in June) and strengthening their role in criminal economies (drug trafficking, illegal mining, extortion etc.). The government had been insisting that the ELN stopped kidnappings, attacks on infrastructure, laying anti-personnel mines and recruitment of minors; the ELN insisted that the government commit to protecting social leaders who are being assassinated or threatened.

In announcing a bilateral ceasefire, the two sides agreed to eight commitments, four from each party. The ELN agreed to suspend kidnappings, attacks on infrastructure, recruitment of minors and the laying of anti-personnel mines. The government agreed to strengthen the early warning system to protect social leaders, provide health services to ELN prisoners in jails, implement a law which ‘decriminalized’ social protests and to hold public forums in Quito as part of the peace negotiations. The ceasefire will be monitored by independent observers from the UN and will be supported by the Catholic Church.

With negotiations deadlocked and the guerrilla continuing its attacks, the peace process with the ELN is very unpopular – over two-thirds of respondents in recent polls have said that talks with the ELN were on the wrong track. Juan Manuel Santos, whose image cannot afford another controversial peace process, had been looking for a ‘big breakthrough’ in Quito to revive the talks.

Armed presence of the ELN, 2016

In the peripheral regions where the ELN is active – Chocó, Nariño, Cauca, Catatumbo, Arauca, Bajo Cauca (Antioquia) and southern Bolívar – the news of the ceasefire is greeted with very cautious optimism. In the Chocó, a conflict with the Clan del Golfo for territories ‘vacated’ by the FARC has caused a humanitarian crisis with over 4 thousand people displaced. Local community leaders and the Church had been clamouring for a ceasefire since the beginning of the year, and a delegation recently travelled to Quito to expose the dramatic situation of the department to ‘Pablo Beltrán’, the ELN’s chief negotiator. However, there is a fear that the local ELN front – which has shown itself to be disobedient to central command’s orders – will not respect the ceasefire and that other illegal armed groups will take advantage of the situation to expand their territorial presence. In the east (Arauca, Catatumbo), where most of the ELN’s military and economic power has been concentrated in recent years, the fear is that other illegal armed groups will seek to occupy the ELN’s role in criminal economies. Verification of this ceasefire will be complicated and fraught with difficulties. While it could revive a languishing peace process, controversies over ceasefire violations in the regions could also increase distrust between negotiating parties and scuttle further progress in the talks – that is, if the ELN is actually committed to peace and not on using the ceasefire to regroup.

It is noteworthy that the government agreed to a bilateral ceasefire with the ELN even if the talks have produced no tangible results or agreements, after the government repeatedly refused a bilateral ceasefire with the FARC until after the peace talks formally concluded in August 2016 (that said, some of the government’s actions – deescalation of tensions, suspension of aerial bombardments etc. – during the peace process with the FARC resulted in de facto bilateral ceasefires).

The death of ‘Gavilán’, surrender of then Clan del Golfo?

On August 31, alias ‘Gavilán’, the second-in-command of the Clan del Golfo, was killed in a military operation in Urabá (northern Colombia). President Santos said that this was the biggest blow dealt to the criminal organization in the last two years, since the beginning of operation Agamemnon against the Clan del Golfo.

Alias ‘Gavilán’ was one of the most wanted man in Colombia – one of the main contemporary drug lords in Colombia, the no. 2 man in the largest illegal armed group in the country (larger than the ELN), a coldblooded murderer and a child rapist. Gavilán was 16 when he joined the Maoist EPL guerrilla in his native Urabá, which partially demobilized in 1991. Like many other demobilized members of the EPL in Urabá, Gavilán – and other future capos of the Clan del Golfo – joined the paramilitary (ACCU and later AUC) in 1995, forming part of the Bloque Mineros of the AUC, which operated primarily in the Bajo Cauca region in northern Antioquia and demobilized in 2005. Six months later, invited by the Úsaga brothers and Daniel Rendón Herrera, he joined the nascent criminal gang (Bacrim) of the Urabeños. In 2012, after the death of alias ‘Giovanny’, the brother of the gang’s commander alias ‘Otoniel’, Gavilán became military commander of the organization.

Territorial presence of the Clan del Golfo, 2017 (source: FIP)

The Clan del Golfo, also known as Los UrabeñosClan Úsaga or Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC), is the largest criminal organization in Colombia. It is one of the ‘neo-paramilitary’ or ‘narco-paramilitary’ groups which emerged following the partial demobilization of the AUC in 2003-2006 and which has since consolidated itself as the largest illegal armed group in Colombia. The Clan del Golfo is a diffuse criminal organization or ‘franchise’ with an armed component, centred in the northwest of the country (Urabá, Córdoba, Chocó, Bajo Cauca), and an outsourcing/subcontracting component in cities and other regions of the country integrating regional/local criminal networks (drug traffickers, oficinas de cobro, pandillas and combos) carrying out specific tasks (extortion, murders, micro-trafficking, debt collection). The group’s main economic activity is drug trafficking, specialized in the transformation and commercialization of cocaine which is exported to Panama, Central America and Mexico; the Clan del Golfo is also active in illegal mining, illegal logging and extortion. The Clan del Golfo, unlike other ‘organized armed groups’ (GAO, the new official label for larger non-guerrilla criminal organizations), has a multi-regional presence through its two structures (with an estimated 1,900-3,500 men) with the capacity to carry out sustained military operations and exercise control over certain territories.

Urabá is the military stronghold of the Clan del Golfo. Located in northwestern Colombia, Urabá is a strategic ‘corridor’ linking the centre of the country to the Caribbean (via the Gulf of Urabá) and the Panamanian border, one of the main export routes for cocaine to Central America and Mexico. The region has been one of the epicentres of the armed conflict since the 1980s, a cradle of major unresolved social conflicts and strong demands for land restitution. Urabá is not a major coca producing region (but is located close to coca cultivation areas in the Nudo de Paramillo), but it has become a major centre for the collection, refinement and exportation of cocaine by illegal groups. According to the FIP’s excellent report on organized armed groups (2017), Urabá is a ‘dominated’ by the Clan del Golfo, which has managed to control different economic and social spheres, unrivalled by other illegal groups since the demobilization of the FARC. The Clan del Golfo showed their power of intimidation and coercion through two ‘armed strikes’ (paros armados) in 2012 and 2016, in retaliation for the deaths of alias ‘Giovanny’ in 2012 and alias ‘Negro Sarley’ in 2016. In 2016, the Clan del Golfo’s sicarios ordered shops, classes and public services to close. The mere threat of violence was enough to paralyze transportation and the daily lives of thousands of inhabitants of some 20 municipalities in Urabá and Córdoba. In May 2017, in retaliation for the death of alias ‘Pablito’, one of Gavilán’s most trusted lieutenants, the Clan del Golfo announced a plan pistola (‘pistol plan’), the targeted assassination of police officers and other law enforcement personnel, in the style of Pablo Escobar. This year’s plan pistola killed a dozen police officers and injured another 36. Efrén Vargas, Gavilán’s brother and mastermind of the plan pistola, was killed in a military operation in the Chocó in July 2017.

The government launched joint Operation Agamemnon in February 2015 to dismantle the Clan del Golfo in Urabá and capture the organization’s líder maximo, Dairo Antonio Úsuga alias ‘Otoniel’. In the first phase of the operation, which lasted until May 2017 with the participation of over 1,200 police officers, over 1,200 people were captured, 50 were killed (including first, second and third rank capos), 44 tons of cocaine were seized and 70 laboratories destroyed. Notably, in 2016, the police seized 9.2 tons of cocaine belonging to Gavilán. In June 2017, the government launched the second phase of Operation Agamemnon, refocused on intelligence, surveillance and targeting of the top capos of the Clan in an expanded radius of operation. These operations have undoubtedly affected the strength and operational capacity of the Clan del Golfo, but they have been unable to dismantle the Clan. The state’s operations against the Bacrim and GAO since 2006 have resulted in over 33,000 arrests and the supposed elimination of smaller groups, but it has been unable to ‘defeat’ the phenomenon of organized armed groups. As the FIP’s report argued, the strategy of ‘decapitating’ capos or the weakest links of organized crime resulted in the “transformation and fragmentation of structures” and has not changed the conditions which allow for the local reproduction of criminal activity and the presence of organized armed groups (drug trafficking, illegal mining, weak state presence, historical continuity of violence etc.). Voids or vacancies in criminal economies created as a result of the state’s actions have been filled by others and groups have fragmented into “different levels of subcontracting” which are harder to identify. According to the FIP’s report, the top heads of GAOs like the Clan have very limited interference with their networks, which makes these organizations “increasingly diffuse, but not necessarily weak”.

