How Decentralizing Political Power Strengthened Colombia Crime Groups

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A pair of recent reports highlights how Colombia’s government decentralization process over the past 30 years has facilitated the incursion of organized crime into local politics, and how this development has generated ongoing problems.

The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime and the International Institute for the Democracy and Electoral Assistance have published two reports exploring the impact of organized crime on democracy and public service delivery, with Colombia as one of the key case studies.

The studies found that the government decentralization process set in motion in the 1980s and consolidated in the 1991 constitution essentially opened door for illegal groups to tap into state resources on a local level.

A number of reforms were involved in handing authority and power from Bogotá to local administrations. Mayors were first appointed by public vote in 1988. Before then, they were selected by state governors, and the highest local offices largely obeyed a clientelist system.

Additionally, the 1991 constitution allowed regions and municipalities to manage resources and delivery of public services, establish and collect taxes, and receive a share of the national budget. Today, nearly half of all national revenues are distributed to local governments.

But these shifts had mixed results. On one hand, some local authorities grew in efficiency, and social spending increased relative to national revenue. However, some isolated, conflict-ridden areas afflicted by corruption and a lack of basic capacities were negatively affected. Many were unable to adapt to the new system and saw their institutions weakened. This deterioration was exacerbated by an escalation in Colombia’s internal conflict in the early 1990s — one largely funded by narcotics trafficking.

As localities adjusted to the reforms, “regional authoritarianism” emerged in certain regions, with specific actors establishing their power through a network of collaborators. Within this system, illegal groups often served as an armed branch for local elites.

The report provides an example from Cesar department, where local politicians joined forces with paramilitary units to exterminate grassroots movements and consolidate power during the decentralization process. In turn, the irregular armies benefitted by taking control of local drug trafficking activities.

The use of violence to influence local politics saw 554 public officials reportedly killed between 1998 and 2002.

As a result, illegal groups became a potent political force. Following the 2015 local elections, nearly one in three governors’ offices and nearly one in seven mayors’ offices came under investigation for various suspected crimes, including ties to paramilitaries, drug traffickers and other criminal groups.

Perhaps the clearest case study in this respect is the infamous “parapolitics” scandal that began unfolding in the 2000s, which saw dozens of politicians convicted due to their links to the notorious United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) paramilitary umbrella organization. The phenomenon is mainly associated with the administration of former President Álvaro Uribe (2002 – 2010). The reports cite estimates that in 2002, 34 percent of Colombia’s House of Representatives and a further 25 percent of the Senate was elected with help from paramilitary groups.

According to the joint publication, “parapolitics” was facilitated by the poor internal control mechanisms of parties, and the reliance of national-level politicians on local influence to gain votes.

In response, the government began implementing reforms aimed at punishing collusion between crime and politics, and at improving the accountability of political organizations. Among the main strategies — implemented by the Political Parties Law 1475 in 2011 — were tools to help parties vet their candidates, and commissions to prevent illegal campaign financing and threats to security during elections.

Such commissions were meant to bring together both political and civil society representatives. But a 2011 evaluation of these reforms by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) found various flaws, including the inability of electoral transparency units to follow up on claims, and a lack of focus on structural political deficiencies.

Another consequence of the decentralization process was the emergence of “armed clientelism,” by which illegal groups obtained public contracts and other resources through violent threats. Royalties from gold, coal, oil and emeralds, for example, were diverted to corrupt politicians and their criminal allies. Other areas saw guerrillas and paramilitaries write “recommendation letters” to local officials on behalf of contractors, for a fee of 5 to 10 percent of the contract’s value. Illegal groups have also been known to influence the appointment of top-ranking public officials in return for being allocated a share of the proceeds from public contracts.

Again, the state has responded to these issues with legal mechanisms. For example, the 2012 National Royalties Law increased the national government’s role in allocating royalties across Colombia’s regions — a reform that contradicted the aims of the decentralization project.

With organized crime targeting journalists, human rights defenders and other actors working to expose corrupt politicians, Colombia’s accountability mechanisms have suffered, the reports argue. Adding to these threats are the “symbiotic relations” evidenced between the justice sector, local councils and illegal organizations.

According to the reports, this dangerous mix of private and criminal interests and a lack of accountability has compromised the delivery of public services to communities.

InSight Crime Analysis

It is evident that over the last 30 years, criminal interests have taken advantage of Colombia’s decentralization process to empower themselves at a local level, despite state efforts to counteract this trend. Today, a combination of guerrilla groups, drug trafficking organizations, groups of contractors and powerful regional elites continue to siphon state money away from civilians and into their own pockets.

Other studies have reflected this dynamic. A recent publication by political expert Javier Duque Daza calculated that more than half of the 283 governors elected or designated between 1992 — immediately following the first public election of governors — and 2014 have been imprisoned, suspended or fired from office. Contracting irregularities are the main violations implicating current governors and mayors.

Local corruption has been allowed to flourish at least partly due to the tendency of political parties to turn a blind eye to judicial proceedings against their candidates. Prominent examples of this can be readily found in the current government. Governor of Valle del Cauca department Dilian Francisca Toro was investigated by the Supreme Court in 2008 for parapolitics and, four years later, for money laundering. A senator at the time, Toro was arrested and resigned from her post, but was freed not long after. Despite the ongoing investigations against her, in 2015 the Social Party of National Unity (Partido Social de Unidad Nacional) threw its support behind Toro’s candidacy for governor, which she won with over a third of the vote.

While the links between organized crime, corruption and institutions have, as the report states, been tackled by the national government, the results have not yet been significant.

“There have been so many laws [passed] in the past two decades, yet corruption is stronger now than it was two decades ago,” Duque Daza told InSight Crime.

Partly to blame could be the fact that the co-option of state authority by powerful groups predates the decentralization process. As lawyer and political expert Javier Revelo told InSight Crime, the problem of corruption was not caused by decentralization itself but by the private interests that had long dominated regional politics, and which were strengthened by the shift in power.

“To suggest that decentralization is the cause of corruption is to assume that institutions have a great power to mold reality, which is pretty debatable in a country like ours,” Revelo wrote in an email to InSight Crime.

Perhaps for this reason, initiatives like the new royalties law have met some of the same problems as always. A 2015 evaluation of the system by the Comptroller’s Office states that while there has been progress against the misuse of funds, “the problems of transparency…continue to be high” (pdf). The system has generated strong concerns, with the administrating bodies continuing to distribute funds to questionable projects.

Duque Daza does not believe that the royalty initiative has truly tackled corruption.

“However much you regulate the transfer of resources, if there is no accountability [or] effective institutions, resources will end up getting appropriated illegally, because criminality learns…at an accelerated pace,” he said.

The political expert also argues that that local government control institutions, such as the Comptroller’s Office, are badly designed. And in most cases, punishment for corruption prevails over prevention.

Tackling the core of the problem would mean rethinking the entire decentralization process, he believes.

There needs to be “more state,” Duque Daza told InSight Crime. “A state capable of imposing itself upon criminal actors, with legislation, with coercive actions, with incentives for those who are efficient in managing resources.”

Revelo believes that the most important step in weakening the local power of criminal groups would be to clean up the electoral process.

Colombia needs to “stop money and influence from being determining factors in elections,” he explained. “It’s a titanic task, but it’s necessary to rethink campaign financing rules and strengthen the control of electoral authorities. [But] the fact that electoral authorities depend on political parties doesn’t allow the law to prevail.”

Still, Revelo argues that infiltration of local government by armed groups has declined “not because the state has done anything to stop it, but because the dynamics of the war have changed.”

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