Colombian Liberals choosing their 2018 presidential candidate

The 2018 Colombian presidential elections will be held in May 2018. Campaigns are already well on their way, but the field of candidates remains very tightly packed: with no one clearly breaking through in the polls, everyone are confident in their own chances and determined to go as far as possible. There are over 40 declared presidential candidates (not all of them important or even known), most of them seeking ballot access by gathering signatures rather than by a party’s endorsement. With no one clearly breaking through on their own, everyone assumes that it will be impossible to win in 2018 without a broad coalition, so different candidates and their movements are forming their own coalitions and, in some cases, seeking to hold open primaries in March 2018 to settle on their single candidate. With a first round victory looking extremely unlikely, there have even already been rumours of potential second round alliances.

The Liberal Party, one of Colombia’s two old traditional parties which has fallen on hard times, is choosing its own 2018 presidential candidate today in an open primary, the first primary election of the 2018 electoral season. It is an ‘open’ primary so any registered voter can participate, and like all other party primaries it is organized by the country’s electoral organization (Registraduría).

The rationale for organizing a primary early – rather than in March 2018 on the same day as the congressional elections – is to pick a candidate early who will participate in an ‘inter-party primary’ (consulta interpartidista) with other supporters of the peace process in March 2018, the hope still being to participate in a broad-based ‘coalition for peace’ to challenge the right/far-right (Vargas Lleras; uribismo and allies) in the first round of the presidential election in May 2018. Whether this will actually happen is another matter, but wet dreams have never stopped anyone in Colombian politics.

Turnout is expected to be very low given that there are no other concurrent elections and the clientelist political machines (which matter more when no one else bothers voting) have no real incentive to actively participate (especially when they’ll need to participate actively, and spend money, in March, May and June). Some people in the party tried until the last minute to cancel the primary, out of fear that whoever wins will win with very little votes and therefore start the presidential campaign in a weak position. The Registraduría, which complained about the costs of organization, agreed with the party – in anticipation of low turnout – to reduce the number of voting locations by over half so that it only costs about 40 billion pesos ($13.2 million). Even this cost has been judged by many voters to be exorbitantly high. The primary is comparable to the September 2009 Liberal presidential primary, which had a low turnout of only 1.3 million. Today, getting over 1 million votes would likely be a very unexpected surprise.

The field of candidates narrowed from 6 to 2 – one was forced out (Viviane Morales), one refused to participate (Juan Manuel Galán) and two dropped out (Luis Fernando Velasco and Edinson Delgado). Only two candidates are left standing, and the outcome between the two appears unpredictable given the expectation of very low turnout: Humberto de la Calle and Juan Fernando Cristo.

Dissident voices having been silenced by the imposition of a ‘manifesto of liberal values’, there are few policy or ideological differences between the two: both are closely associated with and very strongly supportive of the peace process, both are broadly socially liberal and both are wishy-washy centrists on economics. Both candidates, notably, have been very critical of ‘populism’. Both are strongly anti-uribista, and have also opposed Germán Vargas Lleras – refusing the unlikely possibility of including him in a primary in March or a hypothetical ‘coalition for peace’. With that in mind, here are your candidates:

Humberto de la Calle, the incarnation of the peace agreements

Born 1946, age 71. Native department: Caldas

Offices held: National Civil Registrar (1982-1986), Minister of Government (1990-1993), Presidential Designate (1992-1993), Vice President (1994-1996), Ambassador to Spain (1994-1996), Ambassador to the UK (1998-2000), Minister of the Interior (2000-2001), Ambassador to the OAS (2001-2003), Chief Negotiator in the peace process with the FARC (2012-2016)

