Colombia has gone from a peaceful election in 2018 to a violent electoral process in 2022, with the increase in violence explained in part by the ongoing reconfiguration of criminal groups in the aftermath of the historic peace agreement.
Amid great anticipation, Colombia will either elect a new president on May 29 or choose the candidates who will go on to a second round of elections in June. According to the most recent report published by the Electoral Observation Mission (Misión de Observación Electoral - MOE), the 2022 presidential and legislative elections have so far been the most violent in the country in 12 years. The organization determined that, in comparison to 2018, there was a 109 percent increase in acts of violence in this pre-electoral period.
The actions of illegal armed actors have contributed to the deterioration of the security situation. At least one criminal group maintains a presence in 59 percent of the municipalities where election-related violence has occurred, according to El Tiempo.
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The Urabeños, the heirs of the country's paramilitary groups, and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), are behind the violence in at least six of the country’s 32 departments. The three departments most affected are Cauca, Nariño and Chocó, according to the Ombudsman's Office, all key territories for organized crime.
This panorama is completely opposite to that of the 2018 elections. In just four years, these groups have managed to grow economically and militarily following the signing of a peace agreement between the now-defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) and the national government in 2016.
Colombia is going through “a context of reconfiguration of this conflict, characterized by the consolidation of multiple illegal armed groups, that have taken advantage of the vacuum left behind by the extinct FARC guerrillas and the inability of the state to occupy territories,” said Alejandra Barrios, director of the MOE.
A number of FARC dissident groups have further complicated the fragmentation of organized crime in the country, and the resurgence of violence. Ahead of one of the most important elections in Colombian history, some criminal groups have used their resources to influence the country's future.
Below, InSight Crime analyzes the actions of Colombia’s main armed groups.
The ELN's Cease-Fire
Although its participation in criminal economies such as drug trafficking and illegal mining has weakened the political discourse of Colombia's last-standing guerrilla, the ELN is still interested in participating in the country's political agenda.
For the May 29 elections, the group announced a unilateral ceasefire, which can be interpreted as a peace offering for the next government and a show of willingness to engage in dialogue. However, when analyzing the group's actions, some contradictions arise.
First, ELN commander Eliécer Erlinto Chamorro Acosta, alias “Antonio García,” stated on his Twitter account that the guerrilla reserves the right to defend themselves if attacked. “The ball is in the new president’s court,” García added.
Second, recent history has demonstrated that there are divergent positions within the ELN regarding possible peace talks. One reason that could explain the lack of interest in possible peace talks, according to La Silla Vacía, is the group’s growing economic and military strength.
Third, as indicated by the Ombudsman’s Office's February 2022 alert, in territories where an illegal group has hegemonic control, intimidating messages are generated to influence the election or financially support candidates.
Finally, the guerrillas continues to engage in territorial disputes throughout the country. In Chocó, for example, the group is battling the Urabeños, and in Cauca, they have clashed with FARC dissident groups. The constant armed battles and attacks in these territories make it difficult for the ELN to talk about a real ceasefire.
The Urabeños’ Criminal Campaign
Unlike the ELN's contradictory actions, the Urabeños have directly and actively participated in the 2022 elections.
The most recent demonstration was an armed strike that took place in May 2022. While this came following the extradition of the group's leader, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel," the Urabeños also took advantage of the opportunity to make its presence felt in the pre-election period.
Leonardo González, Projects Coordinator for the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz - INDEPAZ), found the group's action to be "staging in the middle of an electoral dispute to strengthen the discourse of fear, and in this way, to try to influence the elections."
Over the four-day armed strike, the Urabeños openly forbade campaigning for certain candidates and voting for them.
Additionally, “they are conducting meetings in rural settlements and villages and assure that they will be the ones who will impose security on election day,” a social leader in the Ovejas municipality of Sucre department told the news outlet La Marea.
The Urabeños indicated what their actions would look like in the context of the presidential election during the lead up to the legislative elections held on March 13. In February, the group threatened 28 political leaders and their families in the city of Barrancabermeja, El Tiempo reported. The leaders were given 48 hours to leave the territory, or risk being killed.
The group also sowed terror in Montes de María, a subregion that consists of 15 municipalities in the departments of Sucre and Bolívar. Community members there reported targeted killings and electoral indoctrination meetings, El Tiempo reported.
While the Urabeños' actions could be interpreted as part of a political agenda, the armed group is focused on criminal incomes. The areas in which the paramilitaries have positioned themselves in the context of the elections coincide with key territories for drug trafficking and illegal mining.
The Ex-FARC Mafia’s Silence
Unlike the ELN and Urabeños, it appears the FARC dissidents are not as interested in influencing the presidential elections. Rather, they are focused on maintaining territorial control and profiting from drug trafficking.
During the FARC-era, influencing national politics was a priority. Today, the former strongholds of the extinct guerrilla group reflect a radical change, as dissident structures are now more focused on controlling illicit crops and drug trafficking routes.
In the department of Putumayo, for example, a local journalist told InSight Crime that “the dissidents are not influencing the vote. The conflict lies solely and exclusively in what the territory has to do with drug trafficking.”
This contrasts greatly with what was seen during the last local elections in 2019, in which different dissident factions threatened and assassinated candidates throughout the country. This suggests that the dissidents did at one point have an interest in retaining and controlling their local political allies, who are not only within their reach, but are also indispensable for conducting their criminal activities in the territories where they maintain a presence.
*Camila Montoya contributed to this article.