Colombia Digest IV: Decertification, Green candidate and coalition, Liberal divisions and more

Summary: Donald Trump’s threat to Colombia, the nomination of the Green Alliance’s 2018 presidential candidate and their talks for a coalition, internal divisions in the Liberal Party over 2018 and other news

Decertification? Donald Trump’s threat to Colombia

After North Korea and Venezuela (among others), Colombia was the latest target of US President Donald Trump’s sabre-rattling foreign policy of threats. Trump threatened Colombia that he may decertify the country as a drug war ally if it didn’t reduce coca cultivation and cocaine production.

Under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, the US President annually identifies the main drug producing and/or transit countries (this isn’t a determination of a country’s counternarcotics efforts or level of cooperation with the US), but also designates any countries that had “failed demonstrably, during the previous 12 months, to make substantial efforts (i) to adhere to its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements […]” – something commonly known as ‘decertification’. According to the FRAA, decertification means that US government assistance to the country in the subsequent fiscal year can only be provided if the president determines that such assistance is vital to US national interests or that the country has made substantial counternarcotics efforts subsequent to decertification.

As under President Barack Obama’s last designations, only Venezuela and Bolivia are currently decertified among the list of 22 drug producing or transit countries. However, according to the Trump administration’s official presidential memorandum, “the United States Government seriously considered designating Colombia as a country that has failed demonstrably to adhere to its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements due to the extraordinary growth of coca cultivation and cocaine production over the past 3 years, including record cultivation during the last 12 months.” Trump decided not to decertify Colombia because its police and armed forces have been close law enforcement and security partners of the US and because “they are improving interdiction efforts, and have restarted some eradication that they had significantly curtailed beginning in 2013.” However, Trump explicitly kept the threat opened: “I will, however, keep this designation […] as an option, and expect Colombia to make significant progress in reducing coca cultivation and production of cocaine.”

Coca cultivation in Colombia since 1994, UNODC data

According to the UNODC’s latest coca cultivation census (released in July 2017 for 2016 data) coca cultivation – or, as Donald Trump calls it, ‘coco cultivation’ – increased by 52% from 2015 and reached 146,139 hectares, the largest area affected since 2000 (over 160,000 ha.) and comparable to the levels of 2001 (144,000 ha.). Coca cultivation had decreased significantly between 2001 and 2006 (to about 77,800 ha.) and from 2007 to 2012 (to a record low of 47,790 ha.) but it has been rapidly growing again since 2013 – 48,100 (2013), 69,100 (2014), 96,000 (2015) and now 146,100 hectares. The US government’s own estimates are always higher, and according to a White House (ONDCP) report released in March, coca cultivation reached 188,000 hectares in 2016.

In tandem with the increase in cultivation, the potential production of fresh coca leaves increased by 33.5% to 606,100 tm and potential production of cocaine hydrochloride increased by 34% to 866 tm. The UNODC estimates that one hectare cultivated with coca yields a potential production of 8.6 kg of cocaine base and 6.9 kg of cocaine hydrochloride.

The UNODC report cited as potential reasons for the increase in coca cultivation:

  • The peace agreement raised expectations about receiving benefits ‘in return’ for coca crop substitution.
  • The peace agreement, and different negotiations with local peasant movements since the 2013 agrarian protests, have increased incentives for coca cultivation because of the perception that the benefits of development projects will mainly be directed at coca cultivators.
  • A perception of a reduction in risks associated with illicit crop cultivation because of the suspension of aerial aspersion and the possibility to prevent manual forced eradication through road blockades and community protests.
  • A change in public terminology, from ‘illicit cultivation’ to ‘cultivation for illicit use’, may have been interpreted as an authorization to cultivate coca.
  • A reduction in alternative development efforts throughout the country because of the change in policies and strategies with the peace agreement.
  • The price of coca leaves has decreased by 3% from last year, to 2,900 pesos per kilo ($0.95), but this remains high compared to 2013 (2,000 pesos/kg).
  • Greater capacity of the cocaine hydrochloride production complexes and new strategies to extract coca derivatives.
  • Increased international demand, particularly in the largest market (United States). Domestic drug use has also increased.
  • The demobilization of the FARC created a ‘power vacuum’ in many regions and led to a re-accommodation of illegal groups, which changed market dynamics (many buyers).
  • I would add the traditional, long-term factors which still favour coca cultivation – weak state presence, activity and presence of illegal armed groups, violence,  poverty/underdevelopment, very poor infrastructure limiting access to legal markets and higher revenues for peasants from coca than from any other legal crops.
Map of coca cultivation in 2016 (source: UNODC)

The core element of the drugs section of the peace agreement is a program for the substitution of illicit crops. These programs, in theory, are to be developed through participatory planning with the affected communities, but this lofty aim has not necessarily been translated into practice so far or it has faced solid resistance from local communities, who are demanding greater commitments from a government they instinctively distrust. In these programs, the communities should commit to the voluntary, concerted substitution of crops and full permanent dissociation from cultivation, harvesting or commercialization of illegal crops; while the government commits to implementing local alternative development plans and other supports. In cases of individual refusals, the government will manually eradicate crops, while in cases where no local agreement is reached, the state will proceed with eradication, prioritizing manual eradication wherever possible but with aerial aspersion open as a last resort. This viewpoint of the drug problem, supposed to address and resolve the social causes of coca cultivation (poverty, lack of opportunities, lack of other lucrative crops) through dialogues with the communities involved in coca cultivation, is very different to the typical ‘war on drugs’ policy pushed by the United States and Plan Colombia.

