By Irene Escudero
Quibdo, Colombia, Mar 12 (EFE).- Colombia’s first-of-its-kind project of setting aside seats in Congress for people who suffered during decades of armed conflict appears to be foundering due to underfunding and the machinations of entrenched local elites.
“This has been a symbolic process,” but also “stingy with the victims,” unfair, and plagued with mistakes, a veteran grassroots leader in the northwestern province of Choco told Efe.
Fabian Gomez (not his real name) is one of the near 400 candidates to throw their hats in the ring for one of the 16 “peace seats” in the lower house of Congress.
All of the seats are in Temporary Special Peace Districts (CITREP) established in rural areas that were particularly affected by the multisided conflict involving government forces, leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and criminal organization seeking to exploit the war.
Overwhelmingly Afro-Colombian in population, Choco witnessed some of the worst atrocities of the conflict.
In the CITREP where Gomez is running, virtually everyone expects the seat to be won by James Hermenegildo Mosquera, whose application for victim status was approved by authorities in less than 10 days, though it was based on no more than his word that he received threats from guerillas.
While most of the candidates lacked the resources to campaign in remote corners of the CITREP, Mosquera was seen handing out cash to villagers.
Efe was able to confirm the authenticity of a document from the municipal government of Istmina stating that Mosquera lied when he claimed to be a resident of the town and that he fabricated the “threats” against him.
The Peace and Reconciliation Foundation says that Mosquera faces charges of embezzling more than 1 billion pesos (nearly $280,000) in connection with a contract to provide services to a public entity.
Here and in other CITREPs, according to Fabian Gomez, the goal of providing a voice to conflict victims is being subverted by local political dynasties and the election machines of the traditional parties.
The independent election observer organization MOE Colombia said in a report released Saturday that candidates in CITREPs have expressed fears that ballots will be stolen.
Choco, which borders Panama and offers access to both the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean, has a large presence of ELN rebels and gunmen working for the Clan del Golfo drug cartel, meaning that candidates must travel with security.
Gomez told Efe that candidates find themselves having to negotiate with armed groups to enter communities under their control.
He said that he receives some help from the Catholic Church and from friends who provide him with fuel and a motorboat to reach the many towns and villages that are only accessible by river.
The government has also failed to educate voters about the nature of the CITREP elections, Gomez said, recounting how he would arrive in a community and be greeted as a “lying political son of a bitch” by people who see the victim candidates as identical to traditional corrupt politicians. EFE