Colombia: Cutting the Link between Crime and Local Politics
25 July 2011: If the interference of criminal groups in local politics is not addressed, they could become even a bigger threat to Colombia’s local democracy and national security. Silke Pfeiffer, Colombia/Andes Project Director, examines the risks of political violence, electoral fraud and infiltration of criminal groups in the coming elections.
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Hello and welcome to this podcast from the International Crisis Group. I am Gabriela Keseberg Davalos, Senior Communications Officer, and with me on the line from Bogotá is Silke Pfeiffer, ICG Columbia/Andes Project Director. We will be talking about Crisis Group’s latest report on the departmental and municipal elections in Columbia that will be taking place in October this year.
Silke, why is Crisis Group taking a closer look at these elections?
Columbia has a long history of criminal infiltration of local government, which has been a major obstacle for conflict resolution in the country. What the report encounters is that, despite important changes, there are substantial risks that illegal armed groups will take advantage of these October elections to link up with segments of local elites in important parts of the country--and that if this elector process is not shielded against criminal infiltration, against corruption and against fraud, many parts of the country could be facing four more years of poor local government and also enduring violence.
How are the conditions for the elections?
The scenario for these elections is somewhat different. Some things have changed. The country has stronger rules in place to punish and control unlawful alliances between political and criminal actors. Secondly, the investigations of the Supreme Court into more than 120 members of Congress--members of the national Congress--for their alleged alliances with former paramilitary groups is sending a signal that the generalised impunity of these alliances is decreasing, although this is trickling down to the local level only very slowly and very unevenly across the country. Thirdly and very importantly, the country is dealing with new structures: new illegal armed groups that emerged after the paramilitary demobilization, which officially ended in 2006, but which maintained clear links with former paramilitary structures and which are rapidly evolving and for whom these elections will be the first opportunity to establish new links with part of the local economic and political elites, to confirm old links. Their behavior and their capacity to influence the electoral outcome will really be the big question mark in these elections.
What are the major risks and what needs to happen in order to guarantee safe and secure local elections?
Security remains the main concern. To date over 18 potential candidates have already been murdered in a campaign that hasn't even really started. The government has put interesting mechanisms and plans in place, but more needs to be done to protect candidates, to protect social activists and also local journalists against threats and against attacks from different criminal groups.
Secondly, the influx of illegal campaign money is likely to remain a major problem and an important channel through which these groups exert their influence, which is why the authorities need to mobilize all institutional resources to control, to prevent and to sanction these illegal flows of money.
The report lists a lot of other recommendations, but let me focus on this particular one, which goes slightly beyond the issue of criminal infiltration and has to do with the people that are internally displaced by the Colombian conflict--a highly vulnerable group. We are talking about four million people. The government needs to step up efforts to guarantee that these people can fully exercise their political rights in these elections. That’s particularly important in these elections, as the additional displacement that has been generated by the severe rainstorms that the country has been going through for the past year has exacerbated the problem.
Edited for Print