Needless to say, this quasi-historic high in the extent of coca cultivation complicates the ‘post-conflict’ situation and the implementation of the peace agreement with the FARC, which devotes an entire section to ‘resolving the problem of illicit crops’ (and another section to the interrelated issue of rural reform and development). These results are also damning for the Santos administration’s drug policy, which moved towards addressing drugs as a public health issue, “a social and human approach that puts people – not drugs – at the centre of policy”, with three priorities: reducing drug use, reducing territorial vulnerabilities through development and a “rational and effective” policy to dismantle organized criminal structures. As part of these policies, the most famous but also most contentious aspect of Colombia and the US’ interdiction strategy (infamous Plan Colombia), aerial aspersion/spraying with glyphosate, was suspended in October 2015. Since 2006, Colombia has shifted away from aerial aspersion – an ineffective, costly, environmentally and socially harmful strategy which hurts the ‘weakest link’ of the production chain (cultivators) the most – towards attacking the processing and exportation phase (‘measured’ by seizures, lab destructions and offer reduction). Aerial aspersion dropped by 40% between 2006 and 2010 and by 63% between 2010 and 2015 (37,200 ha. were sprayed in 2015).

Donald Trump doesn’t care much about Colombia, and doesn’t seem to be very aware of what’s going on there (he doesn’t seem to know or care about the peace process), but he clearly favours the ‘traditional’ war on drugs strategy which is in disagreement with the Santos administration in Bogotá. Trump had already mentioned the record high coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia during his first meeting with President Santos at the White House in May 2017, but had made no threats (besides ‘hopes’ that Colombia would fix it) – signalling that Trumpian Washington’s priority in Colombia would be drugs, and not the peace process. Trump’s decertification threat was a cold shower.

The Colombian government responded forcefully at first – “nobody needs to threaten us to confront this challenge” – and later was a bit more measured, downplaying the credibility of Trump’s threat and underlining both the government’s successes and its continued willingness to cooperate with consumer countries. The government, while it is aware of the increase in coca cultivation, claims that it has a successful strategy to eradicate or substitute 100,000 hectares, including 50,000 ha. in 2017 (Santos has reiterated that aerial aspersion doesn’t work). The government also, as it typically does, presented numbers on seizures – 378,260 kg of cocaine hydrochloride seized in 2016 (a record high), 1.04 million kg of coca leaves seized in 2016 (highest since 2007) and so forth.

Juan Manuel Santos recently met with Trump in New York before the United Nations General Assembly, but as part of a multilateral meeting on the situation in Venezuela where Trump also invited other Latin American leaders (from Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Panama). At his speech at the UNGA, Santos said that the war on drugs hasn’t been won and isn’t being won, so new strategies are needed, and that “it is time to accept with realism that while there is there is consumption, there will be supply, and that consumption will not end.” Emphasizing that Colombia had perhaps paid the highest price of any nation in the war on drugs, “the remedy has been worse than the disease”. He advocated for the policy his government has followed at home: treating drug use as a public health, rather than criminal, issue and that it was time to discuss ‘reasonable regulation’.

As Semana explained, Trump’s threat was annoying to Colombia but not serious. He made this threat in a routine, annual presidential declaration (not on Twitter or in a speech) and what was written is true (pretty rare for Trump). The slight to Colombia is that it was put in nearly the same spot as Venezuela and Bolivia, which have governments openly hostile to the US and its drug policies. However, in practice, Washington is still treating Colombia as one of its top allies on the continent and Trump (and Mike Pence) are looking to Santos – and other ‘like-minded’ moderate/centre-right and pro-American Latin American leaders (Peru’s PPK, Argentina’s Macri, Brazil’s Temer and Panama’s Varela) – for support against Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.

In Colombia, the opposition – led by former president Uribe, who was popular in conservative circles in the United States during the W. Bush administration – jumped on Trump’s threat to support their claim that Santos’ drug policies have failed. Former ambassador to Washington Juan Carlos Pinzón, a lesser-known presidential candidate who wants everybody to forget that he owes his entire career to Santos, got into a heated debate with his successor as defence minister, Luis Carlos Villegas, over the issue.

