(IPS) – What was the going rate for a vote? "About 100,000 pesos (50 dollars)," says Víctor Raúl Mosquera, the ombudsman for the northwestern Colombian department (province) of Chocó.
That was the price of votes in Chocó in the parties’ primary elections for Sunday’s provincial and local elections.
In this jungle province, which is rich in natural resources yet where the people are the poorest in Colombia, "elections are the business opportunity of a lifetime for most people," Mosquera said.
Some voters were paid in kind: "a dozen planks of wood, a dozen zinc roofing sheets, a toilet bowl, sacks of cement, or cans of paint," he said. "It isn’t easy to control. They tell the people, go to such-and-such a place and pick it up."
Which parties did this? "The conservatives, the liberals, all of them!" he said, referring to the two traditional parties.
But he qualified his statement: "Not the Polo (the leftwing Alternative Democratic Pole), nor Zulia Mena’s party; they didn’t stoop to that." Mena, a former congresswoman who represented black communities in the 1990s, was standing for mayor of Quibdó, the provincial capital, as the candidate for the Liberal Party.
It used to be even worse. "They would hold onto people’s identity documents, and only hand them out on election day. Now they are more subtle, they manage things more discreetly," Mosquera said.
On Friday Oct. 26, two days before the elections, "I heard that votes were going for between 20,000 and 50,000 pesos (between 10 and 25 dollars). Imagine what it must have been like on Sunday, when the rate was even higher," he told IPS.
A lot of money has been changing hands recently in Quibdó. "Some people were withdrawing 100 or 200 million pesos (50,000 to 100,000 dollars)" in cash from the banks in the two weeks period before the elections.
"People say, ‘they’re offering a lot of money, and as we haven’t got a bean " Julia Susana Mena, a leader of the Community Council of the Comprehensive Association of Small Farmers of the Atrato (ACIA), in the riverbank town of Puerto Conto, told IPS.
"I was trying to see how we could organise ourselves. I turned up and said ‘let’s all fight together.’ But the people said ‘we have no money, let’s vote for this candidate, who’s offering us cash we can use,’" she said.
ACIA, which brings together the traditional authorities of 120 black communities in Medio Atrato (the area in the middle range of the Atrato river), was formally constituted 20 years ago. Created to combat poverty, it was promoted and accompanied by the Catholic diocese of Quibdó.
Mena completed six years of primary school and afterwards learned from courses and experience within the organisation. A single mother with five children, she is a recognised leader not only in her province, but also among Colombian communities nationwide who oppose the decades-long internal armed conflict with civil resistance.
In the civil war, leftwing guerrillas face off with the regular armed forces and their ultra-rightwing paramilitary allies.
Mena says that if ACIA had fielded its own candidates in the eight municipalities in its area of coverage, they would all win hands down and things would be different. But no consensus was reached.
Instead, ACIA backed other candidates who promised "to follow our local government programme, which is already drawn up, and reflects what the communities really want."
"But some mayors, when they get to power, forget who put them there, and start to do whatever they want and don’t spend the funds the way they ought to be spent," she said.
So since the elected authorities do not fulfil their promises, let them at least pay for people’s votes — this would seem to be the general opinion.
That is the reality of elections in the black communities along the Atrato river, which flows through Chocó province from south to north, into the Caribbean sea.
"People said to candidates, ‘give me a little something,’ knowing full well that their ‘little something’ wouldn’t get us out of the mess we’re in, nor would it hold the candidate accountable later," said Mena.
Also, "vast numbers of candidates" competed with those supported by ACIA.
Everyone voted for different candidates, because the communities didn’t organise how they would vote. Eventually, "they ended up admitting that they made a mistake," said Mena.
On Sunday in the municipality of Medio Atrato, ACIA backed a local teacher, Luis Gorgonio Moreno Valencia, standing for the Apertura Liberal (Liberal Opening) party, for mayor.
During a motorboat tour on the Atrato river, lawyer Roque Rentería, another leader of the small farmers’ association and a former mayor of the municipality, told IPS that "we can’t forever be presenting candidates from the core leadership of ACIA, because it would become a monopoly."
"We backed someone local, and gave him or her our support. We’re gaining experience in the electoral political process," he said.
But ombudsman Mosquera warned that for ACIA to campaign and participate in the elections, without first educating the communities to overcome their dependence on clientelism, was dangerous.
He also posed a delicate problem: in places where guerrillas or paramilitaries are active, mayors have to pay part of the municipal budget to whichever force is exercising power locally. "That’s the reality, there are no two ways about it," he said.
"So there are two options: either you do not run for office, or if you do run, you have to play by the rules, and take public money to pay those people. That’s why I say it’s better not to run," Mosquera said.
The communities affiliated to ACIA are opposed to any armed presence in their territory of 800,000 hectares, to which they obtained collective title in 1997, but their neutrality is not heeded.
"Monitoring these elections is very difficult. The national electoral authorities are weak, and the whole Colombian electoral system is very fragile," said Mosquera, because not even the security of the ballot boxes in transit to collection centres can be guaranteed, once voting is over.
In addition, there are plenty of opportunities for the voter lists, or the contents of the ballot boxes themselves, to be altered. "Colombia has the most backward electoral system in Latin America," a source from the Organisation of American States’ Electoral Observation Mission, who requested anonymity, told IPS.
The poverty of the rural villages demonstrates that a candidate elected by paid votes is not accountable to the community that voted him or her in, but to his or her financiers. And these wield a great deal of power in Chocó.
After controversial negotiations between the national government and paramilitary commanders, many of whom are drug trafficking bosses, a partial demobilisation of the paramilitaries was achieved. In Chocó this took place in the municipality of Istmina in August 2005.
"But they continue to run their trafficking business, exercise power, and operate their extortion rackets. Obviously this means that people can’t lodge protests, because they’re afraid. Those people are still making threats and ‘disappearing’ people," the ombudsman told IPS.
"They merely changed their name," and they still have influence in the north of Chocó, in Quibdó, Istmina and Baudó, a municipality near the Pacific coast.
"Drug trafficking is their source of finance, and they launder the money by buying legitimate businesses. They have bankrupted traditional businesses in areas like housing construction, and new activities like grain storage barns, pharmacies and shops," Mosquera said.
"They have a powerful influence on the (rightwing) Colombian administration (of Álvaro Uribe), because they also finance the presidential election campaigns," he said.
The governor of Chocó, Julio Ibargüen, is under investigation by the Supreme Court for having allegedly handed over the health sector of Chocó to "El Señor", a druglord on the Pacific coast.
Mosquera has two proposals to combat vote buying. The main one is state financing of election campaigns.
The other one is this: "if the state were stronger, it could require banks to divulge money movements in the past few weeks, and see who have made huge withdrawals last week or the week before," he said.
Leftwing guerrillas, meanwhile, make their presence felt in rural areas, and in some towns, where they fight turf wars with the paramilitaries. In September, the rebels issued death threats against candidates, town councillors or officials in nine of the 31 municipalities in Chocó, as well as against business associations and chambers and state institutions in the Lower Atrato.
On Thursday, guerrillas burned electoral materials in the municipality of Nóvita.
"They don’t want elections to be held, or people to vote," said Mosquera. In Chocó, the two main guerrilla forces, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), act in concert, he said.
(*This article is part of a series about the Millennium Development Goals in Chocó. The project that gave rise to this effort was the winner of the AVINA Investigative Journalism scholarship. The AVINA Foundation is not responsible for the ideas, opinions or other aspects of the content.)