Colombian Mayor Investigated for Rastrojos Ties

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An attempt to prosecute a local mayor for ties to the Rastrojos drug gang highlights how Colombia’s criminal groups have evolved away from high-level political infiltration in favor of fostering local ties.

Prosecutor Luis Monsalve stated on August 13 that he would submit evidence this week to a municipal judge who will decide if there is enough evidence to charge Benjamin Palacios, the Liberal Party mayor for the Medio Baudo municipality. Palacios is accused of having ties to the Rastrojos, reported El Tiempo.

Two local farmers submitted testimony claiming they were threatened by Rastrojos members working with Palacios prior to October’s local elections. One of the men, Antonio Murillo, was a council candidate for the Cambio Radical party. He told investigators that the Rastrojos warned him to stop his campaign, and tortured him.

The second man, Jairo Ochito, claims that the Rastrojos threatened to kill him if he did not vote for Palacios. Ochito stated that the mayor is still working with the Rastrojos, adding, “I don’t know why the authorities don’t catch him.”

Murillo’s and Ochito’s allegations follow others made by one of the candidates opposing Palacios in the elections, Gilder Palacio Mosquera, who warned in February that the current administration in Medio Baudo might have been infiltrated by illegal armed groups. Another witness came forward last month stating that the Rastrojos intimidated voters into supporting Palacios, according to reports.

Palacios has denied the allegations.

InSight Crime Analysis

At least 41 local candidates were murdered and 87 threatened in the nine months leading up to October’s local elections, according to the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE). While criminal groups trying to influence electoral outcomes is nothing new in Colombia, the practice has evolved over the last decade.

Colombian cartels of the 1980s and early 1990s aimed at high-level political infiltration. Pablo Escobar was elected as a deputy representative to the House of Representatives in 1982, and the Cali Cartel provided some $6 million to fund the campaign of President Ernesto Samper (1994-98). Following this, umbrella paramilitary organization the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) cultivated alliances with politicians at the national level. This scandal later became known as “parapolitics” and saw senators, congressmen and governors charged for paramilitary ties.

Now, criminal groups known by the government as BACRIMs (“criminal bands”), appear to be concentrating their efforts on the local level. This is a product of two factors; firstly, the groups do not wield the same kind of influence as their predecessors did on the national political scene. And secondly, they realize that a policy of influencing local candidates draws less attention to their operations than going after major political players would.

The case against Palacios in Choco also highlights the geographical shift in Colombia’s criminal-political nexus. Last year, InSight Crime identified the Rastrojos as having been the most adept at fostering political ties, thereby bringing a greater level of criminal infiltration to Colombia’s Pacific. The AUC, for example, focused most of the attention on the northern provinces of Sucre, Bolivar and Cordoba.

In a display of their political power, the Rastrojos demanded that 74 local community leaders arrive at a meeting in Cumbitara, Nariño to be told which candidates to support in October’s elections, as La Silla Vacia reported. Those that didn’t come were killed or dismembered by the gang.

The fact that charges may be brought against Palacios is a promising sign for Colombia’s fight against corruption. Another advantage for criminal groups in targeting local candidates is that Colombia does not have the same resources to devote to cases against these politicians as to cases against members of Congress.

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