Although Colombia’s regional elections, held on October 29, were more peaceful than those held four years ago, they showed that organized crime continues to be a severe threat to electoral proceedings.
In these elections, Colombians voted for their local and departmental representatives, including mayors and governors, for the period 2024-2026. While the results were mixed, right-wing parties claimed several important victories, leaving President Gustavo Petro’s leftist government with few allies at the regional level.
This will likely influence the government’s Total Peace plan, which seeks to negotiate with armed groups across the country, as several prominent critics of this policy were elected.
While most of the elections took place without public disturbance, attacks on polling stations were reported in Norte de Santander, Cauca, and parts of the Caribbean coast.
InSight Crime presents three conclusions on the role organized crime played in these elections:
No Interference by Armed Groups on the Day
In 2023, the elections saw an absence of violence by criminal groups in the electoral scenario. Armed groups such as the Central General Staff (Estado Mayor Central – EMC) of the ex-FARC Mafia, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC) were not behind any violent acts during the polls.
The government’s current ceasefires with the ELN and the EMC, achieved through Total Peace talks, as well as the patchy presence of the AGC, played an important part, according to Diego Rubiano, a senior analyst for the Electoral Observation Mission (Misión de Observación Electoral – MOE).
“Since 2014-2015, we always had an action by an armed actor. There was always the detonation of an explosive device or a frontal attack on a polling station. This year, we didn’t have a single incident,” he said.
The few disturbances at polling stations did not appear to have any links to armed groups.
The elections were canceled in some municipalities of the southern departments of Putumayo and Nariño due to the perceived risks of violent attacks. Other events also overshadowed proceedings. Supporters of a mayoral candidate in La Gamarra, Cesar, set fire to an electoral office building, killing one official, identified as Duperly Arévalo Carrascal. And in Argelia, Cauca, demonstrators angry with the voting results set fire to electoral materials.
Other irregularities were also registered. The amount of cash seized nationwide by authorities on the day for allegedly being used for electoral corruption skyrocketed by 289% over the last polls to reach 1.2 billion pesos ($300,000). The mayor of Yondó in Antioquia, Fabián Echavarría Rangel, was arrested after being caught with 150 million pesos ($37,000) in his van.
In addition, 389 people were arrested, 189 for judicial records and 35 for crimes such as the destruction of electoral material and obstructing the carrying out of the elections.
Political Violence Rose During Campaign
Although election day was calm, the previous months saw an increase in political violence.
According to the MOE, between October 29, 2022 and September 29, 2023, violence against political leaders increased by 92% compared to 2019, although violence against social leaders decreased by 15.6%. At least 28 political candidates were killed.
“There is a change in the strategy of political participation [of the armed groups],” Rubiano commented, adding that they are seeking to “take advantage of the electoral process.”
The MOE recorded 1,352 violent incidents related to armed groups over this period, an increase of 129% compared to the 2019 regional elections and 66% higher than during the 2022 presidential elections. For its part, between January and September 2023, the Ombudsman’s Office recorded at least 375 acts of violence, including threats, attacks and homicides, allegedly perpetrated by armed groups such as the ex-FARC mafia (56 acts), the AGC (54) and the ELN (44). Attacks on local authorities led to at least 12 mayors having to govern outside their municipalities from somewhere else due to threats from armed groups.
“This violence…occurs much more at the beginning of the electoral calendar, where we begin to see problems with registering people, complaints that [groups are extorting candidates] to let them campaign or to be able to mobilize,” said Mauricio Vela, coordinator of the MOE’s Political and Electoral Observatory of Democracy.
The departments of Cauca, Nariño, Valle del Cauca and Antioquia were the most affected by violence against political and social leaders.
Local Elections Remain Important to Organized Crime
Although the violence was not attributable to criminal groups, InSight Crime was able to collect testimonies in departments such as Norte de Santander, Chocó and Cauca that show the interference of these groups in the elections.
Criminal groups in the country continued to unduly influence elections by extorting candidates and telling local communities who to vote for.
“Every political actor has to go and talk to the guerrillas in order to be able to work, campaign and everything. They are very strict about buying votes,” a social leader in Guapi, Cauca, told InSight Crime before the elections.
In Hacarí, Norte de Santander, ELN members blocked voters for one mayoral candidate, and in Bolívar, alleged AGC members intimidated voters in the municipality of San Jacinto del Cauca, according to a statement from the Ombudsman’s Office.
For decades, municipal budgets have been a source of income for armed groups, who extort money from officials and contractors. In addition, Colombia’s current coca price crisis has forced the groups to further diversify their criminal portfolios, giving more weight to illicit economies such as extortion.
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