Family clans are a way to understand politics in Colombia. There are regions where local politics is limited to a last name and its clientele and dependency networks. It is common in the country to find surnames that hearken back to well-known political figures from earlier times. There are many examples of this, as well as those who participate in contemporary politics, controlling entire regions, or aspiring to do so, under a family brand.
Today, for example, one of the most active members of the Democratic Center and a promising figure in the country’s conservative politics, Miguel Uribe Turbay, is the grandson of President Julio Cesar Turbay (1978-1982). It is also the case for another representative of the same party, Paloma Valencia, who is the granddaughter of another former president, Guillermo Leon Valencia (1962-1966).
There is also the case of veteran Clara Lopez, a representative of various left-wing parties. She is linked to the political clan of the Lopez family, whose most prominent member was Alfonso Lopez Pumarejo, who served as president twice in the 1930s and 1940s and was Clara Lopez’s great-uncle. Then there are the children of politicians who were assassinated in the turbulent 1980s, like Luis Carlos Galan or Rodrigo Lara Bonilla.
A special mention is warranted for the Santos family, a lineage that has included 4 presidents, 1 vice-president and even a heroine of Colombian independence, and whose last representative was former President Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018).
Aguilar Clan in Santander
The Santander region in the northeast of the country is known for being one of the most conservative in Colombia. In regional politics, the Aguilar family has dominated for years and formed an interest group that has been involved in various corruption cases. Hugo Aguilar is the patriarch; he was the governor of Santander nearly 20 years ago, although he was later disqualified due to links with paramilitary groups.
Two of his sons were also governors in the region: Richard and Mauricio, with the latter still in office until December 31 of this year. Both have been senators of the Republic and wield significant political influence and control in the department.
The recent disqualification of candidate Rodolfo Hernández, who was leading in the polls, has opened the door for the Aguilar family to place their candidate, Héctor Mantilla, once again in the Governor’s office, which would extend the family’s dominance in the region for another 4 years.
Char Clan in Atlantico
The all-powerful Char family enjoys absolute political hegemony in the Atlantico region in the Colombian Caribbean. This is evident in the polls, which predict a resounding electoral victory for the family’s candidate for the mayorship of the capital, Barranquilla, in the local elections in October. Alejandro Char, who has already served as mayor twice, is expected to win with over 80% of the votes, according to all predictions.
The patriarch of the Char family is Fuad Char, the son of a Syrian merchant who settled in the region. He co-founded Almacenes Olímpica, along with various members of his family in the mid-1950s, and began his public career as president of the Junior de Barranquilla football club, the most representative club in the Colombian Caribbean region, in 1977. Through sport, he made his first forays into politics until he won the governorship of Atlántico in 1984.
Shortly thereafter, he transitioned to national politics, where he served as a senator from 1990 to 2014, with the exception of the 2006-2010 term. He also held positions as a minister and ambassador to Portugal.
From the Region to National Politics
His three sons have also been involved in regional life: Alejandro, Arturo, and Antonio. The youngest, Antonio, is the CEO of the family business, Almacenes Olímpica, while Alejandro and Arturo have had extensive political careers.
The eldest son, Alejandro, has served as mayor of Barranquilla twice, and it appears that starting in January 2024, he will return to the mayor’s office currently held by a candidate close to the family clan, Jaime Pumarejo. Alejandro also briefly served as governor of Atlantico twenty years ago and held a high-ranking position in President Juan Manuel Santos’s government as High Advisor for the Regions.
Arturo Char, on the other hand, began his public life, like his father, as president of the football club in 2003. From there, he transitioned to the Senate of the Republic, where he served from 2006 to 2010 and from 2014 to 2023, holding the presidency of the Senate from 2020 to 2021. He resigned as a senator in February of this year, facing accusations of electoral corruption, and is currently in prison in Bogota, awaiting trial for electoral fraud and mass vote-buying, linked to the Aída Merlano case.
Other members of the coastal family clan involved in politics include David Char, who was also a congressman, and Jose Miguel Char, who served as an anticorruption delegate during President Juan Manuel Santos’s administration.
The Case of Magdalena
A special case is what is happening in the Magdalena region, adjacent to Atlántico and, therefore, also in the Colombian Caribbean region. Much smaller than Atlántico, in the land of Carlos Vives, the surnames traditionally associated with regional politics, including its capital, Santa Marta, were Vives, Cotes, and Diaz-Granados.
Some of the politicians who until a few years ago had hegemony in the region have been convicted for their ties to paramilitaries. Regional politics received a shakeup in 2012 when former rector of the University of Magdalena, Carlos Caicedo, won the mayoralty of the capital, Santa Marta. Caicedo broke away from the Liberal Party, founded his own political brand, Fuerza Ciudadana, and has since governed the city with increasing popular support, along with mayors Rafa Martínez and Virna Johnson.
In 2019, Caicedo achieved a historic victory when he moved on to the Governorship of Magdalena, displacing the Cotes family, which included Luis Miguel and Rosa Cotes, who had controlled regional politics.
Caicedo has controlled politics in the region since then. For this year’s local and regional elections, his organization nominated Rafa Martínez, former mayor of Santa Marta, as the candidate for Governor, and Patricia Caicedo, Carlos’s sister, as the candidate for the capital’s mayoralty.
However, the Colombian electoral authority has disqualified Patricia Caicedo’s candidacy due to family incompatibility since, according to Colombian law, a direct relative cannot run for office in a region where a representative of the same family already governs.
In this way, it seems that new political options like Fuerza Ciudadana, which also supports President Petro’s government through political control of Magdalena, are destined to follow the traditional practice of political endogamy.
The cases of Santander, Atlantico, and now Magdalena are examples of politics that tie family and region together and defend interests that are not always transparent; this leads to social disaffection towards politics, something that also suits the dominant political houses in the land of Sacred Heart and magical realism.