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The historic maliciousness behind the Colombian “cédula”

Imagine if you had to visit the headquarters of a political party instead of the electoral commission to obtain your ID card. This document would include information regarding gender, height, lip, nose, and mouth features, inclusively if you had physical defects. Unreal? Well no, these were the practices of liberal and conservative parties back in 1935 to identify its members and guarantee their votes. This is how the first Colombian IDs, known as “cédula” in Colombia were issued.

When Law 31 of 1929 was issued it was carried out with the purpose of achieving transparency in electoral results, which were questioned by both parties involved. However, since its beginnings, it has been used for not so altruistic purposes and the distrust turned it into an ineffective instrument against electoral fraud.

This is one of the main conclusions of a research project carried out by Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNal) sociologists Olga Restrepo Forero, Sebastián Guerra Sánchez and Malcolm Ashmore, on the history of the cédula in Colombia, a document which has not been much researched and which is essential to be able to access all citizen rights and without it the “undocumented person is a reject.”  

Sourced amongst political uneasiness

The creation of the cédula back in the 30s was marked by a strong confrontation between rival liberal and conservative political parties which accused each other of corruption and attempts to modify election results in their favor.

The “pureness of the vote” was considered one of the purposes of the reform to the electoral system, claiming that the “new regulations would change the situation.”

The liberal party supported an initiative to produce a unique document which would validate the real and current amount of inhabitants enabled to vote.

They were also in charge of producing the first ID processing in Colombia, which also produced all kinds of suspicions among the conservatives.

The conservative party said that the new ID document was issued preferably in municipalities with liberal preferences, excluding the members of its party. Therefore both parties decided to fund its members the photos required for the ID and hence warrant issuance of their ID and vote.

A document to fold and vote

The first ID card was made out of fine paper and made to be folded in up to six parts and stored in the pocket of a man’s pants which in that moment were the only ones authorized to vote after they were 21 years of age. Women were only authorized to vote in 1954.

According to the researchers, details of the description were related to the Bertillon signaletic system developed by Frenchman Alfonso Bertillon to identify the body of criminals with the purpose of recognizing repeat felons.

For Professor Restrepo, the physical description was charged with racial profiling as the ID far from establishing equal citizens, contributed to detailing racial markers.”

Although the document was initially presented as an early symbol of advanced technology to control electoral processes, almost immediately it turned into an obligation by law, having other uses such as:

  • Accepting any kind of salaried employment
  • Celebrating contracts
  • Presenting judicial claims
  • Registering in public schools or universities
  • Obtaining a passport.

For Guerra, since then there has been a “technological scaling” pattern which has determined every change of the ID card, demonstrating a conviction of greater technicalness in elections and least opportunities for corruption.

Mistrusts boosts modernization

The suspicions from both political parties on the issuance and control produced a number of regulations, including seven laws, 16 decrees and six resolutions.

For Restrepo, currently the ID card “still produces certain mistrust over who you really are”. Therefore it is requested every time you use your credit card, a bank transaction or entering any public or private office.

The first model of the ID issued in Colombia. The information was written by hand and described the physical traits of the holder. Photo: Image bank – Registraduría Nacional del Estado Civil

The previous explains the obsession for making an “unfalsifiable”  document, justifying making four ID card models in history, each designed to improve the last as a more secure document ‘impossible to forge’, guaranteeing precise identification of the holder.

White and plastic thermal laminated ID card

From the paper ID card, the country then saw a white plastic laminated ID card after the violence produced by the slaying of political leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, in 1948. Regulation was passed to produce a new ID card and the government would hire England, Belgium the United States, the Netherlands, Sweden or Canada to determine the ID processing systems.

Although the first two countries had the experience in this type of document, finally Canada who didn’t, was chosen, as its proposal was an adaptation of the ID created for the Canadian Mounted Police, then using a special camera to maintain the data in one shot.

The new ID card was issued by a special office of the Ministry of the Government and with new features such as eliminating the current address because of migration to the cities, a measure caused by the violence period and maintaining only three describing features such as height, color and particular facial signs, although information on race was eliminated it still preserved information of skin color, demonstrating that people were still marked in these terms.

On November 24 of 1952 the first ID card was issued for the Laureano Gómez, the first Colombian citizen with a new cédula model, it was numbered as No. 1.

However, this technology had its weaknesses after showing that the camera used did not provide satisfactory results, authorizing citizens to provide two photographs of themselves.

According to the researchers, despite these issues, the technical details of its making and other aforementioned issues, the ID card was finally perceived as a neutral document.

Obsolescence give birth to a new cédula

In the early 90s, the government justified changing the ID card one again for a third model as an apparently temporary secure solution to the forging issues of the white ID card.

The new ID card would have a barcode, a hologram and watermarks among others with the purpose of avoiding falsification. The size was also changed and included information on gender and blood type.

The third model only lasted for a few years, despite having sophisticated features and gave way to a fourth and last model used today, a 3D imaging yellow ID card. Data is reduced to names and surnames, birthdate, ID number, height, blood type, gender and birthplace and place of ID card issuance. It also has a barcode, hologram, microprinting and ultraviolet and watermarks. In 2005 they ID cards of all Colombian nationals were renewed.

As researcher Ashmore says, far from being a document which produces trust, the Colombian cédula has served to avoid the debate on the political issues it pretended to solve, such as:

  • Voting fraud
  • Political and social inclusion
  • Making of new forms of citizenship

This all contributed to the technological scaling which displaced the political discussion “to solve issues which are hardly related to the technological solution, such as vote buying/selling, voter migration, vote moving, or voting intimidation.

Consejo Editorial