By Cecilia Orozco Tascón, El Espectador, September 14, 2019
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The political expert and Assistant Director of the organization, Peace and Reconciliation, tells about the chilling findings of the foundation’s third report on Violence and the Electoral Dynamic, 2019, the results of which were released this week: First, politicians in contention are arranging for the physical elimination of their competitors. Second, in 11 of the 32 provinces, it’s not worth campaigning because everybody knows who’s going to win. And third, in 107 municipalities, gangs of narco-paramilitaries can choose mayors and council members.
To what do you attribute the resurgence of political violence this year, as stated in your report on electoral violence in 2019?
This question has two answers: First, the resurgence of violence is, in general, the product of a political awakening by Colombians. The re-politicization of the country has led to an increase in violence because of competition, to silence the rivals. It can be called regional authoritarianism when there is a political structure that controls all of the aspects of the distribution of power. In Colombia, these authoritarianisms are very powerful, so that, in 11 of the 32 provinces, it isn’t going to be worth the trouble to hold elections because everybody knows who is going to win. Second answer, the authoritarians that want to exercise control frequently use violence as a vehicle to conserve or to obtain power.
Which are the 11 provinces where elections are predetermined because of the domination by the same power groups?
Atlántico, with the Char family; Cesar, with the Gneccos; Valle del Cauca, with Dilian Francisca Toro; Cundinamarca, with the candidate Nicolás García, supported by nearly all of the parties; Sucre, with Yahir Acuña, who is under investigation for parapolítica (working with paramilitaries to gain public office or other political gain); Córdoba, with Carlos Gómez, the Democratic Center candidate; Caldas, with Camilo Gaviria, son of the Uribist ex-Senator Adriana Gutiérrez; Magdalena, with Mello Cotes, of the Cotes clan, even though Carlos Caicedo is giving him a fight; Tolima, with José Ricardo Orozco, who was prosecuted some years ago for murder and who was supported by the Conservative Party; and Bolívar, with Becentico Blel, the son of the parapolítico of the same name and the brother of Senator Nadia Blel, also of the Conservative Party.
How many candidates for Mayor, Governor, Councils or Assemblies have been threatened or murdered so far this year?
First, the ones most affected are the candidates for offices where only one member is elected from each district. Second, even officials who are already holding office have been reached by the violence. Here are the numbers: 1. The officials holding office now are the segment with the most victims, with 40.35%: 39 Council members, 9 Senators, and 8 Mayors. 2. The second group in number of victims is the candidates, with a total of 67: 47 running for Mayor, 14 for Council seats, 4 for Governor and 2 for Assemblies. 3. The other victims are 21 civil servants and 15 Party members.
During the war with the FARC it used to happen that electoral violence intensified during elections, especially in the municipalities farthest away. Why are we seeing this phenomenon with the same or worse intensity in the postwar period?
This is one of the central questions: Today, there are not criminal organizations threatening or killing the candidates. In most cases there are killers hired to take out political competitors. That being so, you could say that, on the one hand, there is a politicization of Colombian society, as we have already said. We have young people in politics, community leaders that demand accountability, and a vast number of people exercising citizen control. Obviously, that is displeasing to the old-line politicians. On the other hand, there has been an increase in gangs of ragtag criminals, an army of mercenaries that sell security services and are hired by many politicians to intimidate the competition. That means that violence is another means of political competition in Colombia.
That’s terrible! Is there evidence that current aspirants to elective office are paying to have salaried hit men murder their competitors?
The Attorney General’s Office has the final word, of course. But for the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation, in the majority of the cases that have ended up with murders and attacks on candidates in this recent violence, there are signals that the killers or attackers were hired and paid by the victims’ political rivals.
Can you give a real example of candidates endangering their competitors?
The Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation has found that in some cases, such as in Cauca, a candidate publishes a pamphlet saying, for example, that his political opponent supports aerial fumigations. That, in many areas, means the indicated candidate had better get a tombstone.