The Clan del Golfo initially responded to Gavilán’s death with a bellicose threat of a new plan pistola to assassinate police officers, Escobar style. The government announced Gavilán’s death as it usually does with such events: surrounded by top military brass, celebrating an “overwhelming blow” (golpe contundente) and sternly warning criminal leaders to surrender or otherwise “fall one by one”.

Surprisingly, however, on September 5, one day before Pope Francis arrived in Colombia, the Clan del Golfo’s leader, Dairo Antonio Úsaga alias ‘Otoniel’ in two YouTube videos (the group has a YouTube channel) read separate communiqués to the country and Pope Francis announcing his willingness to participate in the “end of the conflict to reach the total disarmament of all armed groups of the country” and suspend all illegal activities once sufficient guarantees for a “dignified and voluntary exit” are provided. President Santos said that he had received an “express manifestation” of the AGC’s will to surrender to authorities on September 3. Semana noted that it was Otoniel, the most wanted man in Colombia (also wanted in the US), appeared in a video; there were only two other known pictures of him.

According to CM& news, Otoniel’s declaration, shortly after Gavilán’s death, confirmed that Gavilán had blocked Otoniel’s previous desire to turn himself in.

‘Otoniel’ presents himself as the leader of the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, the paramilitary-like name the group has adopted to claim a status as political belligerents rather than drug traffickers or criminals. The Clan del Golfo has sought inclusion in the ongoing peace processes in the past, but the government has refused all negotiations with them, considering them criminals rather than political belligerents. Santos reiterated that it is not a negotiation, but a surrender to authorities (sometimiento a la justicia) under certain conditions. Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez, asked to evaluate this possibility by the government, has conditioned a sometimiento a la justicia to a cessation of all criminal activities and the surrender of illegal assets and drug trafficking routes.

The most famous example of sometimiento a la justicia was Pablo Escobar’s ill-fated surrender to authorities in 1991, which ended with his escape for his palatial ‘jail’ in July 1992. A sometimiento a la justicia allows for reduced prison sentences. However, as a recent article in Semana explains, the partial surrender/demobilization of the Ejército Revolucionario Popular Antisubversivo de Colombia (ERPAC) in 2011 exposed the gaps in Colombia’s criminal justice system for the mass surrender of criminal organization – only 269 members actually turned themselves in, and 248 were released because there were no charges against them (and most later recaptured). As part of the peace agreement with the FARC signed last year, the government and the judiciary will present a bill to regulate the surrender of justice of criminal groups, under the special ‘fast-track’ legislative procedure (which in practice has been snail-track); the Clan del Golfo’s willingness to surrender has revived this idea and the judiciary and Fiscalía should present a bill to be processed by the ‘fast-track’.

If it comes to be, the sometimiento a la justicia of the Clan del Golfo/AGC will not be like the demobilization of the FARC. As noted above, the Clan del Golfo, despite being the strongest of all organized criminal groups in the country, operates as ‘franchises’ with a large, diffuse subcontracted component. Several wings of the organization, particularly those operating in regions outside the Clan del Golfo’s ‘dominion’ in Urabá should be expected to form dissident criminal groups. In addition, the AGC ‘brand name’ has been used in several regions of the country by other criminal groups – some unconnected to the actual organization – to intimidate and threaten.

Shifting Court balances: a more conservative Constitutional Court?

On August 30, the Senate elected José Fernando Reyes as the new magistrate on the Constitutional Court, completing the renewal of the nine-member Constitutional Court. The Colombian Constitutional Court has been described as “one of the most creative and important courts of the Global South and the world since its creation in 1991”. It has handed down highly significant decisions about fundamental rights – including the decriminalization of drug possession, the legalization of same-sex marriage and adoption, the partial decriminalization of abortion under certain circumstances, the conditional legalization of euthanasia, the right to health, victims’ rights, displaced peoples’ rights and collective rights (environmental protection, indigenous peoples’ right to cultural autonomy). It has also kept the executive and legislative branches in check at times, limiting the use of states of exception by the executive and striking down constitutional amendments with the controversial ‘substitution of the constitution doctrine’. Its jurisprudence has attracted the attention of foreign legal scholars – there is now a book in English, co-authored by former magistrate Manuel José Cepeda, covering the major cases of Colombian constitutional law. Today, the Constitutional Court’s role is even more crucial – as it is called to automatically review all laws and decrees passed to implement the peace agreement with the FARC, it is playing a critical – perhaps decisive – role in the peace process, not without significant controversy and competing political interests. In recent years, the Court’s judicial activism in areas like fundamental rights (same-sex marriage and adoption) and economic and environmental issues (mining, prior consultations with communities, protection of páramos) has caused controversy and annoyed governments, who have complained that the Court’s decisions have resulted in additional costs. Like other judicial institutions, the Constitutional Court’s credibility has been hurt by scandals – like that of former magistrate Jorge Pretelt Chaljub, accused in 2015 of seeking and receiving a 500 million peso bribe from Fidupetrol to favour its interests in a ruling (Pretelt was suspended by the commission of accusations in 2016, his term ended in 2017).

The Colombian Constitutional Court has nine members who serve eight year terms. They are elected by the Senate from lists of three names presented by the President, the Supreme Court and the Council of State. In other words, three magistrates are elected from lists presented by the President, three from lists presented by the Supreme Court and so forth. A total of five new magistrates took office in 2017, completing the renewal of over half of the Court. The next vacancy will be in 2020. Like in the United States, observers pay close attention to the ‘ideological balance’ of the Constitutional Court. The first and second courts (1992-2007/2009) were famously progressive or liberal with magistrates like Carlos Gaviria (the Polo’s 2006 presidential candidate) and Manuel José Cepeda. The third court, from which only two magistrates are left (until 2020), was more conservative, under the influence of President Álvaro Uribe’s nominees. 

The new magistrate, José Fernando Reyes, was elected from a list presented by the Supreme Court. He is a relatively unknown criminal lawyer from the University of Caldas (Manizales) who was a magistrate on the Superior Tribunal of Manizales (Caldas) since 2004. He came from a ‘list of unknowns‘ presented by the Supreme Court, which had taken nine months to make up its list in midst of internal deadlock. His main competitor was John Jairo Morales, a professor at the Santo Tomás University in Bogotá who also worked with the public sector; the third candidate, Judith Bernal, was a very little-known circuit court judge from Bucaramanga who didn’t campaign. The public audience of the candidates in the Senate, the day before the vote, didn’t interest senators much and the questions for the candidates concerned the main legal topics of the day – abortion, the peace agreement, fast-track laws and a judicial reform. Both Reyes and Morales declared that life begins at conception, all agreed with a judicial reform (hard to oppose that publicly these days…) and largely evaded questions about the peace agreement. Morales was supported by uribismo (likely because he was head of the legal advisory office to then-interior and justice minister Fabio Valencia Cossio, a leading uribista, in 2008), former inspector general Alejandro Ordóñez and most Conservatives; Reyes had the de facto support of the government (who couldn’t afford to lose to Uribe and Ordóñez on this one), all but one of the Liberals, most of the Partido de la U and some of Cambio Radical (as well as some of the other parties – Greens, Polo and Opción Ciudadana). Reyes was elected in a narrow 49-40 vote against Morales.

