One Secret to a Latin American Party’s Dominance: Buying Votes

The Espinillo Indigenous community is 13 miles from the nearest polling station — and no one in the village has a car.

So two weeks ago, on the eve of Paraguay’s election, Miguel Paredes, a retired ambulance driver turned local politician, loaded the Indigenous families onto a bus and brought them to the side of a highway, a short walk from the polls. “We want to look after them,” said Mr. Paredes, 65, standing watch with six young men he called colleagues.

Then, after dark, Mr. Paredes and his colleagues gathered some of the Indigenous people and took down their identification numbers. Mr. Paredes told them they were to vote for the Colorado Party — the dominant, right-wing political force in Paraguay — and to make sure their fellow community members did so, too. The young men then walked the Indigenous people through a simulation of Paraguay’s voting machines on a phone, guiding them to vote for Colorado candidates.

With New York Times journalists within earshot, Milner Ruffinelli, one of the young men, slipped into the Indigenous language, Guaraní. “That money that was promised to you, that’s all there, too, and Mr. Miguel Paredes is going to see how to get it to you,” he said. “We can’t give you anything here. You know why.”

Qom Indigenous community members in Benjamin Aceval, Paraguay, protested to demand government assistance on the day before Paraguay’s presidential elections.

Democracy is being tested across the planet. In some countries, leaders have attacked democratic institutions, including in the United States, Turkey, Brazil and Mexico, while in other places they have upended the democratic process altogether, as in Russia, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

At the same time, internet disinformation has fed swirling claims of hacked voting machines, dead voters and stolen ballots, undercutting faith in clean elections.

But in many nations, a less visible, but just as pervasive threat continues to afflict free and fair elections: buying votes.

Political parties in Mexico have handed out gift cards, groceries and even washing machines. Election observers said last year’s vote in the Philippines was plagued by “blatant vote buying.” In February, a politician in Nigeria was caught with $500,000 and a list of possible recipients the day before national elections.

Last month in Paraguay, a nation of 7.4 million in the center of South America, The Times found a distinctive type of vote-buying, developed over decades, on blatant display: Political operatives rounded up Indigenous people in Paraguay’s remote north and tried to control or purchase their votes.

On the weekend of national elections, The Times witnessed representatives of the ruling Colorado Party attempting to purchase the votes of Indigenous people, and more than a dozen Indigenous people said in interviews that they had accepted money from the party just before voting.

An ink-stained finger signifying that a vote had been cast in Pozo Colorado, Paraguay.
A member of the Espinillo Indigenous community holding a slip of paper showing the Colorado Party candidates that party workers had pressed the community to vote for.

In one case, a Colorado candidate for governor personally handed out 200,000 guaraníes, or nearly $30 each, to more than 100 Indigenous voters outside a polling station in the riverside town of Fuerte Olimpo, according to interviews with five Indigenous people who took the money. That amount is equivalent to several weeks’ earnings for Paraguay’s poorest.

Nestor Rodríguez, chief of the Tomáraho Indigenous community that was given the money, said it was standard. “It’s just to buy clothes and things for your family,” he said. He voted for that Colorado candidate, Arturo Méndez, because of promises of jobs and a new road, he said.

Mr. Méndez handily won the election. In an interview, he admitted to giving the Indigenous people cash but said it was only because they needed food and clothes, and the government had forgotten them. “Yes, we help them. But not to induce their vote,” he said. “It would be heartless not to.”

Paying people to vote a certain way is illegal in Paraguay. Many payments are framed as financial assistance, such as money for lunch on Election Day.

In the bordering province of Concepción, where there are 3,000 Indigenous residents, the Colorado candidate won the governorship by just 28 votes. The losing candidate is challenging the results, claiming irregularities in the vote count.

Vote buying can swing local elections, but rarely national ones, said Ryan Carlin, a Georgia State University professor who has studied the issue. Yet it always undermines democracy by “short circuiting the mechanisms of representation and accountability,” he said. “If a vote is taken for granted and given in exchange for something else, there’s no policy promise on the other end.”

On the eve of Paraguay’s election, Colorado Party supporters brought the Espinillo Indigenous community to a dirt patch on the side of the highway and then stood watch there for hours.

Many of Paraguay’s roughly 120,000 Indigenous people started integrating into modern society just a few decades ago, and many political parties — not just the Colorado — have since sought to control their votes.

In the days leading up to national elections, party workers fan out across the Chaco, a vast, arid region that encompasses Paraguay’s northwestern half, where nearly half of the Indigenous live.

At remote communities, the workers load Indigenous people onto buses, take them to fenced-in sites and ply them with meat and beer until the vote, according to election observers, local activists and Indigenous people who have experienced it. The goal is to control a community before a rival party can.

