Paramilitaries Still Sway Colombian Votes ; the Right-Wing Groups Are Using Less-Violent Means of Influence before Sunday's Congressional Election

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When leaders of Colombia's opposition Liberal Party went last week to the northern coast to stump for candidates standing in Sunday's congressional elections, they hoped for a good turnout.

Instead, in the town of Dificil, dominated by right-wing paramilitary groups, they had trouble finding someone willing to rent them a venue for the campaign event, party organizers say. And even when they found a place, none of the local party leaders ventured to address the small crowd.

After years of witnessing massacres, voter intimidation, and murder, few townspeople were willing to risk showing support for candidates not endorsed by the local warlords.

That fear is the legacy of heavyhanded political persuasion by paramilitary groups, and is one reason why President Alvaro Uribe began a demobilization plan that has seen more than 23,000 paramilitaries and some 6,000 leftist rebels turn in their weapons since 2004. Just Tuesday, 70 leftist rebels renounced their guerrilla army's four-decade-old insurgency in exchange for a monthly stipend and amnesty from prosecution.

But, despite the progress on demobilization, and the drop in election-related paramilitary violence, a wide variety of observers here say paramilitary efforts to influence politics have not ceased. Paramilitary leaders have merely taken a subtler tack, analysts say, using coffers flush with proceeds from the drug trade to finance favored candidates.

"In many areas they have enormous economic power through [legitimate] businesses they control, which means they have jobs to offer voters and cash to offer candidates," says Mauricio Romero, a scholar on paramilitary forces with the Universidad del Externado.

Paramilitary influence in Colombian politics is not new. After the 2002 vote, Salvatore Mancuso, the top political leader of the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia, or AUC, announced proudly that the federation of paramilitary groups controlled 35 percent of the Congress.

Analysts suspect that figure was inflated but warn that in this election, they may reach that target. "This time around [paramilitary- supported candidates] actually may get 30 or 35 percent," says Mr. Romero.

Never before have the paramilitaries played such an important role in an election, observers say, because no election has been so important for their future. The new Congress is expected to take up the tricky issue of how to apply a law that grants paramilitary leaders reduced sentences for human rights and drug trafficking crimes in exchange for their demobilization and reparations to victims. It could also decide whether nine militia leaders facing drug-trafficking charges in US courts will be extradited.

"It makes a big difference if the law is applied by a friend or if it's applied by an enemy," says Gustavo Duncan, a researcher finishing a book on the infiltration of the paramilitaries. …