Colombia is on the precipice of historic presidential elections amid a backdrop of significant social unrest, deepening polarization and the escalation of the country’s six-decade old armed conflict. Last year’s nationwide mass protests sprung up over worsening racial and socioeconomic inequality in most of the country’s major urban metropolitan centers, and a heavy-handed police response only served to worsen the crisis.

A demonstrator uses his smartphone to capture a protest march in Bogotá, Colombia. May 4, 2021. (Federico Rios/The New York Times)
A demonstrator uses his smartphone to capture a protest march in Bogotá, Colombia. May 4, 2021. (Federico Rios/The New York Times)

The ongoing armed conflict has also deteriorated, with several insurgent and neo-paramilitary groups enforcing “armed strikes” in recent months — paralyzing much of the country. Despite its mammoth aspirations for broad economic development and a government presence in rural regions, the 2016 peace accord with the defunct FARC guerillas has proven insufficient to definitively turn the tide on generalized insecurity and deficient state legitimacy, as remaining armed groups exercise de facto control of roughly one-fifth of the country’s territory.  

With the first round of presidential elections slated for the end of May, candidates are reckoning with a divided and contentious electorate that reflects a deepening legitimacy crisis for Colombian government institutions. 

Seeking to provide an equitable venue for respectful dialogue regarding these many challenges, USIP invited the four principal campaigns to participate in a townhall as an opportunity to present their visions for the country’s future and explore ways to deepen the historically strong bilateral relationship with the United States. Unfortunately, only two of the leading vice-presidential candidates — Luis Gilberto Murillo of the centrist Centro Esperanza coalition and Francia Márquez of the left-wing Pacto Histórico coalition — were able to attend in person at this time.*

Speaking at the USIP townhall, Murillo said that since 2019, Colombia has experienced a “social explosion” in response to the various crises facing the country. For Centro Esperanza, this election is about “proposing an ideology of hope” to counter the cynicism that has accompanied the economic struggles — made worse by COVID — and the growing violence across the country. 

“We are betting on an agenda of structural transformation of the electoral political system that has been violent and exclusive,” said Francia Márquez. For Pacto Histórico, the upcoming election is a chance to reform a Colombian state that Márquez believes has “used political violence, in a systemic and structural fashion, to destroy and deny the rights of the majority in Colombian society.” 

Armed Groups and the Role of Security Forces

A significant part of the discussion focused on rethinking Colombia’s approach to security. From armed groups such as the FARC and ELN to drug-trafficking and abuse by state security forces, violence has been a persistent thorn in Colombia’s side for decades. There was a brief decline in violence following the 2016 FARC peace agreement, but that lull was short-lived. Today, armed groups continue expanding the territorial impact of the armed conflict in rural and urban areas while the police and military struggle to adapt appropriately and garner lasting legitimacy with marginalized populations. 

Civil society has remained a prominent target in the crossfire — with 145 social leaders killed in 2021 alone. Both Murillo and Márquez criticized the current government for failing to stop the bloodshed. 

“The country had lowered homicide rates, [but] we went back to the same situation as before. Why?” asked Murillo. “Well, the current government made the decision not to implement the [FARC] peace accords in a firm way with responsibility and with resources.” 

According to Murillo, the first step in addressing the armed conflict is to recommit to the implementation of that peace accord with the country’s largest insurgent group: “The transformation of Colombia starts with us abiding by those agreements … It’s better to have a bad peace than a good war.” From there, Murillo argued that rural areas need a stronger, reformed security presence — one where the protection of civilians is the focus, rather than the confrontational approach Colombians see now. 

Márquez looked at the situation from another angle. While she agreed the implementation of the FARC agreement was a vital step, she noted that “the more military presence we see” in these affected areas, “the more violence is created, due to corruption, the way illegal criminal organizations operate, and the way they interact” with security forces. 

Instead, Márquez suggested Colombian leaders look at what is driving people to join armed groups and criminal organizations: a lack of economic opportunities. “There are a lot of young people who are recruited by armed groups because they don’t have access to education, they don’t have access to a good job,” said Márquez. “Violence is not going to stop if there is no dignity for Colombian citizens … That’s what we need to talk about [even before we talk about] the military presence.”

Economic Opportunity and Agriculture

Both candidates stressed that economic development is vital — not just for decreasing violence, but for alleviating Colombia’s rising food insecurity and rectifying the country’s racial and socioeconomic inequality. 