Humberto de la Calle was born in Manzanares, a mountainous municipality of around 20,000 in Caldas (centre-west, Eje Cafetero). Educated in Manizales, the departmental capital, he graduated in law from the University of Caldas (the most prestigious regional public university) in 1969. After working as a lawyer, his political career began in the 1980s, first as municipal judge in Salamina (Caldas), departmental secretary of government and then as National Civil Registrar (head of the Registraduría, one of the two electoral bodies) from 1982 to 1986. He briefly served as a magistrate on the Supreme Court in 1986, after most of its members were killed during the siege of the Palace of Justice in November 1986. Humberto de la Calle became a political fixture in the 1990s: in December 1990, despite a largely technocratic background and little experience in the nitty-gritty of politics, he was appointed Minister of Government (interior minister) by President César Gaviria during one of the most important periods in recent Colombian political history. Among other issues of high importance, he managed the government’s relations with the constituent assembly which adopted the current constitution of 1991, the ‘revocation’ of the Congress elected in 1990 by the constituent assembly, the reinsertion of recently demobilized guerrilleros (M-19, EPL, PRT and MAQL) and the design of the new constitutional guarantees for their political participation. He was also the government’s representative in the failed Caracas and Tlaxcala peace negotiations (1991-1992) with the FARC, ELN and non-demobilized factions of the EPL. De la Calle was the penultimate presidential designate, the forerunner of the vice presidency under the old constitution of 1886, between 1992 and 1993.

De la Calle left the government in 1993 to run for president. He was defeated in the March 1994 Liberal primary by Ernesto Samper, placing a distant second with about 13% to 48% for Samper. In the Liberal conflicts of the 1990s, de la Calle was one of the major anti-samperistas or gaviristas, unlike his opponent in this year’s primary. Despite having been emphatic throughout the primaries that he would not be vice president, but with Samper’s insistence – and Gaviria’s convincing – he relented and agreed to be Samper’s running mate, in the interests of Liberal unity. It was a marriage of convenience between two men who disliked one another and came from different factions of the party. De la Calle was not, by the looks of it, involved in the campaign – witnesses and authorities both repeated that de la Calle was unaware (for real) of the Cali drug money in the Samper presidential campaign. Once elected, Samper and de la Calle began clashing on several issues – and de la Calle’s position quickly grew very uncomfortable because of the Proceso 8.000, unsure of what he should do given his position. For a time, Samper and his vice president found an agreeable modus vivendi: de la Calle was appointed ambassador to Spain. By 1996, however, the Proceso 8.000 had reached a point where de la Calle’s position was untenable. Samper would never resign and allow de la Calle to succeed him, paranoically thinking that his vice president was a conspirator in the plots against him. De la Calle was in a difficult situation: the samperistas instinctively disliked him and were suspicious of his true intentions, while anti-samperistas found that the vice president wasn’t tough enough against his boss. Then-interior minister Horacio Serpa, the leading samperista stalwart, said de la Calle ‘ni chicha ni limoná‘, a Spanish idiomatic expression for something that is unclear or wishy-washy. De la Calle left Madrid in the summer of 1996 and resigned the vice presidency in September 1996, after a strongly-worded letter to Samper in which he denounced the crisis in the country and convinced that Cali drug money had entered the campaign. He explored the possibility of a presidential candidacy in 1998, something which had been his stated intention in 1994, but his campaign soon faltered – the anti-samperista field was too crowded and, like in 1994, he lacked any strong machine backing (his only loyal ally in Congress was fellow caldense Luis Guillermo Giraldo).

In May 1997, he dropped out and endorsed former attorney general Alfonso Valdivieso, who for a time in 1997 seemed to be the strongest anti-samperista (Liberal dissident) presidential candidate against Serpa. Along with Valdivieso, de la Calle later endorsed Andrés Pastrana (the Conservative candidate supported by Liberal dissidents and independents). Under Pastrana, de la Calle was first ambassador to the UK but was called back to Colombia to be interior minister in May 2000, as interior minister Néstor Humberto Martínez (now attorney general since 2016) was facing a censure motion in Congress in the midst of a major political crisis between Congress and the presidency. De la Calle’s immediate task was to put out fires, mediating with the Liberal-dominated Congress to resolve the crisis. In 2001, he was appointed as Colombia’s ambassador to the OAS, a post he held until he resigned in December 2002, a few months after Álvaro Uribe’s inauguration. Like many old anti-samperistas, de la Calle was initially sympathetic to or supportive of Uribe. He supported Uribe’s 2003 referendum and helped him as a legal advisor for the design of the first reelection. However, from about 2002 to 2012, de la Calle dropped out of the public spotlight, returning to his legal practice with his son but never quite withdrawing from politics – remaining as an occasional commentator, columnist and, in the role of a ‘senior statesman’, advising the government on institutional/constitutional issues (notably the 2009 political reform). De la Calle opposed Uribe’s second reelection referendum in 2010.

