Colombia’s electoral calendar is crowded, with legislative and two rounds of presidential elections scheduled over the next three months. But politicians are not the only ones jockeying for position as the country’s criminal groups are also trying to be heard.
On March 5, police in Bogotá seized material to make explosives, with the capital’s police chief stating that this was likely related to threats made ahead of the electoral season by groups such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) or dissidents from the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). Colombia’s largest criminal threat has certainly made headlines in the run-up to elections.
From February 23 to 26, the ELN carried out a paro armado (a coordinated series of violent actions) across Colombia, blocking off highways, setting off explosions and burning vehicles, as well as leaving their flags across much of the country. While this was likely intended as a show of strength ahead of the vote, the ELN has also declared that it will hold a ceasefire on March 13, the day of legislative elections.
More broadly, Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Fundación Paz y Reconciliación -- PARES) has reported 163 victims of electoral violence since March 13, 2021. This translates to one government official, political candidate or pre-candidate, or political activist being killed, attacked or threatened every two days. To be sure, not all of these can be related to organized crime groups. But some are likely.
On February 23 and 24, three separate attacks were made on candidates from the Comunes party, created by former guerrillas after the demobilization of the FARC, leaving dead. The situation is so dire even the United Nations is concerned. In a statement on March 3, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said it was “preoccupied by the presence of armed criminal groups…and their negative impact on the security guarantees for the electoral process.”
Below, InSight Crime looks at five regions of Colombia, each with specific criminal dynamics, which are the most likely to suffer in the run-up to elections:
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In Cauca, the situation is so precarious and alarming in the run up to the elections, that in some municipalities to the north of the department, such as Buenos Aires and Caldono, where the presence of the Jaime Martínez Mobile Column is reported, it is impossible to guarantee the safety of the candidates looking to campaign there.
In Buenos Aires, the Mayor’s Office restricted campaign spaces almost entirely, due to a lack of security guarantees for citizens and candidates. In its most recent risk map, the Electoral Observation Mission (Misión de Observación Electoral - MOE) notes the constant harassment of security forces and aggressions against social and community leaders, constitute a risk factor for civilians and candidates in the run-up to the election.
So far in 2022, there have been three massacres and five social leaders have been killed.
The likelihood of further violence manifesting itself ahead of the upcoming elections is high. The MOE has warned that 31 out of 42 municipalities in Cauca are at high risk of violence. Many of these, including Argelia, El Tambo, Caloto and Santander de Quilichao are among the most violent in Colombia, given the large-scale presence of armed groups.
So far in 2022, Arauca has seen the highest levels of violence in Colombia. The department saw 61 homicides in January alone and, in February, Arauca suffered during a three-day paro armado (a coordinated series of violent events) by the ELN. The group attacked a police station in the Fortul municipality and ordered an important waterway between Colombia and Venezuela to be temporarily closed off.
These murders occurred amidst a dispute between the ELN's Domingo Laín Sáenz Front and the FARC's 10th and 28th dissident fronts. These fronts intend not only to wrest territory away from the ELN, but also to weaken the guerrilla's longtime political and social influence in the region.
One of the ways to do this, is by threatening, intimidating or killing any leader or politician that demonstrates an affinity towards the ELN. On February 3, a social leader in the town of Tame, Hernán Naranjo Quintero, was murdered, and four other political candidates were threatened that same month. The threats have heightened fears among candidates who are not traveling to rural areas to campaign.
This is on top of a serious humanitarian crisis in the department that could have dire consequences for the elections. There is a real fear among activists and candidates that they become increasingly vulnerable as the elections come closer, according to one expert. “Social, political and community leaders have been strongly discouraged from participating in politics because of the violence in the region,” Mauricio Vela, an election coordinator, told El Espectador. Likewise, locals fear they will be targeted if they try and exercise their right to vote.
Bajo Cauca, Antioquia
In mid-February, the Ombudsman's Office issued a statement in regards to this sub-region of Antioquia, stating that the local dispute between armed groups is directly related to the elections. The Urabeños and Los Caparrapos are present in this strategic drug trafficking region, both with large mining operations.
Both groups exert strong social and political control over the civilian population and have recently focused their efforts on intimidating political candidates. At the beginning of January, Los Caparrapos threatened several leaders of the Mining Board of Segovia and Remedios (Asociación Mesa Minera Segovia y Remedios) for their mining activity and due to several of its members supporting candidates in the peace seats.
Politically, the region has been influenced by illegal armed groups. Of the six local governments elected in Bajo Cauca in 2020, two of them raise concerns about potential corruption and relationships with criminal groups, El Espectador reported.
FARC dissidents are putting pressure on political candidates and the civilian population in Putumayo. According to El Tiempo, several candidates for the House of Representatives notified the authorities of armed groups prohibiting them from campaigning and pressuring citizens to vote in a particular way.
There is also evidence that dissent and criminal gangs are exerting pressure on Puerto Asis, Orito and Valle del Guamuez to prevent the population from participating in the next election, and, if so, to vote for a certain candidate.
Faced with the reports, the commander of Putumayo’s police, Colonel Roberto Marín, declared that the presence of the dissident groups the 48th Front and the Carolina Ramírez Front could primarily affect campaign activities on the border with Caquetá, i.e., the municipalities of Puerto Guzmán and Puerto Leguízamo.
Putumayo was under the influence of the FARC’s 48th Front, up until the Peace Accord was signed in 2016. However, since 2018, there has been a conflict between the two dissident groups of the former FARC. The 48th Front dissidence, allied with La Constru and with the Second Marquetalia, began a fight to the death against the Carolina Ramírez Front, an ally of Gentil Duarte.
Valle del Cauca
The violence also threatens electoral campaigns in Valle del Cauca. In mid-January, a businessman who was a member of a political movement reported being attacked by unknown persons after having participated in a public event. Likewise, a senator and congressional candidate also denounced vandalism against their political headquarters in Cali.
Instances of aggressions and threats are increasingly being denounced by candidates and political party members in the Valle del Cauca department, reports RCN Radio. In fact, between March 2021 and January 2022, Valle del Cauca saw the highest number of aggressions and acts of violence against candidates in Colombia, according to the MOE.
Additionally, in the rural area of Tuluá, in the center of the department, alleged dissidents of the Adán Izquierdo Column have raided and marked houses with insignia, politically proselytizing. It is still being investigated whether the armed men were actually part of the dissidence, but nevertheless, those behind these incidents are still seeking to influence the electoral processes in the coming months.
A variety of actors merge together in the Valle department, posing a risk to the population, candidates and the authenticity of the upcoming elections. The dissident Jaime Martínez and the Adán Izquierdo Column of the Western Coordinating Command are present there, as are the Popular Liberation Army (Ejercito Popular de Liberacion - EPL) and the Rastrojos.