Trump’s threat of decertification brought back nasty memories of Ernesto Samper’s presidency (1994-1998), when the United States – under President Bill Clinton – decertified Colombia for three years in a row (March 1996, February 1997, February 1998), primarily because of the ‘Proceso 8.000′ scandal – the Cali cartel’s financing of the Samper 1994 campaign – and Samper’s controversial absolution by the House’s accusation commission in 1996. Because of the Proceso 8.000 and decertification, US-Colombia relations significantly worsened during Samper’s presidency. The US’ drug certification policies are disliked in Colombia and Latin America, seeing it as a unilateral and arbitrary ‘imperialist’ decision (it’s true that the certification designations do read as report cards handed out by the teacher to his bad students). As this 1998 article from Foreign Policy in Focus lays out, “the certification process is resented in Latin America and elsewhere as a unilateral, sometimes arbitrary and hypocritical exercise by the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs” and that it has been an ineffective tool in the drug war.

A former president of the Supreme Court in jail

Francisco Ricaurte, former president of the Supreme Court of Justice, turned himself in to authorities and was arrested on September 20, anticipating an arrest warrant. One day before, disgraced former anti-corruption boss Gustavo Moreno had told authorities that he had paid a 550 million peso bribe to Ricaurte to ‘change the course’ of the trial against senator Musa Besaile in 2015, as part of Colombia’s ongoing judicial corruption saga (see also, for Besaile: first edition of my Colombia Digest; the master extortionist). As La Silla Vacía wrote, Ricaurte was ‘the symbol of judicial clientelism‘. Ricaurte is the first former president of Colombia’s Supreme Court to have been arrested. An incumbent Supreme Court magistrate, Gustavo Malo, elected with Ricaurte’s support and accused by Moreno of having been in on the bribery schemes, is now facing a formal investigation in the (useless) commission of accusations of the House.

A Green candidate and the potential ni-ni coalition

On September 14, the Green Alliance (Alianza Verde) nominated senator Claudia López as its presidential candidate. But she may not be on the ballot in May 2018. She is in talks with two other candidates, Jorge Enrique Robledo and Sergio Fajardo, to form a coalition and choose a single presidential candidate from the three of them. The Green nomination was decided by a poll (in 35 municipalities and 1,500 respondents), in which Claudia López won 34% against 17% for her rival, senator Antonio Navarro Wolff (but 46% said ‘none of the above’…).

Claudia López is a political ‘outsider’ (for real), perhaps best known and most popular for her invectives against corrupt politicians and the ‘mafias’. Until she was elected to the Senate, an institution she had previously called a ‘nest of thieves’, in 2014, she was a researcher and columnist – but an active figure in some of the most important political events since the 1990s. Claudia López has a degree in finance, government and IR from the Universidad Externado, a Master’s in public admin and urban policy from Columbia and has been working on a doctorate in political science from Northwestern since 2013. As a university student in 1989-90, López was part of the Séptima papeleta movement, the (elite) student movement which pushed for a constituent assembly and a new constitution. Many of the most prominent figures of the séptima papeleta, like López, went on to distinguished careers in politics, academia or civil society. Claudia López was secretary of communal action during Enrique Peñalosa’s first municipal administration in Bogotá between 1998 and 2000.

She became most famous, however, as a media columnist (in El TiempoSemanaLa Silla Vacía, Caracol Radio) and researcher (for the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris and the MOE). Her work on ‘atypical results’ in the 2002 congressional elections, published in Semana in 2005, began the parapolítica scandal. In 2010, López edited the book Y refundaron la patria…, which details the links between politicians and illegal ‘mafias’ (paramilitaries, guerrillas, drug cartels) and their effects on Colombia’s political system. Her academic research has served as the basis for her current political discourse against the ‘mafias’ and corrupt politicians.

Not mincing her words, López is frank and direct – a style which has won her many enemies and a few trials for libel and slander. In 2009, López was controversially fired from El Tiempo for a column in which she criticized the newspaper’s coverage of the Agro Ingreso Seguro scandal, claiming that it was an “induced fabrication to support their desired interpretation of the political effects of the scandal” – that is, misleading reporting to implicitly favour Juan Manuel Santos’ presidential candidacy and hurt Andrés Felipe Arias, seen as Santos’ main uribista rival for the presidency in 2010 (and the man criminally responsible for the scandal, as agriculture minister). The Spanish editorial group Planeta had gained majority ownership of El Tiempo in 2007 from the Santos family, but the Santos family – at the time – still retained a minority stake and influence over the editorial line. At the bottom of her column, the newspaper rejected her claims as ‘false, malicious and slanderous’ and treated the column as a letter of resignation.

In 2011, a judge in Bogotá acquitted her of insult and slander, after former President Ernesto Samper had sued her for a 2006 column about the Proceso 8.000 in which she said that Samper had ‘sold himself to the mafia to win the presidency’ and insinuated that Samper may have interceded in plans to assassinate potential key witnesses. In acquitting her, the judge argued that freedom of opinion and expression – as foundations of democracy – prevailed over the honour of public figures. Samper seems to have buried the hatchet, but Claudia López doesn’t want to have anything to do with him – she explicitly refused an invitation to a lunch he held with other presidential candidates in Cali a few months ago, saying that doesn’t accept invitations from him.