The sector most in need of improvement: agriculture. Márquez noted that a large portion of Colombia’s food supplies — such as corn — are imported, and the minimum wage in Colombia is not enough for many to afford basic needs. 

Meanwhile, Colombian agricultural infrastructure is operating well below its potential. Márquez attributed this to corruption and poor management of government-owned land. “We have to talk about land ownership in Colombia. I know that some people don’t like to hear about that,” said Márquez. “But if we don't know how many millions of hectares the government has, and that are empty and abandoned, then the people that are in power, they just expropriate and sell these pieces of land illegally.” 

Without government support for farmers, particularly in indigenous communities, criminal enterprises have stepped in and “diversified their portfolio” by expanding the illicit trade of minerals, forestry products, as well as the production of illicit crops such as coca, said Murillo. 

To bolster Colombia’s “food sovereignty” and protect the environment in the second-most biodiverse country in the world, Márquez said they will need to “transition from an extraction-based economy to a sustainable economy.” 

Additionally, Murillo stressed these economic reforms should be targeted toward communities that have been historically marginalized: “We are interested in an agenda that has to do with the other Colombia, that far-flung Colombia — where there are Afro-descendant, indigenous and marginalized peasant communities.” 

Colombia’s Relationship with the United States

2022 marks two centuries of official diplomatic relations between the United States and Colombia. In that time, Colombia has become an important strategic ally and partner of the United States. But both Márquez and Murillo were candid on how the relationship can improve, starting with the need to respect Colombian sovereignty. 

Currently the frontrunner based on the latest polling, Márquez worried that should her and running-mate Gustavo Pedro win, ties with the United States might not start off on the strongest footing. But she said she looked forward to speaking with U.S. officials and further engaging with Washington, adding: “I think that we should strengthen the relationship and build it from there because that would be the decision of the of the Colombian people. And that would be the democratic decision.”

Murillo echoed Márquez’s concerns, citing democracy as one of the key values that the Colombia-U.S. partnership has been predicated on. The two countries need to “de-ideologize that relationship. We have to have a multi-party relationship with the United States … and the U.S. needs to send clear messages regarding respect and support for Colombian democracy.” 

Beyond U.S. support for Colombian democracy, Murillo called for increased cooperation on implementing interstate aspects of the 2016 FARC peace agreement and investing in science, education and technology. He also discussed re-opening discussions regarding the joint free trade agreement: “We have to revise it or review it from the environmental perspective, as well as climate change, empowering women and the perspective of the rights of ethnic communities.”

Murillo also called on the United States to take on social justice issues in Colombia, saying, “If it's true that we have a special status with the U.S., then justice regarding the impacts of the war on drugs that have affected — most of all — communities from where Francia comes from, and where I come from … that has to be broached.”

Colombia’s Relationship with Venezuela

How to approach neighboring Venezuela has become a contentious issue during the campaign. The two countries severed diplomatic ties in 2019, but that hasn’t stopped the flow of millions of migrants — as well as armed groups and drug traffickers — from crossing the porous, 1,400-mile-long border. 

Resolving the tensions with Venezuela is crucial for Colombia’s own peace efforts, as an increasingly unstable and violent border makes implementing the FARC accord or any future peace deal with the ELN all the more difficult. “There are people on the borders that are suffering, Colombian and Venezuelan families,” said Márquez. “This is not a matter of ideology. This is a matter of a fact that people have been affected.”

But when asked about the border, Márquez instead steered the focus to immigration more generally, as well as shed a light on what Colombia can do within its own jurisdiction: “I believe that we shouldn't only work on immigration policy in Colombia that affects Venezuelans, but also Haitians and Africans … This immigration policy has to respect these people's humanity … The reality is that we have a humanitarian situation that begs for that transformation.”

While some have eschewed the idea of re-establishing ties with the Maduro regime, Murillo took a strong stance in favor — and went even further, suggesting re-opening the 15 shuttered Colombian consulates throughout Venezuela. 

*USIP also invited Marelen Castillo, vice-presidential candidate for the League of Anti-Corruption Governors, and Rodrigo Lara, vice-presidential candidate for the Team for Colombia coalition, to participate in this townhall event. The Institute will continue seeking opportunities to provide the same platforms for engagement for the remaining campaigns. Additionally, the views reflected in this piece are those of the vice-presidential candidates and do not reflect the views of USIP. 

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