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.

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