More recently, Claudia López lost a slander trial to former housing minister Luis Felipe Henao (a close ally of Germán Vargas Lleras), who she has called ‘corrupt’ without proof. In a decision confirmed on appeal to the Supreme Court, she was forced to retract her statements.

Claudia López jumped to the political arena in 2014, running for Senate with the Green Alliance. She won over 81,000 preferential votes – the most out of any Green senatorial candidate, including Antonio Navarro, who has a much longer political trajectory. Her vote was a heavily urban voto de opinión (ideological vote not ‘controlled’ by clientelist machines or personal favours). López has been one of the most active senators, with a strong presence and following on social media (Facebook and Twitter). She was especially active on legislative debates like congressional salaries, the creation of a fundamental ‘right to water’ and spearheading the opposition to senator Viviane Morales’ controversial referendum to ban same-sex adoption. Her pugnacious, upfront and direct personality and style – not hesitating to call her rivals corrupt or parapolíticos to their faces – unsurprisingly made her rather unpopular with her colleagues in the Senate. She also quickly grew frustrated with the customs and traditions of congressional politics in Colombia – the exchange of favours with the government, clientelism, the pork-barrel spending (mermelada) to ‘secure’ votes and the heavy layers of egotism and hypocrisy. During a committee debate in July 2016, senator Viviane Morales told López to ‘seek psychiatrist treatment’ for her ‘megalomania’. In a country where machismo and social conservatism remain strong, Claudia López stands out – not only as a woman, but openly gay and in a relationship with Green representative Angélica Lozano (who has a very similar political style).

Claudia López announced her presidential candidacy in December 2016, announcing that she would seek to be part of a broader ‘civic coalition’ in 2018. Claudia López strongly supported the peace process and the peace agreement with the FARC – and has been active in congressional debates on the bills and constitutional reforms to implement the agreement – but she views peace with the FARC as something of a fait accompli, or at least a less pressing issue than her new battle cry – fighting corruption and los corruptos.

As a way of launching her candidacy among the general public and ensuring free publicity for her campaign, Claudia López spent the better part of the first seven months of 2017 gathering signatures to request a consulta popular (type of referendum) against corruption (the ‘consulta popular anticorrupción‘). In July, Claudia López and her supporters submitted a record-breaking 4.3 million signatures to the Registraduría for her consulta popular – her initiative got more signatures than the one for Uribe’s second reelection (4 million), the previous record holder. The Senate must approve the organization of the consulta by October or November, and, if approved, it would then be held within 3 months of the Senate’s decision, so probably between January and February 2018 (if it gets there, it’d need a simple majority on each question and meet a turnout quorum of 33%). Whether or not it is approved and gets voted on is not really important – what is important is that her consulta popular has given her a strong platform (and popular ‘backing’ of 4+ million) on the one issue which may come to dominate the 2018 campaign, especially in view of recent scandals. The actual contents of the consulta, for now, seem even less important – but it consists of seven questions which she claims will ‘defeat corruption’ (I’m not so sure): reducing congressmen’s and senior officials’ salaries, jail for the corrupt and termination of all public contracts with them, transparent public tenders, participatory budgeting, obligation for congressmen to annually report on their legislative activities and performance, mandatory asset declarations for all elected officials and three-term limits on Congress and local elected bodies (assemblies, local councils, neighbourhood boards). In any case, the anti-corruption, anti-establishment and anti-politician discourse is one with lots of potential in the current climate – voters, at least those who respond to pollsters, are very pessimistic, hate Congress and the traditional political parties and seem increasingly fed up with corruption and the corrupt ‘political class’.

Claudia López’s rival for the Green nomination – who never stood much of a chance, despite everything – was Antonio Navarro Wolff, a veteran politician with a singular trajectory and well-recognized political record. Navarro joined the M-19 guerrilla group in 1974 and demobilized with the rest of the group in 1990, by which time he had ascended to become the number two figure in the organization behind Carlos Pizarro Leongómez – although with a more political than military role. He was wounded in two attacks against him. By all indications, Navarro was not involved in the M-19’s infamous attack on the Palace of Justice in downtown Bogotá in November 1985, because he was recuperating from an amputation in Cuba. Navarro participated in the final peace talks, between 1989 and 1990, which led to the M-19’s demobilization and transformation into a legal political party. The new party’s presidential candidate, Carlos Pizarro, was assassinated on orders of the Castaño brothers during a commercial flight in April 1990, and Navarro stepped in to replace the party’s assassinated candidate. In the 1990 presidential election, Navarro won 12.5% of the vote – at the time one of the strongest performances for a candidate outside of either traditional party. However, the AD M-19’s initial momentum quickly died out – in part because it lost its initial shine and novelty value – and Navarro’s second presidential candidacy, in 1994, ended with less than 4% of the vote. Navarro was one of the three co-presidents of the constituent assembly (1990-91), in which the AD M-19 held a third of the seats.

