Alonso Salazar, the outgoing mayor of Medellin, has repeatedly accused a leading candidate in the upcoming elections of associating with criminal groups. However, such links are unfortunately dime-a-dozen in the Colombian city's politics.
As Colombia’s October 30 local elections approach and the Medellin mayoral race heats up, current Mayor Alonso Salazar has entered the fray. On October 7, his office alleged that independent mayoral contender Luis Perez maintains a network of supporters with the help of paramilitary groups.
Salazar claims that Perez’s campaign is being buoyed by the work of one Efrain Maldonado, alias “Don Efra,” a demobilized paramilitary of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). According to the mayor, Maldonado is “the boss of the whole paramilitary structure in the east central zone [of Medellin].” Maldonado, according to Salazar, uses his contacts among neighborhood gangs to drum up support for Perez throughout the city. As further proof of his claims, Salazar released photos apparently showing Perez in the company of Maldonado and other criminal bosses.
On October 26, Salazar’s chief of staff again made allegations about Perez’s criminal ties, claiming that his campaign was being supported by the two main branches of the Medellin mafia group, Oficina de Envigado. One of these is led by Erick Vargas Cardenas, alias "Sebastian," and the other by Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias "Valenciano.” As El Tiempo reports, the two are accused of using their influence to intimidate residents of neighborhoods they control into voting for Perez.
When the paper asked a local resident about the charges, they stated that only campaign posters of Perez were allowed to be displayed in their northwest Medellin neighborhood. “Here only one candidate campaigns: the one that ‘the boys’ [members of the local gang] chose,” the individual said. As InSight Crime has documented in its Colombia elections special, such collaboration between criminal groups and politicians is quite common in poor, urban areas, where the rule of law is weak and is frequently supplanted by the authority of street gangs.
Salazar’s accusations could not have come at a worse time for Perez. Although opinion surveys in early October showed Perez and his Liberal Party rival, Anibal Gaviria, in a near-tie with around 35 percent support, a recent survey by the Datexco polling firm reveals that Perez's backing fell by 17 points since the beginning of the month. Now he is third in the race, behind U Party candidate Federico Gutierrez.
But the mayor is paying for his outburst. In Colombia it is illegal for a sitting candidate to interfere in elections, and public prosecutors are currently investigating Salazar for violating this law. If convicted, he could be banned from holding public office for several years. Thus he is, in effect, committing political suicide to take down Perez.
Salazar himself has been the victim of this game previously, most infamously when former paramilitary commander and Oficina kingpin Diego Murillo Bejarano, alias “Don Berna,” claimed to have used his connections and wealth to support Salazar's campaign during the 2007 local elections. Perez, who had been Salazar’s main competitor in those elections, immediately jumped at the chance to take a swipe at his rival, calling for a full investigation into the matter.
While the allegations of corruption against Perez are disturbing, there may be more to the story than the current mayor’s devotion to good governance. If anything, it illustrates the double standards of Medellin politics, where links between candidates and criminal groups are commonplace and yet candidates routinely use them charge their opponents with corruption. Even the frontrunner, Gaviria, has acknowledged receiving financial support from a notorious Medellin gang leader and extortionist known as “El Cebollero,” although he denied having any knowledge of his criminal links.
This does not mean that Perez’s alleged paramilitary connections should not be taken any less seriously, but it does indicate that they are nothing out of the ordinary. In the end, they amount to politics as usual in a city that is known as a hotspot for criminal activity.