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Colombia’s devolution sparked 25 years of democratization

Ana Maria Bejaran o
espite its lon g-standin g batle with dru g lords and
factional fighting, Colombia has succeeded in instituting
the direct election of its mayors and governors
in a 20-year democratisation process that is still
changing the face of the nation in 2008.
The move to direct elections of mayors and governors
has had a lasting impact on Colombia’s
politics. It opened the political system to many groups. New
political parties and movements have sprung up, vowing to
clean up public administration, root out corruption, end oneman
rule by city mayors, and offer more accountability.
Previously, mayors were appointed by state governors, who
were appointed by the president.
But the changes are not enough to call the decentralization
process “devolution.” Colombia’s 32 regions and its cities have
few powers, though these powers are set out and fully protected
in the constitution adopted in 1991. There are few taxes that the
regions and cities can raise. However, the changes in a quarter
century have been impressive.
One local star in the transfer of powers to the cities is Sergio
Fajardo, a mathematics professor who was a popular mayor of
Medellin from 2003-07. Fajardo focused on helping the poor,
building public infrastructure and improving their commute to
work and is credited with the turnaround of a city once considered
the most dangerous in Latin America. Medellin is no
longer viewed as the drug capital of South America, thanks in
part to Fajardo.
The people today expect far more from municipal administrations
than they did two decades ago. This is true of the major
cities, but also of the many mid-size urban centres, which have
undergone considerable transformations, mainly because of
incentives created by democratization and the increasing
power of the municipal order of government.
The current decentralization campaign began in Colombia
in the mid 1980s. It was part of Latin America’s return to democracy
and was a result of pressures to diminish the size of central
governments. It ushered in a region-wide trend toward leaner,
more decentralized states.
Forces disarm
Colombians were weary of decades of internal warfare.
Decentralization was promoted as a means of instilling peace
among the various warring factions and as an incentive to lay
down their arms and in exchange, gain powers in regional
It was viewed as a win-win by the right wing of the
Conservative party and originally, also by the extreme left, represented
by various guerrilla groups – particularly the powerful
rebel group known as the FARC.
The Conservative Party government of President Belisario
Betancur (1982-86) initiated peace talks with three guerrilla
groups in 1983. Within this context, the proposal to initiate a
decentralization process took off. Decentralization – which
soon became entrenched in the Constitution of 1991 – was seen
as bait to lure guerrilla groups to the negotiation table and, by
others within Congress, as a way to enhance their political prospects
once the Liberals returned to power, as they did in 1986.
In 1998, Conservative President Andres Pastrana began a
series of peace talks with FARC, resulting in a so-called “demilitarized
zone” for the rebels in Colombia. But after more than
three years of negotiations, Pastrana ended the talks in
February 2002, following a series of high-profile guerrilla
attacks by FARC. The Colombian army then moved in to occupy
the demilitarized zone.
FARC then responded with the kidnapping of such high-
25 years of
colom b ia
Reforms changed the face of
cities but underfunded key
Ana Maria Bejarano, assistant professor of political science at
University of Toronto, was previously professor of political science at
Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Colombia.
JUNE | JULY 2008 Federations
Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe gestures during a meeting with U.S.
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. Uribe launched a raid on a FARC camp
in Ecuador in April, 2008, causing protests from several Latin American
Credit : REUTERS/Albeir o Lopera
SPECIAL SECTION : Decentra lizati on and Dev oluti on in non-federa l countries
level hostages as Colombian Senator Ingrid Betancourt at the
end of February 2002. This action raised the ante. Cities all
across the nation mounted massive demonstrations with
Colombians of all stripes and ideological persuasions opposing
the kidnappings.
Civil conflict in Colombia was a confusing array of overlapping
alliances. Guerrilla groups and so-called “paramilitary”
groups had been funded by the drug trade for years. Colombian
drug cartels even used miniature submarines costing $2 million
each to make cocaine deliveries. Although many were
captured by the Colombian or U.S. navies, those subs that
slipped through were able to deliver $250 million worth of
cocaine to Mexico.
On the extreme right, the 26,000-member AUC paramilitary
group laid down its weapons between 2002 and 2006 in return
for benefits such as reduced jail terms. But after demobilizing,
the paramilitary groups strengthened their networks of political
power and control of land.
Municipal elements led reform
Like some other Latin American countries, decentralization in
Colombia initially had a strong municipal bias. A new statute
for municipal administration was approved in 1985 and the
direct election of mayors was approved in 1986.
