According to Votebien, Los Rastrojos, who many consider to be the most powerful drug cartel in Colombia, with control of export routes to Central America, Mexico and the United States, worked to promote certain candidates in Colombia’s congressional elections last month to protect the gang’s control of the multi-billion dollar drug trade.
Votebien gives numerous examples of suspected foul-play and influence in the election by the group, specifically in the department of Nariño, on Colombia’s Pacific coast. The website says it has sources who claim that Los Rastrojos financed candidates from political party the PIN, both in Nariño and other departments, such as Cauca and Valle.
The PIN, or Partido de Integracion Nacional, who received surprisingly impressive results in the March 14 election, scooping up eight Senate seats, is accused of having very close ties with paramilitary organizations across the country.
Votebien also highlights the murder of Lizardo Rosero, a candidate for local office in the municipality of Linares in Nariño, on election day. Los Rastrajos had previously described Rosero as a “pawn of the FARC.”
The website cites reports of meetings convened by Los Rastrojos with residents of various towns across the department, in which the gang “suggested” which candidate local residents should vote for.
The governor of Nariño, Antonio Navarro Wolf, confirmed that such meetings took place. “There was pressure one week before the elections by Los Rastrojos to support Senate candidate Sigifredo Lopez, of the Liberal Party. Now, we see that he won in municipalities that he never even visited.”
Police intelligence reports backed the governor’s complaints, according to Votebien, that there were meetings to pressure voters from towns across the Pacific coast of Nariño in favor of Lopez.
Lopez, who won the election by only a small margin, explained to Votebien that he couldn’t have visited all of the municipalities “just as no other candidate could do,” but that he did ask some friends to promote his candidacy in those areas.
The accused candidate outright rejected allegations of foul play. “I have specifically asked the National Electoral Council to investigate each one of my votes across the country because no people nor groups outside of the law have participated in my campaign. If that is the case, I would quit [office], because my honor is worth more than Senate credentials.”
Another candidate highlighted by Votebien as receiving paramilitary support was Conservative Party candidate Samy Merheg. According to Votebien, Merheg received double the votes of the second placed candidate in the port town of Tumaco, even though the second placed candidate hails from that town and was considered a favorite over Merheg just before election day.
Samy Merheg is the brother of former Senator Habib Merheg, who was named in a preliminary investigation by the country’s Supreme Court for parapolitics and was convicted by the prosecution for “conflicts of interest,” Votebien reports.
According to the website, Samy Merheg depended on the support of the “electoral machine” of two-time mayor of Tumaco, Nilo Torres del Castillo, who, during his first administration, was accused of embezzlement, and is currently being investigated by Colombia’s inspector general for other crimes.
Del Castillo was a candidate for the ADN political party, which was disbanded amidst heavy criticism of its members’ ties to “dirty” politicians and its alleged financing by drug gangs.
Nariño also witnessed a large number of “bought votes,” occurring directly in front of electoral observers in polling stations across the department, not only with cash, but also with merchandise, and offers to pay for voters’ utility bills, Votebien claims.
“In this region, which was hit by the loss of money from pyramid schemes and poverty, people had no other choice but to sell their votes,” an ex-Senator from the Polo Democratico party, Parmenio Cuellar, told Votebien.
The ex-Senator estimated that in Narino, only 30% of voters cast their ballot out of opinion, while 70% of votes were purchased.
Colombia’s congressional elections on March 14 were over-shadowed by controversy about candidates with links to paramilitary organizations, in addition to concerns over voter intimidation efforts. Prior to the election, a Colombian NGO, The Electoral Observation Commission, estimated that 80 congressional candidates either have direct ties to paramilitaries or have family members facing charges for colluding with the now-demobilized group the AUC.
Eighteen candidates were named in ongoing investigations by Colombia’s Supreme Court for criminal and para-political dealings.
Neo-paramilitary gangs like Los Rastrojos, in addition to Los Urabeños, and Los Paisas, emerged during a power vacuum that was created when the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, demobilized during peace talks in 2006.
At that time more than 31,000 paramilitaries were demobilized under the Justice and Peace process by the government of President Alvaro Uribe. The new groups that formed are equally brutal, and have been linked to drug trafficking and to the crime waves across the country.