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Colombia’s Elections: Assassinations, presidential death squads, fraud and a fragile peace process under threat

Anti-establishment and corruption candidate and former M-19 guerrilla member, Gustavo Petro

Next week Colombia, goes to the polls in one of the most pivotal and closely fought elections in decades. This election will now take place under the watch of EU monitors as an escalating fraud scandal develops surrounding the recent congressional elections. The two frontrunners are starkly contrasted, as are the potential outcomes for Colombia and the entire Latin American region. The election has been notable for the massive popularity of (and an assassination attempt on) leftist anti-establishment and charismatic anti-corruption candidate Gustavo Petro. It has also seen the opening of a Supreme Court murder investigation against former hard-right President Álvaro Uribe Vélez over his alleged role in war crimes committed by paramilitary death squads. It has seen major revelations over corruption and the extent of the state and military involvement in atrocities in Colombia’s long running civil war and in Cocaine trafficking. Meanwhile, the fragile year-old peace process is on the verge of collapse. However, despite all this, the right-wing candidate Ivan Duque, close ally and ordained political heir of Uribe, leads in the polls one week out. The results of a victory for Duque could be catastrophic, not only for the continued progress of this nation and the peace process, but for the wider geopolitical stability of Latin America.

Why Colombia’s Elections Matter

With 49 million people, Colombia is the third-most populous country in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico. However, due to its central geographical position, and central role in the ‘Bolivarian’ Latin American independence movement, Colombia has always held a historical leadership role in the region. The 30 year long civil war that claimed at least 220,000 lives, displaced nearly six million people, and resulted in 27,000 kidnappings and 25,000 disappearances has slowly started to wind down. This is largely due to the more stable rule and more amenable attitude towards the legitimate calls for justice by the communist insurgency of FARC since Uribe left office. The historic peace accord between the FARC guerillas and the government in 2016 was brokered by centre-right president (since 2010) and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Juan Manuel Santos. This deal promised great things for stability and peace in the region and the war was significantly de-escalated as a result. Business confidence was finally growing again in Colombia, and the nation was on track to becoming a regional powerhouse once again.

A Fragile Peace

However, with the increasing influence of the USA over the years and decades of neoliberal rule, the prosperity of Colombia has not reached far outside the wealthy upper echelons, mostly in the main cities of Bogota and Medellin. Furthermore, the Peace process is now near to falling apart. Santos’ government has been accused of failing to deliver on its end of the bargain to rejuvenate rural areas with upgrades to infrastructure, health, education and agriculture and create real transitional opportunities for ex-combatants.

In the first year of the process, the government executed less than 20% of the agreements made with the guerrillas and there have been allegations of corruption and missing funds within the project. The media and right-wing politicians, meanwhile have seized on this faltering of the peace process to fuel the fire of opposition to the peace process and garner votes for their more hard-line approach towards FARC. The reality is, that Colombia’s institutions and state was never up to the undertaking of delivering this ambitious programme. However, ironically, this failure was also likely created or at least exacerbated by these same right-wing political and media players’ opposition to any real steps to enable more investment in the regions and in transitional initiatives.

Most problematic of all, the demobilisation of FARC the failure of the government to provide new opportunities or security has simply created a power vacuum. This has allowed right-wing paramilitaries, drug cartels and splinter communist groups outside of the peace process to consolidate their grip over the lucrative drug growing and smuggling operations. This has all led to a dramatic spike in violence in many areas. For all their faults, the FARC and other communist groups, did in many cases actually protect poor indigenous rural communities from exploitation and violence. Disturbingly, their demobilisation has also seen a rise in neoliberal land and resource grabs and in murders of human rights and environmental activists who oppose the new groups. New research by NGOs suggests that the killing of human rights activists doubled this year.

Petro - Colombia’s Sanders

Gustavo Petro seeks to change this situation if elected and has run a fearless campaign based on the need to address corruption, address the past injustices and create a more socially equal society by developing new sustainable opportunities in the impoverished regions and barrios. Petro is also environmentally radical and is vocal about the need to adapt to the threat of global warming despite the fact that Colombia is an oil exporting country with a major industry vested in this activity. This message is clearly resonating with many Colombians who have been left out of the progress made by the county over the past decades of neoliberal rule. Like Bernie Sanders he is a rockstar politician capable of pulling huge audiences of tens of thousands at his stadium rallies.

A crowd at Petro’s recent rally in Bogota. Photo: Colombia Reports

This is perhaps because Petro is speaking the peoples’ language and finally confronting issues many Colombians have talked about for years, but few have broached in public and lived to tell the tale. These issues include widespread political corruption, the failure of the war on drugs and the State’s complicity in war crimes and social inequality. His popularity is unprecedented for such a progressive politician in Colombia - where many left-leaning politicians have been assassinated. In fact, he has already survived one serious assassination attempt on the campaign trail, after a bullet missed his head by inches while traveling in an armored vehicle.

