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
"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
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. …