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ELECTIONS-COLOMBIA: Unexpected Paramilitary Defeat in Cesar

Constanza Vieira

VALLEDUPAR, Colombia, Oct 29 2007 (IPS) - Night falls and some 200 honking motorcycles and mopeds make their way along a tree-lined central avenue of the capital of the northeastern Colombian department of Cesar, celebrating the victory of governor-elect Cristian Moreno, “the candidate of the poor,” in one of the birthplaces of the far-right paramilitary militias.

“If either of the other two candidates had won, the victory procession would be made up of 4X4 off-road vehicles,” public university Professor Gustavo Araújo Baute commented to IPS.

Moreno, a 40-year-old black man, was “accused” three weeks ago of being poor by Jaime Murgas, one of his wealthy rivals in Sunday’s local and regional elections. At that time, Moreno was third in the polls and looked like he didn’t stand a chance.

But around 44 percent of voters in the department (province) of Cesar voted for him. “That is why the capacity of the people should never be doubted,” said an excited supermarket worker. “The people know,” she added.

In the regional elections of 2003, blank votes carried the day in Valledupar, even though no party or movement urged people to cast blank ballots.

Moreno, who was running for governor in those elections as well, pulled out of the race because of death threats. People whispered “I’m going to vote for Mr. White” (an allusion to the “voto en blanco” – blanco means white in Spanish).

Hernando Molina, who was left as the single, uncontested candidate, won the elections in 2003. But he is now in prison for his ties to the paramilitaries, like a number of other politicians caught up in the “parapolitics” scandal, which has revealed an intricate web of relations between powerful political leaders and the illegal armed groups.

“Here the politicians and important people were all scrambling to meet with the paramilitary chiefs. They kept going in convoys from here to La Mesa and Badillo,” towns in Cesar where the general paramilitary headquarters are located, a local resident told IPS.

Only in the last 10 days before the elections did Moreno’s triumph begin to look possible, to gauge by one thermometer of public opinion – taxi and motorcycle taxi drivers.

“The thing is, people here are afraid,” an analyst who will remain anonymous for security reasons told IPS.

That is why the opinion polls and electoral projections failed so miserably. Discretion in Valledupar is a question of survival.

Murgas’ family owns the Las Flores estate, an agribusiness venture that produces biofuels, to the southeast of Valledupar. Several of the company’s employees filed complaints with the non-governmental Electoral Observation Mission (MOE) saying they were threatened with being fired if they did not vote for him.

Moreno’s other adversary, Arturo Calderón, was secretary of health under former governor Molina. One of his uncles runs the lottery business of Enilce López, who helped finance the first presidential campaign of rightwing President Álvaro Uribe in 2002 and is now in prison for money laundering.

“There are going to be killings because of this,” people said quietly in Valledupar when the news of Moreno’s victory came out. In a place where politicians are used to buying votes, people now worry that punishment will be forthcoming for those who failed to vote as they were told.

But fear and violence are not unique to Valledupar. At least 21 candidates were killed in different parts of Colombia during the election campaign.

Moreno ran on a shoestring campaign budget, which in this region means he did not pay his voters. Although he represented a local political movement, he was backed by the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole.

Sunday’s elections also brought a few surprises in Colombia’s Caribbean coastal region, the first and most important area dominated by the paramilitary militias – drug trafficking bands allied with the security forces that in the 1990s declared themselves at the forefront of the counterinsurgency fight against the leftist guerrilla groups that had emerged in 1964.

In several important districts in that northern region, public opinion defeated the candidates with the most visible ties to the paramilitaries, or “caudillos” (strongmen) of the old traditional, corrupt political elites, like in the department of Atlántico or the city of Cartagena.

On the other hand, few were surprised when the power went out in the department of Sucre just when the votes began to be counted.

One local analyst said the reaction of voters was triggered by the parapolitics scandal, in which the Supreme Court is investigating regional political and business leaders for their links with paramilitaries, who have partially demobilised after controversial negotiations with the government.

According to United Nations agencies, the paramilitary militias are responsible for at least 80 percent of the crimes against humanity committed in Colombia’s armed conflict. The comptroller-general’s office has reported that the groups have violently seized 4.5 million hectares of the best land in Colombia.

More than three million rural Colombians have been forcibly displaced from their land and their homes.

Until recently, these far-right forces had the elections, as well as the public administration, in Cesar perfectly organised and under control. They were the ones who decided who would be candidate and which towns were to vote for him, or who was to be named departmental or municipal secretary, for example.

Despite the demobilisation, “paramilitarismo” is still “alive and well; everyone here knows that,” one resident of Valledupar told IPS, adding that it has merely taken on different shapes. If someone wants to sell a farm, “as soon as they find out, that person has to pay them a bribe, or they tell him ‘you can’t sell to such-and-such, you have to sell to this other guy’,” he said, to illustrate their continued power.

The parapolitics scandal so far is playing out at the level of individual criminal investigations, and has not yet moved to the stage of political responsibility. Nearly all of those implicated so far are Uribe allies.

The politicians are accused of involvement in the creation of paramilitary groups, massacres, selective killings, forced displacement, election fraud through violence and intimidation, and the use of public contracts for their own personal gain and to finance paramilitary militias.

Many of the “parapoliticians,” including those from Cesar, coordinated the election campaigns of their parties from their prison cells, because Colombia’s laws allow them to do so until they have actually been tried and sentenced.

In this department, the imprisoned politicians include Álvaro Araújo, who was once the area’s leading senator. He is the brother of former foreign minister María Consuelo Araújo, who resigned in February when her brother and father began to be investigated in connection with the scandal. Another is former governor Molina, the Araújos’ cousin.

But the investigations in the scandal still have a long way to go in Cesar, as in other regions.

León Valencia, executive director of the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a Bogotá think tank, believes that the legal proceedings that got underway a year ago will ultimately lead to the arrest of around 60 legislators.

Catholic priest Wilson Becerra, director of the social pastoral of the diocese of Valledupar and regional coordinator of the MOE in Cesar, says he hopes that one day Colombians will be able to believe in their institutions once again.

The MOE, which for the third time carried out election observation efforts on a national scale, on Sunday, increased the number of election observers to 10,000 this year. For the first time it was active in Cesar, but in only three of the department’s 26 municipalities. In at least two others, the observers, who are volunteers, did not find it safe to work.

In Becerra’s view, the most important conclusion to be reached after Sunday’s elections is that people have begun to “wake up” – that “they tried to turn out, to participate.”

Hernando Daza, an election official who was transferred shortly before the elections to the paramilitary-controlled town of Pueblo Bello, northwest of Valledupar, expressed his concerns to the MOE.

He received death threats in the two weeks he spent in Cesar, where his mission was to prevent any attempt at fraud from within the local office of the civil registrar, which was in charge of organising the elections.

“The rotation and transfer of election officials was a key measure,” said Father Becerra, who hopes the MOE will establish a permanent presence in Cesar, “to teach people to love democracy.”

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