Reyes, despite being elected with Liberal votes (as well as, most likely, the Greens and Polo), is a conservative who replaces Jorge Iván Palacio, a liberal who voted with the 6-3 ‘liberal majority’ on same-sex marriage in 2016. The new Constitutional Court appears more unpredictable, perhaps more conservative, than previous courts, as La Silla Vacía explains.

In the previous court, there was a ‘conservative bloc’ of 3 votes – Pretelt (a declared uribista), Gabriel Eduardo Mendoza and Luis Guillermo Guerrero. Guerrero, the only one still on the court (elected in 2012 with Conservative and Partido de la U support), is the current president of the Constitutional Court and likely the most conservative vote. Besides Reyes, two other of the newcomers could join a ‘conservative bloc’ which would now have 4 votes. Cristina Pardo, legal secretary to the presidency from 2010 to 2017 and assistant magistrate to three conservative magistrates from 1996 to 2010, was elected from a ‘list of one‘ (she was the only strong contender) sent by Santos to replace Pretelt. She was chosen for her proximity to the government, especially on issues like the peace agreement, but Pardo is ‘openly’ conservative on moral issues and judicial activism. Carlos Bernal, Santos’ other recent nominee, is a recognized lawyer from the Externado University with two doctorates who came from a ‘liberal list’ with three strong nominees but may be a conservative vote on moral issues. Bernal is a devout Christian who was supported by the very socially conservative Liberal senator Viviane Morales and received the support of uribismo, which had asked all candidates if life began at birth or at conception. In any case, Bernal, who was supposed to ‘vote with the government’, ended up being the swing vote in a contentious ruling in May in which the Constitutional Court significantly weakened the government’s power over Congress in the special ‘fast-track’ legislative procedure (using its ‘substitution of the constitution’ theory).

In June 2017, after the setback it suffered with Bernal’s vote, the government intervened to favour the election of Diana Fajardo, a liberal, from a list sent by the Supreme Court. Her main rival was Álvaro Motta, a conservative. The other new magistrate, Antonio José Lizarazo, was elected in December 2016 from a list sent by the Council of State. A liberal, Lizarazo is close to the government (as well as Germán Vargas Lleras) and has been, thus far, a reliable pro-government vote on peace-related issues. The government’s other reliable vote is Alejandro Linares, a moderate liberal elected in 2015 from a list sent by Santos. With Pardo, Linares, Lizarazo and possibly Fajardo, President Juan Manuel Santos has at least four sympathetic votes on the Court, something which may help him preserve his legacy after he leaves office in August 2018. Given that Santos’ nominees were elected in 2015 and 2017 and that a 2015 constitutional amendment now bans presidential reelection, whoever is elected president in 2018 will not be able to fill any vacancy (bar an unexpected resignation) on the Court.

The other magistrates are Alberto Rojas Ríos, an purported liberal who has been the subject of several controversies and has not always been consistent with his liberal background; and Gloria Stella Ortíz, a liberal but more independent from the government (she voted with the majority in May to emasculate the fast-track).

Whether the Constitutional Court moves in a more socially conservative direction is still unpredictable, although a ‘socially conservative bloc’ could be only one vote away from a majority. What does seem more certain, however, is that the Court will be less activist – a major preoccupation for the government and businesses, as noted above. All three of Santos’ nominees – Pardo, Bernal and Linares – share a conservative vision of the Court’s powers, hostile to judicial activism and instead favour ‘legal security’. Linares, for example, was the legal affairs VP of Ecopetrol, Colombia’s largest oil company and shares the private sector’s concern about the fiscal impact of the Constitutional Court’s decisions. Guerrero and apparently Fajardo and Reyes also support a less activist court.

However, the peace process – which requires a favourable majority on the Constitutional Court – may be ‘saved’. Linares, Lizarazo, Rojas and Fajardo have, until now, unreservedly supported the peace process and its implementation. Cristina Pardo, who was the presidency’s legal secretary for seven years and worked on several legal issues related to it, theoretically supports the peace process but has had to recuse herself – notably on the ‘fast-track’ decision in May – on peace issues. Reyes’ vote may be the swing vote in favour of the peace process. The next major issue the Court will have to deal with is Acto Legislativo 2 of 2017, a constitutional amendment whose second paragraph says that the state has the “obligation to comply in good faith with the provisions of the final peace agreement” for the next three presidential terms. The ponencia from conservative magistrate Guerrero proposes striking down this second paragraph, which supporters of the peace agreement say would endanger the long-term future of the peace agreement (because, hypothetically, an hostile uribista president in 2018 would have no constitutional obligation to comply with the terms of the peace deal). A decision was scheduled for September 6, but it has been delayed.

Recommended: “Judicial Activism in a Violent Context: The Origin, Role, and Impact of the Colombian Constitutional Court” by Manuel José Cepeda in the Washington University Global Studies Law Review (Jan. 2004).

Colombia Digest I: The master extortionist; the FARC’s assets and new party

To try out a new idea to keep this blog alive and relevant to potential readers, I will present the most relevant and/or interesting current events – mostly, but not exclusively, politics-related – from Colombia, in English. Colombia receives little consistent coverage in the North American or British media, which is a shame for a country which is so interesting (and an important Latin American player). This is the first edition of this ‘Colombia Digest’ (name open to suggestions).

Gustavo Moreno, “master extortionist” and senator Musa Besaile

Sen. Musa Besaile (source: congresovisible)

A new nuclear-grade bombshell: senator Musa Besaile (Partido de la U) has admitted that he paid 2 billion pesos to magistrates of the Supreme Court (via Gustavo Moreno) to stop his parapolítica investigation. He says that he was ‘extorted’ by Gustavo Moreno, being asked for 6 billion but only paying 2 billion. This is the latest big revelation in the Lyons-Moreno scandal, which I explained in a timely post last week. This admission basically confirms the scandal around former magistrates Leonidas Bustos and Francisco Ricaurte, revealed about two weeks ago through the DEA.

In an interview with journalist Vicky Dávila, Besaile explained his version of the story. Besaile says that he met Moreno at his book launch in northern Bogotá in 2014, who introduced him to Bustos and Ricaurte. Some time later, Ricaurte invited him to his apartment and recommended that he hire Gustavo Moreno to help him in his investigation for parapolítica. Moreno contacted Besaile to organize a meeting (which Moreno warned was to be private and without cellphones), during which Moreno told Besaile that his investigation was ‘serious’ and that he was the only one who could help him. An insistent Moreno kept seeking out Besaile, through his lawyer (who was former governor Alejandro Lyons’ uncle) and threatened him with an imminent arrest warrant. The threat seemed real when, as Moreno had previously warned, former senator Julio Manzur (Conservative) was arrested in January 2015 (but released this year) – according to an hitherto incredulous Besaile, this arrest seemed to confirm that Moreno was right and that he would be the next one on the list.

In late February 2015, Moreno told Besaile’s lawyer that the arrest warrant against his client was ‘ready’, at which point Besaile agreed to meet Moreno for a second time. The tone was different – Moreno was blunt and insistent (“I don’t know if you don’t understand, don’t listen or you’re being a fool…”), showing him an arrest warrant (in Moreno’s jacket) and demanding 6 billion pesos cash within a month. Moreno said that Manzur was arrested because he was ‘fooling around’ – that is, he didn’t pay. Manzur’s son, in an interview with Semana, said that Moreno pressured his family through third parties and that his father never acceded to Moreno’s demands.

Moreno said that the money was for his ‘daddy’ (papá), who was Supreme Court magistrate Leonidas Bustos, and his team. Besaile didn’t pay 6 billion pesos – US$ 2 million – because he claims that he didn’t have that amount of money, so the bribe was reduced to 2 billion pesos (US$ 677,000), which Besaile paid (via his lawyer) in four instalments of 500,000 pesos. Ricaurte reappeared, again suggesting to Besaile that he appoint Moreno to his legal team, which he did.

