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25 May 2022 | Commentary

Colombia’s High-Stakes Presidential Elections: What You Need to Know

Colombia’s upcoming presidential elections on May 29 are taking place at a time of great tension, rising insecurity, economic challenges, polarization, and distrust in government.

There are seven tickets running for the top office. Candidates currently leading the polls include former Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro, for the Historic Pact (Pacto Histórico) leftist coalition; former Medellín Mayor and conservative candidate Federico Gutiérrez, known as ”Fico”, for the conservative Team for Colombia (Equipo por Colombia); former Bucaramanga Mayor and independent candidate Rodolfo Hernández; and Liberal candidate Sergio Fajardo, representing the Center Hope Coalition (Coalición Centro Esperanza).

If none of the contenders secure fifty plus one votes, the two candidates with the most votes will go to a second round on June 19.

These elections also mark the first time a socially-progressive candidate, Gustavo Petro, in a country ruled by the right and moderates for decades, has the possibility of winning the presidency.

This is an overview of some of the main human rights and security challenges facing Colombia that the next President will need to address, and how U.S. policymakers can support them in doing so.

A charged political climate, with racism against Afro-Colombian candidates

On March 13, Colombia held congressional elections and presidential primaries that determined the candidates for various coalitions.

The most contentious issue of the legislative elections was the question of 390,000 votes in favor of the Historic Pact coalition that were not initially counted. This led to calls for the Registrar to resign, which he refused to do. It also fueled arguments from the Democratic Center party that fraud had taken place and paved the way for former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez to begin discrediting the possible outcome of the Presidential elections.

The Historic Pact coalition was the biggest winner of these elections and the Democratic Center party, its biggest loser. The Historic Pact’s expansion to 20 seats means that if Petro wins the presidency he will have a good coalition in the Congress to help advance his agenda. The Historic Pact also won the international congressional seat, which went to a Colombo-Swiss Indigenous Wayuu Karmen Ramírez.

Although violence recorded around the legislative elections was lower than in previous elections before the 2016 peace accord, death threats were rampant. Violence and intimidation were primarily concentrated against candidates running for the “peace seats” devised in the 2016 peace accord.

There have also been instances of racist and classist attacks, particularly against some of the highest-profile contenders, including Francia Márquez, environmental activist and Afro-Colombian leader and candidate for the vice presidency for the Historic Pact.

While such views against Afrodescendants and persons from the countryside are quite common in Colombia, the possibility of her becoming Vice President has inspired racist remarks, such as singer Marbelle comparing her to the ape King Kong. The El Racismometro, which tracks these kinds of abuses, recorded 561 instances of racial attacks against Márquez. It also documented five racist attacks against Luis Gilberto Murillo, the Vice Presidential candidate for Sergio Fajardo, the Afro-Colombian candidate with the second-highest number of incidents.

Other concerns around the elections include efforts to wrongfully influence them, reports of illegal campaigning, efforts to undermine the credibility of the electoral system, the spread of disinformation, and violent intimidation against candidates. President Iván Duque has been found to have made 95 unfavorable comments about Petro in the past few months.

Petro and Márquez in particular have been the targets of disinformation and fearmongering smear campaigns. Likewise, while all the Presidential tickets require security, Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez have faced particularly high levels of threats, which makes their situation particularly concerning. Colombia has a long history of presidential candidates being killed, particularly leftist and alternative candidates, with four murdered since the 1980s.

Illegal armed groups’ unchallenged reach and influence

Colombian President Duque’s failed security policy has led to a proliferation of illegal armed groups and their expansion into areas that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) largely abandoned when it demobilized in 2016. Groups including the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN), the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC), and FARC dissidents are engaged in illicit activities, violence, and generating havoc throughout the country.

In a September 2021 report, the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz, INDEPAZ) documented that 93 illegal groups are operating throughout Colombia, particularly affecting the departments of North Santander, Arauca, Antioquia, Nariño, Cauca, Meta, Córdoba, Bolívar and Chocó. Armed gangs killed at least 70 people between January and April 2022 in Quibdó, the urban capital of Chocó. Locals describe the situation in the city as a “battle zone” that is impeding the daily lives of residents. Crime and homicides overall have increased; the National Administrative Department of Statistics (Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística, DANE) registered 2021 as having the highest rate of homicides in the past seven years.

Another illustration of the power that illegal armed groups still yield in large parts of the country is the armed strike imposed by the AGC, the paramilitary group also known as the Gulf Clan, in early May. The group claimed the action was taken in retaliation for the extradition to the United States of its leader, Dario Antonio Úsaga David alias “Otoniel.” The armed strike affected 281 municipalities in 11 of the country’s 32 departments, confined 130 communities, blocked 16 roads, and left 24 civilians dead. The closure of businesses and commerce also significantly impacted the economies of the strike areas. For example, the BBC reported that the Colombian Federation of Road Freight Transporters (Federación Colombiana de Transportadores de Carga por Carretera, Colfecar) saw $3.2 million in losses.

Critical human rights and humanitarian situation

Evidence of the ineffectiveness of the current administration’s security policy can also be seen in the increasing number of killings of social leaders, massacres, events that lead to internal displacement, and humanitarian crises.

INDEPAZ recorded 36 massacres so far in 2022 totaling 133 victims, 96 massacres totaling 338 victims in 2021, and 91 massacres in 2020. As of May 15, the organization had already registered the killing of 75 social leaders and 20 former combatants for the year.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said 2021 was the year with the highest number of impacts from Colombia’s armed conflicts in the past five years. The organization recorded the internal displacement of 77,568 persons, the confinement of 45,108 (with 78 percent of them in the department of Chocó alone), 184 humanitarian law violations, 485 victims of explosive devices (with 50 resulting in fatalities), 168 cases of disappearances (145 of them civilians), and 553 aggressions against medical missions (a 70 percent increase from 2020).

