Colombia's elections: corruption or legality?

In a country plagued by corruption, not only in politics but in almost every aspect of everyday life, an anti-politician who claims that legality is the way to pull the country out of its predicament – has raised the hopes of many
José-Manuel Barreto
28 May 2010

Colombia is about to vote for a new government on May 30. Campaigning began early this year when the political parties with ties to President Uribe won most seats in the Congress. A triumph in the presidential elections was then very likely for Juan Manuel Santos – Uribe’s candidate.

Antanas Mockus addresses reporters

Not for long. Antanas Mockus, an independent who joined the Green party last October, started to rise in the polls some weeks ago and now has a clear chance to beat Santos. Mockus jumped in an IPSOS poll from 20% on April 15 to 32% on May 22, while Santos was at 34%. Mockus’ candidacy has been met with a wave of enthusiasm in Colombia. People of all ages are using Facebook to support him, and taking to the streets to be part of large demonstrations to this effect.

Recent Colombian politics have revolved around the achievements and scandals surrounding President Uribe’s eight years in power. His government has managed to push the FARC guerrillas out of the suburbs of the big cities on the main motorways,  and into the jungle, wrong-footing FARC, who are no longer able to terrorise small towns with their group kidnappings. Instead they have opted for a strategic retreat.

Having inherited a country with one of the worst human rights situations in the world, Uribe has kept the Colombian state in the top league with new harvests of death and suffering. Although the number of kidnappings and massacres decreased during Uribe’s tenure, killings of human rights defenders, journalists and social activists have remained high – with at least 505 trade unionists killed between 2002 and 2009.

But a society that has swept under the carpet every conceivable sort of abuse committed by the army and paramilitaries with the goal of weakening FARC, still has the capacity to be outraged. The first national expression of moral indignation was prompted by the guerrillas themselves. Sentiment flooded the country in 2008 when gigantic demonstrations in many cities condemned FARC’s kidnappings tactics and the cruelty endured by their hostages.

Today’s righteous anger

Today’s righteous anger comes from another source and is focused on three scandals. A body count mentality in the fight against guerrillas has long fuelled summary executions in Colombia, but under Uribe it has acquired a macabre twist. Since his first year in power, Uribe has ordered the military to make the number of guerrillas killed one of the markers of success. Commanders and troops outdid themselves, with the promise of advancement through the ranks, as well as cash rewards. Shadowy figures appeared in poor barrios offering jobs in the countryside to young men. They would be driven hundreds of miles away, handed over to troops and killed in cold blood. The victims would then be reported as guerrillas shot in combat.

Already in 2003, there was United Nations muttering about ‘false positives’, but it was only in 2009 that this pattern of behaviour gained its full notoriety through media coverage. An investigation into a group of bodies reported as belonging to guerrillas killed in combat concluded that their identities matched those of a group of youngsters who had disappeared in Bogota a year before. A grieving mother told reporters how recruiters were paid £70 for taking her son to his executioners. Currently criminal investigations are proceeding on 2358 cases of ‘false positives’, among them 120 women and 125 minors.

President Uribe’s government has also been besieged by the ‘parapolitics’ scandal, linking more than 80 congressmen of his coalition to paramilitaries. A rightwing federation of small armies supported by narcos, landowners and in many cases by the Army, have been behind a large number of massacres, and a campaign of torture and terror advanced since the late 1980’s. Some congressmen have already been sentenced to jail, while others remain in custody - including Mario Uribe, a former president of the Senate and Uribe’s cousin. Paramilitaries forced communities living in towns under their control to vote for politicians who, once in the Congress and local administrations, provided political cover and access to public resources.

Recently the ‘parapolitics’ scandal has sprung two further developments. Jorge Noguera, ex-director of DAS (a civil intelligence agency under direct control of the President), is being judged by the Supreme Court of Justice. He is accused of handing lists of trade unionists to paramilitaries who were later assassinated.  Having been put into office by Uribe himself, when a criminal investigation was launched, the President called Noguera ‘a good boy’ and sent him to manage the Colombian consulate in Milan.

As recently as April 29, Salvatore Mancuso, one of the capos of the paramilitaries, told the Supreme Court that an alliance of paramilitaries was formed in 2002 to support Uribe’s campaign to the Presidency. His confession confirmed accounts made by other paramilitaries involved in such dealings. President Uribe denied any agreement with ‘paras’. The Supreme Court has asked the House of Representatives to assess Mancuso’s testimony and investigate Uribe’s role.

DAS figures in another scandal hanging over the elections. An investigation into illegal tapping of phones and email accounts discovered that passive intelligence was supplemented by sabotage. A document found in DAS headquarters contained a plan for smearing and ‘putting pressure’ on opposition leaders, journalists, human rights defenders, peace activists, bishops, publishers and on magistrates of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. Both high tribunals are engaged in activities of interest to the government. The Supreme Court has been investigating the conduct of parliamentarians involved in the ‘parapolitics’ scandal, while the Constitutional Court had to decide on the legality of a referendum allowing Uribe to run for a third term.