Significant funding from the central government fuelled the
decentralization process.
Juan Camilo Restrepo, the former minister of finance, said in
1998, that “close to a third of the central government’s increased
spending during the 1990-98 period is accounted for by the
accumulated additional obligations related to territorial transfers,
some entrenched in the constitution, others coming from
ordinary law.”
Some argue that the constitution drafted in 1991 by an
elected constituent assembly changed the dynamics of the
decentralization process to one of devolution by giving regional
governments a few constitutional areas of competency,
although their taxation power was limited only to taxes on
alcohol, tobacco, and lotteries.
The constituent assembly that preceded the ’91 constitution
represented multiple minorities – including the left, the
indigenous movement and the non-Catholic Christian population
– which banded together with progressive factions of the
Liberal party to implement a dramatic opening of the
Colombian political system.
Key changes involved extending the decentralization process
to the regional governments, with governors elected by
popular vote for the first time in 1991.
The constitution also included rules mandating that a fixed
(and increasing) proportion of national revenue be transferred
to subnational entities, thereby guaranteeing that political and
fiscal decentralization would go together. This
has sparked considerable debate, with some
blaming the fiscal deficits of the late 1990s on
this revenue distribution scheme.
Simplifying revenue transfers
A 2001 law simplified revenue transfers and
slashed the proportion of national revenue
going directly to regions and municipalities, to
37.2 per cent from 46.5 per cent. The debate on
transfers continues, with the central government
seeking to cut them and the opposition
defending the gains entrenched in the 1991 constitution.
Discussion has focused on rules for
improving revenue distribution rather than
reversing the process of decentralization.
The process of decentralization has had
important long-term consequences. It has
opened the system to new actors who were previously
excluded and has created a vibrant
political scene at the regional and local levels.
New opportunities for popular participation
have opened as well as new avenues for advancing the political
careers of leaders from outside the capital city of Bogota. Since
the reforms, many national level leaders have arrived on the
scene after starting their political careers as mayors or
Not all is positive, however. Along with opening the political
system to new entrants, some of the most harmful political
forces (including drug dealers, paramilitary groups and
remaining guerrilla groups) took full advantage of the political
spaces opened up by decentralization, and have become
entrenched centres of power.
As the stakes have been raised in local and regional elections,
violence and intimidation during electoral contests have
reached new heights. New-found autonomy from the central
government has not always furthered the best interests of the
people, and has often served regional elites, local politicians, or
both. Additionally, although the mayors and governors have
higher levels of education than their predecessors, there are
nonetheless troubling reports of increased corruption and
abuse of public funds. The good news though is that with new
electoral accountability, cities have seen unpopular mayors
thrown out. Overall, the balance seems to weigh more heavily
on the positive side.
continued on page 32 JUNE |
JULY 2008 Federations
A banner in Medellin calls for the release of Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt,
who was kidnapped by FARC guerillas in February 2002.
Credit : REUTERS/Fred y Amari les
SPECIAL SECTION : Decentra lizati on and Dev oluti on in non-federa l countries
Colom bia [from pa ge 16]
Demands for accountability
There is still concern about the adequacy
of procedures for financial accountability
given to regions and cities. Ex-finance
minister Rudolf Hommes told the leading
national newspaper, El Tiempo, in
2006: “Since the constitutional changes
of 1991 – which gave local governments
the power and responsibility to make
autonomous decisions in the areas of
education, health and basic services,
while transferring national resources so
that those local and regional governments
could adequately fulfill those
obligations … there was a prevailing
sense that the control mechanisms to
ensure that the mayors and governors
would fulfill those constitutional responsibilities
were lacking.”
But despite internal pressures,
Colombia does not have the kind of territorial
concentration of linguistic, ethnic
or religious identities that could threaten
to break the country apart. There are no
strong minority groups to oppose the
current unitary government structure, or
to demand a federal system. Nevertheless,
the centralized governance that prevailed
since the late 19th centur y
contributed significantly to the country’s
many decades of internal conflicts.
Many pundits agree that since the
early 1980s, Colombia has taken dramatic
steps in the right direction. If the
past 20 years is to serve as a roadmap for
the future, Colombia needs to keep moving
down the road in the direction of a
more deeply decentralized structure, in
which the interests, identities and
demands of all inhabitants find meaningful
expression at the national level.