During the interview, Besaile presented himself as a victim of extortion – comparing it to how Córdoba’s landowners and cattle breeders were kidnapped and extorted by the guerrillas in the 1980s, described Moreno as a “white collar extortionist” and at the end he even was in tears. Being the victim is, of course, part of a strategy for a senator whose name has been implicated in most recent scandals in Colombia (‘marmalade’, Odebrecht, hemophilia cartel in Córdoba etc.). Besaile’s self-victimization has outraged many, some even criticizing Vicky Dávila (the interviewer) for treating him like a ‘martyr’.

This new element in the scandal has unleashed a new firestorm, which may also hit current magistrates of the Court (the ones dealing with Besaile and Manzur’s files). The government will try reviving the comisión de aforados (a special commission of independent magistrates to investigate and accuse all magistrates, to replace the lower house’s discredited commission of accusation), which was struck down by the Constitutional Court in 2016, through the political reform currently held up in the first commission of the House.

Politically, this will likely strike a final blow to one of the most formidable clientelist political machines in the entire country – ‘Los Ñoños’ in Córdoba. Senator Bernardo ‘el Ñoño’ Elías is in jail for the Odebrecht scandal and Musa Besaile is nearly certainly going down (but with a boom). Besaile and ‘el Ñoño’ Elías were the two most voted senators of the Partido de la U – and the governing coalition – in 2014, winning 145,400 and 140,100 votes respectively. In Córdoba, the Partido de la U won 41.2% of the vote (274,600 votes) and three of the party’s senators were from the department. The third senator, Martín Morales, was arrested last year (homicide, parapolítica, drug trafficking). In 2015, Musa Besaile’s brother Edwin was elected governor with 345,400 votes. In the 2014 presidential runoff, ‘Los Ñoños’ ‘put’ a lot of votes for president Juan Manuel Santos, who won 376,600 votes (63.7%) in the runoff, going a long way to securing his re-election after a complicated first round.

The FARC’s new party and their assets

The new party of the FARC is holding its foundational congress since Saturday, concluding on Sept. 1, in Bogotá. We haven’t learned anything new yet. The FARC are trying to conciliate their bases with an explicitly revolutionary message (‘construction of an alternative society to the current capitalist order’, imagery of its former leaders) while also seeking new supporters with a more moderate, less dogmatic anti-establishment and anti-corruption creed (‘transition government towards reconciliation and peace’ and a focus on issues like inequality). As they had made clear, they want to be part of a wider ‘pro-peace’ coalition (‘transition government’) with relatively few conditions to potential partners. The congress’ inauguration was attended by some friendly politicians (Iván Cepeda and Alirio Uribe among others) and two presidential candidates sent their wishes (Clara López and Piedad Córdoba). The FARC’s new party will participate in the 2018 elections, although it is unlikely they will run a presidential candidate of their own, instead seeking to participate in a coalition with another pro-peace candidate. The peace agreement guarantees the FARC at least ten seats in Congress, five in both houses, for the next two terms (2018-2022 and 2022-2026) regardless of their electoral performance.

The new party’s name remains unclear. Some time ago, Iván Márquez – the FARC’s senior peace negotiator in Havana, said that the new party would retain the abbreviation under the name Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria de Colombia (Alternative Revolutionary Force of Colombia). However, the FARC’s commander, Rodrigo Londoño alias ‘Timochenko’ posted a poll on his Twitter account last week in which he gave four options – ‘FARC-EP’, Nuevo Partido (New Party), Esperanza del Pueblo (Hope of the People) and Nueva Colombia (New Colombia). The latter won with 36%.

Some sources are reporting that the FARC’s main peace negotiators – and former guerrilla commanders, with pending criminal charges against them and most still on the US State Department’s Narcotics Rewards Program list – will be heading the new party’s lists for Senate and the House in 2018. Iván Márquez and ‘Pablo Catatumbo’ may lead the list for the Senate, followed by ‘Pastor Alape’, ‘Carlos Antonio Lozada’ and ‘Victoria Sandino’; ‘Jesús Santrich’ and ‘Andrés París’ may be on lists for the House.

Their political debut was, however, overshadowed by the controversy over the list of assets (and expenses) they submitted. Their assets will be used to provide reparations to victims of the conflict. Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez, who has been very critical of the FARC during the implementation process, said that the list was ‘useless’. The FARC valued their assets and expenses at 963.24 billion pesos – US$ 328 million at the current exchange rate (+ 267,520 grams of gold and US$ 450,000). These assets included controversial categories like ‘goods seized from the mafia’, ‘road infrastructure’ and ‘equipment and household goods’. Martínez highlighted that the FARC had declared “scrubbers, brooms, juicers, wheelbarrows, frying pans, salt, talcs and dishes”, and declared money spent on medical operations (some of them ridiculous). Semana put together the complete list of assets declared by the former guerrilla, including a detailed consolidated summary here.

The FARC claims to have only $850,000 in cash (2.5 billion pesos), in addition to gold and some US currency. They claim 241,000 ha. in property (721 properties – including houses and farms) valued at $150.3 million; land and maritime transportation vehicles worth over $2.8 million; and over 20,000 heads of cattle plus over 500 mules and horses. The FARC reported 3,753 km of roads which they built or co-financed (‘with the community’), valued at $66.7 million, built by the guerrilla, mostly in the plains of the Yarí (Meta and Caquetá). The declaration of these roads as assets was controversial, but the reality is that in many isolated regions, the FARC were the only state-like authority and they provided the basic services of a state, including infrastructure. By declaring them, the ex-guerrilla claims that these roads will now be ‘recognized’ by the state to be repaired and serviced.

The inclusion of trivial household goods (brooms, buckets, pots and pans, forks and knives, aspirins etc.) infuriated many, but the full list of 21.3 billion pesos in equipment and goods was not all useless for reparations to victims. The list also detailed, for the first time, the armament recently surrendered to the UN, which included 5,624 rifles, 1,883 small arms, 210 machine guns, 267 mortars and 136 grenade launchers.

In reality, this issue was inevitably a no-win for the FARC: everybody expected huge sums of money (the Fiscalía had estimated their assets at US$ 613 million a few years ago; The Economist had gotten the number US$ 10 billion from a financial analysis unit employee), but there is no way of knowing what the real amount is. Semana‘s take on the issue is fair: the FARC’s inventory is probably incomplete and problematically mixes assets and expenses, but the attorney general’s statements were somewhat ridiculous (he pointed out that few of the properties, cattle heads and cars declared were registered – but how would an illegal armed group register its properties, especially in a country where the state has no presence in many regions?).

Germán Vargas Lleras’ presidential candidacy

Germán Vargas Lleras is running for president (officially now). In other news, the sky is blue. What is interesting, however, is that he will register his presidential candidacy through signatures rather than his party’s formal nomination. In Colombia, candidates may gain ballot access either through the nomination of a legally recognized political party (which Vargas Lleras has through Cambio Radical) or, ostensibly for unrecognized parties and independents, through signatures (petition). Álvaro Uribe’s candidacies were registered through signatures in both 2002 and 2006, even if in 2006 he had several political parties behind him which could have formally given him their nomination.

For the presidential election, candidates must collect a number of signatures equivalent to 3% of valid votes cast in the previous presidential election – for 2018, this means 368,148 signatures. In reality, candidates’ committees always seek out far more signatures than they need – along the lines of 1 million – both to give the impression of a strong ‘citizens’ movement’ behind them and to have ample breathing space when the Registraduría (electoral body) revises and invalidates some of the signatures. They have until December 13 to present their signatures, and the Registraduría has until January 17, 2018 to certify them.

Candidacies through signatures is very much in style this year, and not only for candidates who have no other way to get ballot access. There are several reasons. First, political parties are about as popular as the plague (87% unfavourable opinions in Gallup’s August 2017 poll), so naturally every candidate is eager to pass as an ‘independent’ or a ‘civic candidate’ supported by a million citizens. For Vargas Lleras, Cambio Radical has a poor image among the general public and opinion-makers because of repeated corruption scandals, most famously the endorsements the party granted to the two former governors of La Guajira – Kiko Gómez in 2011, since convicted for multiple homicides and Oneida Pinto in 2015, since removed from office and facing corruption charges.

