‘Avatars’ threaten to revive paramilitary-linked politics

As Colombians vote in legislative elections, citizen groups are alarmed at the potential resurgence of paramilitary-linked politics. Through stand-in candidates, convicted bosses are poised to control as much as 15 percent of Congress.


Infamous former lawmakers and local bosses, who have been stripped of their reputation and posts over links to paramilitary groups, continue to sway Colombian politics -- even from behind bars. A national election for the country’s Senate and House of Representatives on Sunday offers few prospects in terms of candidate turnover. But among the rare newcomers lurks a troubling feature of Colombian politics: "Parapolitica".

Parapolitica, or the confluence of armed and illegal right-wing groups and elected officials, has become a standard term in Colombia’s jargon in recent years. Investigations that started in 2006 revealed that several paramilitary groups belonging to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (UAC), often involved in drug trafficking, traded money and muscle for intelligence and even government posts with Colombian officials.

The ensuing convictions for assassinations, massacres and forced displacement of communities, sent dozens of lawmakers to jail, including President Alvaro Uribe's cousin and political ally, former senator Mario Uribe Escobar. But despite the convictions, the dangerous dealing between “paras” and politicos is a reality that has refused to subside and which promises to stain legislative elections on March 14.

Through the use of stand-in candidates, often family members, the investigated and locked-up strongmen could still have a significant hand in Colombia’s next Congress, a phenomenon observers have likened to the Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster “Avatar”.

“[Drug trafficking] is a lucrative business,” explains Stephen Donehoo, a Colombia expert with the international consulting firm McLarty Associates. “As is the case in other countries, these groups are prepared to defend their affairs; and having a role in political life is an effective strategy,” he adds.

One party with a particularly blatant list of “Avatars” is the National Integration Party (PIN). The PIN was formed only last November, from five different parties, all supporters of President Alvaro Uribe, that were dissolved or discredited following the parapolitica scandal.

The PIN avatars

Doris Vega is a PIN senatorial hopeful for the state of Santander. She is also the wife of former senator Alberto Gil, who is awaiting trial for paramilitary ties in the La Picota detention centre in Bogota.

Hector Julio Alfonso Lopez is hoping to win a senate seat for the PIN, in the state of Bolivar. He is the son of businesswoman Enilse “La Gata” Lopez, who is under house arrest and is being investigated for murder and links to paramilitaries.

Teresa Garcia Romero, another senatorial candidate for the PIN, is the sister of former Senator Alvaro Garcia Romero, who was recently sentenced to 40 years in prison for, among other charges, his role in politically-motivated assassinations and the massacre of at least 12 peasants in northern Colombia in 2000.

These three avatars are only the tip of a formidable PIN iceberg. And while a few parties in Colombia are running candidates suspected of being mere stand-ins for marred figureheads, the PIN’s birth from parapolitica sludge underscores how deeply organised crime has penetrated Colombian politics.

According to local election observers and media, the PIN stands to gain up to 14 seats in the Senate, almost 15 percent of the 102-seat chamber, and 20 in the House of Representatives. These scores would place it among the five most important parties in the country.

For Sol Gaitan, a researcher with the Bogota-based Electoral Observation Commission (MOE), the legal measures taken against the figureheads of Colombia's parapolitica have failed to dismantle the political and economic structures behind them. “The machinery is intact," says Gaitan. “The difference is that it no longer serves the political boss, but the candidates of his choosing.”

While a post-Uribe government would welcome the opportunity to put scandal and parapolitica behind it, a successful poll for the PIN would leave little hope of that. Candidates for presidential election in May would have little option but to cut deals with the PIN, opening up the possibility of even uglier avatars in government’s highest circles.

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