While officially a free market democracy, Colombia’s state system and economy are rigged by “clans” that are largely above the law.
These clans’ ability to almost usurp the country’s democracy and economy most recently became evident by detailed allegations by fugitive politician Aida Merlano, a former member of the Gerlein Clan.
Merlano’s account of how, for example, the Char Clan steals elections and rigs the justice system is news to nobody.
Not even her claim she was sexually harassed as a child is unique, but a reminder the clans have never shied away from crimes against humanity.
The fact that the fugitive politician was interviewed by Vicky Davila confirmed their intimate ties to Colombia’s mass media; the Semana columnist married into the Gnecco Clan.
The Heirs of Evil
Political analyst Leon Valencia on Tuesday released a book, “The Heirs of Evil,” which provides further details on the clans that, with a few exceptions, are able to get away with murder.
Historically, the clans formed around families like those of former President Juan Manuel Santos whose clan is as old as the republic.
The clans’ capacity to corrupt justice makes it almost impossible to uphold the rule of law, sustain a free market economy or protect the country’s democracy.
Case study: The Char Clan
The Char Clan from Barranquilla is arguably the most powerful and wealthiest mafia in Colombia at the moment and has not shied away from using terrorism to expand their power.
The clan of family patriarch Fuad Char has almost absolute power in the Atlantico province, as many as five seats in the Senate as part of the Radical Change party and is set to enter the government of President Ivan Duque.
Only one clan member, David Char, has been sentenced to prison despite many dozens of criminal investigations against its almost untouchable members.
To exemplify their immense power, clan chief Alejandro Char ended his second term as mayor of Barranquilla in December last year with an approval rating of 95% despite the 87 criminal investigations against him.
The former mayor was able to maintain the almost North Korean approval rating because his clan virtually controls the media.
Not only does the Char family own popular radio station Olimpica, but the former mayor funneled at least $21 million in public funds to both local and national media. News about corruption allegations has simply disappeared from the internet, according to press freedom foundation FLIP.
Furthermore, the clan is the majority shareholder of the local football team, Junior Barranquilla. If you want to buy food or medicine in the port city, you’re likely to do so at the clan’s Olímpica supermarket chain.
If the government needs the construction of housing or infrastructure projects, the clan has the companies to do it with and allegedly will reward politicians who fund their treasury.
If this is corrupt, no problem. The clan is close to former chief prosecutor Nestor Humberto Martinez, who personally cleared the Chars when one of their companies got embroiled in the Odebrecht bribery scandal.
The Char Clan
Source: Leon Valencia
Colombia’s economic and political cancer
Like the Char clan, there are currently some 18 of these regional mafias in Colombia, according to Valencia, all with significant political control over all levels of government and ties to organized crime or illegal armed groups.
These clans decide who represents their region in Congress and have the capacity to swing presidential elections if a candidate who could challenge their power emerges.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, this election rigging was done with the help of paramilitary groups and, according to Merlano, through good-old vote-buying after the demobilization of the AUC between 2003 and 2006.
Economic competition with the clans’ cartels is virtually impossible. If not violently dissuaded, potential competitors face legal and administrative obstacles not even Uber can overcome.
The 2017 Toga Cartel scandal demonstrated that the clans’ capacity to corrupt justice reaches as high as the Supreme Court where allegedly bribed magistrates frustrated criminal investigations.
One can only guess what their capacity is to corrupt lower court decisions and what Colombia’s institutional capacity is to resist the usurpation of power and wealth by what essentially are organized crime groups.