2023 – The year in Colombian politics, how we wish it wasn’t

By Oli Pritchard December 19, 2023

Whatever else Colombia may be, it’s never boring, and as we say farewell to 2023, it’s time to look back at a typically bumpy year. The second post-pandemic year saw more big elections and all kinds of scandals and storms. We’ve edited this down considerably to bring you a few highlights and many more lowlights.

It was the first full year of Gustavo Petro as president and the last year of Claudia López as mayor of Bogotá. They spent much of it squabbling, something that will likely continue once Galán takes over. 

It’s worth noting that political fatigue is growing ever more in Colombia – the mayoral elections in the capital barely hit a 50% turnout. It’s not hard to see why, looking at the shower of shit that this recap is.

Galán romps home in mayoral race

It's Galán, the new mayor
Galán inherits a tricky situation

This year saw regional elections for mayors and governors across the country. Bogotá had a presidential-style runoff system in place for the first time but didn’t need it, as Galán won comfortably in the first round. He will have a lot ahead of him in what will be a difficult time to be mayor: All the metro building issues without inaugurating it, rising crime and heavy inflation.

For Gustavo Bolívar, it was a crushing defeat. He underperformed compared to the polls, came third and didn’t even make the Bogotá Council. Many interpreted this as a rejection of Petrismo, but it’s more likely a reflection of his personal lack of popularity. Hilariously, he’ll likely be in the running for the presidency in 2026.

Outside Bogotá, it was more or less business as usual. Medellín replaced unpopular mayor Daniel Quintero with last year’s failed presidential candidate Fico Gutiérrez, meaning the second city is once more under the control of the Centro Democrático. There was violence in César and Putumayo, with the death of a government worker in the former.

In Cali, Andrés Escobar, famous for shooting at protestors, made it onto the council. To no one’s surprise, the Char clan got elected again in Barranquilla. Tunja elected Russian-born Mikhail Krasnov, who then had to prove he wasn’t a hologram or AI (yes, really). Elsewhere, eyebrows were raised at the campaign from Roger Suárez in Magdalena which highlighted alleged degeneracy in local politics by, errr, using skimpily clad women

The rest of politics

Not much of any real import has taken place, but there has been a remarkable stream of nonsense and furore throughout 2023. President Gustavo Petro ends his first full year with disapproval around 66% and an approval rate in the high twenties in the most recent polling. That’s actually better than expected, though. Don’t forget, sitting politicians are often unpopular in Colombia.

President Gustavo Petro
President Gustavo Petro, rarely seen in Bogotá

For much of the year, also ex-mayor Gustavo Petro has been at loggerheads with outgoing mayor Claudia López. They’ve clashed over the Metro project, crime and Petro’s legacy in Bogotá. Claudia ended up asking what Bogotá had done to earn the ire of the president, and it’s a valid question. Bogotá is the only low-corruption region that voted definitively for Petro in 2022.

The government continued to chop and change ministers as well, with key figures Gaviría (education) and Ocampo (treasury) choosing to leave this year. Irene Vélez (Mines and energy) was forced to resign over nepotism with her husband. Four left office in February (including Gaviría) and another two in April-May (including Ocampo), plus the resignation of Vélez.

Gaviria has since criticised the government, Vélez was defended by her father, who pointed out her achievements in synchronised swimming. In the end, she couldn’t keep her head above water despite clinging on far beyond dignity. Former sports minister Maria Isabel Urrutia is under investigation for over 100 contracts signed on her watch.

Never one to avoid controversy, Gus-Gus has got into a number of spats throughout the year. He’s had several undiplomatic exchanges with Bukele of El Salvador, more recently Milei of Argentina and even Chilean president Boric, who had suggested leftwing dictators such as Ortega in Nicaragua might be bad. There were also tussles with a number of domestic opponents and the free press. The latter have an irritating habit of doing their job, you see.

He’s a bit like that guy in the office who’s always walking to the photocopier so he looks busy while never at his actual desk in well, the seat of actual governance in the Palacio de Nariño. 2023 found him abroad 28 times (seven in January alone) and as frequently gallivanting around the country. He’s over halfway to Duque’s total overseas trips already.

While Petro has been at the heart of most political flare-ups, his vice-president Francía Márquez also found time to get involved. Her frequent helicopter trips were roundly criticised, to which her response was simply “de malas,” infuriating many. Some of the criticism of her crosses the line of decency, and a woman was jailed in November for racially abusing her.

She too, has stayed away from the capital, preferring to work from a regional backwater where there’s less scrutiny. However, her trip to Africa was successful in building long-overdue links to the continent. Her department of equality got started and turned out to dwarf all others in size, prompting concerns about both costs and overreach.

Pro govt protest
Rally round the flag

One thing that’s not been present is large scale protest. There have been the usual minor scuffles with various groups and the perennial stand-offs at universities such as the Nacho and Pedagogica, but no major demonstrations. The opposition aren’t used to organising and have always decried protestors, so it’s maybe no surprise to see them stay home. Instead, there have been pro-government rallies

Legal woes and salubrious scandals

Shakira waltzed out of court in November after her long-running tax scandal finally came to an end and she simply paid her way to freedom. It seems there is simply one law for the littlefolk and another for global superstars. Despite admitting guilt and intention, she will serve no time and was quick to highlight her philanthropy (a school that promptly flooded). No one could have predicted a tropical storm on the Caribbean coast in rainy season. 

More surprisingly in that neck of the woods, Arturo Char actually got got. A mere half-decade after being implicated in the Aída Merlano affair, he was finally arrested and taken to the notorious La Picota jail in Bogotá. However, in another sign of different rules for the rich and powerful, he was later moved to a hometown jail in Santa Marta. With the book ‘La Costa Nostra’ detailing corruption and dodginess in the Caribbean, it’s nice to see action taken.

We mentioned Irene Vélez and her husband’s contracting success. But in June, the curious case of chief of staff Laura Sanabria and political fixer (later ambassador to Venezuela) Armando Benedetti dominated things. They’ve taken different paths since. Benedetti is in semi-exile and Sanabria has been given a job to protect her from prosecution. It’s unclear what she has that the president rates so highly, but he’s determined to keep her close.

The big story for most media revolved around a housemaid being forced to undergo a lie detector test pertaining to missing cash. Once the money went missing, the woman was allegedly wiretapped before being picked up by serving police and submitted to a polygraph test in a basement.

There are even more worrying implications, though. Why did the president’s chief of staff have USD$7,000 in cash in her house, for one and what did Benedetti mean when he threatened to reveal all? What exactly was the extent of Sanabria’s influence? Why was a 29 year old political pygmy so critical to Petro’s operation? These remain unclear.

The Petro family were hit by scandal as well, with the president’s eldest son accused of receiving dodgy money and money laundering. The big unresolved question is how much of that money made it to Petro senior’s campaign, and how much he was involved. It’s hard to believe that he doesn’t know what his son was doing, even though he quickly chucked him under the bus, saying he didn’t raise him.

We finish with a more light-hearted scandal in Cúcuta, where judge Vivian Polonia had an Amor Y Amistad party with strippers at her workplace – the local Palacio de Justicia. She had previously hit headlines for taking official Zoom calls while in bed and posing in lingerie shots.