Second, while the official campaign only begins on January 27, 2018 (when the two-month period for the registration of candidacies opens) – which is also when candidates can begin to formally raise money to fund their campaign, there is a legal loophole which allows the candidates’ committees to raise money and be in the streets seeking support. At this point in time, legal requirements on campaign finance are ridiculously lax – there is no legal obligation for the pre-campaigns to even report their numbers. In other words, a candidacy through signatures effectively allows candidates to launch their campaigns early. Several prominent candidates have already registered their ‘promoting committees’ and begun collecting signatures: former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, former labour minister Clara López, former inspector general Alejandro Ordóñez, former ambassador Juan Carlos Pinzón, former senator Piedad Córdoba and former Antioquia governor Sergio Fajardo. Fajardo, Córdoba Petro have no other choice, since their movements are not legally recognized; López, Pinzón and Ordóñez left their original parties and similarly have no other choice. Other candidates, who haven’t registered a committee (because they will likely use their party’s endorsement) have already begun campaigning too, like Álvaro Uribe’s five pre-candidates or senator Claudia López for the Greens.

However, since Vargas Lleras left the vice presidency in March, he has been silent and generally absent from the national media, flying under the radar and choosing to work on the ground to consolidate his machinery with regional politicians. On that front, the past few months were very fruitful for him, concocting alliances with powerful regional politicians (some from other parties) in regions like Antioquia, Cesar, the Pacific coast, the Santanders and Huila. The strength of his candidacy and the internal disorganization in other parties (particularly the Partido de la U) has meant that Vargas Lleras has potential supporters in other parties – the U (senators José David Name and Mauricio Lizcano), the Liberals and the Conservatives. Going for signatures also allows his campaign to seek out support in other parties and start building a potential coalition, without giving up the best his party has to offer (an increasingly strong machinery). Coalitions are another things which are very much in style, because of the discredit of parties and the assumption that no one candidate will be strong enough to win without a broad base of political support. Everybody is claiming to be aspiring to lead very broad, inclusive coalitions with ‘independents’, ‘civil society’ and fluffy bunnies. At the same time, Vargas Lleras will still be able to fall back on the support and clientelist machines of his party, Cambio Radical. A cunning politician like Vargas Lleras knows that, regardless of all the cakes made out of rainbows and smiles, no Colombian president has ever been elected without the votes of well-oiled clientelist machines.

Vargas Lleras’ promoting committee, Mejor Vargas Lleras (Better Vargas Lleras), is led by three people from civil society (an architect, a disabled community leader and a businessman). It has set an extremely ambitious signature target for itself – 4 million. In a video on his Twitter account, Vargas Lleras (obviously) gave his backing to this committee, complete with typical fluffy political talk.

From the comments made by the ‘leaders’ of this committee, Vargas Lleras will campaign with the national mood – on the right, against the possibility of Colombia turning into ‘another Venezuela’. As Semana reminds us, Vargas Lleras is following in the footsteps of Álvaro Uribe – a traditional partisan politician who sought his presidential candidacy through signatures as an ‘independent’ going above party divisions (but also counting on a very strong machinery in the regions to win the election).

I wrote a thorough profile of Vargas Lleras in March. Read it here.

An open-ended election in 2018

Semana has counted 29 presidential candidates for 2018 (and they’re not counting the minor ones nobody knows of). It is certain that not all of them will reach the finish line, but the field is unusually packed and the race unusually open-ended. No one candidate has ‘taken off’ in the polls so far, and it is very unclear who the major candidates will narrow down to and which two candidates will qualify for the second round. That being said, it is still very early. A lot will happen between September 2017 and May 2018 – including congressional elections in March 2018.

Two polls

Two regular tracking polls have recently been released. The Centro Nacional de Consultoría’s August 2017 poll and Gallup’s August 2017 mega-poll. CNC was in the field between Aug. 11 and 17, in both the major cities and smaller regional towns across the country; Gallup was in the field between Aug. 19 and 29, only in the four largest cities and Bucaramanga.

In both polls, President Juan Manuel Santos remains very unpopular – 34% negative opinions in CNC (nevertheless up 7 since June) and 25% approvals in Gallup (stable with 72% disapproval). Associated to this, the general mood remains very pessimistic, with about 65-70% saying that things are on the wrong track.

The charts from Gallup’s poll show that the government’s unpopularity is due in large part to the very negative opinions on issues like healthcare, corruption, unemployment, the economy or security while transportation, housing and to a lesser extent foreign policy remain the ‘star issues’ of the government. Compared to Gallup’s last poll, it is interesting to note that positive opinions on the management of the guerrilla and the reintegration of demobilized men has increased significantly (+7 and +12).

CNC’s numbers on the topic, while posed differently, are similar. Asking for the main problem facing the country, Gallup reports that 29% said corruption, 28% said ‘others’, 24% said the economy and purchasing power and only 15% said public order and security (the lowest on record).

The image of the peace process remains negative. According to CNC, 56% have an unfavourable view of the peace process with the FARC (down 6%) and 68% have an unfavourable view of the deadlocked peace process with the ELN in Quito. Asked whether they would vote for a candidate who supports the peace agreement with the FARC or one who wants to renegotiate the peace agreements, opinions are split equally 44% to 44%.

Among politicians, the most popular – per Gallup – is Humberto de la Calle, the former chief negotiator of the peace agreements in Havana and newly-declared presidential candidate, with 51% in favourable opinions; he is followed by Sergio Fajardo, another presidential candidate, who has 48% favourable opinions and only 10% unfavourable opinions. Álvaro Uribe is increasingly polarizing, getting 46% positive views but also 50% in negative views. According to CNC as well Uribe is very polarizing, with a 48/46 favourability split. Vargas Lleras’ numbers are also closely matched, 41/43 in Gallup and 43/46 in CNC. The most unpopular names are Nicolás Maduro (94% dislike him) and Donald Trump (70% dislike him); among Colombian names, the most unpopular is Piedad Córdoba (26/65), followed by Gustavo Petro (36/46).

Uribismo‘s five pre-candidates – Iván Duque, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, María del Rosario Guerra, Paloma Valencia and Rafael Nieto – remain unknown to most respondents, and most of those who know them aren’t fans. Among uribista-compatible presidential candidates, Alejandro Ordóñez is unpopular (19/39) and Marta Lucía Ramírez has the most potential (28/23).

The military, the UN, the Catholic Church, the business elite and the media remain the most popular institutions according to Gallup. The ELN, political parties, the FARC, the judicial system and Congress remain the most unpopular with over 80% of unfavourable opinions.

CNC asked more specific questions about the political parties, confirming their poor reputations. The most popular party, though with only 33% giving them the top two marks on a scale from 1 to 5, is the Green Alliance; followed by the Liberals (29%), CD (28%) and Conservatives (24%). The most unpopular is the FARC’s new party (7%) followed by Opción Ciudadana, known as a ‘trash collector’ party home to disreputable characters (11%) and the religious movement Mira (13%).

84% would not vote for a FARC congressional candidate, the highest for any party. No party has over half of respondents saying they’d vote for one of their candidates, but the Liberals (45%), Greens (45%) and Polo (40%) come closest. 61% say they wouldn’t vote for a candidate from Uribe’s CD.

Likewise, 72% would never vote for a FARC candidate for Congress. In this question, no other party has over 50% saying that they would never vote for them and only two have over 40% complete rejections (Mira and CD).

CNC, finally, asked about presidential voting intentions for 2018. As I noted above, nobody is taking off – the top two candidates have only 12% of voting intentions and seven candidates have over 5% in the poll. It is hard to make much of these numbers, except that the race is anybody’s guess at the moment.

Among regional and local executives, according to Gallup, Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who may face a recall vote early next year, remains the most unpopular with 71% disapproving and only 28% approving. On another planet, Medellín mayor Federico Gutiérrez and Barranquilla mayor Alex Char remain the most popular with stratospheric approvals (83% and 85%). Cali mayor Maurice Armitage hasn’t recovered from a massive drop in his approval rating in June, and remains at 60% disapproval. Luis Pérez, the governor of Antioquia, is the most popular with 69% approvals.

