Mario Uribe Escobar, the president of Colombia's cousin and leader of the Colombia Democratica political party, announced the removal of two Congressional candidates, Rocío Arias and Eleonora Pineda, from his party on 2 February for their outward support of paramilitary organizations. His announcement comes on the tail of a purge of a limited number of political candidates known to be supportive of Colombia's paramilitary organizations.
These two candidates belong to a long list of politicians that in private will admit to close contact with paramilitary chieftains. Arias and Pineda are considered the most public faces of a wide-reaching and deep-pocketed effort to increase paramilitary political control on the national level through the upcoming congressional elections to be held on Sunday, 12 March.
A much smaller, more organized, and influential group of former paramilitary war lords has emerged. As a group, they began to exercise power within the realms of politics on a municipal and state level years ago. Their efforts were first recorded in the 2002 congressional elections. In these elections, paramilitary-supported candidates won with over 90 per cent of the vote in many cases because there was no opposition candidate on the ticket and voters were scared to abstain.
Through these strong arm tactics, paramilitary organizations have begun to increase the number of politicians they control in the Colombian congress. This time around, they look set to further increase that power. If they succeed, they will work to ban extradition, eradicating their worst fear, while solidifying their positions of power across numerous Colombian departments. It is a reality that severely hinders democracy and sets Colombia and the region on a path to less stability into the foreseeable future.
Colombia's departments, stretching from Panama to Venezuela along the country's northern coast, have long been held by paramilitary commanders who act both publicly and behind the scenes to control political candidates on the municipal, gubernatorial, and national levels. Their heavy handed political influence in coastal departments such as Cesar, Guajira, Atlantico, Magdalena, and Cordoba, is most evident, according to German Espejo, an analyst with the Bogota-based Security and Democracy Foundation.
Espejo agrees that the paramilitaries fund and support congressional elections. "In addition to financial support, it is possible that the paramilitaries use their influence to obstruct the campaigns of candidates that do not support them," Espejo told ISN Security Watch.
Claudia Lopez, Colombian journalist and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) consultant, completed a study published in December 2005 that took a close look at the intersection between paramilitary control in Colombia's northern departments and the indices of landslide victories of political candidates from those areas. Her conclusions revealed atypical electoral behaviors in the 2002 Congressional elections where areas that had experienced high levels of paramilitary-related massacres, and thus presumed under paramilitary control, had produced unopposed political candidates who were elected with over 90 per cent of votes.
The Colombian daily El Tiempo has reported that in the paramilitary-dominated department of Magdalena, mayoral candidates ran unopposed in 14 of the department's 30 municipalities. The tendency for candidates to run without opposition, winning with inflated percentages of the vote, has been repeated in numerous Colombian departments. The trend, referred to as "paramilitarization", has been documented in the Colombian press and noted on the floor of the Colombian congress.
Alvaro Sierra published a column in El Tiempo on 25 September 2004 in which he stated that Colombia was becoming aware of the fact that "a substantial portion of national territory, of the daily lives of millions of people, of politics, of the economy, and local-government budgets, and an unknown amount of power and influence at the level of central-government institutions like the congress, is in paramilitary hands. "
Colombian Senator Carlos Moreno de Caro, vice-chairman of the Senate's Peace Committee, was highlighted in the Colombian press in March 2005 when he defended the a move to give paramilitaries lenient treatment in the negotiations negotiations, arguing "the thing is, half the country is theirs. "
Adam Isacson, director of programs with the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC, said Senator Moreno de Caro's statement was an exaggeration but not a wild one.
"Salvatore Mancuso's statement that the paramilitaries control over 30 per cent of the Colombian Congress was probably inflated," Isacson said. "But after the upcoming elections, it's possible to be closer to the truth," he told ISN Security Watch.
Ineffective pre-election purge
Relatively few candidates will publicly admit to their alliances with the paramilitaries, yet many will admit such ties in private. This has created a "don't ask, don't tell" situation that has made it difficult for President Uribe to act on the opposition's claims. Many fingers are pointed in public but little evidence substantiates claims.
Paramilitary control of politics is a reality that some can stomach and others cannot. In the lead up to the 12 March elections, many opposition candidates publicly demanded that President Uribe do something to purge the lists of political candidates, removing those individuals thought to be in close cooperation with paramilitary leaders.
A great purge of political candidates suspected of paramilitary ties was most likely on US ambassador William Wood's mind when in December 2005 he publicly stated: "Corrupt electoral practices may occur in the elections of 2006, notably by paramilitaries." Uribe told him to stop "meddling" in Colombian affairs.
Weeks later, at a meeting in Cordoba on 9 January, Uribe found himself audience to a very heated discussion between two senatorial candidates in the paramilitary-controlled department. Each claimed the other to have made political pacts with paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso. Days later, Uribe asked the Colombian attorney general to investigate the senators' ties to the paramilitaries.
That same week, Gina Parody, a Bogota congresswoman, declined invitations to run as a candidate for one of the two largest pro-Uribe political parties, Partido de la U and Cambio Radical. She explained that her decision not to run with either party was based on the fact that both parties include candidates "with paramilitary links".
She named Dieb Maloof and Habib Merheg, both running for re-election as candidates of the Partido de la U. Maloof is believed to be an associate of Jorge 40, leader of the Northern Bloc, one of the largest and most powerful paramilitary organizations. Merheg has been suspected of paramilitary ties since 2003. Both were elected to Congress in 2002 as members of the Colombia Viva party, a political organization thought to be close to the paramilitaries.
On 18 January, the tide of accusations and investigations came to a head. Both Partido de la U and Cambio Radical expelled a total of five candidates from their ranks. But these candidates were quickly absorbed by smaller, pro-Uribe political parties, much to the disappointment of opposition candidates who supported the purges. Even after the very public removal of Rocío Arias and Eleonora Pineda, both candidates were absorbed into smaller, pro-Uribe political organizations.
Power over extradition
What has US ambassador Wood – and many others in Colombia – worried is not just pre-election purging and increased paramilitarization. The 2006 Congressional elections may place in power enough pro-paramilitary politicians to make extradition unlawful.
A law that bans extradition represents a de facto victory for Colombia's paramilitary organizations. The US has made nine extradition requests for paramilitary leaders. All are immune to extradition while under the protection of the disarmament process, but currently have no definitive guarantee that they will not be extradited.
Banning extradition is the focus of every paramilitary leader's political power play.
If the Colombian government were left without the negotiating leverage of extradition, the matter of ultimate justice for human rights atrocities, drug trafficking, and other criminal acts would be left in the sole jurisdiction of the Colombian justice system, one not known to have much success with Colombian criminals in the past. It is a system that would certainly be manipulated again in the future and one paramilitary leaders are willing to take on.
Paramilitary influence in Colombia's congress ultimately goes beyond extradition. It places Colombian organized crime one step closer to the ultimate tool to protect itself – control over the legislative process.
With control over the legislative process, legally protected paramilitary leaders will contribute to massacres and escalated conflict with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Their positions as regional warlords will be solidified.
Increases in drug and gun trafficking are ensured. Exploitation of Colombia's rural poor in the name of making the landed elite class more wealthy and powerful will grow.
Such a reality concentrates wealth in power in the hands of a few, exploiting the rest. It would consolidate many more years of insecurity for both Colombia and the region. And it promises a future where security – Uribe's number one goal – in Colombia becomes a mirage. Paramilitary "king makers" will rule from regional outposts contribute to a de facto "Balkanization" of the country and a weakening of state sovereignty and democracy. If the paramilitaries come to control the legislative process in the Colombian Congress, a country ruled by warlords is a reality that may come to pass, and there is little the Colombian government, or any other government, can do to prevent it.