The governor of La Guajira, Colombia's northernmost department, is accused of ties with neo-paramilitary criminal groups, suggesting deep-rooted corruption in an organized crime hotspot and demonstrating the potential for emergent criminal groups to infiltrate politics.
Various sources have linked Governor Juan Francisco "Kiko" Gomez Cerchar to the now-defunct paramilitary group the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and the neo-paramilitary organizations which the Colombian government calls “criminal bands” (BACRIM).
Prior to the 2011 elections, think-tank Nuevo Arco Iris stated that Gomez was backed by Marcos Figueroa, alias "Marquitos," a leader of a criminal band once based in Guajira which has since been largely absorbed by the Urabeños. A classified government report accused Gomez of ties to contraband, gasoline and drug trafficking, and stated that he formerly had contacts with the AUC’s Northern Bloc. Investigative news website Verdad Abierta claimed that Gomez was included in a group of local contraband bosses, with whom paramilitaries began power-sharing negotiations in 2001 as part of a strategy to gain control of the contraband market. One former paramilitary interviewed by Semana seconded these claims, stating that the governor assisted the AUC bloc led by Rodrigo Tovar, alias "Jorge 40."
Gomez also faces accusations that he was directly involved in the murders of two women from La Guajira in 2012, the first a former mayor, and the second the daughter of a leader of the Wayuu indigenous group. Both women were assassinated in 2012, and their mothers say that they had received prior death threats linked to Gomez, according to Semana.
One of the slain women, Yandra Brito Carrillo, had previously blamed Gomez for her husband’s murder in 2008, shortly after she finished a term as Gomez’s handpicked successor as mayor of the small town of Barrancas. Her suspected assassins, arrested in October 2012, had allegedly worked for the Rastrojos and the Urabeños.
The other murder victim, Martha Hernandez Sierra, was the ex-wife of another former governor of Guajira, and had herself been signaled by government officials as being a major player in an emerging criminal network in 2007.
Gomez has denied accusations of involvement in the homicides, dismissing them as a political farce and calling Hernandez a "criminal." In regard to his alleged links to Figueroa, the governor told Semana that the BACRIM leader is related to his wife. He denied having any contact with Figueroa beyond that.
InSight Crime Analysis
The homicide accusations against Gomez are not isolated accounts. Questions have been raised over his connections to the murders of other important local figures. One, killed in 1997, is that of former Barrancas town councilor Luis Lopez Peralta, who accused Gomez of setting fire to the mayor's office to burn evidence of irregularities. Another is the case of Fonseca Government Secretary Wilson Martinez, who accused Gomez of using government funds for personal expenses. He was murdered in 2001. One paramilitary who participated in Martinez’s assassination said the orders were given by Gomez.
Gomez's history is riddled with criminal connections and irregularities. He is a relative of Jorge Gnecco Cerchar, a businessman who was one of the earliest paramilitaries and worked with Salvatore Mancuso in Cesar department in 1996. Gomez was also allegedly a business partner of contraband czar Samuel Santander Lopesierra, alias the "Marlboro Man," extradited to the United States for cocaine trafficking. In 1991, Gomez briefly served time in prison on gun and cocaine possession charges, before beginning his political career as town councilor of Barrancas in 1992. In addition, the National Electoral Council accused Gomez of irregularities in the 2011 election process, fining him 20 million pesos for campaigning outside the legal three month term.
Government corruption and paramilitary ties -- known here as "parapolitics" -- run deep in Colombia. In 2000, Jorge 40 handpicked the candidates to run for office in the Magdalena Valley, and similar incidents occurred in the Eastern Plains and in Uraba. As of 2011, 103 officials elected between 1997 and 2010 were under investigation for allegedly receiving AUC support.
As InSight Crime has noted, the BACRIM are not seen as having the same ideological and political aims as their predecessors, being more interested in making a profit than gaining a political foothold. However, this does not mean that they have no need to develop ties with government officials; prior to Colombia's 2011 elections, InSight Crime projected that the BACRIM would likely play a significant role in supporting, co-opting, and forming alliances with politicians who would serve their drug trafficking, contraband and mining interests.
Neither is Gomez the only governor to have alleged ties to a BACRIM group. Former Guaviare Governor Oscar Lopez was sentenced in 2011 by the Supreme Court for political ties to the one-time head of the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC), Pedro Guerrero, alias "Cuchillo." Gomez’s case is the most prominent example of a sitting governor being accused of BACRIM ties since then.
The presence of organized crime in La Guajira reaches far back. Beginning in the late 1990s, the drug trade was controlled by the AUC, and following its demobilization in 2006, both street gangs and BACRIM vied for control of the trade. Arnulfo Sanchez Gonzalez, alias “Pablo”, set up what became the BACRIM of Alta Guajira, later controlled by his successor "Cobra" and now controlled by Marcos Figueroa. The Urabeños have a significant presence in the region, while the Paisas, Rastrojos, and possibly ERPAC have all at various times fought for control.
In addition, La Guajira's location as a key point for illegal activity in Colombia may help to explain the governor's alleged connections. The department flaunts a booming contraband industry -- gas, food, weapons -- with products smuggled from Venezuela, nourished by the scarcity of natural resources in the upper half of La Guajira. The region is also a key departure point for drug shipments headed to Venezuela and Caribbean islands. In addition, La Guajira has a great deal of money from coal, meaning organized crime has a special incentive to attempt to extort the local government budgets.
If Guajira's governor were to be formally charged, sent to trial and convicted, the case would be important in bringing to light the potential connections between government officials and the new generation BACRIM. It would also raise questions over what other governors and government higher-ups could be involved with the BACRIM, particularly in other departments that were traditionally AUC strongholds. Time will tell if this just an isolated case.