The corrupt anti-corruption boss and the bribed judges

So far, in 2017, a seemingly unending succession of corruption scandals and new high-impact ‘bombshells’ has captured headlines and dominated public debate in Colombia. Two high-impact ‘national’ scandals came to the fore in the country this year: the transnational Odebrecht scandal, the multi-million dollar bribes paid out by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to politicians and their electoral campaigns throughout Latin America (and which has already put former Peruvian president Ollanta Humala in jail); and the Lyons-Moreno cases, the subject of this post. Both scandals have made corruption one of the top issues of public debate in Colombia, less than a year away from congressional and presidential elections. They have also raised serious questions about how well Colombia’s institutions are actually working, leading some to propose radical solutions.

The reach of the Odebrecht scandal in Colombia is by itself astounding, and has already had several important political consequences (among other things, it has made president Juan Manuel Santos even more popular and even more of a lame-duck stripped of political capital). But the Lyons-Moreno scandal, which has not received as much attention in the English-language media, has reached former magistrates of the Colombian Supreme Court and posed serious questions about Colombia’s judiciary, the wide-reaching networks of political corruption and the role of the United States in Colombian legal cases.

What is the Lyons-Moreno scandal?

The scandal began with the arrest, on June 27, of Gustavo Moreno – a young lawyer (b. 1981) and director of the attorney general’s office (Fiscalía)’s anti-corruption unit since October 2016 – by Colombian authorities, wanted for extradition by the DEA on bribery charges in the United States. Along with another corrupt young lawyer, Leonardo Pinilla, who was also arrested, he is accused of seeking bribes from Alejandro Lyons, the former governor of Córdoba (2012-2015) who is currently facing 20 corruption charges in Colombia.

The Lyons scandals

Alejandro Lyons, a young lawyer (b. 1981) with no prior political experience, was elected governor of the Caribbean department of Córdoba in 2011. Lyons was supported by Partido de la U senators Bernardo ‘el Ñoño’ Elías (recently arrested on Odebrecht bribery charges), Musa Besaile (implicated in the Odebrecht scandal) and Martín Morales (arrested in 2016 and awaiting trial for homicide, drug trafficking and parapolítica; from the political group of former senator Zulema Jattin, under investigation for parapolítica) and mentored by former senator Miguel de la Espriella (signatory of the infamous 2001 Pacto de Ralito with the highest echelons of the paramilitary group AUC; convicted for parapolítica and purported ‘bridge’ between the AUC and the first Álvaro Uribe administration). Lyons was the young political novice who (somewhat unexpectedly) defeated the candidate of the hitherto dominant rival political clan, that of former Liberal senator Juan Manuel López Cabrales (signatory of the 2001 Pacto de Ralito; convicted for parapolítica) and his wife current Liberal senator Arleth Casado.

Lyons (source:

Following a familiar storyline played out across the continent, the new governor relished his power and ‘broke free’ from his initial political patrons and created his own political group, oiled by access to public funds, which showed its muscle in the 2014 congressional election – when his younger cousin, Sara Piedrahita Lyons – a former beauty queen without any political experience – was elected representative with over 105,000 preferential votes (the most of any representative in the country in 2014!).

Sara Piedrahita Lyons, representative and beauty queen

In 2015, locked in a dispute with ‘Los Ñoños’ (Elías and Besaile), Lyons was unable to impose his old friend and former secretary of administration Carlos Gómez as the Partido de la U’s gubernatorial candidate, losing to Edwin Besaile – the brother of Musa Besaile, supported by ‘Los Ñoños’ – but Gómez received the endorsement of Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras’ Cambio Radical and the department’s two Conservative groups. However, Lyons later switched sides and formally endorsed Edwin Besaile, the clear favourite and eventual winner, although he played for both sides. Lyons retained some degree of influence in the new administration and in some municipal governments, although he has lost most of that since 2015.

As governor, Lyons and his cronies looted the department and bled it dry. Although the sheer extent of his looting only became clear after he left office, there had already been noises and controversies during his term. In 2014, his former royalties director Jairo Zapa went missing and his dead body (murdered) was found four months later next to a farm owned by Lyons’ father. Six people were arrested in connection to Zapa’s murder, and Lyons is said to have been involved, but the case has been on the backburner for over a year. In another controversy, in 2014 Lyons gave the concession for the departmental lotteries to a company whose board of directors and shareholders included a man suspected of having been a strawperson for Salvatore Mancuso, a top commander of the AUC.

Since 2016, however, legal investigations have uncovered several schemes and plots to loot the department – some of them impressively complex and twisted. One of them is the ‘hemophilia cartel’, the payment of US$ 15 million by the department to hospitals for treatment and medication to some 190 fake hemophiliac patients (!). Most of the people arrested in this case – including two former departmental health secretaries and the legal representatives of the two hospitals which received the money – were politically connected to Lyons and/or ‘el Ñoño’ Elías. The other major scandal involves the possible embezzlement of $ 20 million through various agricultural contracts (the 2 biggest: ‘Caribbean agro-ecological corridor’, ‘breeding rams to mitigate the effect of free trade’) financed through innovation, science and technology royalties transferred to the department. Again, many the people arrested in this case are politically connected to Lyons (one is also tied to Zapa’s murder) – including his former royalties director, who was planning secretary in Edwin Besaile’s administration as a ‘quota’ of Lyons until his arrest in January. These are only a few of the corruption cases in Córdoba currently being investigated by the Fiscalía, which have led to the arrest of some 50-odd civil servants, politicians, contractors, lawyers and judges (many with political connections to the department’s caciques). La Silla Vacía has an interactive table breaking down the major corrupt contracts of the Lyons era in Córdoba.

Conveniently, about two weeks before charges were formally laid, Lyons went to Miami (par for the course), because ‘his pregnant wife needed treatment’, denying that he was evading justice and insisting that he would collaborate with Colombian authorities (just not right now…). As it so turned out, Lyons began secretly assisting the DEA and he was the one who gave them the necessary incriminating evidence against Gustavo Moreno and Leonardo Pinilla.

In November 2016, Moreno and Pinilla approached Lyons seeking a 100 million peso ($ 34,500) bribe in exchange for copies of sworn witness statements in the corruption cases against him. He later informed the DEA and the Fiscalía of this bribery-extortion scheme and was working undercover for the DEA when Moreno and Pinilla took the bait. Sometime in June, Moreno and Pinilla travelled to Miami to receive a $ 10,000 deposit of the bribe from Lyons, through the intermediary of Pinilla who later gave the money to Rivera in a suburban shopping mall bathroom and parking lot. Recorded conversations showed that Moreno and Pinilla discussed Moreno’s power to control the investigations and Moreno said that he could inundate his prosecutors with work so that they would be unable to focus on the investigation; in exchange, they demanded a bribe of 400 million pesos ($ 132,000) and another $ 30,000 to be paid before Moreno left Miami (see details here in Englishor the federal district court indictment). In Colombia, Lyons’ ploy was seen as a master stroke to negotiate judicial benefits in the US and spite the Fiscalía.

The Moreno case

Gustavo Moreno (

Naturally, Moreno’s arrest sent shockwaves and lots of uncomfortable questions for the attorney general, Néstor Humberto Martínez, who was the one who appointed Moreno as anti-corruption director last year. Moreno is a young lawyer (35, graduated in 2007) who made a lot of powerful and influential friends in Bogotá’s top political and judicial circles, notably as a ‘specialist’ on false witnesses and as the lawyer of several politicians with legal woes. LSV explained how Moreno was friends with a lot of high-ranking politicians and judges, from all sides, and had enjoyed the political backing of many parties (CD, Liberal, CR etc.) – although there are unverified claims that he was particularly close to Cambio Radical, potentially through Vargas Lleras’ brother (CR senator Germán Varón denied this claim and said that Moreno had friends everywhere). His intermediary in the Lyons affair, Leonardo Pinilla, is even younger (32) but a prominent lawyer who was working in the offices of the law firm of… Alejandro Lyons’ father in Bogotá.