In September 2012, Juan Manuel Santos appointed de la Calle as the government’s chief negotiator in the peace negotiations with the FARC, which had just been publicly revealed. De la Calle was perhaps the ideal pick for this important role: prior experience with peace processes (especially the [semi-]successful precedents of 1990-1991), a recognized expertise on constitutional matters (having been one of the ‘fathers’ of the 1991 constitution), a sensible and serious politician, a skilled diplomat and ‘senior statesman’ who didn’t owe anything to anyone having been out of politics for a decade (and even when he was in politics in the 1990s, he was more of a senior civil servant than traditional Colombian political boss). This is neither the time or space to retell the story of the Havana peace process, but de la Calle has received widespread praise for his role as chief negotiator. Not only did he secure an historic peace agreement in the end, but he was crucial throughout the actual peace talks in Cuba in ensuring the government spoke with a single voice, in keeping the negotiations focused, in resolving disputes and controversies and ensuring that the talks didn’t break down during the several times where they seemed to be on the verge of collapse (and with everybody, including Bogotá, ready to pull the plug).

He formed an unlikely successful power duo with Sergio Jaramillo, the high commissionner for peace — Jaramillo, a brilliant introvert, was the perfectionist who had studied other peace processes and had designed a clear methodology for the peace talks down to the last details; Humberto de la Calle, an eloquent diplomat and fine negotiator, brought the necessary rigour and discipline to the work of the government’s team and kept it together for four years in a foreign country. While Jaramillo’s cold personality rubbed some people the wrong way, no one publicly criticized de la Calle, who also had the respect of the opposite side (FARC). After the defeat in the plebiscite in October 2016, de la Calle’s resignation was refused by Santos and he returned to Cuba in a hurry to re-negotiate the peace agreement and, once again, he played a crucial role in keeping the FARC at the table and quickly reaching a re-negotiated peace agreement when many people thought it unlikely.

De la Calle’s success as chief negotiator greatly increased his notoriety and popularity. In the last Gallup poll (Oct. 2017), de la Calle’s favourability was 42% (unfav. 30%). Before the plebiscite, the high times of optimism when it seemed as if the Sí would triumph, de la Calle began being talked about as a potential presidential candidate and was declared by the media to be one of the favourites. His successful handling of the expedited re-negotiation kept his presidential hopes alive. Freed of his obligations to the government once the peace agreement was signed and ratified in November 2016, de la Calle remained characteristically coy about a candidacy but clearly began laying the groundwork for one. In early 2017, de la Calle participated in several academic forums about the peace agreement, where he welcomed students’ exhortations for him to run. He also began talking like a candidate – attacking opponents of the peace process and the implementation, throwing projectiles at Uribe and Vargas Lleras – and acting like one, meeting Liberal congressmen. De la Calle’s incipient unofficial candidacy was supported by former president César Gaviria, who was acclaimed as the Liberal Party’s leader at its last convention in late September, despite other presidential candidates’ concerns over his favouritism for de la Calle. Gaviria organized opportunities for de la Calle to meet with Liberal congressmen.

De la Calle officially announced his candidacy in early August, on the heels of a letter from 400 leaders – from social movements, civil society, retired politicians, businessmen and academics – asking him to run for president. He defined himself, indirectly, as the candidate of the peace agreement but also as a ‘civic’ rather than ‘partisan’ candidate – seeking to be the man to assemble a broad, civic coalition with students, businessmen, social movements and others to defend the peace process over and above individual parties. At the same time however, cognizant of political realities, he also sought out the Liberal Party’s support – but symbolically putting himself outside of it and conditioning it to certain points (party’s commitment to peace and ‘liberal ideals’). More concretely, de la Calle forcefully insisted on an open primary in November rather than in March (unlike Juan Manuel Galán), and in September he imposed an ultimatum and threatened to quit the party and run as an independent if the candidate wasn’t chosen before the end of the year. At the convention, supported by Cristo and Gaviria, the idea of a November primary won out – which led to Juan Manuel Galán to refuse to participate in it.

