WOLA: 2011 Elections More Violent Than in 2007

News from Colombia | on: Sunday, 30 October 2011

Extract from Adam Isaacson's blog on Colombia elections. To read the article in full click here: http://www.wola.org/commentary/sundays_local_elections_in_colombia

The upcoming vote

That is why the October 30 elections are so important. It is positive that the Santos administration has weakened the “Black Hand” at the national level. But the October 30 vote is all about the regional level, where it remains strong.

The 2011 campaign has been more violent than the last local elections, in 2007. Colombia’s non-governmental Electoral Observation Mission (MOE) found that 41 candidates had been killed as of October 18, 14 more than in the 2007 campaign. While most killings’ motives haven’t been established, many of them took place in municipalities that have suffered displacement and illegal appropriation of land. The departments of Antioquia and Córdoba, flashpoints of displacement and dispossession, lead the MOE’s list of violent acts against candidates.

This week, WOLA hosted Manuel Garces, a candidate for mayor in Lopez de Micay, Cauca. Mr. Garces has been the victim of four assassination attempts, several death threats, and a defamation campaign since his campaign began earlier this year. Two members of his team were also murdered. The “Black Hand” behind these attacks is a murky alliance of regional political elites, paramilitaries, narcotics traffickers, and local military and police authorities. By returning to the region for the election, Mr. Garces risks his life by confronting the powerful networks that seek to consolidate corruption rings and impunity in the region. No matter what the outcome of the election, Mr. Garces, along with several other candidates in similar positions, will continue to run a high risk for publicly confronting local powers tied to dispossession of small landholders.

Despite a political reform passed in July, which intends to combat criminal and armed-group influence on campaigns, many old practices are still occurring. The Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a think-tank hired by the Interior Ministry to identify risks of such influence, published a report in October naming 100 candidates with likely links to organized crime and armed groups. La Silla Vacía identifies three political parties, which together are fielding 17,000 candidates, fostered by Juan Carlos Martínez, a politician currently in prison for ties to paramilitary groups.

The amount of money being spent on campaigns, despite widely ignored legal limits, also raises suspicions. Any visit to Colombia’s regiones right now makes evident – through the profusion of billboards, t-shirts, and broadcast advertisements – that some candidates have remarkable amounts of campaign funds to spend. During an August 2011 visit to Sincelejo, the capital of Sucre department (population 625,000), several individuals interviewed told us that a successful campaign for mayor of Sincelejo would cost about US$5 million, while a governor’s race would cost US$10 million. (Campaign backers, we were told, would then be first in line for lucrative local government contracts.) Even if these estimates were exaggerated by a factor of two or three, the cost of political victory in the local elections is still beyond the reach of most displaced or victims’ advocates. It is, however, attainable for the wealthy – including those whose wealth is drawn in part from illegal activity and usurpation of land.

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