Colombiaâ€™s paramilitary groups appear to be increasing their power, even as they â€œdemobilize.â€ One key path to greater power has been Colombiaâ€™s electoral process. Through a few bribes and a lot of threats, the AUCâ€™s bosses are guaranteeing that candidates allied to them win governorships, mayorâ€™s offices and seats in the Congress.
After Colombiaâ€™s last congressional elections, in March 2002, AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso famously declared that the paramilitaries controlled about 30 percent of the legislature. That may have been an exaggeration at the time, but 30 percent or more could be a real possibility as the March 2006 congressional elections approach.
With some exceptions (such as the remarkably outspoken Antioquia congresswoman RocÃo Arias), paramilitary-allied candidates claim in public that they oppose paramilitarism, and usually seek office as members of mainstream political parties. But they campaign with the open support of the paramilitary groups that kill opponents, run drugs and dominate politics in their home regions. In many cases, due to threats against would-be rivals, these candidates find themselves running unopposed. In the paramilitary-dominated Caribbean coast department of Magdalena, for instance, mayoral candidates for the October 2003 municipal elections ran unopposed in 14 of the provinceâ€™s 30 towns, according to El Tiempo.
For months, candidates opposed to President Uribe had been denouncing the presence of known paramilitary allies among pro-Uribe partiesâ€™ lists of candidates, but they had failed to get an official response from the government. In December, U.S. Ambassador William Wood added his voice, expressing public concern that â€œcorrupt electoral practices may occur in the elections of 2006, notably by paramilitaries.â€ Instead of government action to investigate these concerns, Woodâ€™s words only earned him a rare rebuke from President Uribe to stop â€œmeddlingâ€ in Colombiaâ€™s affairs.
The issue of paramilitarization of the legislative election campaign didnâ€™t begin to blossom into a full-blown scandal until about two weeks ago. Here is what happened.
Week of January 9: President Uribe attended a meeting in the heavily paramilitarized department of CÃ³rdoba, where local political leaders were to appoint a new governor to replace one forced out by corruption charges. During the meeting, two CÃ³rdoba senators, both running for re-election, got into a heated argument. In Uribeâ€™s presence, both accused each other of having entered into â€œpolitical pactsâ€ with CÃ³rdoba-based AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso. Within a few days, Uribe ordered the attorney-general to investigate both politiciansâ€™ links to the AUC.
That week Gina Parody, a popular BogotÃ¡ congresswoman who supports Uribe but disagrees with the paramilitary negotiation process, declined invitations to run as the candidate of one of the two largest pro-Uribe political blocs (â€œPartido U,â€ coordinated by former Treasury Minister Juan Manuel Santos, and the oddly named â€œCambio Radical,â€ headed by prominent Senator GermÃ¡n Vargas Lleras, the grandson of a former president). Parodyâ€™s reason for turning them down: Both partiesâ€™ candidate lists included people â€œwith paramilitary links.â€
She named two senators running for re-election as candidates of â€œLa Uâ€: Dieb Maloof and Habib Merheg. Maloof, from Magdalena department, is believed to be an associate of â€œJorge 40â€ (Rodrigo Tovar Pupo), the chief of the AUCâ€™s powerful Northern Bloc. Merheg, from the tiny coffee-growing department of Risaralda, has been accused of paramilitary ties since 2003, according to El Tiempo. Both senators were elected in 2002 as candidates of â€œColombia Viva,â€ a right-wing party widely seen as paramilitary-linked.
January 11: Perennial Liberal Party presidential candidate Horacio Serpa, in a speech announcing his candidacy, said that Ãlvaro Uribe â€œis caught in a web of rich people, bad policies and paramilitarism. â€¦ Today, the power of the paramilitaries is greater than that of the governmentâ€ in many regions. Uribeâ€™s interior minister, Sabas Pretelt, replied that â€œit is a barbarity to say that the country is paramilitarized.â€
January 13: In public remarks, opposition Liberal Party chief, former President and former OAS Secretary-General CÃ©sar Gaviria said, â€œI donâ€™t understand the reason why the President doesnâ€™t reject the support of paramilitarism, doesnâ€™t reject more clearly and firmly the mafias that have been encroaching on many regional governments. This worries me.â€
January 16: The official tone appeared to change, as Uribe ordered the attorney-generalâ€™s office to investigate the â€œdubious and sizable financing of some congressional campaigns.â€ Interior Minister Pretelt explained, â€œThere are outlawed groups that think they can do what they want, and they want to be the owners of the provinces, using money and coercion, but they won’t succeed.â€ He added that paramilitary leaders found to be involved in campaigns will lose the lenient treatment that the â€œJustice and Peaceâ€ law would give them, and will be sent to jail.
January 18: â€œLa Uâ€ and â€œCambio Radicalâ€ expelled a total of five candidates from their lists for suspected paramilitary ties. The Liberal Party expelled one more.
That same day, though, the Uribistas began to play very dirty. In a move reminiscent of the sleazy â€œSwift Boat Veteransâ€ ads that so damaged John Kerry in the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, they spread a false rumor making a ridiculous charge. The target was Sen. Rafael Pardo, a former defense minister who is now vying for the Liberal Party presidential nomination. Pardo left the Liberals in 2002 to support Uribeâ€™s initial candidacy. He split from the Uribistas and rejoined the Liberals in 2004. The reason for the split: Pardo, like Parody, was a leading critic of the paramilitary talks, the â€œJustice and Peaceâ€ law, and creeping paramilitarization in general. (Unlike Parody, Pardo abandoned the ranks of Uribeâ€™s supporters).
Juan Manuel Santos, the head of â€œLa U,â€ started the attack by asserting publicly that, according to intelligence reports, Pardo has secretly made a pact with the FARC guerrillas to oppose Uribe, for instance by encouraging voters to abstain. The charge is silly on its face: Pardo is likely on the guerrillasâ€™ most-hated-persons list. He is an establishment politician who became defense minister in 1991, shortly after Colombiaâ€™s military ended a round of peace talks by bombing the FARCâ€™s â€œCasa Verdeâ€ headquarters. It shocked many last week to see allies of the government seeking to link Pardo to the guerrillas, a tactic usually reserved for union organizers and human-rights defenders.
Now, a proper â€œswift boatâ€ strategy would require the candidate himself to distance himself from the â€œunrelatedâ€ supporters making the false charges. But President Uribe did not do that. Instead, the Palacio de NariÃ±o (Colombiaâ€™s â€œWhite Houseâ€) put out a statement promising that â€œthe government will make known to the attorney-generalâ€™s office the information it has received indicating that Dr. Rafael Pardo has proposed to the FARC a political action against the President of the Republic.â€
January 19: As the political furor worsened, Sen. Pardo put out a statement of its own, asking, among other things:
SeÃ±or Candidato Uribe:
– Is Dr. Santos acting on your orders?
– Are slander and the diffusion of false rumors tactics that you are promoting within your campaign?
– Why does a political leader who supports reelection have access to supposed government intelligence information?
– As head of state, have you instructed the intelligence agencies to pursue the oppositionâ€™s leadership?
The communiquÃ© adds,
The country doesnâ€™t really gain anything when some people are expelled from one of the Uribista movements for supposed paramilitary ties, only to be accepted minutes later as the congressional candidates of another Uribista movement. The fundamental issue is the one that I have mentioned: there is a paramilitary political project that seeks access to power through intimidation, and that is what we have to confront.
In Pardoâ€™s case, the â€œswift boatâ€ strategy appears to have backfired. The Uribe government failed to come up with the proof promised in its January 18 statement, and instead issued an apology to Sen. Pardo. If anything, Uribeâ€™s ploy may have helped boost Pardoâ€™s flagging campaign for the Liberal Party nomination: the senator had only been polling at about 2 or 3 percent.
But the problem of paramilitary infiltration persists. â€œI think that the list [of expelled candidates] is going to grow like a snowball [rolling downhill],â€ pro-Uribe political analyst Fernando Cepeda told the Associated Press. â€œThis is a bomb that exploded at the right time, and it should help to clean up Colombian democracy.â€
But expulsion of candidates from larger parties doesnâ€™t mean that those candidates are abandoning their campaigns, and in fact they may still win as candidates of smaller parties, with help from the paramilitaries.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether the Colombian government actually plans to take the bold step of revoking â€œJustice and Peaceâ€ law benefits from paramilitary leaders who get openly involved in politics. One such leader would likely be â€œJorge 40â€ of the AUCâ€™s Northern Bloc, who held a December 5 meeting with political leaders in CurumanÃ, Cesar department (where, a few days later, the Northern Bloc would go on to massacre at least seven people). The meeting was reportedly an exercise in choosing congressional candidates and developing an electoral strategy. Will the Colombian government seriously pursue â€œJorge 40,â€ who has been one of the least cooperative participants in the paramilitary talks, and who is under indictment in the United States for drug trafficking?
Donâ€™t count on it, as long as those who dare to denounce paramilitarismâ€™s advance find themselves either the target of nationalist bluster (like Ambassador Wood) or the target of ridiculous swift-boat-style rumor-mongering (like Sen. Pardo). When charges this serious are met with attacks, the international community must sit up and take note of the kind of government it is dealing with in BogotÃ¡.