De la Calle is the ‘candidate of opinion’ – seeking to be seen as a ‘civic candidate’, supported by the Liberal Party but going over and above parties to build a broader coalition. In part because it is very much in vogue in Colombia right now to be an ‘independent’, even when you’re not, and disparage party labels — just ask Germán Vargas Lleras. De la Calle has less support within party structures than his rival, although de la Calle does have the very thinly-veiled support of party director César Gaviria and has shored up his support among party establishment ranks during the campaign. Although most congressmen are behind Cristo, de la Calle has received – among others – the endorsements of senator Rodrigo Villalba (Huila), representative Fabio Amín (Córdoba), representative Jack Housni (San Andrés), former senator Guillermo Santos (Tolima), senator Álvaro Ashton (Atlántico) — now under investigation for allegedly participating in both the Odebrecht and judicial corruption scandals — and senator Édinson Delgado (Valle del Cauca) — who dropped out of the race earlier this month. Outside the party, de la Calle was endorsed by U senator Roy Barreras, former Bogotá mayor and 2010 presidential candidate Antanas Mockus and Green representative Ángelica Lozano (who will, however, not vote).

Humberto de la Calle has been seeking out a spot in the ‘ni-ni’ coalition formed by Claudia López, Jorge Enrique Robledo and Sergio Fajardo — López and Fajardo like him and seem amenable to receiving him, but neither of them want an old traditional party like the Liberal Party to join their coalition.

Main platform points: Under the slogan “Un país donde quepamos todos” (A country where we all fit in), de la Calle is still ‘receiving proposals from citizens’ and sharing ‘his ideas’ — which seems to me to be a lazy way out of not having an actual platform. ‘His ideas’, from his website, are largely extremely vague valence issues and generic shout-outs to liberal ideas: peace, importance of education, ‘liberal and progressive ideas’, anti-corruption, security, democratic participation, ‘social transformation’, protecting the environment and fighting discrimination and inequalities. He describes the free market and free enterprise as the ‘engines of development’ but growth must be ‘inclusive’ and the state must ‘provide tools to the most needy’.

Fun and/or irrelevant details: This 1997 interview with de la Calle is interesting, if only because many of the same things he said then could still be said about the current state of Colombian politics, 20 years later. Also, here is Humberto de la Calle huffing helium with Daniel Samper Ospina, Ernesto Samper’s nephew and now YouTube personality.

Juan Fernando Cristo, the candidate of the machines

Offices held: Consul General in Caracas (1992-1993), communications advisor to the presidency (1994-1995), Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs – Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania (1995-1996), Ambassador to Greece (1996-1997), Senator (1998-2014), Minister of the Interior (2014-2017)

Juan Fernando Cristo was born in Cúcuta (Norte de Santander), the son of local Liberal leader and senator Jorge Cristo, who was assassinated by the ELN in 1997. Cristo is a lawyer with his degree from the University of the Andes in Bogotá, but has been in politics since 1990. Fresh out of university, at 26, he became private secretary to Ernesto Samper when he was minister of economic development under Gaviria from 1990 to 1991. He then served as consul general of Colombia in Caracas (Venezuela) for about a year, before going to work as a communications strategist on Ernesto Samper’s 1994 campaign. Once Samper was elected, Cristo – a loyal samperista, unlike de la Calle – became presidential advisor for communications (until 1995), while the Proceso 8.000 was emerging and growing. In late 1995, while remaining loyal to Samper, he moved for a more distant role – vice minister of foreign affairs to Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania and later ambassador of Colombia in Athens (Greece). In the 1990s, Cristo was questioned by authorities after César Villegas, a businessman tied to drug trafficking, accused him of having participated in the financing of congressional campaigns in 1991 with drug money. These accusations were never proven and Cristo never found guilty, although Álvaro Uribe – in his usual style of character assassination – brought them up again in 2009, during a feud with Cristo and the Liberal Party.

