Colombia: Elections mark changed country

(International Relations and Security Network, 05/11/2007)


Colombia's 28 October elections for mayors and provincial governors were much less violent than some expected. Looking back to the 2003 elections, when both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the paramilitaries exercised significant control over the outcome in many municipalities and some departments, this year's elections were considered as comparably less turbulent.


Many agree the reduction in violence represents the spread of democratic rule from Colombia's cities to the countryside, and yet more are quick to argue that President Alvaro Uribe's security policies are working.


More so than any specific point of comparison, however, these elections provided a litmus test for the control of FARC and the presence of the paramilitaries in various pockets around the country.

Judging from the elections, the organization's presence in many municipalities remains strong, yet its ability to affect the outcome of specific elections across the nation has been significantly reduced. To some, this suggests that FARC has been forced to reorganize itself due to an aggressive Colombian military.


Along the Atlantic coast and down the border with Venezuela, where in 2003 many leaders closely aligned with the paramilitaries easily won office, this year's results revealed that many of the old networks have withered. Some departments remain under paramilitary control, but only a few relative to 2003.


The presence of new groups, known as emerging criminal bands in Colombia, appears to be a third element, as yet not quantified. These groups, considered the remnants of the disarmed and demobilized paramilitary groups, remain in the background. It is still unclear how strong these groups will become and if they will be able to affect elections in the future. For now, however, Colombians appear to be heading in the right direction, from the largest cities to the smallest hamlets.

Winners and losers

There were 64 politically motivated killings and 12 kidnappings leading up to election day, according to a post-election study released by Colombia's Security and Democracy Foundation.


The study concluded that compared to elections as far back as 1997, the 2007 polls were significantly less violent. These conclusions resonate with a number of other organizations and international observers. Based on this study's findings, published by Colombian daily El Tiempo, it is clear Uribe stood as a winner for demonstrably increasing security across the country.


As the leader of a unified political coalition, Uribe won 15 of 32 governorships and fared well in the countryside. But he suffered defeat in Colombia's three largest cities: Bogotá, Medellín and Calí.


Alonzo Salazar won in Medellín as the hand picked successor for the former popular mayor. In Calí, Jorge Iván Ospina defeated a member of the city's oligarchy. And in Bogotá, where the mayor is widely considered the second-most powerful politician in the country, Samuel Moreno defeated the president's candidate, giving Uribe's opposition party, the Alternative Democratic Poll, a solid footing for the next round of presidential elections.

FARC retreat?

In many pockets of the country - where FARC continues to exercise its military might to control specific trafficking routes, maintain strategic military positions or simply demonstrate its local power - it maintained some pressure on candidates. According to Adam Isacson, director of programs with the Center for International Policy, FARC was more violent than the paramilitaries in terms of killing candidates.


"In rural areas, many pro-Uribe candidates ran but were not protected," Isacson told ISN Security Watch. Nevertheless, he pointed out, Uribe candidates did well in rural areas.


But does this outcome suggest the FARC has, to an extent, retreated from areas where it was once considered a strong presence?


"The FARC has been forced to scale down to smaller units due to [Uribe's] security policies," Nicolas Urrutia, a security analyst with the Foundation of Ideas for Peace, told ISN Security Watch, adding that "by the end of 2003 and the beginning of 2004, the FARC suffered heavy combat causalities."

Urrutia explained that as Uribe's democracy and security plan began to take hold across the nation in 2003, FARC was forced to downsize its units of 200 to 300 soldiers. The resulting shift in manpower has created a situation whereby today the guerrillas' infrastructure has been diminished.

Paramilitary shifts

Uribe supporters are quick to point out that the president has overseen a period during which some 32,000 paramilitary soldiers have been demobilized and 16,000 disarmed. These numbers are impressive, but the reality is that many of the paramilitary leaders remain active.


"The paramilitaries are not using violence as much," Isacson said, adding, "they are more focused on fraud and buying votes, and in some areas they [were] running two or three candidates."


Keeping tabs on how the paramilitaries have transformed from roaming death squads to mafia-like criminal bosses is a difficult task. Many of the mid-level leaders have leveraged their contacts and position into emerging criminal bands that in some municipalities and whole departments have retained some political power.


Before the elections, a list of those politicians most closely aligned with either paramilitary or guerrilla groups was drawn up and published by Colombian news magazine La Semana, with an accompanying message that asked Colombians not to vote for those individuals.


Governors listed as an "extreme risk" won in the states of Amazonas, Antioquia, Sucre, Magdalena and Valle del Cauca. These men in one way or another are suspected of very close ties to those paramilitary leaders that remain active in various pockets of black market activity.


For instance, Ómar Ricardo Diaz won in Magdalena. He was a top aid of the former governor, Trino Luna, who is currently serving time for his ties to paramilitary-related illegalities. Not far away in Sucre, the new governor, Jorge Barraza, is a member of the same party and is a known associate of a infamous mafia family with close paramilitary ties based in the department of Bolivar headed by a woman known as "The Cat."


Among the thousands of candidates, it would be a heavy task to identify among the winners those most closely associated with organized crime. The author of the list, however, approximated that of the total number of candidates, some 27,000 were listed as members of the five political parties known to be most closely associated with organized crime in Colombia.

Looking ahead

Looking beyond the municipal elections, a few salient points seem to stand out. FARC appears to have been weakened. Uribe's coalition remains tainted by mayors and governors considered owned by organized crime. And what is left of the paramilitaries appears to have melted deeper into the political fabric of the country, choosing to focus on controlling local-level politics rather than the manipulation of national-level activity.


This last point may be due to the apparent close political ties organized crime in Colombia has with the president. As long as former paramilitary leaders are happy with the government's offensive against FARC, they see no need to re-arm death squads. For now, this may be a beneficial situation as Uribe will be able to focus solely on FARC with out having to keep an eye on the violence associated with uncontrolled paramilitary death squads - a rut from which past Colombian presidents never managed to free themselves.


Despite his current fortuitous political position, Uribe's ability to project political strength onto a candidate who will continue his heavy-handed offensive against FARC has been significantly diminished. As Isacson pointed out, Uribe's political coalition lost in the three cities where some 70 percent of Colombian voters reside.


Yet few will disagree that Colombia is safer today than it was in 2003, an observation largely supported by the recent elections. Uribe will certainly campaign for his hand-picked successor standing on that platform. That much, at least, he has already won.