On Election Day, party workers either pay the Indigenous people for their identification cards — thus restricting them from voting — or bus them to the polls and hand them cash.

The practice is so entrenched, it has developed its own vocabulary: “herding” the Indigenous voters and putting them in “corrals.”

“It’s like we’re animals to be bought,” said Francisco Cáceres, 68, a member of the Qom Indigenous group.

Colorado Party workers brought food to the Indigenous people of the Espinillo community who were camping alongside a highway ahead of the vote.

European Union election observers said they witnessed such “corrals” in Paraguay’s 2013 and 2018 elections, and saw multiple cases of vote buying in the April 30 election. Parties seek to purchase the votes of many Paraguayans, not just the Indigenous, the observers said.

The practice is part of the robust political machine that has strengthened the Colorado Party’s grip on Paraguay, which it has controlled for 71 of the past 76 years, including four decades of military dictatorship.

The Colorado presidential candidate, Santiago Peña, won by 460,000 votes, with 43 percent of the total. (Paraguay has fewer than 80,000 Indigenous adults, according to estimates.) Mr. Peña is the political protégé of Horacio Cartes, a former president and the current party chairman, who was sanctioned this year by the U.S. government over accusations that he had bribed his way to power.

The second- and third-place candidates have suggested that Mr. Peña’s victory was rigged, but have not presented clear evidence. The third-place candidate, whose supporters have blocked highways in protest, has been jailed on accusations of attempting to obstruct elections.

In an interview before the election, Mr. Peña said that if vote buying happens, it would not swing races.

“The vote-buying argument doesn’t really have much evidence,” he said. “It has never been possible to demonstrate a massive purchase scheme. If 2.5 to 3 million people vote, how many votes would we have to buy?”

Still, among Paraguayans, vote buying is an open secret. “It’s almost like without it, it’s not an election,” said the Rev. José Arias, a Catholic priest who uses his sermons to discourage his Indigenous flock from selling its votes. “People agree in theory,” he said. “It’s just that many who agree also accept” the bribes.

José Arias, a Catholic priest, said he tries to discourage Indigenous people from selling their votes. But, he added, “It’s almost like without it, it’s not an election.’’

At the highway encampment, Mr. Paredes and Mr. Ruffinelli said they were not handing out bribes. The Colorado Party paid for the bus, as well as chicken, noodles and cooking oil they gave to the community, they said. But they were there because they had built relationships over time, they said, and were pushing Colorado candidates because they were the best for the community.

Everyone was free to vote how they wished, Mr. Ruffinelli said, but he expected them to vote Colorado.

“They already promised,” Mr. Ruffinelli said. He rattled off statistics: The Indigenous accounted for 86 percent of the 5,822 registered voters in the local voting precinct. He said he would be analyzing the results to try to ascertain whether “this community betrayed us.”

Voters arrived at a polling station in a school in Pozo Colorado. Some people said they had been given money by Colorado Party workers.

Some in the Enxet Sur community said they would accept money — but still vote against the Colorados. “If the Colorados come with an offer, we’ll grab it, but we know how we’re going to vote: for change,” said Fermin Chilavert, 61, one of the community’s elders.

Others had already taken the money and were planning to vote as asked, including 10 community members who agreed to act as “political operators” for the party on Election Day.

In a late-night meeting, Mr. Paredes and Mr. Ruffinelli explained to the operators that they were to ensure other Indigenous people voted Colorado, including by entering polling booths with them. (Election observers said political parties regularly abuse laws allowing disabled people to be accompanied to the voting booth.)

“You are going to enter with them, you are going to teach them and you are going to tell them where to click,” Mr. Paredes said to the Indigenous people, many staring nervously at the ground.

Voters arrived in buses decorated in Colorado Party signs and banners as the polls opened in Pozo Colorado.

The next morning, Election Day, a truck stop near the polling station was filled with buses. They had ferried hundreds of Indigenous people to vote, and each was adorned with decals of a political party, most for the Colorados.

On one bus with Colorado signs, the Indigenous passengers said they were each given 100,000 to 150,000 guaraníes, or $14 to $21, and had voted Colorado.

The man running the bus, Catalino Escobar, said the voters were given a stipend to eat. (A sandwich and a Coca-Cola at the gas station cost $2.)

“I don’t know who the candidate is, to tell you the truth,” said Mary Fernanda, 51, who said she accepted 100,000 guaraníes to help feed her children. “I’m only voting out of necessity.”

When the votes were counted, the Colorado Party again dominated elections across Paraguay, retaining the presidency and strengthening its control of Congress.

The 19 Indigenous people who ran for national or state seats all lost. Paraguay has never elected anyone who identifies as Indigenous to national office.

Across the highway from a polling location, right, an array of buses waited for voters in Pozo Colorado. The buses had transported hundreds of Indigenous people from across the region to vote.
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