He later served as an acclaimed mayor of Pasto (Nariño) from 1995 to 1997, representative in the House from 1998 to 2002, senator from 2002 to 2006 and governor of Nariño from 2008 to 2011. He ran for the presidential nomination of the newly-founded Alternative Democratic Pole (the Polo) in 2006, but lost the primary to Carlos Gaviria, the more left-wing candidate. Like many other founding members of the Polo, Navarro – who has always tended to be moderate, consensual and pragmatic (recognized more for his efficiency as an administrator and legislator than as an ideologue) – distanced himself from the Polo, and allied with Gustavo Petro – who left the Polo in 2010 to form his own party, Progresistas, which carried him to the Bogotá mayoralty in 2011. Upon finishing his gubernatorial term, Navarro went to work for Petro as his secretary of government – the most prominent municipal cabinet position in the city – but resigned after just three months in office. Navarro was one of the negotiators of the merger between the Greens and Progresistas in late 2013 – an odd merger in that Petro ultimately stayed out, and relaunched a second Progresistas in 2014, without Navarro and many others who had since joined the Greens. Navarro withdrew from an anticipated Green presidential primary against Enrique Peñalosa and instead ran for Senate, winning a seat but with a disappointing result – he won 55,400 preferential votes, over 25,000 votes behind Claudia López, a newcomer. A similar scenario played out this year for the Green nomination: Navarro is popular and highly respected, but he clearly lacked Claudia López’s presence and following on social media or her quasi-daily visibility in the national media. In fact, little was heard of Navarro’s campaign, in part because López and Navarro like one another and there were no public spats between the two (as is happening in most other parties right now). Given his age (69), some doubted that he had any real interest at a presidential candidacy and considered his candidacy as a strategy to retain visibility and launch his reelection campaign for the Senate. As was already clear before the results were even announced, Navarro, in ‘compensation’ for losing the nomination, will run for reelection to the Senate.

L to R: Robledo, López and Fajardo (source:

As I said, López’s nomination doesn’t mean that her name will be on the ballot. On September 18, a few days after it was confirmed that she’d represent the Greens, a more concrete step was taken towards a coalition with senator Jorge Enrique Robledo (Polo) and former governor Sergio Fajardo (Compromiso Ciudadano). Robledo, Fajardo and López come from different places politically – Robledo is a very left-wing senator (from the nominally Maoist MOIR faction of the Polo), famous and popular for his hard-hitting ‘political control’ debates in Congress but also his very left-wing economic views; Fajardo, a mathematician, was a very competent and successful mayor of Medellín (2003-2007) and governor of Antioquia (2012-2015) with a centrist independent image. Fajardo and López are moderate on economic issues (and don’t focus on them), while Robledo is very left-wing (anti-capitalist, anti-free trade etc.); Robledo and López are national-level politicians, while Fajardo has had trouble breaking through nationally and has few prominent political supporters of his own; Robledo and López are with registered parties, while Fajardo’s movement isn’t legally recognized. They are, however, united by some important common denominators: all three have credibility and experience on the anti-corruption theme (and all three have made it one of their political priorities), all three are recognized ‘independent’ figures in that they are with neither Santos nor Uribe (ni-ni) and have vocally criticized both the government and uribismo. Anti-corruption, support for the peace process and independence from both the government and uribismo would be the basic political and ideological foundations of this coalition.

In June, the three candidates – along with Navarro and Angélica Lozano – took a selfie at a dinner party, widely seen as the first step towards forming a coalition which would have a single presidential candidate in May 2018. Now, on Sept. 18, the three candidates held a public event at the capitol at which they signed a basic political platform with vague common goals (anti-corruption, promotion of science and technology, entrepreneurship, environmental protection etc.) but also made clear that, through some sort of mechanism yet to be defined, they will select a common presidential candidate and try to run common lists for Congress (providing the political reform, still held up in the House, passes in time to allow that). They have yet to decide how they will choose a common candidate – and this may be one of the more difficult questions to resolve, given that all three candidates appear strong in their own right. The three options being considered are, in order of likelihood, an open primary between the three in March 2018 (concurrent with the congressional elections), a poll (like for the Green nomination) or by consensus. Most seem to assume that they will hold an open primary between the three, like how the Greens held a successful open primary between its three main leaders (Peñalosa, Mockus, Lucho Garzón) in March 2010, which led to the green wave (ola verde) that never was. This open primary could possibly be open to Humberto de la Calle, depending on how the Liberals handle their presidential nomination (see below); former left-wing Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, however, appears to be excluded from this coalition (for now).

A successful open primary with high turnout and a commitment between the candidates to support the winner without recriminations could give the new coalition a spurt of momentum (a second ola verde) carrying them into the last leg of the presidential race with real possibilities of winning. Robledo, apparently trying to bury his reputation as sectarian and dogmatic, assured that he would participate in the coalition “in the place where I need to be”.

