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News > Latin America

5 Scandals that Marked Colombian Presidential Campaigns

  • People assemble voting booths for the May 27 presidential election, in Bogota, Colombia May 26, 2018.

    People assemble voting booths for the May 27 presidential election, in Bogota, Colombia May 26, 2018. | Photo: Reuters

Published 27 May 2018

Among them are attacks Petro's campaign team, the influence of Uribe, Indigenous witchcraft and fake news.

As a total of 36,219,940 Colombians are expected to vote for their presidential candidate this Sunday as part of the first round of the elections, we take a look at five scandals that have marked the campaign period.


Colombia Elections: What Do Candidates Say About Peace?

Attacks on Leftist Gustavo Petro

The center-left candidate Gustavo Petro and his campaign team have been attacked more than once during the campaign period by unknown people.

On the night before the elections, Petro's local campaign coordinator Gabriel Muñoz Muñoz was murdered in La Argentina, in the Huila department.

“Last night Human Colombia's local campaign coordinator and today's electoral witness Gabriel Muñoz Muñoz was murdered in La Argentina, Huila. Our answer is the politics of love. The only ones that should be afraid of our government are the corrupt ones,” tweeted Petro.

This is not the first time a member of Petro's campaign has been attacked.

On May 15, at least four masked people attacked Petro's campaign headquarters in Valledupar, damaging the building, beating up the security guard taking care of the place and threatening the regional campaign's director Piedad Ramirez.

Around 2 a.m. local time, the masked people tried to forcibly enter the building by beating the watchman in the face and cutting his right arms with a knife and asking him to hand over the keys.

“I can't tell if they were armed. They broke the windows in a very technical manner. The porter took a look and was asked about my whereabouts. They were telling him I was a communist and a guerrillera and that they were going to kill me. He was told that if he was part of the campaign he was going to get killed,” said Ramirez.

Also, Petro's campaign caravan was attacked during a political event in Cucuta on March, as supporters of Alvaro Uribe yelled and threw things at him.

Petro took to social media to dispel rumors that several gunshots had been fired at the vehicle in which he was traveling, but he confirmed that an act of "violent sabotage" had been orchestrated against him.

"They organized a violent sabotage against the demonstration with a command center: the jail and Ramiro Suarez, the former mayor whom I denounced as a murderer and a paramilitary. The sabotage came with people on seven buses."

A video posted on Twitter by Noticias Uno shows the windshield of Petro's car being partially shattered as unidentified projectiles stuck the glass in several places. 

Uribe's Baggage

Colombia's ex-President Alravo Uribe is exercising a strong influence over this year's elections, as his protege Ivan Duque is leading all opinion polls, despite more and more information surfacing regarding his own presidential campaign's illicit financing.

United States officials were well aware that Uribe campaigned in 1993 using donations from drug cartels, according to a series of recently declassified files published by the U.S. National Security Archive Friday.

Ex-president and Senator Alvaro Uribe Velez speaking after voting this Sunday. Photo | EFE

Ten year’s worth of correspondence were exchanged between various politicians and officials accusing Uribe of maintaining ties to the drug cartels of Colombia. During a meeting with the United States Embassy Political Officer in February 1993, Colombian Senator Luis Guillermo Vélez Trujillo warned that Uribe’s campaign had been financed by his cousins and founders of Medellin’s drug cartel: the Ochoa Vasquez family.

The wealth of investigations against the politician linking him to drug trafficking around the country continued to pile up. In March 1995 a note from the U.S. Embassy signed by then U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette, summarized the dozens of allegations against the former president.

But despite growing accusations linking Uribe to cartels and paramilitary groups, besides his strong opposition to the historical peace agreement reached between the government and the former insurgent group FARC, his campaigning and support for candidate Ivan Duque continues.

Fake News or Plain Propaganda?

The Colombian electoral process and its campaigns have been fertile ground for fake news and propaganda, as information spreads more quickly than it's verified.

Besides the regular fake news and misinformation sent massively by instant messaging or social networks, this time propaganda war has taken a whole different level, making it difficult to determine who is behind large scale “dirty war” on candidates.

In the first weeks of May people in Bucaramanga (and practically every Colombian with access to social networks) saw a large billboard featuring presidential candidate Ivan Duque and his proposed vice president Marta Lucia Ramirez with the caption “I don't want to live like a Venezuelan. Duque for president. The future belongs to all.”

The billboard sparked outrage for its “xenophobic” content against Venezuelan immigrants and Duque's campaign director Luis Guillermo Echeverri denied any involvement with them.

“The billboards weren't acquired by the campaign and its installation is not related to it,” said Echeverri adding “we must make clear we reject the xenophobic message promoted... we respect our Venezuelan brothers and sisters and their difficult situation.”

But Echeverri didn't mention another set of billboards reading “So Colombia doesn't become another Venezuela.”