There are still many unanswered questions about Moreno’s relationship to politicians and to attorney general Néstor Humberto Martínez: why did Martínez appoint a criminal lawyer with no experience on corruption files to be top anti-corruption boss? Who recommended Moreno to Martínez? Why did Martínez appoint the lawyer of politicians to investigate political corruption?

In considering these questions, it should be kept in mind that Néstor Humberto Martínez is an attorney general with a lot of powerful friends in high places (which naturally leaves many skeptical about his true intentions). Martínez, elected in July 2016 by the Supreme Court from a list of three candidates sent by president Santos, had been a successful lawyer and prominent politician for years. In politics, Martínez was justice minister under Ernesto Samper (1994-1996), ambassador in Paris (1996-1997), interior minister (1998-2000) under Andrés Pastrana and ‘superminister’ of the presidency under Juan Manuel Santos (2014-2016). Martínez, praised by colleagues as an intelligent, hard-working and cunning lawyer, was a lawyer for the rich and powerful. His law firm advised many of the biggest corporate mergers in the banking sector, and he was the chief legal advisor to Luis Carlos Sarmiento, the richest man in Colombia ($ 12 billion). He advised Sarmiento on the acquisition of the El Tiempo editorial group from the Spanish group Planeta, the regulatory process before the SEC for the Grupo Aval‘s entrance on the NYSE and the acquisition of Central American banking giant BAC Credomatic. His firm also represented Carlos Ardilla Lülle‘s sugar ingenios, Canadian oil corporation Pacific Rubiales and the private TV duopoly of Caracol TV and RCN TV. Martínez is a close friend of former vice president and 2018 presidential candidate Germán Vargas Lleras; in 2016, he was considered as CR’s ‘candidate’ for attorney general after the Liberals and Partido de la U pressured Santos not to include him on his list of candidates. Considered by many to be a Vargas Lleras ally, certain of his decisions as attorney general have raised questions about whether he is selectively prosecuting certain cases of corruption while ignoring others.

Moreno penned a melodramatic letter of regrets and remorse, announcing that he would fully collaborate with both countries. He asked for expedited extradition, and is said to be ‘in a race’ with Pinilla to see who can give the most information to the US. However, in July, in his first court hearing in Colombia, a judge refused his acceptance of charges when Moreno, unexpectedly, claimed that he had been pressured by Fiscalía’s actions against his wife and questioned the details of some of the charges (the size of the bribe, notably).

The judicial scandal

Bustos (l.) and Ricaurte (r.) in foreground; l. to r. Besaile, Ramos and Andrade in background (

Just a few days ago (Aug. 15), a new element of the Moreno scandal exploded. In recorded conversations obtained from the US, Moreno and Pinillia tell Lyons – as ‘proof’ of their efficiency – how former Supreme Court magistrates Leonidas Bustos and Francisco Ricaurte demanded between 1 and 5 billion pesos ($ 335,000 to $1.6 million) in return for favourable verdicts or inaction in trials against various high-ranking politicians – the three names cited by the Fiscalía and in the media headlines were senators Hernán Andrade (Conservative) and Musa Besaile (La U) and former senator/former governor Luis Alfredo Ramos (CD/Cons.), ‘among others’. All three faced investigations and/or trials in the Supreme Court in recent years – Andrade was acquitted of supposedly benefiting financially from the liquidation of a public pension fund, Besaile has pending investigations for parapolítica which have been collecting dust since 2010 and Ramos was released from preventive detention in 2016 and is awaiting an acquittal in a parapolítica trial which got him arrested in 2013. All three politicians were defended in court by Gustavo Moreno.

Bustos and Ricaurte, both former presidents of the Supreme Court (2015-2016, 2008-2009 respectively), were a few years ago among the most powerful men in the judiciary – said to ‘control’ votes and trial outcomes in their respective chambers (criminal and labour respectively). Both zealously (self-interestedly) defended the ‘corporate interests’ of the judiciary against the two most recent political attempts to reform the judiciary, and a few years back were held responsible for the continuous deadlocks and ‘chaos’ in the Supreme Court (which continues).

Ricaurte left the Supreme Court in 2012 and was elected to the administrative chamber of the unpopular Superior Council of the Judiciary (which writes up the lists of eligible candidates from which the Supreme Court and Council of State choose their members), becoming the face of the clientelistic practice of ‘I elect you, you elect me’ – because the people who elected him to the Superior Council of the Judiciary included the same people he had himself appointed to the Superior Council of the Judiciary when he was on the court. For this reason, Ricaurte’s election was challenged in the Council of State, and invalidated in July 2014 – but Ricaurte controversially managed to delay the application of the verdict until November 2014.

Bustos and Ricaurte were two of the top names on whiz kid Gustavo Moreno’s list of powerful friends and connections. Semana reported that Moreno visited Bustos’ offices at least 30 times between 2010 and 2012. Both were also close to former Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez, currently a presidential pre-candidate on a Trump-inspired far-right platform. Ordóñez’s 2012 reelection as Inspector General was invalidated last year by the Council of State, because he had appointed relatives of Supreme Court magistrates and senators (the ones who shortlisted and elected him, respectively). Moreover, the appointment of Bustos’ then-wife to a position in the Procuraduría by Ordóñez in 2010 was one of the unconstitutional appointments cited by the Council of State in its ruling invalidating Ordóñez’s reelection.

Bustos was fairly close to attorney general Néstor Humberto Martínez – and Bustos used his power over his peers to lobby for Martínez’s candidacy in 2016. It is also rumoured that he was the one who recommended Moreno to him.

Another former magistrate and president of the court, Camilo Tarquino, was also named in the recordings, but apparently he was no longer a magistrate and was acting as a lawyer when he was bribed.

The implicated trio of politicians

Andrade, Besaile and Ramos are the three most important politicians to have benefited from Moreno’s network of corruption in the highest court. Andrade is a major santista Conservative senator and current (embattled) director of the Conservative Party’s executive, who intends to ‘pass on’ his Senate seat to his sister in 2018. In 2008, Andrade was accused of having received 250 million pesos in 2006 (to fund his campaign) from the mastermind of a mass embezzlement from a public pensions fund (Cajanal) and the Court opened a formal investigation for three criminal charges in 2010. In September 2014, the Court precluded the case. Semana recently investigated the details of this old case and found that, in 2013, the Court concluded that it had multiple solid evidence that Andrade had ‘most likely’ committed the three crimes he was accused of (illicit enrichment, procedural fraud, falsification of public documents) and that it did not believe Andrade’s arguments; a year later, in precluding the case, the Court ‘inexplicably’ contradicted or negated its previous arguments. Andrade argues that another magistrate, not Bustos, wrote the court’s verdict and that it was decided unanimously.

Andrade’s case is the only one which resulted in a formal acquittal – Musa Besaile’s investigations have simply been backlogged, while Ramos’ case is more uncertain although an acquittal has been expected for several months. Luis Alfredo Ramos, a former senator (2002-2006) and governor of Antioquia (2008-2011), was arrested in August 2013 – when he was one of the uribista CD’s presidential pre-candidates – for parapolítica. He was released in November 2016, after the evidence against him collapsed because of false witnesses (some having been arrested for false testimony). He was, at the outset, defended by Gustavo Moreno whose ‘expertise’ was… false witnesses, and since his release, Ramos has been touring the country presenting himself as a victim of… false witnesses.

From the evidence in this scandal, Pinilla said that in the Lyons case, magistrates asked for up to 5 billion pesos, while in Musa Besaile’s case, 3 billion pesos were paid to freeze investigations and prevent an arrest warrant from being issued. It is also reported that 2 billion pesos were paid in Ramos’ case.

LSV found out the names of the ‘other politicians’ which Moreno defended before the Supreme Court. They include many current and former representatives but also former justice minister and former senator Jorge Londoño, suspended senator Martín Morales, former senator Zulema Jattin and former Cesar governor Lucas Gnecco Cerchar. Some of his political clients already have criminal convictions against them.