The divided Liberal Party (again)

Colombia’s old Liberal Party is, for the umpteenth time, internally divided – this time over the 2018 presidential elections. The Liberal Party has a strong congressional caucus to defend and a relatively solid (though rather small) electoral base behind it, but political parties are definitely not in style right now – especially when even politicians with their own parties are registering their presidential candidacies through signatures (Vargas Lleras). The Liberals have several presidential hopefuls, but are hopelessly divided on how they should get around to actually choosing one (and, like everybody else, they fight their internal battles in the public eye). The Liberal Party’s national congress, where everybody hopes that these issues will be settled, opens on September 28.

Until a few days ago, there seemed to be four strong presidential candidates and two minor ‘testimonial’ candidacies from senators seeking to get free publicity and more visibility to launch reelection campaigns. The four candidates were former chief peace negotiator in Havana (and former vice president, from 1994 to 1996) Humberto de la Calle, former interior minister Juan Fernando Cristo, senator Juan Manuel Galán and senator Viviane Morales; the two minor declared candidates are senators Luis Fernando Velasco and Edinson Delgado.

Humberto de la Calle is a veteran politician who has held nearly every single important national office, save for the presidency. After several years out of the spotlight, he regained public visibility and popularity as the government’s chief peace negotiator in the peace talks with the FARC in Havana. De la Calle has been highly praised for his skilled management of the peace talks, particularly during the most difficult moments. Using the peace agreements and the peace process as his main political platform (the ‘incarnation of the agreements’), he has launched his presidential candidacy – probably with the Liberals, but explicitly leaving the door open for an ‘independent’ candidacy (through signatures). Humberto de la Calle has a lot of support in the media, who enjoy hyping up his candidacy, but is struggling in the polls despite his personal popularity being relatively intact (maybe because defending the peace agreements isn’t an easy sell right now). He doesn’t have much support with the Liberal machines and political bosses (who don’t appreciate his aloofness with them), but he does have one major asset – the explicit support of former president César Gaviria, who is expected to be easily acclaimed as the new leader of the party at the upcoming national congress (although his favouritism for de la Calle isn’t going down well with the others, especially Galán). De la Calle has been the most active in the national media, notably getting attention with his attacks against who he considers his two main rivals – Uribe and Vargas Lleras (in a recent interview, he says that they ‘must be defeated’).

Juan Fernando Cristo was a senator between 1998 and 2014 (his seat was ‘inherited’ by his brother Andrés Cristo) and interior minister from 2014 until May 2017. As interior minister, he was the man behind some of the government’s most important legislative initiatives since 2014 – the ‘balance of powers’ constitutional reform in 2014-5, congressional support for the peace process and plebiscite in 2016 and some of the laws required to implement the peace agreement in 2017. Cristo, with his background as a four-term senator and the networks he maintained as interior minister (a portfolio effectively in charge of managing relations with congressmen and corralling votes in Congress), has the support of a majority of the Liberal congressional caucus (and the old machines that come with them). Recently, 10 senators (out of 17) and 30 representatives (out of 39) representatives signed a letter which was seen as an endorsement of Cristo’s candidacy. However, as a career politician at time when nobody likes them, Cristo has low name recognition and is not very popular among the general public. La Silla assumes that Cristo’s candidacy won’t go very far, but he can bring to the eventual Liberal candidate the crucial support of the machines and political bosses (and to hold them together so that they don’t go over to Vargas Lleras). Despite all that’s being said about 2018 being the year of the anti-establishment, anti-politicians or whatever, the importance of the machines – of all parties – in defining the winner next year is not to be underestimated.

Juan Manuel Galán, senator since 2006, is the son of the late Luis Carlos Galán – the Liberal presidential pre-candidate assassinated by ‘the mafias’ (Medellín cartel, Liberal senator Alberto Santofimio and sectors of the intelligence community) in August 1989, who in death has become a powerful mythical symbol of courage and honesty in politics. Juan Manuel Galán has built his political career on the back of his family name and his martyred father’s legacy – and his popularity in polls show that the Galán name still carries lots of weight, even in 2017. Galán has very weak support among the party machinery, congressional caucus or leadership but he has the nebulous backing of ‘public opinion’ – in voting intentions polls, although no Liberal candidate breaks 10%, Galán consistently appears as the strongest one (in the vicinity of 4-6%). But it’s still early days, a lot of Galán’s support in polls is likely very fickle (name recognition + personal popularity) and may not bother showing up in an actual primary.

