The unitary nature of the governmental system relegated local governments to the status of implementors with quite limited policy-making authority. As of 1988, Colombia was divided into the Special District (Distrito Especial) of Bogotá, twenty-three departments, and nine national territories, which were comparable in area to the departments but were sparsely populated. Unlike the departments, the number and size of the national territories were subject to administrative change. Although presidential appointees headed departments and national territories, national territories usually were managed from the national capital because of their small populations and minor economic importance. The national territories consisted of four intendencies (intendencias) and five lower-ranking commissaryships (comisarias).
The president names department governors for an indefinite term. Until 1978 these appointments were made strictly on the basis of party parity, and some modified forms of parity were maintained until Barco took office in 1986. The governor is responsible only to the national government for the handling of departmental affairs and is bound to obey and enforce orders issued by the national government. The governor also issues decrees, appoints and removes departmental officials (except mayors), and assists in the judicial administration of the department, protecting and supervising public establishments and overruling unconstitutional acts of mayors and municipal councils. Although the departments had little actual self-government, they had local legislatures, or assemblies, that assisted the governors. The departmental assemblies met annually for a two-month session.
Within each department and national territory, the lowest level of local government was the municipality, of which there were at least 915. A mayor (alcalde), who was responsible to the departmental governor, directed a municipality. Until March 1988-- when mayors were elected popularly for the first time--governors appointed mayors and rotated them frequently, without consideration for their local roots.
Popularly elected councils (juntas)--elected to two-year terms--assisted the mayors in planning public works projects. The councils' functions and powers were so limited, however, that they often did not even bother to meet. Unofficially, most municipalities were subdivided into zones (corregimientos), each supervised by an official known as a corregidor, who lacked official status but nevertheless performed a variety of judicial and police duties.
Indian reservations (resguardos) were the only other official administrative subdivisions besides municipalities with legal status. Specific laws and locally elected authorities governed the reservations, which operated as corporate communities occupying assigned geographical areas. The Indian authorities governed through a council (cabildo), which was elected popularly and met regularly. Although legally entitled to all rights and privileges of full citizenship, Indian rights groups frequently complained of being forced off contested land by armed thugs hired by landowners. Consequently, in the mid-1984 to 1987 period, the Quintín Lamé Command staged numerous land occupations. Indian groups also sought to promote local improvements through community action, public education, and legal aid.
Prior to the March 1988 municipal elections, most major decisions regarding governmental matters in a municipality were made at the departmental level, or at least had to have the approval of the departmental governor. For example, the governor had to approve property and market taxes levied by municipalities. Because of the limited income raised by the municipalities, funds to provide for utilities and other public services also came from the departmental and national governments. Even these funds tended to be used inefficiently and for political purposes as a result of the extensive political patronage by local bosses (gamonales). In the mid-1980s, a "national civic movement" became increasingly militant in its strike tactics and emerged as a significant force for change at the local level. As a result of the first popular election of mayors in March 1988, the municipalities presumably gained a voice in decision-making processes affecting them.
Beginning with the March 1988 elections, mayors were elected for two-year terms, with the exception of the mayor of Bogotá, who was elected to serve a four-year term. The bill approving direct election of mayors posed a challenge to the traditional strongholds of political bosses, who could no longer use political patronage to fill these positions. The municipal appointments had long provided a spoils system, especially for the majority Liberal Party, which strongly opposed the bill. A poll taken in late 1984 showed that 96 percent of the municipalities with more than 50,000 inhabitants had a Liberal majority. Although the Liberals maintained their overall dominance in the March 1988 municipal elections, the Conservatives won in the two largest cities: Bogotá and Medellín.
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