Duque's campaign, and the Colombian right in general, have been using the “Castrochavismo” concept to attack center-left candidate Gustavo Petro, accusing him of being linked to the Bolivarian and Cuban revolutions in order to discredit him.

In March, a fake tweet by Gustavo Petro reading “My biggest desire is to hold power to continue the legacy of Bolivar, the legacy of Hugo Chavez. Once I have it an oligarch WON'T COME BACK to La Casa de Nariño [the presidential palace]. We will close media outlets that have fooled the people,” was shared thousands of times on social media, despite being obviously fake.

The tweet has more than 140 characters but it's dated on April 21, 2012, when Twitter's limit was 120 characters. Besides, the profile picture used is from Petro's most recent presidential campaign, which means it was taken six years after the fake tweet was supposedly posted.

“Obviously fake, in 2012 there were only 120 characters, that's not Twitter's font and the follow button wasn't there at that time. It's weird they don't notice about that.”

But Petro also fell to the fake news game when he shared an edited video showing right-wing candidate Duque singing about paramilitary groups. Duque himself asked Petro to check the videos before sharing them and “promoting hate among Colombians,” and shared the original video, without any reference to the paramilitary. Petro accepted his mistake and responsibility over the issue.

Little earlier than Duque's controversy, candidate Vargas Lleras was accused and criticized for using a team of women in bikini to promote him in Santa Marta.

“This is so sad! This is what Colombian women can expect from the ruling party's candidate, being treated as objects. In our government their voice will count and we will fight for them to have the same salaries as men,” tweeted Marta Lucia Ramirez, Duque's vice presidential candidate.

He denied any connection to the event and even claimed the women were a group of Venezuelans that were hired for the sole purpose of discrediting his campaign, but later information emerged linking some of the girls with the Radical Change Party, part of the coalition supporting Vargas Lleras.

Truth regarding this event might not be determined, but it did spark the #WomenBetterWithoutVargasLleras Twitter trend topic in Colombia.

FARC Pulls out of the Race

After undergoing two heart surgeries in just one week and being diagnosed with emphysema, FARC's former presidential candidate Rodrigo Londoño decided to pull out of the race due to his health issues on March 7. This was the second time “Timochenko” was hospitalized in less than one year.

But health was not the only problem. About 600 members of the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force party, using the same FARC acronym, and former rebels did not benefit from the Amnesty Law and are still in jail. Also, the FARC party was not allow to receive financing other than from the state, which the party denounced as a “discriminatory" measure.

Colombian former FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londoño, known by his nom de guerreTimochenko, addresses the media after casting his vote, in Bogota, Colombia May 27, 2018. Photo | Reuters

But in spite of the obstacles, the FARC reaffirmed their commitment to peace and their will to overcome any link between violence and politics, even though more than 50 former rebels or their families and more than 250 social leaders have been murdered since the final peace agreement was signed.

This, besides continuous threats and hate speech sponsored by the right-wing political establishment, has led the party to believe “Timochenko” could be the target of a high-profile assassination, and decided to pull out from the presidential race.

Still, the FARC did take part in the legislative elections, but didn't manage to get any seats other than the ones designated for the party as part of the 2016 peace deal.

Satanic Castrochavism

Gustavo Petro's growing popularity and massive rallies can only have one explanation: satanism and Indigenous witchcraft.

Ahead a Petro's campaign rally in Barranquilla on May 20, evangelical pastor Agustin Torres accused the progressive candidate of witchcraft and told his followers to pray to prevent the “devil” from taking over.

“We know in every campaign presentation he (Petro) performs a satanic ritual to summon the people,” the Barranquilla pastor claimed in a video shared on social media. 

Pointing to the fact that Petro's wife, Verónica Alcocer García, wears traditional Wayuu dresses as along with the fact that the candidate is a religious the pastor said summoning the dark arts is the only way he could achieve large crowd sizes.

Supporters of presidential candidate Gustavo Petro during a rally in Cali, May 19. Photo | EFE

According to the pastor, satanic rituals would explain the massive rally in Plaza Bolivar on May 17 in Bogota, where a crowd of roughly 60,000 people gathered to see Petro in his closing rally.

The video also attempts to draw parallels between Petro and late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez showing similarities in their political speeches, a smear regularly used by Colombia's right-wing, including by Ivan Duque, the leading presidential candidate, and former president Alvaro Uribe’s protege.

Besides the racism implicit in referring to Indigenous rituals as satanic and evil, the anti-Petro video also featured other conspiracy theories. In one part of the video, it is claimed Petro’s wife looked “reptilian,” which according to the evangelical leader serves as proof of the devil’s connection to the campaign.

The pastor and other members of the evangelical church have called on followers to pray against “satanic communism” and to ensure “god almighty governs Colombia.”

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