Colombia’s Local Democracy Under Threat From Armed Actors
Colombia’s Local Democracy Under Threat From Armed Actors
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 2 minutes

Colombia’s Local Democracy Under Threat From Armed Actors

As Colombia readies itself for October’s departmental and municipal elections, local democracy in the country remains vulnerable to the infiltration of illegal armed actors. Deeply entrenched ties between criminals and politicians have long been a major obstacle to resolving Colombia’s decades-old armed conflict. Unless they are broken, Colombians are at risk of four more years of poor governance, entrenched corruption and enduring violence. More than 30,000 fighters from the paramilitary United Self Defence Forces of Colombia were demobilized during a three-year program that ended in 2006. Liberated from this paramilitary stranglehold, and with guerrilla forces increasingly weakened, this had sparked hopes that local democracy could finally breathe more freely.

However, while threats to local democracy have weakened, they have not disappeared. Powerful new illegal armed groups have emerged to fill the void left by the paramilitaries. While the government insists the new groups are merely criminals, they have substantially recruited among mid-level paramilitary leaders, and they have often inherited their control over drug-production zones and trafficking routes.

How these groups — which the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos has admitted is the number one public security threat –will attempt to influence the October elections remains an open question. Without a central command structure, they are unlikely to penetrate local politics as deeply as the paramilitaries who are thought to have had a hand in the election of several hundred mayors, two dozen departmental governors and at least 50 local councillors over the years.

Some armed groups will be content with simple back-room political deals that will guarantee their impunity, access to information and freedom of action. But others are rapidly evolving into more robust networks and engaging in activities that require political sway.  High levels of social control and deep distrust towards unresponsive local state institutions often stymie efforts to dismantle those structures.  Moreover, accelerating government efforts to return stolen land to victims of the conflict might facilitate their interference, possibly driving alliances in defence of the status quo between some segments of the local economic elites and criminals.

Impunity for links between politicians and illegal armed groups is decreasing at the higher political levels. The judiciary has sent over twenty members of Congress and at least seven departmental governors to prison. But these investigations have been slow to reach local politics because local judicial institutions often lack the necessary independence. And several politicians sentenced for links to illegal groups have reacted by promoting close relatives or other proxies. As new sanctions for criminal ties are about to take effect, political parties may hedge their bets more carefully. But even if refused a party endorsement, many of those proxies could still run as independents and potentially perpetuate local control.

Meanwhile, guerrilla violence has not abated, compounding the issue, although the rebels are losing ground. In at least one region, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group, has declared candidates legitimate targets and ramped up violence in its strongholds. Increasingly cornered by a sustained military offensive, the guerrillas apparently want to use the electoral period to prove they are not yet impotent. In the past, FARC have been the major source of electoral violence, but not the only one. Violence from drug traffickers and paramilitary successors also threatens candidates. Even before the start of the electoral campaign, nineteen prospective candidates had been killed by mid-July, suggesting that a decade-old trend of diminishing electoral violence could be reversed.

The Santos government has raised hopes for freer, safer and more competitive elections by acknowledging the threat posed by the new illegal armed groups, and by the early deployment electoral safeguards. But it must go further to avoid more bloodshed. The government needs to review the criteria to identify security threats, increase protection of candidates and use all of its institutional muscle to prevent the influx of illegal campaign money. A failure to mitigate these risks will extend the vicious circle of conflict and corruption in which many Colombian municipalities remain trapped.

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