The Supreme Court has referred the cases of Bustos and Ricaurte to the ‘commission of accusations’ of the House of Representatives, which is constitutionally responsible for investigating accusations made against magistrates of the Supreme Court and, if they judge it appropriate, to file the equivalent of articles of impeachment before the Senate. However, the ‘commission of accusations’ is widely seen as a joke and is tellingly nicknamed the ‘commission of absolutions’. Out of thousands of accusations, only two cases since the 1950s have made it out of the commission – in 1959, general Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (military ruler from 1953 to 1957) was accused by the commission; in 2016, it accused Constitutional Court judge Jorge Ignacio Pretelt for seeking a bribe. The commission’s most infamous remains the preclusion of the investigation against President Ernesto Samper during the Proceso 8.000. This time, however, the commission may find the weight of evidence (obtained via the DEA no less) against Bustos and Ricaurte too overwhelming to absolve them.


The judicial scandal has been the latest bombshell in a series of major corruption scandals which exploded in Colombia this year. It is all the more significant given that this scandal affects one of the highest courts and the judicial branch. So what are the possible effects?

The issue of judicial reform – an institutional reform of the judicial branch (its powers, makeup and structure) – has been on every government’s agenda since Álvaro Uribe, if not earlier. For various reasons, no government has been successful. Juan Manuel Santos’ judicial reform in 2011-12 started off on the right foot, but quickly derailed and before long Congress proceeded to vandalize it and it famously became an ‘orangutan’ which drained the government of much of its early political capital. In the most recent attempt, as part of Santos’ ‘balance of powers’ constitutional reform in 2015, Congress to its credit didn’t ruin it too much, leaving it up to the courts – who disliked the implications of the reform for their zealously guarded ‘corporate interests’  – to tear it to shreds and for the Constitutional Court to kill two of the most important elements of the reform in 2016. Bustos was one of the very vocal opponents of the judicial reform in 2015 – as was Néstor Humberto Martínez, despite being minister of the presidency at the time.

With this new scandal, a judicial reform now seems to be a necessity – but given the precedents, some are proposing drastic measures: a constituent assembly. To the first point, the scandal has further highlighted some of the problems of the judiciary – namely, a self-interested zealous defence of ‘corporate interests’, the absence of efficient mechanisms by which to try magistrates and judges for disciplinary and criminal offences (one of the articles of the 2015 reform struck down by the Constitutional Court in 2016 was the creation of a new commission to replace the discredited commission of accusations to investigate and accuse judges), the way in which the judiciary is administered (an element of the 2015 reform also struck down in 2016 was the replacement of the broken and unpopular Superior Council of the Judiciary), the way in which members of the Supreme Court and Council of State are chosen (currently ‘co-optation’ method by their peers from lists presented by the Superior Council of the Judiciary) and the electoral powers of the courts (electing the attorney general and providing candidates for inspector general, comptroller, ConCourt etc.).

To the second point, more and more voices are calling for a constituent assembly to reform the judiciary, arguing that it is the only option left on the table. The most prominent voice favouring a constituent assembly is Liberal senator and former attorney general Viviane Morales, recently joined (for somewhat different reasons) by Partido de la U senator Roy Barreras. While it is constitutionally possible to call, via referendum, for a constituent assembly with a fixed agenda and mandate, the process is complicated and political calls for a constituent assembly always bring up more questions than answers. Many of the politicians calling, opportunistically, for constituent assemblies are suspected of having a hidden agenda – Viviane Morales’ controversial proposal for a constitutional referendum to ban same-sex adoption was recently voted down in commission; while uribismo‘s usual calls for a judicial reform are suspected of being a way to bring back presidential reelection by the back door and settle their scores with the ‘corrupt judiciary’.

Honest people who know what they’re talking about rightfully warn against an ‘excessive’ response to the scandal – not all magistrates and judges are rotten (far from it!), Colombia’s judiciary has not ‘failed’ (far from it!), Colombia’ top courts are still among the most effective and independent in Latin America and a constituent assembly could create more problems than it fixes. Some more reasonable voices have proposed finding common political agreement on a ‘basic’ judicial reform to fix the three or four unarguably broken aspects, although in the current political context this is very unrealistic (and will be unrealistic until August 2018). In short, although a judicial reform is overdue, it will – most likely – need to wait until a new president is elected and sworn in, in August 2018.

In any case, many are secretly happy about this. Álvaro Uribe, who attacked the independence of the judiciary during his second term, was gloating as this scandal supposedly ‘proves’ that he was correct in his claims that his people have been victims of ‘political persecution’ by the ‘corrupt’ courts. Upon hearing the news, Uribe said that he felt a “great sadness” (his euphemism for ‘I was right’ – e.g. ‘great sadness that the country is being surrendered to the FARC’) in thinking that “María del Pilar Hurtado, Bernardo Moreno, Alberto Velásquez and Sabas Pretelt de la Vega” have been ‘victims’ (all four former Uribe bureaucrats and ministers convicted by the Supreme Court). Curiously, Andrés Felipe Arias, typically Uribe’s top example of a ‘victim’ wasn’t mentioned – might it because it may be that Arias may have received regular bribes from Odebrecht?

Alejandro Ordóñez got into a Twitter fight with Rodrigo Uprimny, one of Colombia’s top legal analysts, and lied (or misled) in every single claim he made (fitting that he praises Donald Trump!). He also called for a ‘re-engineering of the judicial branch’, which is rich coming from a man removed from office for judicial corruption. Retired colonel Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega, acquitted last year by the Supreme Court for the disappearance of people during the ‘re-taking’ of the Palace of Justice in 1985, was tweeting about how the most serious problem in Colombia is ‘judicial corruption’ (not, say, extrajudicial assassinations).

As for the Lyons case and corruption in Córdoba, it highlights the negative impact of decentralization. Decentralization since 1988/1991 has undeniably had very positive aspects and allowed morally upstanding, competent mayors and governors to come to the fore and have positive impacts on cities and regions (Antanas Mockus, Sergio Fajardo…). However, in regions without strong civic cultures and strong illegal armed groups (especially paramilitaries, as in Córdoba), decentralization allowed illegal armed groups to capture ever-increasing local public funds and strengthened the power and autonomy of a new class of regional and local politicians who ‘live from politics’. Lyons and ‘Los Ñoños’ are only a few of the examples of such politicians, who enriched themselves, oiled powerful clientelist machines and amassed considerable political influence at the national level by capturing local power and the funds which come along with it. In fact, ‘Los Ñoños’ are nationally renowned as the top two beneficiaries of President Santos’ ‘marmalade’ (pork-barrel spending allocations given to congressmen in exchange for legislative support), which allowed them to become the Partido de la U’s two most voted senators in 2014 with over 140,000 preferential votes each.

Moreno’s case brings up an interesting question – what is the DEA’s interest in this? It should be obvious that the DEA’s main concern isn’t stopping political corruption in Córdoba. Why did they get on the tracks of Colombia’s anti-corruption boss? What is the US’ end game in this scandal?

Finally, the ongoing judicial travails of Lyons, Moreno and Pinilla show that Pablo Escobar was wrong. He famously declared ‘rather a tomb in Colombia than a jail cell in the United States’. Moreno and Pinilla are both explicitly seeking extradition to the United States, and while it seems that Lyons has agreed to a plea bargain with Colombia, for a good time it seemed as if his goal was a deal with the United States (it isn’t over yet either). Extradition now seems like the better deal, as the case of several paramilitary leaders and drug traffickers show: the United States judiciary’s interest is about drug trafficking or money laundering, and not about how much money you stole from education funds in Córdoba, and sentences tend to be more lenient than in Colombia (where the judiciary’s interest is in many more matters), so one can negotiate a good deal, serve some jail time and then get to remain in the United States in comfortable Florida exile. This should be a very concerning trend for the Colombian judiciary.

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?