Congressional voting kicks off amid fears of paramilitary influence
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As Colombians begin voting in legislative elections on Sunday, many are alarmed at the resurgence of paramilitary politics, a trend that could allow those with links to armed groups to control as much as 15 percent of Congress.
Infamous former lawmakers and local crime bosses who have been stripped of their reputations and posts over links to paramilitary groups continue to sway Colombian politics - even from behind bars.
As national elections for the country’s Senate and House of Representatives get underway on Sunday there appear to be few prospects for candidate turnover. But among the rare newcomers, a troubling feature of Colombian politics is re-emerging: "Parapolitica".
A worrying alliance
Parapolitica, or the confluence of armed, illegal right-wing groups and elected officials, has become a standard term in Colombia’s political jargon in recent years. Investigations begun in 2006 revealed that several paramilitary groups belonging to the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (UAC), often involved in drug trafficking, traded money or muscle for information and even government posts with Colombian officials.
A string of convictions for assassinations, massacres and the 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 these convictions, the dangerous dealings between “paras” and "politicos" is a reality that refuses to subside and which promises to stain legislative elections on March 14.
Through the use of stand-in candidates, who are 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.
Another senatorial candidate for the PIN, Teresa Garcia Romero, 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. 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.
Increased power for the PIN in May?
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.