However, also much like Sanders, perhaps more damaging has been the character assassination he has suffered at the hands of the Colombian media and the establishment left - both of which refuse to let him win. Sitting President Santos has refused to endorse Petro and instead favours his handpicked centre-right candidate, German Vargas. This has essentially split the possible vote and looks likely to gift the hard right-wing candidate Duque the election.

The Colombian media is notoriously biased and has long been controlled by the country’s wealthy elite ruling cabal who set the agenda rigidly. It is clear Petro’s policies present a real threat to this powerful group that has kept a tight rein on Colombia’s political process for decades. The media has unfairly and completely without basis maligned Petro alternately as an Satanist (for respecting indigenous traditions) or mostly as a communist and the next Maduro and seeking to collapse Colombia’s economy back to the stone ages. This scaremongering seems to be succeeding as he is now trailing in the polls.

As a recent reuters article puts it: "Opposition to the FARC accord, as too lenient on the former guerrillas, remains a vote-winner for the right and Duque has promised to modify the deal if he wins office. The spectacle of neighboring Venezuela sinking into deep economic crisis under a Socialist government has also allowed him to argue that a leftist victory would spell disaster."

However, in reality, on the regional Geopolitical level, Petro is not seeking to turn Colombia into another Venezuela. Rather he has stated is seeking to forge a new era in progressive Latin American progressive politics. As this excellent interview with Petro in The Nation details Petro seeks to build a new left for Latin America and move away from the traditional Havana-Caracas-Buenos Aires-Managua axis.

“You can see a new axis forming, belonging to a new progressivism: Mexico City-Bogotá-Sao Paulo, maybe Lima, depending on what happens after the crisis. That axis would be different, and part of this will depend on me, if we can achieve this in Colombia. It will be an axis that sees the transformations of Latin America toward a productive economy, and not one based the extraction of resources.”

Electoral fraud, murder investigations, corruption and the threats to the peace process

Colombia’s former president Alvaro Uribe is under investigation by the Supreme Court for murder. Photo: Colombia reports

Recent legislative elections in the two-tier Colombian system saw a poor result for the left overall, leading to a right-wing controlled congress with a majority opposed to the peace process. These elections are now subject to mounting allegations of fraud involving Santos and his candidate German Vargas by an NGO. Petro has called on his supporters to “defeat the fraud of Santos and the Registrar to favour candidate Vargas.”

The danger is, if the hard-line right candidate of Duque wins the presidential elections, this could spell the end the delicate peace process, plunging Colombia back into fully fledged civil war. Duque’s patron, former president Uribe was an outspoken opponent of the peace process from the beginning, leading the ‘No’ campaign in the referendum on the issue and was responsible for scaremongering and spreading misinformation about the deal with the assistance of a compliant Media.

The reason for Uribe’s vehement opposition to peace is now becoming clearer, as the Truth and Reconciliation aspects of the peace process are unearthing some interesting revelations from former paramilitary members. As a result of these testimonies Uribe is currently under investigation by the Colombian Supreme Court for murder over his long alleged ties to paramilitary death squads responsible for war crimes in the civil war.

Most people on the ground have long held such views, however the evidence has actually led now to these investigations of claims and evidence indicating that Uribe helped form the Bloque Metro paramilitary group while he was governor of the Antioquia province in the 1990s. One of the main challenges of the investigation is keeping the witnesses against Uribe alive, as at least two witnesses to this inquiry have already been murdered and the last remaining witness has survived two attempts on his life.

As Petro himself says:

“How complicit was the state in the country’s genocide? A few specific politicians are particularly responsible. One of them, in my opinion, is Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who is the politician most responsible for the expansion of paramilitarism, an instrument used for political power, for drug trafficking, and for genocide in Colombia—much more so than the guerrillas.”

This last comment is shocking, but sadly accurate. While much press domestically and internationally was given to atrocities committed by FARC guerrillas in the civil war, newly emerging evidence suggests that the CIA and right wing politician-backed militias such as the AUC and the military themselves were responsible for far more civilian deaths that the FARC.

The State role in war atrocities

The False positives scandal emerged in 2008 implicating high level Colombian Military Generals in murder of innocent civilians to up their body counts to make it appear they were winning in the war against FARC and receive US funding for the war effort. However, The Guardian recently reported that a new study indicates the scale of this scandal was much larger than previously reported. According to the authors, approximately 10,000 civilians were executed by the army between 2002 and 2010 – more than three times the number tallied by human rights groups.