To be exact, you mention the case of the murder, together with five other people massacred in a vehicle in the middle of a highway, of the candidate for Mayor of Suárez (Cauca Province), Karina García. Specifically, what data or information does the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation have about the killers and the instigators?
As far as we know, a dissident group of the FARC is responsible. I should also say that the investigations indicate that these murders had been instigated and paid for by somebody.
Would it be worthwhile to investigate whether any of the candidates for Mayor of that town are involved in the crime?
Yes, it would be worthwhile, and the political actors in that province should also be investigated.
What other cases similar to those of Karina García can you mention as cases that were carried out on the instruction of other political actors?
For us, it’s the majority. I insist on that. In the attack on the murdered Democratic Center candidate for Mayor of Toledo in Antioquia Province, the information on the ground there indicates that it was a case of political competition. In the case in Norte del Valle, one of the most complicated areas with regard to electoral violence, there is one actor in particular with political motivations who is behind the majority of events of that kind.
Who is it?
That man, several years ago, summoned me to a meeting in 93rd Street Park. I didn’t go. I didn’t want to go because I have made a complaint about him previously, and I was afraid of him. I don’t want to give the individual’s identity because I want to keep on living, but anybody reading these lines will know who it is.
If you consider the whole universe of people suspected of hiring out as hit men to carry out electoral violence, do you find neoparamilitaries and drug traffickers, as well as dissidents from the previous FARC and the ELN?
More than 80% of the acts are perpetrated by unknown actors and, allegedly, by the Black Eagles, which since the year 2011 no longer exist. The other crimes are divided among the Clan del Golfo, the Caparrapos, the ELN or some groups of dissidents from the FARC. The unknown actors are hired killers. In the last two months, more actions have been attributed to the ELN and the Clan del Golfo than in the rest of this electoral process.
According to your theory and so that we have it completely clear: Are those criminal organizations acting more by “contract” with political actors than for their own motives?
Both possibilities exist, but the most striking is that most of it is taking place by contract. That being true, if in more than 80% of the events the instigator is unknown, the action is carried out by others, the question is, who hired them? The answer is that political contenders in the campaign hired them. That is what the investigation tells us. In every case, I repeat, it is the Attorney General’s Office that has the last word.
In the study that you revealed, you found that the provinces with the most violence in these elections are Valle del Cauca and La Guajira. Why the concentration in those regions?
What you can’t help thinking intuitively is that political violence is the product of a power vacuum left by the disarming of the FARC. And the answer is no, it’s not that. The high levels of electoral uncertainty lead to the candidates resorting to violence and looking for financing by illegal groups to sustain the economic pace of a campaign. What that means is that in our country what happens is the opposite of what sustains the gringo theory about democracy, where the more candidates you have and the high levels of competition lead to an improvement in democracy.
But why? Could it be that our low level of civilization leads to that?
The answer is that democracy in the world and, above all, in Colombia has a foundation problem and is very expensive. For example, a campaign for Governor of La Guajira or Sucre could cost 2 or 3 million US dollars. If you take a Governor, his salary and bonuses in his four-year term could go as high as a little more than a billion pesos (roughly US $300,000). So when he takes power, he will have to recoup 6 or 7 billion pesos that he has already spent. When you compete in a democracy like Colombia’s, you compete with money, with violence, and with corruption. Until we can resolve this original flaw, we will keep on seeing campaigns financed by drug trafficking, political violence and the illegal use of public resources. That happens because the political system is designed to function in a Mafioso or corrupt manner.
The majority of the victims of electoral violence today are candidates from opposition parties, from government parties, or from independent groups or groups of citizens?
Look at this statistic, which might be the main one: of all of the victimizations, 30% affect opposition parties, which include Colombia Humana and the Greens, among others. Twenty-one percent of those affected are parties in the government coalition, headed by the Democratic Center. That means that the sectors most affected are emerging sectors. This corroborates what I said previously: they are killed by political competitors. Eighteen percent of the victimizations are focused against the independent parties like the Liberal or Cambio Radical (Radical Change). And also there are 31% of cases where the political affiliation of the candidate is unknown, because the act of victimization took place in the electoral pre-campaign.