In 1997, Cristo’s father Jorge Cristo, a senator and one of the main Liberal caciques in Norte de Santander, was assassinated by the ELN. His son left Athens to run for Senate in 1998, elected with 46,000 votes. Cristo served four terms in the Senate, reelected in 2002, 2006 and 2010. Somewhat unusually for a Colombian congressman, Cristo was in opposition for three of his four terms – in opposition to Andrés Pastrana (as a samperista loyalist) and then to Álvaro Uribe until 2010. Between 2002 and 2014, Cristo was a member of the Senate’s first commission – the most prestigious commission, responsible for important issues like constitutional reforms, peace, statutory laws, civil liberties and territorial organization. Cristo supported Uribe’s 2003 referendum (unlike his party, which called for abstention) but opposed the justice and peace law (2005), both the first and second reelection and organized ‘political control’ debates on scandals like the ‘chuzadas‘ (illegal wiretaps) and Agro Ingreso Seguro to name just two.

In his last two terms, Cristo’s cause became the victims of the conflict — an issue which was personal (given his father’s assassination) although also a good political cause for his party. In July 2007, Cristo organized a day of solidarity with victims of the conflict in the Senate, an event which turned into a shameful farce as only a third of senators bothered listening to all victims’ testimonies – the same senators who had packed the house and applauded the discourses of paramilitary war criminals Salvatore Mancuso, Ernesto Báez and Ramón Isaza in 2003. Along with other Liberal senators, Cristo proposed a bill to recognize and offer reparations to victims of the Colombian armed conflict. This ambitious legislation, which served as the model for the victims’ law adopted by Congress in 2011, would have recognized the existence of an armed conflict (including the victims of the state) and guaranteed victims a right to reparations including humanitarian aid and assistance, compensation, restitution, rehabilitation and non-repetition. Because nobody bothered to read the text, uribista majorities in the first commission of the Senate duly approved the bill in its first debate in December 2007. In June 2008, despite the government – through interior minister Carlos Holguín – coming out in opposition to the bill, the bill was approved by the plenary of the Senate in its second debate. The government opposed the recognition of the armed conflict, the responsibility of agents of the state and claimed that the bill would be too costly (there never lacked money for ‘democratic security’, but when it came to victims, then suddenly they were scrooges). The original bill was supported by human rights NGOs, victims’ organizations, the Procuraduría (controlled by the liberal Edgardo Maya at the time) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. However, by the third debate (first commission of the House), the government took control of the bill and amended it to suit its wishes – most notably by redefining victims to only include those of illegal armed groups, rather than those of the state (who could only be recognized by victims after a lengthy judicial process). The government’s version was adopted in the third debate in November 2008, and Cristo claimed that his project had been ‘dismembered’. This same text was adopted by the plenary of the House in the fourth debate in June 2009. In conciliation, a text similar to that which had been adopted by the Senate, unacceptable to the government, was passed so the government asked its congressional majorities to kill the bill – with the finance minister (Óscar Iván Zuluaga) claiming, without bothering to offer actual evidence, that the bill was not fiscally viable because it would cost 75 billion pesos, and Uribe publicly repeating these claims and complaining that the bill treated ‘terrorists and soldiers and policemen’ the same. In June 2009, Cristo’s first victims’ law was killed in Congress.

Fast forward to the 2010 presidential election. In exchange for joining newly-elected president Juan Manuel Santos’ Unidad Nacional coalition, the Liberal Party obtained from him a commitment to pass two of the party’s cornerstone legislative proposals, including a victims’ law. Cristo, it could be noted, did not endorse Santos in the second round (unlike most Liberals), having been very critical of Santos when he was Uribe’s defence minister. In September 2010, the new president himself personally tabled a new proposal for a victims’ law before Congress and the government gave its full support to the law, which became one of the first major legislative battles of the new administration and one of the first direct causes of the ‘divorce’ between Santos and Uribe. Juan Fernando Cristo, now a member of the governing coalition in Congress, was one of the new bill’s strongest advocates in Congress, urging the government to push through despite visible rifts within the governing coalition because of the Conservative Party and the Partido de la U‘s preoccupation with some aspects of the bill. The victims’ law – Law 1448 of 2011 – was promulgated in June 2011.

