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Weekly Report - 27 February 2020 (WR-20-08)

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COLOMBIA: Corruption claims add to Duque’s troubles

The opening of a preliminary investigation into accusations of corruption and electoral fraud against Colombia’s President Iván Duque, announced by the attorney general, Francisco Barbosa, on 24 February, represents an unwelcome additional challenge for a government already struggling to juggle a diverse array of crises and criticisms.

When former legislator Aída Merlano, currently detained in Venezuela after escaping from a Colombian prison in October 2019, accused President Duque on 6 February of being involved in a plot to assassinate her, even his most vociferous critics were sceptical [WR-20-06]. But Merlano’s subsequent, less farfetched allegations, presented to Semana magazine last week - that Duque had been associated with the same vote-buying practices for which she had been imprisoned- received considerably more attention, including, unexpectedly, from Duque’s own attorney general.

  • Merlano allegations

Aída Merlano claimed that the leaders of a vote-buying network centred in Colombia’s Atlántico department spent Col$6bn (US$1.76m) to help Iván Duque secure victory in the second round of the 2018 presidential elections. She alleges that the network is led by businessman Julio Gerlein and the influential Char family, but insists that Duque was aware of this operation, and even met with those involved. Vote-buying is generally understood to be widespread in Colombia, but few convictions have ever been achieved.

The investigation will be handled by the congressional accusations committee, as the only body entitled to investigate the president. This immunity also means that if any charges were to be presented, Duque could only be tried by the legislature. Barbosa was quick to emphasise that the investigation was opened in response to a complaint by David Racero of the left-wing opposition party Colombia Humana rather than Merlano’s testimony, and that its focus will be to analyse the accusations rather than to investigate Duque himself. In practice, however, these distinctions will be of minimal significance to Duque, as the investigation represents yet another angle of attack against his government, with new challenges continuing to emerge.

Security struggles

After last week’s ‘armed strike’ by the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) guerrilla group [WR-20-07], Duque sought to respond with a decisive demonstration of military capability. Two high-profile arrests were widely publicised by the government and security forces – of prominent drug trafficker José Albeiro Arrigui (‘Contador’) on 21 February, and demobilised former ELN leader Gerardo Antonio Bermúdez (‘Francisco Galán’) on 23 February. But the constant flow of security issues shows no signs of abating, and there is little indication that arrests like these can turn the tide.

On 23 February, some 863 people were displaced from their homes in the municipality of Ituango, in the north-western department of Antioquia, in response to threats from illegal armed groups. The mayor of Ituango, Mauricio Mira, of the Partido de la U, blamed this displacement on drug-trafficking interests. Colombia’s security forces have been tackling a related issue in Serranía de la Macarena national park, in the south-eastern department of Meta, where fires burning since 22 February have been attributed by the defence minister, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, to dissident remobilised guerrillas of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc), to facilitate illicit coca production.

Trujillo went on to announce a “military offensive” against drug trafficking in Colombia’s national parks, once again demonstrating Duque’s determination to tackle the country’s security crisis with military muscle. This approach has attracted plenty of critics, amongst them the demobilised former combatants of the Farc. Protests in Bogotá on 25 February demanded that the government balance its aggression against dissidents with protection for those who have observed the terms of the 2016 peace accord, calling for Duque to hold up his end of this bargain.

Rodrigo Londoño (‘Timochenko’), the Farc leader who oversaw the transition from armed group to political party (Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común), urged the government to “escape the inertia that makes it complicit”, and to “put an end to this bloodbath”, in reference to the murder of 183 former combatants since demobilisation in 2016. The government was, in turn, required to provide protection, centred on safeguarded reintegration zones, but these efforts have had little success – 120 demobilised guerrillas were amongst the displaced in Ituango, and three recent murders have brought the figure up to 12 this year already.

The killings of demobilised combatants have generally inspired less sympathy in Colombia than those of social leaders and human rights defenders, especially from key figures in government and the armed forces, who remain suspicious of former guerrillas. But cases like Ituango highlight that the majority of these demobilised combatants are relatively indistinguishable from the people they live alongside, and are no less victims of violence and insecurity in Colombia than anyone else.

  • Daniel Palacios

On 21 February the Farc joined the list of political and social organisations criticising the appointment of Daniel Palacios as head of the national protection unit (UNP), responsible for co-ordinating security provisions for former combatants. Palacios has previously voiced strong criticisms of the peace accord and questioned the government’s obligation to protect former guerrillas. A Farc statement suggested he lacked “the sensitivity to understand the political and human dimensions of the conflict”.

The demands presented by the Farc-led ‘cacerolazo’ (pots-and-pans protest) in Bogotá had a great deal in common with those championed by other protest groups and civil society critics. The issues facing the government may appear diverse, but a great many of them are pushing in the same direction. So far Duque’s response has been to double down on his preferred strategy of fighting fire with fire, but the pressure for change is only likely to amplify in March, with the promise of further protests on the scale seen in late 2019.

Duque forges key alliance

Duque has acquired a powerful new political ally, however, in the form of Germán Vargas Lleras, the leader of the right-of-centre Cambio Radical (CR). Vargas Lleras served as vice-president under Duque’s predecessor Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018), and, as such, is reviled by the Uribista wing of the ruling right-wing Centro Democrático (CD). During his failed bid for the presidency in 2018, Vargas Lleras attacked Duque’s lack of experience, famously asserting that “the presidency is not the time to learn on the job”. Vargas Lleras has been a fierce critic of Duque since he took office in August 2018 and discovered some of the truth behind this dismissive quip. Given their enmity, and with Duque’s popularity at a nadir, why has Vargas Lleras decided to ride to his rescue?

It is precisely Duque’s loss of popularity, and the threat of more damaging protests, that has presented Vargas Lleras with an opportunity. From the moment he came to power Duque was adamant that he would eschew the practice of ‘mermelada’ that has prevailed in Colombian politics, insisting he would build consensus without recourse to pork-barrel deals. But without a congressional majority, and an unreliable party in the CD to boot, Duque has struggled to advance his legislative agenda, and his weakness has made him vulnerable to popular protests.

Vargas Lleras provided Duque with a hint of what an alliance with the CR could do for him by playing a pivotal role in the approval of an unpopular tax reform by congress last December. Duque picked up the hint. Earlier this month he announced the appointment of Fernando Ruiz Gómez, a medical surgeon and close associate of Vargas Lleras, as health minister. When congress returns from recess in March, CR is expected to weigh in behind government initiatives, its 16 senators and 40 deputies potentially supplying crucial votes to drive through unpopular labour and pension reforms. In return for his party’s support Vargas Lleras will want some of his failed electoral campaign agenda, on health and judicial reform, for instance, adopted by the government.