In this third report on violence and the electoral dynamic, as you call it, are there reported cases of threats and attacks or attempts against the journalists that cover the campaigns of candidates in the regions, like what happened this week with a reporter from National Radio in Nariño Province, where she had to flee the city because of threats after she reported on the corruption of a candidate?
In the report on the profiles of the victims, there is a category called “complaints of corruption”. It includes cases like that reporter. Up to now, we have three: one in Antioquia Province, another in Valle del Cauca Province, and one more in Sucre Province. The case of the reporter in Nariño would be the fourth one, but is isn’t counted in this report because it happened after our study was published.
So you’re saying that reporters out in the regions are running the potential risk of being attacked and even murdered by political actors in the area, just as their rivals are ?
The two risks are different: in the regional media there is a pattern of self-censorship and for the national media, they threaten them so that they don’t cover controversial election issues.
Do you think that the violence related to electoral activities will increase as we get closer to Election Day?
Yes, certainly. In fact, these days, after the release of the report, there have been nine more events. It’s possible that by October 27 we could have more than 250 victims and more than 30 murders. A lot of blood will flow.
What do you think is the relationship between the increase in electoral violence and the aggressive tone, the accusations, and the defamatory messages from the national political leaders in power?
That climate ends up emboldening the regional politicians and giving them some justification for the murders. Recently, a reporter for the newspaper La Opinion, in Cúcuta, asked a former paramilitary chieftain, alias El Iguana, at the Colombia2020 event sponsored by El Espectador, if the El Baluster hardware store in that city had financed paramilitary groups. The hardware store belongs to the family of the current Democratic Center candidate for Mayor, Iván Gélvez. After he admitted that that business did support the paramilitaries, the candidate, Gélvez, accused the reporter of belonging to the FARC. That put him in danger and the reporter had to leave the city. Episodes like that do happen, and also, when politicians who are famous state that there are “good deaths”: that ends up justifying the political violence.
THE REDUCTION IN VIOLENCE ENDED AND IT WENT BACK UP IN 2019
The Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation, Pares, this week published their third study of electoral violence in 2019. They compared recent statistics on threats, attacks, and murders, with previous elections, for example, the regional elections in 2015. Are there more this year, or fewer?
From October 27, 2018 until September 9, 2019, there were 116 events of political violence with 173 victims. Among those were 20 murders, 17 attacks and 128 threats. Comparing that with events in the regions in 2015, that year there were 15 murders, 17 attacks, and 75 threats. So, yes, there was a frightening increase. And we still have another month of campaigning. But if we compare that data with the worst years of the political violence, we conclude that we are doing very well. For example, for the 1997 elections, thousands of candidates had to quit, were murdered, or were kidnapped. The problem is that all indications have been reduced in recent elections but, in 2019, we see a break in that reduction and we see political violence increasing again.
“THE GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE IS A DISASTER”
According to your report, the government and the police and prosecutors are responding rapidly and efficiently to violent acts in this campaign?
The governmental response is really a disaster. The data indicate that clearly. The central problem is that the national government’s plan, called Ágora, is designed for the country of 20 years ago, not for current realities. Because of that, we call it a failure. Furthermore, one part of the problem is political violence but the other part is the infiltration of illegal resources into the campaigns. And there is very little design to prevent this phenomenon. One statistic: in lower Cauca in Antioquia Province, the Clan del Golfo and the Caparrapos will put in place the majority of the Mayors. This risk exists in 107 municipalities in the country.
107 municipalities in the hands of the criminal gangs? Can these groups also be defined as neoparamilitaries? Or are they simply drug traffickers with ambition for political power and territorial control?
The current political debate has taken them to a new classification: paramilitary dissidents.