Jobs, Cash and Coffins: How Colombia’s Clans Win Elections

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OVEJAS, Colombia—

Juliana Escalante García

has a standout resume for a budding politician: She has a master’s degree from a premier French university, speaks multiple languages and was a top aide to Colombia’s finance minister.

But what’s more likely to secure victory for her and dozens of other candidates in Sunday’s congressional election is their membership in rural family clans that have for decades run home districts like fiefs. Her family—and others like it in Colombia and across Latin America—have been mired in corruption and worse, prosecutors and electoral officials say. Yet they remain entrenched by doling out jobs, public works contracts and aid to the poor.

So it hasn’t hurt Ms. Escalante that her uncle, former senator

Álvaro García,

is now serving a 40-year prison term for murder or that other politically active relatives have been convicted or investigated for graft and allying with death squads. What ensures loyalty from voters in this impoverished state of Sucre are the personal favors the candidates dispense.

Such aberrations to democratic rule had been overshadowed by Colombia’s 52-year guerrilla war. But they are coming under greater scrutiny now that a 2016 peace treaty has largely ended the fighting. “Family clans are running a lot of our politics and that does not speak well of our democracy,” said a high-ranking official in President

Juan Manuel Santos’s

government.

Colombia is no outlier.

Alejandro Salas,

Americas director for the corruption watchdog group Transparency International, calls dynastic families dominating public office a “global phenomenon” that foments impunity.

“If you have been engaged in dirty dealings, who are the people you can trust the most to protect you? With a son or a family member you have bigger guarantees that you will be protected” from prosecution, Mr. Salas said.

Colombia’s clans are often made up of regional business elites who can outspend challengers, said

Ariel Ávila,

an analyst in Bogotá who has written extensively about the country’s family dynasties. He says that once in power they are tough to dislodge even though Colombia, unlike other major countries in Latin America, has jailed many clan chieftains.

The García clan to which Ms. Escalante belongs is well known for providing free bus fares and building supplies. Unemployed nurses and teachers know García politicians can secure jobs. The clan even gives away coffins to the poor. On election day, the grateful are fed, transported to the polls and told how to vote.

“If you are dying of hunger and a politician gives you bread, you don’t care if he robbed to get you that bread,” said

Carlos Beltrán,

who once worked on a García family tobacco farm and plans to vote for Ms. Escalante.

Then there’s an even darker side. Mr. García, who’s endearingly known across this state as “El Gordo”—“The Fat Man,” was convicted of conspiring with right-wing death squads to kill more than a dozen peasants they accused of stealing cattle and helping Marxist guerrillas in the nearby hamlet of Macayepo.

Yet he and other disgraced politicians —such as

Juan Francisco Gómez,

a former governor of La Guajira state sentenced last year to 55 years in prison for ordering a triple murder—will likely maintain influence through relatives running in Sunday’s election, says the Electoral Observation Movement, a Bogotá-based monitoring organization. Mr. Ávila predicts about a third of Colombia’s incoming 280-member Congress will be made up of politicians from 11 political clans.

“This is abnormal,” said

Johnny Ramos,

a Macayepo storekeeper whose cousin was killed in the massacre. “How can they continue to control politics after something like this?”

Ms. Escalante, 31 years old, was a teenager living in Germany at the time of the massacre and was reluctant to discuss her uncle’s conviction.

“I have a right to run for office,” said Ms. Escalante, who said she inherited her family’s passion for politics. “Colombians should not go around judging me for the behavior of my relatives.”

Even if political heirs lack the criminal profile of their family members, Mr. Ávila said that they often tap into the same sources of campaign finance, including kickbacks from state contractors or donations from drug trafficking gangs. They also benefit from the vote-buying machinery set up by their relatives. 

“There may be 300 people in one of these political structures,” Mr. Ávila said. “If you put just one in jail that does not dismantle the entire structure.”

Ms. Escalante denied vote-buying or other wrongdoing by her campaign.

The García network appears to be vast, especially here in Ovejas, the town where Álvaro García grew up and where his elegant two-story house now doubles as city hall. Many say his murder conviction was a sham and remember “El Gordo” as a folksy figure forever lending a hand.

When his name came up, Bertilda Buelvas, who runs a coffee stand, began reciting a prayer for Mr. García. Tears came to the eyes of

Vladimir Arango

as he recalled how Mr. García helped him when he was a wild teenager, giving him jobs and money to his family to replace a leaky roof.

After Mr. García was imprisoned, voters dutifully elected his sister to the senate for two terms. She is now stepping aside to make way for her daughter, Ms. Escalante.

One prospective voter,

Félix Mercado,

a security guard, described how in the past he’d received money and help finding work from the García campaigns. He said he knows nothing about Ms. Escalante but would vote for her.

Jorge García,

a distant relative of the García clan, said politicians cannot run a campaign “without money and handouts.”

“Here people are so poor that if you give them a bowl of soup they will vote for you,” he said.

As a result, only about 5% of voters in Sucre cast ballots for candidates whom they actually believe are the most qualified, said

Freddy Aguilera,

who heads the Electoral Observation Movement’s operations in Sucre.

One senate candidate trying to mount a challenge to the García clan is 

Adolfo Ordoñez,

a social activist in Sucre. But his entire campaign budget is $350. His publicity consists of one billboard atop a set of wheels that he slowly pushes through the streets under the scorching sun.

“This is very difficult because people are accustomed to selling their votes,” he says. “They ask me, ‘How much will you pay?’”



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