Colombia made a tremendous stride in September toward ending its half-century conflict when it reached a deal to make peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group within six months.
The country’s military leadership called the deal “the most important news in 100 years.”
However, that developing peace deal could be upended by fraud and violence that has been rampant in Colombian elections, the latest round of which are slated to begin on October 25.
An election that goes smoothly — and well for President Juan Manuel Santos — is considered important to continuing and ultimately completing the peace process. Local governors and mayors who face election will be needed to help disarm and reintegrate 20,000 former FARC fighters, as Colombia Reports notes.
Inaccuracies, fraud, and violence
In early September, the country’s Electoral Observation Mission (MOE) warned that nearly 20% of Colombia’s 1,101 municipalities are at risk of both violence and electoral fraud ahead of elections that will select mayors, governors, councils, and assemblies.
The group cited spoiled ballots, blank votes, and irregularities in voter-registration levels as electoral risks.
According to the MOE, 487 municipalities were facing a risk of electoral fraud. Moreover, “If the elections were held to today,” the body said, “transparent and secure elections could not be guaranteed in 59 of the municipals marked by extreme electoral risk.”
In the weeks since the MOE’s report, numerous events have underscored its warnings.
On September 21, the National Electoral Council (CNE) annulled 398,675 voter registrations, after a survey revealed inconsistencies. The council found that in some towns incorrect or forged voter registrations amounted to more than half of the total voter forms reviewed. The following week, 1.18 million registrations tied to fraud were thrown out.
Earlier in September, Colombia’s National Registry revealed that 6,550 dead people had been found on current voter rolls. (In 2011 and 2013, a total of 10 million dead people were removed from voter registries, a sum that had accrued due to the infrequency of registry updates.)
On September 28, the Prosecutor General’s Office reported that some 20,000 candidates in local elections were facing 103,000 pending criminal investigations. The investigations, according to Caracol Radio, ranged from failing to pay child support to illegally carrying firearms.
The day after that announcement, the CNE said that 974 candidates had been ruled ineligible for the October 25 elections because of “ongoing judicial proceedings or disciplinary sanctions.”
Emiliano Rivera, the CNE’s president magistrate, told Caracol Radio that the candidates in question “were found to be in [active processes] of judicial sentencing or disciplinary sanctions levied by the Prosecutor [General’s Office].”
There is also a risk, according to the MOE, that Colombia’s elections this month will be marred by violence.
Forced displacement of people, violence against candidates, and activity of illegal armed groups are some of the violence risks cited by the MOE.
Andres Ceballos, the international coordinator for the MOE, told Colombia Reports that the risk of electoral fraud was “complemented by a variety of factors of violence, including threats and violent attempts against public servants or political candidates.”
“This year we found a total of 83 acts of electoral violence directed at political candidates or elected officials,” Ceballos said, “including assassinations, kidnappings, verbal and/or physical attacks.”
There are 438 municipalities throughout Colombia at risk of electoral violence. Affected municipalities are in 29 of 32 Colombian states.
Ceballos said that violent acts intended to influence voting are “limited to a very particular set of municipalities,” and that authorities were working to ensure transparency.
He also cautioned that partisan divides could hamstring CNE oversight efforts.
A history of impropriety
These risks to electoral integrity are nothing new in Colombia.
During the 1994 presidential election, the campaign of Ernesto Samper, who went on to win, was found to be financed by the Cali cartel.
In 2002, the AUC, a paramilitary group, helped Alvaro Uribe win the presidential election. Four years later, 65 congressmen were arrested for using paramilitary support to win their elections. Currently, Colombia’s Supreme Court is investigating reported improprieties in President Juan Manuel Santos’ successful 2014 reelection campaign.
Already during this campaign season, five candidates have been attacked, including one who was shot in the neck.
Members of the opposition conservative party, headed by former President Alvaro Uribe, have requested increased protection.
In light of the ongoing peace talks with the FARC rebels, though, violence has taken on renewed concern.
In an effort to clamp down on those who could succeed the FARC in drug trafficking and other illegal activities, the Colombian government has launched attacks against criminal leaders in recent weeks. But this effort has also raised concerns about more violence as new criminal leaders emerge.
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