Colombia’s cliffhanger election raises security concerns

Gustavo Petro (left) and Rodolfo Hernández (right)

Colombia’s security forces will deploy 321,000 of its members to protect the electorate with the final round of voting on June 19. In Sunday’s run-off election two candidates – leftist Gustavo Petro and independent Rodolfo Hernández – are in a tight race to clinch the presidency. Speaking to reporters at a press briefing, the country’s Defense Minister Diego Molano offered “security guarantees” during these elections, highlighting that extra measures are in place to allow 38 million citizens to vote, especially in eight “high risk” departments, among them, Cauca, Nariño, Valle del Cauca, and Antioquia.

Some 80,000 members of the National Police and Armed Forces will be deployed to prevent road blockades, possible attacks against public transportation infrastructure – including Bogotá’s TransMilenio – bus terminals, airports and entry points to major cities.

National Police Chief Jorge Vargas mentioned that 11,300 officers will guard election stations in Bogotá’s 20 localities, as well as 44 check-points. Two helicopters, nine drones and 7,000 closed-circuit cameras will monitor from above events as they happen.

A ban on all alcohol sales will be enforced from 6:00 pm on Saturday to midday Monday, June 20.

All overland border crossings will also close as from Saturday (6:00 pm) to Monday (6:00 am). Only Colombian citizens resident in Venezuela, and who have registered their identity cards with the National Registrar’s Office, will be able to enter the country.

The election’s security measures were announced on the same day the National Police arrested 21 members of the so-called “First Line” organization formed last year by anti-government protestors during the National Strike. Members of the “First Line” were responsible for over 2,000 violent episodes during the four-month long Paro Nacional, including attacks against food convoys, ambulances, torching of police stations, kidnapping, torture and murder.

Videos circulating on social media of “First Line” activists threatening to use violence should Petro lose the election, as well as a recent statement by the Senator’s daughter Sofiá Petro, in which she warns of a “social explosion”, raised security levels over the outcome of Sunday’s election. Former Bucaramanga mayor and real estate magnate Rodolfo Hernández said he would respect the results of the elections and “trusted the country’s National Registrar Alexander Vega.”

According to General Vargas, police intelligence shared information with the military and Attorney General’s Office before arresting persons believed to be orchestrating acts of violence based on the election results. Investigators tracked social media profiles, many of them anonymous, as well as messages in the deep web. Vargas asserted that “precise and clear instructions” were given to the director of criminal investigations to proceed with the arrests given “probative elements and physical evidence for different crimes committed.”

The arrests of “First Line” protestors in Cali, Bogotá and Bucaramanga has been denounced by human rights activists as “arbitrary” and as a “stigmatization of legitimate social protest.” Among those captured is alias “Papas,” a gang leader responsible for organizing vandals during the national strike in the southwest city of Cali.

On Thursday morning Rodolfo Hernández agreed to a live debate with Gustavo Petro on public television – but from his hometown of Bucaramanga – after a local court ordered both presidential frontrunners to talk face-to-face or risk legal prosecution.

Thursday’s televised debate on RCTV network is a first between both candidates since Petro unilaterally cancelled all debates ahead of the first round on voting on May 29. Petro has been barnstorming Colombia’s coffee-growing departments and offered to debate Hernández “without any conditions.”

Hernández, age 77, referred to as “El Inge” (short for The Engineer) earned his degree from the country’s public university Universidad Nacional before amassing a personal fortune of over US$100 million in construction and real estate ventures.

Hernández has largely run a social media campaign and is being labelled as “The Old Man of Tik Tok”. Hernández’s wife, Socorro Oliveros, runs the corporate finances and the campaign has been paid for with their own resources.

The conservative pro-business leader is widely expected to sweep the overseas vote, especially in major US cities home to large Colombian expat populations.

During a meeting Wednesday between U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Iván Duque in Washington, Blinken outlined the administration’s objective to “work closely with the next government of Colombia.”