This was not all. The plan contemplated discrediting the work in Colombia of Human Rights Watch, the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights, UN human rights officials and the European Union. A number of times Uribe has assured the international community that he fully respects the work of human rights defenders. However, he has told military audiences in Colombia that there are ‘coward guerrillas and terrorists’ who get funds from the EU and use human rights to attack the government.

A fraction of these shameful events should be enough to trigger the resignation or the impeachment of President Uribe. However, desperate with the abuses committed by guerrillas, the majority of Colombian society has for years decided to turn a blind eye to his grisly record.

Outside Colombia one cannot help questioning the international support Uribe has enjoyed, particularly that offered by the US and the UK. In a classic example of ‘ethical foreign policy’, the dark side of Uribe’s government has never prevented the backing of his international allies, to secure their interests. A BBC report on the supply of surveillance equipment to DAS made by the UK cries out for straightforward confirmation or denial. If confirmed, the UK government should request a return of this technology - as has Obama’s administration - and reconsider its military aid.

Can history repeat itself?

When the Constitutional Court ruled against a third term, Uribe had already designated his Defence minister Juan Manuel Santos as his candidate. But Santos is not only Uribe’s second in command in taking on the FARC. He also shares responsibility in some of the affairs tarnishing President Uribe’s reputation. Santos leads a key political pillar of support for Uribe’s government, the Party of the U, no stranger to ‘parapolitics’. Senator Mauricio Pimiento, one of its prominent members, has been sentenced to seven years in prison, and at least four other members of the ‘U’ have been investigated for conspiring with paramilitaries to commit crimes.

Santos has a connection to the infamy of the ‘false positives’ too. He initially rejected press reports, accusing human rights defenders of being fantasists: but he later rectified his statements. He announced a number of cases of ‘false positives’ had been discovered within the Army, and fired a number of high-ranking officials and soldiers. For his part, General Montoya, the Army Commander, quitted without more ado and was promptly designated ambassador to the Dominican Republic by President Uribe. In short, as Minister of Defence, Santos enforced the body count policy for three years. Could he really have known nothing about the ‘false positives’?

Finally, in a clear breach of international law, on March 2008 Uribe and Santos ordered the bombing of the camp of a FARC commander located in Ecuadorian territory. The incident not only caused a breakdown in relations with Ecuador, but also raised tensions with Venezuela. Similar incidents have led over the years to Venezuelan troops being mobilised to the Colombian border, ambassadors recalled, relations temporarily suspended and commerce substantially reduced. President Chavez’ wilful neglect of diplomacy, and President Uribe’s responses, have been punctuated by Santos’ harsh criticisms of Chavez. In a recent presidential debate Santos said he was proud to have ordered the bombing in Ecuador. Chavez immediately responded that an eventual triumph of Santos would constitute a serious risk for peace in the region.

Hope lives on

But hope has resuscitated in Colombia. Mockus’ surge in the polls has created an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm and the belief that change is possible. A son of Lithuanian immigrants, Mockus is the leader of a coalition formed just months ago by four ex-mayors who have transformed Colombia’s two biggest cities, Bogota and Medellin. After Mockus, Enrique Penalosa and Luis-Eduardo Garzon in turn took charge of Bogota, the rate of killings went down from 64 per 100.000 inhabitants in 1995 to 23 in 2004, consolidating a declining national trend in levels of violence.

This was accompanied by an ambitious programme of construction of schools and libraries in the poorest areas of the city; old main roads were revamped and a new system of public transport was created; a network of restaurants serving children and adults suffering acutely from malnutrition and hunger spread over the barrios and the slums of Bogota.  

When Sergio Fajardo was elected mayor of Medellin in 2004, the rate of killings was 57 per 100.000 inhabitants. When he left in 2007 the rate was 26. Besieged by narcotraffic, paramilitaries, leftist militias, criminal gangs and dire poverty, Medellin was one of the most violent cities in the world, a situation that coincided with the demobilisation of hundreds of paramilitaries as a result of a very controversial peace agreement negotiated by President Uribe. Nevertheless, advances in security were accompanied by the speedy introduction of social programmes and the creation of opportunities for youngsters. 

This capacity for dealing with the huge challenge of violence, as well as for delivering on big projects and introducing social programmes, are not the only achievements of the ex-mayors. More importantly, these brave men are all characterised by the rarest virtue in Colombian politics: honesty. Everyone can see their probity. The vast programme of construction and social projects carried out during their tenures was only possible because they did not take money. In addition, being independent, with a budget to spend, they did not have to pay politicians with contracts or jobs. Last April, Mockus accepted only half of the hundreds of thousands of pounds he had the right to receive from the Electoral Organisation to fund his presidential campaign. He explained that he wanted to run an austere campaign and that the money saved could be used to build schools.

Mockus’ manifesto statement ‘public resources are sacred’ commands credibility.  In a country plagued by corruption not only in politics, but in almost every aspect of everyday life, such an anti-politician - who has clean hands and claims that legality is precisely the way to pull the country out of its predicament – embodies the potential for a truthful revolution.