Viviane Morales was the odd woman out among the four main candidates. Viviane Morales is an evangelical Christian, and her electoral base since 1994 has been evangelical Christians – a strong, perhaps ‘captive’ electorate, but one with very socially conservative religious views theoretically out of sync with the liberalism that Liberal Party claims to defend from time to time (when it looks good to do so). Back in the Senate since 2014, Viviane Morales’ main battle was her referendum to ban same-sex adoption. Her referendum first gathered 2.1 million signatures and was submitted to Congress (which needs to adopt a law organizing the citizen-initiated referendum). It was approved in the first two debates in the Senate – in commission and in the plenary respectively, in September and December 2016. In the plenary back in December, 52 senators voted in favour while 21 voted against. Viviane Morales’ own Liberal Party split 4-8 in the vote (with, notably, Horacio Serpa and Galán voting against), but it had strong support from the CD (18), Conservatives (12-1), ‘the U’ (10-4) and CR (6-2). In May, when the referendum was debated in commission in the House, the government – which had come out against it – finally moved it machines and networks to sink it, so the commission voted by a wide margin to table (‘archive’) the referendum. Opponents of her ‘discriminatory referendum’ argued that, by its wording, her proposal would not only ban same-sex couples from adopting children but also singles. The risk that singles would be banned from adoption proved to be the breaking point in the debate, which swung most Conservative and ‘U’ representatives to oppose the referendum. Juan Fernando Cristo, in his final days as interior minister, personally attended the debate and vote in the commission and, from behind, ensured its failure. Incensed by the government’s role in killing her referendum, Viviane Morales became directly critical of Santos and his administration. She has also broken ranks with her party on the issue of the peace agreement, where she claims that ‘modifications’ are necessary without ‘cutting it up’ like uribismo wants to do (and accuses de la Calle of having made a ‘big mistake’ in Havana).

Viviane Morales launched her candidacy explicitly calling on the “immense majorities of believers in our country, to all Christianity, to Catholics and evangelicals” to “save Colombia” with “majorities, democracy and values”. Although the evangelical ‘constellation’ is politically divided, with some churches – most prominently the International Charismatic Mission (MCI) – close to the uribista CD, Viviane Morales has substantial support among the evangelical community (particularly her church, the Iglesia Casa Sobre la Roca).

For months now, the Liberal presidential hopefuls have been divided amongst themselves on the way they should settle the presidential nomination. There are three options: consensus (I too wish I could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles), an open or closed primary on November 19 or an open inter-party primary in March 2018. The first option will never happen, even if de la Calle falsely claims that’s how ‘every party in the world’ picks their candidates (really?). Humberto de la Calle has explicitly warned (most recently on Sept. 12) that he’s dead-set against a primary in March and that he would quit the party to run as an independent if that was to happen. De la Calle’s main supporter, Gaviria, added weight to his threat by saying that he too would quit the party if the party didn’t decide quickly enough. Officially, he considers – with reason – that delaying a decision until March would be too late, when all other candidates are already campaigning. Besides, de la Calle’s goal is to be the candidate of a broader coalition, either with the López-Robledo-Fajardo trio (who would welcome him as an independent, but maybe not as a Liberal) or with a ramshackle ‘coalition for peace’ with parts of the divided Partido de la U and Clara López. A late primary in March would not give him time to negotiate a coalition around himself in time for the first round. De la Calle wants the nomination settled by the end of the year, which would realistically mean an open or closed primary on November 19 (a date already set aside for potential party primaries by the CNE). Cristo now seems to be amenable to a primary in November, although earlier it seemed as if he supported a primary in March.

Galán and Morales want an open primary in March, to coincide with the congressional elections. A primary held in March rather than November would have higher turnout, which benefits both Galán and Morales. Galán because of his confidence in his polling numbers and his ability to draw a large electorate and voto de opinión, because of name recognition, his personal popularity or his family name. Viviane Morales has a strong evangelical Christian electorate – 54,000 votes at the bare minimum (her preferential votes in 2014) but which could, in theory, be up to 1-2 million. Given that the evangelical electorate is one of the most disciplined electorates – which showed its real weight in the 2016 plebiscite – Viviane Morales would have had a real chance at winning an open, high-turnout Liberal primary on the back of strong evangelical turnout. Viviane Morales winning the primary would have been an embarrassment of massive proportions – not only for the Liberal leadership, but also the government.

The Liberal leadership didn’t really mind her as long as she brought evangelical votes (and did her things), but as the campaign heated up, the Liberal leadership – a camarilla according to critics – became visibly worried about Viviane Morales and began questioning whether she had a place in the party. Senator Horacio Serpa, another veteran politician and outgoing party co-director, suggested that all Liberal presidential candidates publicly commit themselves to supporting the peace agreement with the FARC and the peace process with the ELN in Quito – and that those who didn’t couldn’t be considered Liberal candidates. Serpa’s suggestion was quickly taken up by all other candidates (who had already criticized Morales) and Gaviria, in the form of a ‘declaration of liberal principles’ which all pre-candidates would need to sign. This ‘declaration of liberal principles’ includes support for the peace process and respect for minority rights (Galán added: especially same-sex couples and singles wishing to adopt children). It’s fairly obvious that the ‘declaration of principles’ was directed at one candidate and designed to exclude her. Unsurprisingly, in a video posted to her YouTube channel, the senator said that she would not sign ‘this trap’, which would force her to ‘abandon my Christian and democratic principles’. She vehemently attacked Gaviria, Serpa, de la Calle, Cristo and Galán and hardened her criticisms of the peace agreement with the FARC, with a discourse increasingly similar to that of Uribe and Ordóñez. She announced, unsurprisingly, that she would not compete as a Liberal but assured that she is still a presidential candidate. However, outside the party, Viviane Morales’ candidacy faces a potentially fatal obstacle: it is too late for her to legally run as an independent (through signatures), which would likely break the law on ‘double militancy’.

