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

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

The FARC’s new name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceasefire with the ELN

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

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

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

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

Armed presence of the ELN, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shifting Court balances: a more conservative Constitutional Court?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gustavo Moreno, “master extortionist” and senator Musa Besaile

Sen. Musa Besaile (source: congresovisible)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The FARC’s new party and their assets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Germán Vargas Lleras’ presidential candidacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An open-ended election in 2018

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

Two polls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The corrupt anti-corruption boss and the bribed judges

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

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

What is the Lyons-Moreno scandal?

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

The Lyons scandals

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

Lyons (source:

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

Sara Piedrahita Lyons, representative and beauty queen

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

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

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

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

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

The Moreno case

Gustavo Moreno (

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

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

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

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

The judicial scandal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The implicated trio of politicians

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disjointed general reflections on Colombian politics and political history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobel Prize 2016: Juan Manuel Santos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tragic Fate of La Guajira

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

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

Natural setting

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Poverty in spite of wealth

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

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

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

Criminality and armed conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drought and starvation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics of La Guajira: An extension of organized crime?

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

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

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

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

The two cousins: Guajira local politics 1991-2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2014 by-election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oneida Pinto’s downfall and the hypocrisy of Bogotá politicians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The November 2016 by-election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Primer on Colombian Politics: Institutions and Constitution

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

Constitutional Setting

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

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

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

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

Institutional Setting

Executive: President and Vice President

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legislative: Congress

The Basics

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

The Capitolio Nacional, the seat of the Congress in Bogotá

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

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

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

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

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

Rules of ineligibility and incompatibility; the investidura

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

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

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

What is la silla vacía?

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

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


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

The seat of the three highest courts in Bogotá

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

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

Constitutional Court

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

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

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

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

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

Supreme Court of Justice

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

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

Council of State

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

The Fiscalía General de la Nación: Attorney General

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

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

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

Government and administration of the judicial branch

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

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

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

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

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

Control Organisms

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

The Procuraduría 

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

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

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

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

The Defensor del Pueblo or Ombudsman

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

The Contraloría General de la República or Comptroller General

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

Territorial organization and local government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electoral organization

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

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

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

Electoral system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electoral events

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

The other mechanisms of popular participation are:

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

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

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

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