Colombia secured independence in the early nineteenth century, but respect for law and a culture of legality have never been robust. The traditional Liberal and Conservative parties, which have dominated the political scene for two centuries, have made little advance towards consolidating a modern democratic political culture. Double standards in the application of the law for poor and rich; quasi-dictatorships in which elected civil governments were subjected to the military; the rise of the traffic of drugs and the paramilitaries; and the deterioration of the armed conflict with all sides breaching the rules of war, have plunged Colombia into a culture in which all means are valid to obtain political or economic advantage.

In this polluted atmosphere governments, political parties, the army, police, guerrillas and large sections of society itself have fallen foul of the temptations of a quick buck or political advantage - no matter if this involves massacres, money stained by cocaine or stealing from the public treasury. This panorama has deteriorated further during Uribe’s presidency.


50 years fighting a guerrilla war have also corrupted FARC. A Marxist guerrilla force emerging out of small groups of peasants, FARC were born fighting for a socialist society and against US imperialism. But since their inception they adopted the Stalinist practices of their mentors. Militants, trade unionists, peasants and the indigenous who did not follow the line of thinking or action defined by commanders, or who were accused of collaborating with the army or CIA, were brutally punished. Over the last 23 years the guerrillas assassinated at least 140 trade unionists, according to CUT (the national federation of unions). The Colombian Commission of Jurists reported 60 indigenous killed by FARC between 2004 and 2008.

FARC also succumbed to the allure of big financial resources coming from taxing coca crops and later from trafficking. Narcotraffic provided the guerrillas with vast economic resources, allowing them more access to guns, and to pay militants salaries higher than the official minimum wage. They transformed kidnapping into a business with huge economic benefits, and into a strategy for political bargaining in the peace talks. They treat hostages and soldiers captured in combat with rank inhumanity. A number of them have died in captivity, or have been murdered or kept in the jungle for a long time – one soldier has been retained for more than 12 years.

When the IRA - and ETA according to a Spanish court - transferred bomb-making technology to them, FARC were able to plant explosives in small towns and cities. In one of the worst cases, in 2002, they attacked with a gas cylinder the church of the remote village of Bojaya, killing 125 people – among them 45 children. They had taken refuge there in the heat of a battle between guerrillas and paramilitaries. And in March this year guerrillas tricked a 12-year-old boy into taking a bag with explosives to a police station, and detonated the bomb using a mobile phone - killing the child and wounding eleven civilians and three policemen.

Mockus has already confronted the FARC. While in office as Bogota’s mayor, the guerrillas blew up the city’s electricity pylons and threatened to kill him. Mockus put on a foam waistcoat with a heart shaped hole on his chest, and ordered his bodyguards to lock their guns in a safe. FARC did not dare to make an attempt on his life. The challenge is now far greater. Mockus has already announced that, if elected, he will keep up the military pressure on the guerrillas and will not enter peace talks before FARC releases all those kidnapped, and renounces this practice.

The elections on May 30

Securing the majority of votes is not the only concern of Mockus’ supporters. A barrage of dirty tricks has been put in place by his opponents. President Uribe set the tone of the attacks when he referred to Mockus as ‘a disabled horse’, a few days after Mockus told the media he had been diagnosed with an incipient Parkinson condition. Santos showed his hand when he hired JJ Rendon, who is known for his lack of scruples in pursuing his business as the ‘king’ of negative political marketing in Latin America. One of JJ’s first ‘creative ideas’ was that of identifying Mockus with President Chavez in order to transfer the Colombian nationalist rejection of Chavez to Mockus.

Fraud is also threatening Mockus’ aspirations. Corruption in electoral processes is not a rare species in the jungle of Colombian politics. According to our species of magical realism, the dead can find themselves voting for the candidate of their dreams and votes are often cast in polling stations that never existed. The ‘parapolitics’ scandal has confirmed claims that paramilitaries forced entire communities to vote for a certain candidate in elections held since 2002.

Widespread irregularities in congressional elections last March have already been found, and the head of the Electoral Organisation has said that despite his efforts ‘there will be’ fraud in the presidential elections anyway. A criminal investigation is advancing into the hacking of computers handling the votes, the cause of some delay in the publication of results. When the Electoral Organisation was less quick than usual in reporting the final outcome, the Minister of the Interior rushed to question the legitimacy of the count.

Last, but not least, is the question of the security of Mockus, who is already under heavy protection after news of a plot to kill him emerged. Colombia has a track record of assassination of presidential candidates. During 1990’s presidential campaign, not one, but three candidates of centre and leftist parties were killed.

With the surge of support for Antanas Mockus, Colombia has recovered the hopes and dreams of a very different country, one without corruption and human rights abuses. Everything is being done by the Supreme Court, the Office of the Attorney General, the Electoral Organisation, NGOs, and Colombian society and citizens to fend off the long hand of fraud and the threat of murder. The Organisation of American States, United Nations and the European Union should assist these efforts to ensure the elections are not decided by sleaze, corruption or assassination.

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