The Liberal leadership has succeeded in excluding Viviane Morales from the field and in practically scuttling her candidacy altogether. The next step, perhaps more difficult, will be keeping the party united (and prevent leakages to Vargas Lleras or the ni-ni trio) while deciding how they will choose their candidate for 2018. Assuming they can surmount that, they face an even more daunting challenge: retaining a strong congressional caucus in March 2018 and be a decisive player in the presidential election.

Other news

Another presidential candidate will register her candidacy through signatures rather than by seeking a party’s nomination: Marta Lucía Ramírez, the Conservative Party’s presidential candidate in 2014, will register her candidacy through her own movement – Por una Colombia Honesta y Fuerte (For a strong and honest Colombia) and quit the Conservative Party. She has also confirmed that she wants to be the candidate of the Uribe-Pastrana ‘coalition of the No’. The decision was not unexpected, as Ramírez had been very critical of the Conservative Party’s continued proximity to the government in Congress and in patronage appointments. She is the third important Conservative figure to effectively quit the party in recent months, after Alejandro Ordóñez and Andrés Pastrana. Ramírez was the Conservative Party’s candidate in 2014, performing unexpectedly well with 1.99 million votes (15.5%) and a solid third place despite lacking the support of a majority of the party’s congressmen.

Screencap of the original tweet (source:

One story went viral on social media in Colombia this past week. Juliana Hernández, wife of CD senator Alfredo Ramos Maya tweeted the picture of a passenger on an Avianca domestic flight, slouched and sleeping, wearing a green Cuban revolutionary hat, writing “I didn’t want to get on the same plane as a FARC guerrillero, Avianca told me this is discrimination and didn’t even let me get off”. Her only ‘evidence’ being that the man was wearing a Cuban revolutionary hat – and nothing else. Her tweet, however, went viral on the uribista Twitter-sphere, with the hashtag #SancionSocialALasFARC – and calling for ‘social sanctions’ to ‘FARC guerrilleros’ on the street (anti-uribistas find that this reeks of ‘false positives’)The woman’s husband, senator Alfredo Ramos Maya, got in on the trend as well.

The passenger’s son found out that his father was the one in the picture (who didn’t realize that somebody had taken a picture of him). He tweeted to Juliana Hernández, clarifying that the man in the picture was his father, a retired teacher who has nothing to do with the FARC. Her initial reaction was to block the son, who persisted in seeking out a correction and apology. Juliana later unblocked him and published a short paragraph, insincerely apologizing while justifying her initial accusation and engaging in cheap politicking  – she claimed that, upon boarding the plane, she ‘received information’ that a guerrillero was on board, she ‘rectified if this was not so’ and offering apologies for any harm caused; she finished with the traditional uribista stump speech on ‘demanding justice’ and ‘rejecting impunity for criminals of the FARC’. The passenger’s son was unsatisfied, feeling that Juliana hadn’t made clear that his father was not a FARC guerrillero. Minutes later, she offered more sincere apologies, deleted the original tweet and deleted her Twitter account.

Beyond the sheer stupidity of stigmatizing innocent people on the basis of their choice of hats, the incident reveals the difficulty in overcoming deep-set hatreds to build peace and reconcile a society broken and wounded by the longest armed conflict in the Americas. There is, understandably, a very widespread desire to see the FARC’s criminals pay for their crimes – it is a desire which many feel will not be satisfied by the transitional justice system (JEP), according to which the FARC’s leaders will not need to go to jail or be politically ineligible if they admit to their crimes in due time. Senator Alfredo Ramos Maya’s idea of a ‘social sanction’ against demobilized guerrilleros being reintegrated into civilian society stems from this feeling of ‘impunity’, but it is very dangerous – not just for the inherent risks at vigilante justice and ‘false positives’, but also because it stigmatizes a large group of people (about 10,000) who are not all responsible for reprehensible war crimes and crimes against humanity. After all, post-conflict reconciliation involves a great deal of sacrifice and the ability to surpass deep-set hatreds and rancor to build peace, in which differences are respected and tolerated. The fantastic Colombian TV series La Niña (Caracol TV, 2016), available on Netflix, reflects on many of these issues and difficulties (if you want to watch something about Colombia, watch that instead of Narcos).

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).

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?