More revelations from the truth and reconciliation testimonies from one of the paramilitaries’ most important political chiefs, also suggest that far-right death squads controlled approximately half of Colombia’s congress in the early 2000s. Even The AUC’s former ideologue Ivan Roberto Duque, has criticised the Colombian media and judicial system for failing to follow up on the “1,500 hours of testimonies” of demobilized members of the AUC (Paramilitary death squad) in which they identify businessmen and members of the military that allegedly participated in the mass victimization of civilians. Duque said he had “no doubt” that paramilitary commanders influenced the presidential elections of 2002 in which Uribe was elected president.

However, Colombian human rights activists say the impunity to all of this is galling. While nearly 5,000 state agents have been implicated – mostly military – around 780 have been convicted. Not a single general has been convicted. Furthermore, President Santos served as defense minister from 2006 until 2009, at the height of the “false positive” killings and neither he nor predecessor Álvaro Uribe have been called to account over the scandal. The even larger issue is why the world does not know more about this and why the role of the USA and the CIA in this gruesome war has not been examined more closely. I find it hard to believe that the US agents involved in the war on drugs had no knowledge of these war crimes. Even if that was so, their funding of this war to prevent drugs rather than focusing on the demand in their own country is responsible for destroying Colombia as a nation.

The Failed war on drugs and the state role

Photo: Carlos Villalón's upcoming book, 'Coca: The Lost War,' follows the coca plant from the fields of Colombia to the murders of Mexico and beyond.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Colombia’s prosecution is investigating corruption in some of the country’s biggest ports after the arrest of a former defense ministry adviser who admitted to trafficking cocaine to Europe. The investigation alleges that multiple security officials in the Caribbean ports of Santa Marta and Barranquilla were paid to allow the passage of containers with cocaine.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. global “war on drugs” sparked Colombia’s civil war by aiming to eliminate supply at its source through crop eradication and conflict. This was an abysmal failure and cocaine exports to the USA today are the same or higher than they were in 1980 at the start of this war. On the other hand, as George Soros’ Open Society Foundation reports, the human toll —which is still being tallied—is shocking and inexcusable. The conflict in Colombia claimed over 200,000 lives and displaced millions, all for a failed ideological crusade.

Petro is also calling for a new approach to the cocaine trade in calling for an end on this failed war on drugs and pushing for legalisation of all drugs. This is not as radical as it sounds. The 2016 peace agreement marked the first significant shift towards a new approach, that prioritises human rights and public health in the issue of coca. Petro acknowledges that a lot still depends on the USA and other ‘demand’ side countries addressing their part in this failed war.

A new report, Coca Industrialization: A Path to Innovation, Development, and Peace in Colombia, explores coca’s beneficial uses—both new and old—and brings visibility to promising grassroots initiatives invigorated by this new turn toward more humane policies.The coca plant itself in its pure form is both a sacred indigenous crop and a nutritious and beneficial natural health food and product. This also presents a potentially lucrative industry for Colombia to move forward away from prohibition towards alternate uses of the crop which benefit the traditional growers in the regions.

Failure of the Media and rise of fake news

Despite all of this mounting evidence of corruption and state complicity in the horrors of recent Colombian history, this popular anti-establishment and anti-corruption candidate, Petro is still trailing in polls. This is a symptom of the prevalence of fake news in the corporate press and on social media. Much like in Brazil in recent times, the information channels have suffered from a barrage of misinformation that has simply created confusion and clouded the real issues. The mainstream media, meanwhile has largely ignored these serious issues altogether.

This lack of critical media regarding this shady political system is in part due to bias, and in part due to death threats against journalists and activists who dare to speak out. The journalist that revealed the murder investigation against Uribe, for instance, is already enjoying strict security measures after multiple death threats related to his investigations into criminal enterprises of politicians.

Hope for the future?

Colombia is a nation rich in natural and human potential. It is the second most bio-diverse nation in the world and features geography from tropical rainforest to Caribbean coast and everything in between. This nation is comprised of hard-working and innovative people who have endured so much suffering and bloodshed and still seek to build a better country. Colombia is perfectly poised to become a regional success story and transition to a carbon neutral and sustainable future. If Petro is able to implement his plans for a sustainable economy and social justice for the many impoverished, Colombia could lead the way in the new, peaceful and progressive Latin America. If he loses, on the other hand, things are looking decidedly grim. I would love to be proven wrong, but I fear for my friends in Colombia and colleagues in the press if Colombia swings back to authoritarian right wing rule. The current quest for justice, truth and reconciliation will likely end in flames and even higher levels of conflict, persecution and corruption will emerge from the ashes.


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