The Evolution of Criminal Influence in Colombia’s Local Elections

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The run-up to Colombia’s local elections on Sunday has seen a drop in political violence compared to previous campaigns, but election monitors warn the influence of armed groups and mafia networks over politics in the country has far from disappeared.

Colombia’s Electoral Observation Mission (MOE) has recorded 161 violent acts against candidates in the elections for Colombia’s local governors, mayors and councils on October 25, including six murders and a disappearance.

The electoral mission found that violence has been directed towards a range of political parties. Candidates from the Liberal Party have been the most frequent victims of political violence accounting for 14 percent of all attacks, followed by the Centro Democratico (12 percent) and the U Party (10 percent).

However, illegal armed actors are present in just one-third of the 99 municipalities where political violence has occurred. This indicates that much of the election violence is related to political disputes rather than illegal armed actors, says the MOE.

“Violent events have a greater relation to high levels of polarization among the political groups and/or blocs that are competing for local power than to illegal armed groups (guerrillas and BACRIM),” states a recent MOE press release, using the Spanish acronym for neo-paramilitary groups known in Colombia as “bandas criminales” or “criminal bands.”

Nevertheless, the MOE warned that illegal armed groups have a “special interest” in controlling areas that lie along important drug trafficking and contraband smuggling routes, such as parts of Valle del Cauca, Norte de Santander, and the country’s Pacific coast. 

Although the MOE recorded a similar number of violent acts — 159 — before Colombia’s last local elections in 2011, this year’s figures mark a significant drop in the number of murders, with 41 political candidates and nominees murdered in the nine months before the last elections. 

InSight Crime Analysis

On the surface, the relatively low level of violence linked to illegal armed actors would suggest these groups are losing influence in Colombia’s political process. And to some extent, that is certainly true.

For decades, criminal groups have managed to infiltrate the political realm in Colombia, sometimes in ostentatious ways. The most flagrant attempt to gain influence came from Colombia’s most notorious drug lord, Pablo Escobar, who in 1982 was elected to the Colombian Congress as an alternate. However, arguably the most political power any underworld network has accrued came in the early 2000s, when the paramilitary group the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) secured political influence everywhere from village councils to the president’s office and — by their own claims — counted over a third of congress as allies and supporters.

In comparison, there is little doubt that today’s underworld networks do not hold anywhere near as much sway. However, the drop in electoral violence does not necessarily suggest criminal groups have lost their influence altogether. 

“To say that nowadays illegal groups do not have influence is untrue,” German Robayo, deputy coordinator for the Political Observatory at MOE, told InSight Crime. “What is happening is that the influence is less visible.” 

According to Robayo, in some cases criminal groups have become integrated into the local political coalitions, ensuring their interests are protected without having to resort to violence. 

“It can be seen that these groups are now part of the political blocs that do not need to exert pressure [through] violence,” Robayo said. This has made it very difficult to measure the effect these criminal groups are having on the elections, Robayo added. 

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The blending of criminal and political actors also makes investigating these nefarious links extremely difficult, and Robayo stated that illegal campaign financing is a major area of concern for the MOE.

Further complicating the picture is the changing nature of how criminal groups choose which politicians to support — or target. The Colombian underworld has undergone a transformation, and small, decentralized criminal groups have replaced the large, hierarchical networks that once maintained a national reach. Unlike their predecessors, these smaller criminal outfits are unlikely to have a political agenda that extends beyond the local level.

“Now, you don’t see the influence… throughout the national territory, but rather in certain zones,” Robayo said. 

This also appears to be the case for Colombia’s insurgent guerrilla groups. InSight Crime field work recently conducted in the northwest region of Uraba and the Caribbean coast department of Cordoba revealed Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have been backing local candidates from a number of competing political parties, suggesting their political interventions are based on local conditions rather than ideological perspectives.

All of this is to suggest that the murky world of political-criminal dealings in Colombia may be getting less violent but it is also getting more insidious, and the influence of the underworld on local politics isn’t going away anytime soon.  

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