Juan Fernando Cristo served as President of Congress for the last legislature of the 2010-14 Congress, from July 2013 to July 2014. He did not seek reelection in 2014, and his seat was ‘inherited’ by his younger brother Andrés Cristo. Cristo became one of the major actors in Santos’ 2014 reelection campaign, particularly in the campaign shake-up which followed the ‘shock’ of the first round and gave greater weight to the Liberals within the campaign organization (spearheaded by César Gaviria). Cristo is said to have been the one who insisted in putting peace at the centre of the campaign, which it was in the second round. In the second round, Cristo also coordinated the Santos campaign in Santander and Norte de Santander – two departments where the president had lost in the first round, but reverted the result in the runoff to win in both. Cristo’s regional role in the campaign was more that of a facilitator or coordinator than typical regional cacique – although Cristo and his political group remain a strong political machine in Norte de Santander, it is not hegemonic or unbeatable (as shown by the 2016 plebiscite, where the Sí, despite Cristo, lost heavily in Norte de Santander). In local politics, Cristo’s group in Norte de Santander has intermittently received support (notably in 2011 and 2014) from Ramiro Suárez Corzo, the former mayor of Cúcuta (2003-2007) who is now serving a 27-year prison sentence for masterminding the assassination of a lawyer.

Strong from his role in the reelection campaign, Cristo was appointed Minister of the Interior in the second Santos administration in August 2014 – an important senior cabinet portfolio which handles a wide range of issues. As interior minister, Cristo was behind some of the main legal and constitutional projects of the second term, first and foremost the ‘balance of powers’ constitutional reform of 2015, a political and judicial reform from which only the political reform (abolition of presidential reelection and some more minor changes) has survived, but also the law which made possible the plebiscite (with the reduced threshold) in 2016 or the constitutional amendment creating the ‘fast-track’ for implementation of the peace agreement. Cristo also became a key player in the final stages of the peace process in Cuba, with Santos effectively adding him to the negotiations to speed them up (the government was in a rush to get a peace agreement sealed and signed at the earliest possible date in 2016). Cristo was also critical to the legislative and constitutional implementation of the peace agreement — as minister, he presented the amnesty law (adopted in December 2016), the constitutional reform for the political reincorporation of the FARC and the constitutional amendment giving legal security to the agreement. Before leaving office, Cristo presented the political reform – to implement part of the peace agreement – before Congress, although he had anticipated it a few months before with a few of his own ideas (some of which didn’t make it to the actual bill) — compulsory voting, voting age lowered to 16, a 5-year presidential term, elimination of the vice presidency, 100% public political financing, closed lists and territorial representation for small departments in the Senate.

Ironically, the political reform initially proposed by Cristo back in May is still making its way through Congress, agonizingly slowly (despite the ‘fast-track’ which is now a joke) and has effectively been drained of its initial purported objectives to support the peace agreement (by expanding political participation and providing new guarantees to minor players), instead re-engineered by self-interested congressmen to support their own political/electoral interests only months before the March 2018 congressional elections. Cristo has abandoned ‘his’ political reform, asking Santos to withdraw it, saying that it has been emptied of its intended content. That hasn’t stopped Cambio Radical, Germán Vargas Lleras’ party (although he doesn’t want you to know that), from still calling the political reform (which it officially opposes but will happily use to serve its own interests if adopted) the ‘Cristo law’ (allegedly because it favours Cristo’s presidential candidacy). But facts have definitely never stopped Cambio Radical.

Cristo’s interest in the presidency has been an open secret for over a year, but the defeat of the plebiscite and the need for a strong minister to manage the first laws of the ‘fast-track’ forced him to stay on a bit longer in the government. He finally announced his resignation (as legally required) only days before the deadline, in late May 2017. He did, however, remain as a member of the committee monitoring implementation of the agreement (Csivi) until August. Upon resigning, he said he would defend peace ‘in the streets’, although in reality he worked to align his network of supporters within the party’s congressional caucus and structures. Cristo’s strength is his support within the caucus and party structures, the result of the alliances and contacts he made both as interior minister (which is responsible for relations with Congress) and as a senator himself for 16 years. Cristo officially announced his presidential candidacy in late September. While de la Calle came with a letter from 400 members of civil society, Cristo came with a letter from 40 congressmen – 30 representatives and 10 senators (over half the caucus) – asking him to run. Cristo’s campaign was a more typically partisan Liberal one, even only going by the choice of colours (only red and white for Cristo) or dress (red sweater vest).