Instead of supporting organizations working to protect the civilian population, the Duque administration has tried to discredit entities like the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office.

Duque replaces the 2016 peace agreement with “Peace with Legality”

The 2022 presidential elections will be the second to take place after the signing of the historic 2016 peace accord with the FARC that ended over five decades of internal armed conflict. The first elections took place in 2018, just as implementation of the accord was getting off the ground. During those elections, fear and misinformation surrounding the peace process by economic and political elites led to the election of right-wing candidate Duque of the Democratic Center party, whose campaign promised to rip the peace accord into shreds. Contrary to what was initially agreed to by the Colombian State and the FARC, the Duque administration has advanced a parallel policy called “Peace with Legality” that adapts commitments from the initial accord to fit their party’s own political, economic, and security agenda. As a result, peace accord implementation, as it was agreed upon in 2016, is haphazard and the parallel policy’s focus sabotages the spirit of the accord.

Protests, repression, and impunity

The Duque administration’s effort to impose a tax reform, which would have burdened those already affected by the pandemic, ushered in peaceful protests in the form of a national strike that the state responded to with unprecedented repression, triggering social unrest in mid-2021. The Colombian National Police committed extrajudicial killings, engaged in excessive use of force and torture, and carried out sexual violence. At least 87 people were killed and hundreds were wounded, many are suffering from permanent eye damage. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights found that the police had used unnecessary and disproportionate force in many instances during the protests. This heavy-handed brutal response and Duque’s inability to truly negotiate with the civic strike committee only built further resentment against the government, feeding into Duque’s unpopularity.

Justice has not advanced in the majority of abuses committed by the public forces during the national strike and protests. According to the FoundationCommittee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners (Fundación Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos, FCSPP), 231 disciplinary proceedings against police were opened by the Attorney General’s office in 2021. Only in 11 cases, there was a result. Another 120 were closed because no responsibility for wrongdoing was found. As of April 26 of this year, no one has been sentenced in either the ordinary or military penal system. This demonstrates the impunity that has protected the public force, given the 7,649 victimizing acts that occurred in 2021.

Distrust in the independent control agencies 

Given his proposed economic and political reforms that were viewed as favoring the economic and political elites, ongoing frustration at income inequality, and his government’s undermining of the 2016 peace accord, Duque also faced other smaller-scale protests in 2019 and 2020. His government’s unwillingness to find a dialogue-based solution with the ELN led to increased violent acts with devastating consequences on communities.

Duque also weakened the checks and balances in the country by placing friends and political allies as heads of the independent control agencies, such as the Attorney General’s and Human Rights Ombudsman’s offices. During the national strike, Duque refused to truly dialogue and find solutions with the main actors. All these situations have led to a closing of democratic space and a lack of confidence in the country’s institutions.

Role of U.S. Policymakers

Colombia remains the United States’ number one ally in the region as a strategic security, counternarcotics, political, and commercial partner. U.S.-Colombia relations have always been very strong to the benefit of both countries. This relationship will not change regardless of who becomes the country’s next President.

Given the tensions, polarization, and high risk of violence surrounding the Colombian presidential elections, it is incumbent on U.S. policymakers to monitor the situation closely. They should send the message that violence against candidates and violence based on the results will be strongly condemned by the United States. It will be important to continue affirming that the outcome of the elections should be respected no matter who wins and that a peaceful transition to power forms part of a strong democracy. U.S. policymakers should also make it clear to all presidential candidates the need to prioritize the implementation of the 2016 peace accord.

The challenges to come

Whoever assumes the presidency of Colombia will be faced with multiple challenges and competing interests. The next President should seek solutions to lessen the humanitarian crises facing Colombians. This should include exploring dialogue with ELN and supporting civil society’s proposals that humanitarian accords be put in place in violent regions such as the Chocó, Nariño, Cauca, Arauca, and Catatumbo, among others. Other tasks of the new president will be to effectively reform the police, guarantee non-repetition of State violence, and strengthen the judicial system so it can combat impunity in human rights cases and investigate and sanction corruption. The next president should be encouraged to dialogue with civil society including those with whom it disagrees and to integrate civil society’s proposals into public policies and programming. A real solution to prevent threats, attacks, and killings of social leaders (human rights defenders, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous leaders, trade unionists, land rights activists, environmental defenders, journalists, and community leaders) is paramount to guaranteeing a functioning healthy democratic country.

Improved relations with Venezuela are required to address the security, humanitarian, economic, and displacement crises both countries are experiencing at their joint border. The new government will need to address Colombia’s multidimensional humanitarian crises that include Venezuelan migrants and refugees, Colombians displaced during the conflict, and newly displaced and confined Colombians and migrants transiting through Colombia, especially those crossing through the Darien Gap. The new president needs to reprioritize addressing Afro-Colombian, Palenquero, Raizal, and Indigenous individual and collective rights. It must do so by bolstering efforts to implement the Ethnic Chapter of the 2016 Peace Accord and working with the United States to revamp the U.S.-Colombia Racial Action Plan (CAPREE) meant to address racial discrimination against Afro-Colombians, Colombian Indigenous, African-Americans, and Native Americans. Furthermore, given commercial relations through the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and the receding of labor rights enforcement since its passing, the new president should work with the U.S. to reinvigorate the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan.