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Cutting the Links Between Crime and Local Politics: Colombia’s 2011 Elections



Latin America Report N°37 25 Jul 2011


Colombia-25July11_ICGPhoto credit: International Crisis GroupDeeply entrenched connections between criminal and political actors are a major obstacle to conflict resolution in Colombia. Illegal armed groups seek to consolidate and expand their holds over local governments in the October 2011 governorship, mayoral, departmental assembly and municipal council elections. The national government appears more willing and better prepared than in the past to curb the influence of illegal actors on the elections, but the challenges remain huge. The high number of killed prospective candidates bodes ill for the campaign, suggesting that the decade-old trend of decreasing electoral violence could be reversed. There are substantial risks that a variety of additional means, including intimidation and illegal money, will be used to influence outcomes. The government must rigorously implement additional measures to protect candidates and shield the electoral process against criminal infiltration, corruption and fraud. Failure to mitigate these risks would mean in many places four more years of poor local governance, high levels of corruption and enduring violence.

Decentralisation in the 1980s and 1990s greatly increased the tasks and the resources of local government, but in many municipalities, capabilities failed to keep pace. This mismatch made local governments increasingly attractive targets for both guerrillas and paramilitaries. Violence against candidates, local office holders and political and social activists soared. With a largely hostile attitude to local governments, guerrillas have mainly concentrated on sabotaging and disturbing the electoral process. By contrast, paramilitary groups, particularly after the formation of a national structure under the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), used their links with economic and political elites to infiltrate local governments and capture public resources. That peaked in the 2003 local elections. Since then, and particularly after the official demobilisation of these groups in 2006, the influence politicians linked to paramilitaries enjoyed has weakened but not disappeared.

The October elections are the first test of how democratic institutions under the government of President Juan Manuel Santos cope with the growing power of new illegal armed groups and paramilitary successors (NIAGs), now acknowledged as the country’s biggest security threat. These organisations, which the government calls BACRIM (criminal gangs), are unlikely to have a unified stance towards the elections. Some will be content with minimal relations to local politics to guarantee their impunity, access to information and freedom of action. But NIAGs are rapidly evolving into larger, more robust criminal networks, so some could develop a more ambitious political agenda. Several advocates of land restitution for the victims of Colombia’s long-running armed conflict already have been assassinated, suggesting that this major Santos initiative is likely to be met by alliances between criminals and some segments of local economic elites, in defence of the status quo. Meanwhile, frequent attacks against prospective candidates and civilians suggest that the weakened FARC wants to prove it is not a spent force.

Colombia is better prepared than in the past to take on these challenges. Impunity is decreasing, as judicial investigations into links between politicians and paramilitaries have resulted in the conviction of some two dozen members of Congress. Investigations and indictments are now moving down to the local government level, albeit slowly and unevenly. In July 2011, the government signed into law a far-ranging political reform, paving the way for the imposition of penalties on parties that endorse candidates with links to illegal armed groups or face investigation for drug trafficking and crimes against humanity. Election financing rules and anti-corruption norms have also been stiffened, although shortcomings in the legal framework remain.

Over the long term, these changes should favour more competitive and cleaner local elections, but in the short term, their impact will, for a number of reasons, be limited. The approval of the political reform law less than four months ahead of the elections has heightened uncertainty, and time is running short to apply some of the innovations. More broadly, political parties remain weak, and there are doubts whether they can even effectively determine their own nominees in all cases. Meaningful competition is unlikely to emerge in regions where the political and economic environment is heavily biased towards elites formerly linked to paramilitaries. Clientelism continues to be a drag on local politics, while links between criminals and politicians are frequently difficult to expose because of deep-seated popular mistrust of unresponsive local authorities.

Guaranteeing the conditions for free, fair and competitive elections remains the dominant immediate challenge for the government. But more needs to be done to protect local government from the influence of illegal armed groups over the long term. The National Electoral Council (CNE) must be strengthened and become more independent. Congress needs to update and simplify Colombia’s diverse electoral rules. Political parties must establish stronger internal structures and develop a culture of accountability. These changes will ultimately be insufficient, however, if local government continues to lack the institutional capacities to guarantee democratic, clean and efficient management of its affairs.


To provide the conditions for safe and secure local elections

To the Government of Colombia:

1. Review methods and criteria currently applied to identify security threats, link its risk assessments to those provided by civil society organisations and rigorously implement measures to provide security to candidates and political organisations, without discrimination.

2. React in a timely manner to all threats to candidates or social activists, as well as to early warning reports from the ombudsman office, and ensure that officials who fail to act comprehensively on threats or early warning reports face legal consequences.

To reduce the influence of politicians linked to illegal armed actors

To Political Parties:

3. Screen prospective candidates rigorously before endorsing them and reject all with a questionable past, including those who are close relatives of politicians linked to paramilitaries or who are put forward by politicians linked to illegal armed actors.

To prevent illicit campaign financing and electoral crimes and improve transparency

To the National Electoral Council (CNE):

4. Direct Sectional Electoral Guarantee Tribunals to make more active use of their competence to audit campaign accounts during the electoral process.

To Political Parties and Candidates:

5. Voluntarily and publicly report campaign contributions and campaign spending well ahead of the elections.

To the Government of Colombia:

6. Launch a campaign immediately to increase awareness among political organisations, candidates, contributors, media and civil society of campaign finance rules and the changes introduced in the 2011 political reform.

7. Provide additional resources to the National Civil Registry to ensure that the biometric voter identification system can be used in the 2011 elections, at least in the departments at highest risk of electoral fraud.

8. Improve, through the interior and justice ministry, public access to the records of the Immediate Reaction Unit for Electoral Transparency (URIEL), making it easier for the electorate to hold institutions accountable for follow-up on complaints.

To the Government and Congress of Colombia:

9. Provide additional resources to the attorney general’s office to ensure that a dedicated unit for electoral crimes becomes operational and produces concrete results as quickly as possible.

To maintain a level playing field for all candidates

To the Offices of the Attorney General, the Public Prosecutor and the Comptroller and to Courts:

10. Prosecute and if applicable impose sanctions expeditiously against unlawful interventions of incumbents in the electoral campaign.

11. Monitor closely the execution of public reconstruction works following the heavy rainstorms and follow-up rigorously on accusations of misuse of those resources by local incumbents for political purposes.

To guarantee that political rights of vulnerable populations are protected and promoted

To the Government of Colombia:

12. Communicate clearly ahead of the elections that access to state subsidies and support programs such as Families in Action is a right, not a political favour.

To the Government and Congress of Colombia:

13. Introduce instruments and mechanisms that more effectively protect political rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), including considering the possibility to grant them the opportunity to cast absentee ballots away from their original residence, as well as introduction of seats reserved for them in local governments.

To strengthen scrutiny and reporting of the electoral process and confidence in the results

To the Government of Colombia, the Office of the Attorney General and Electoral Institutions:

14. React in a timely way to threats to journalists, not only by providing protection, but also by swiftly investigating the origin of threats and prosecuting those responsible for them.

15. Ensure that journalists and civil society organisations have equal and unhindered access to all official electoral information.

16. The government should invite the Organisation of American States (OAS) to send an electoral observer mission, equipped with an extensive mandate, so as to ensure international scrutiny, including during the pre-electoral and the post-electoral stages, focusing on:

a) departments and municipalities exposed to high risks of violence and/or electoral fraud; and

b) ballot counting, in particular if the procedural changes in the political reform law are implemented for the October elections.

To Candidates and Campaign Officials:

17. Pledge publicly to respect the work of journalists during the campaign and contribute to an informed electoral debate.

Bogotá/Brussels, 25 July 2011


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