If this was a normal primary with respectable turnout, then Cristo would not stand a chance at winning. His name recognition remains low (42% in the last Gallup), and among those who do know who he is, he isn’t very popular – 28% unfavourable for only 14% of favourables in the last Gallup, because he is associated with an unpopular government and seen as a traditional party politician. In polls for 2018, if they even ask for him, he only gets 0.5% – 1% of voting intentions. However, because turnout will be so low, the support from the party’s machines will be more important and Cristo has, I think, a strong chance of actually winning. His strength, in either case, will be that he can ‘bring’ the lion’s share of the Liberal caucus (minus a few high-profile dissidents) to any coalition, which gives him a strong bargaining position in any coalition negotiations. Cristo was endorsed by senators Horacio Serpa (Santander), Jaime Durán (Santander), Lidio García Turbay (Bolívar), Arleth Casado (Córdoba, the wife of convicted parapolítico Juan Manuel López), Mario Fernández (Sucre), Luis Fernando Duque (Antioquia), Luis Fernando Velasco (Cauca, who dropped out of the race) and Guillermo García Realpe (Nariño); and representatives Olga Lucía Velásquez (Bogotá), Andrés Villamizar (Bogotá), Miguel Ángel Pinto (Santander, president of the House for 2016-17), former representative Neftalí Correa (Nariño, corrupt political boss of Tumaco) and both Liberal representatives from Magdalena. In Norte de Santander, he has his own political group with his brother Andrés Cristo, and is getting support from powerful governor William Villamizar (recently indicted on corruption charges) and, from jail, from former mayor Ramiro Suárez Corzo. In Barranquilla, in a potential case of ‘outside sabotage’, the very powerful political machine of mayor Alex Char, one of Vargas Lleras’ key allies in the region, is working for Cristo – the reason being that charismo believes that a Cristo victory would weaken the Liberals and help Vargas Lleras. Indeed, while Cristo was one of the most vocal critics of Vargas Lleras for several months (even when both were in the same government), he has significantly toned down his criticism of the VP-turned-presidential favourite and left the door open to Vargas Lleras participating in an inter-party primary in March 2018 with the Liberals and others (on condition that Vargas Lleras commit himself fully to the peace agreement, which isn’t the case now).

After a quiet and uncontroversial campaign, Cristo began stirring up controversy, accusing César Gaviria of favouritism towards de la Calle and using his control of the party to pressure representatives to support de la Calle (with rumours that 2018 congressional endorsements are being conditioned to supporting de la Calle). Gaviria retorted by accusing Cristo of distributing ‘marmalade’ as interior minister. Just recently, La Silla Vacía broke that the secretary-general of the Liberal Party, who was Gaviria’s private secretary, is campaigning for De la Calle. De la Calle sought to avoid all controversy, refusing to comment on Cristo’s accusations and deflecting the issue to Gaviria.

Main platform points: Cristo has offered his ‘Ten Commandments’ (terrible pun) which are, broadly: peace, “tirelessly seek the political, social and economic changes needed”, regional autonomy/decentralization, security, rights for all, ‘proud of being Liberal’, anti-corruption, victims, “not falling in the temptation of populism” and “you will not insult, you will not offend and you will not spend too much” — in other words, meaningless blabber, with the possible exception of regional autonomy/decentralization, which Cristo has made into one of his main campaign planks.

I will have another post with the results once they are finalized in the next few days.

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

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

Gustavo Moreno, “master extortionist” and senator Musa Besaile

Sen. Musa Besaile (source: congresovisible)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The FARC’s new party and their assets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Germán Vargas Lleras’ presidential candidacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An open-ended election in 2018

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

Two polls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The corrupt anti-corruption boss and the bribed judges

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

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

What is the Lyons-Moreno scandal?

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

The Lyons scandals

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

Lyons (source:

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

Sara Piedrahita Lyons, representative and beauty queen

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

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

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

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

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

The Moreno case

Gustavo Moreno (

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

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

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

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

The judicial scandal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The implicated trio of politicians

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobel Prize 2016: Juan Manuel Santos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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