Paramilitaries trade guns for politics

Colombia's peace process has turned many former bandits and narco-traffickers into political candidates.

Givanni Marin was once known as Comandante R, political chief of the 800-member urban paramilitary force known as the Cacique Nutibara Bloc (BCN).

But while Mr. Marin has shed his paramilitary title as part of a government- sponsored peace process that led to the demobilization of the BCN and other paramilitaries, he isn't ready to relinquish the base of support his group has built over many years.

Former members of the BCN have formed a political-social organization known as the Democratic Corporation and Marin himself plans a run for congress in March 2006.

He isn't alone in his aspirations; scores of other demobilized paramilitaries are weighing their political options in a move that could legitimize former bandits and alleged narco-traffickers that the US and Colombian governments have been fighting for years.

And judging by their strength in places like Medellín and Uraba, they have a good chance of winning at least some seats.

"Participating in the political process is far better than running one's own private army that murders civilians and traffics in drugs," says Tim Rieser, foreign policy aide to Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Operations Subcommittee, which has basically frozen aid to the demobilization process because of flaws in a new amnesty law. "But some of these people should be prosecuted and put in jail," Mr. Rieser says.

The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (an umbrella group of paramilitaries known as AUC for its Spanish initials) has long claimed powerful, but indirect, political influence. Salvatore Mancuso, the now-demobilized former military head of the group, once claimed that AUC controlled 30 percent of Colombia's Congress.

Vicente Castaño, a powerful but shadowy figure and brother of AUC founder Carlos Castaño, recently told Semana magazine that the AUC hoped to increase its political clout in the next elections. "I think that we can affirm that we have more than 35 percent of Congress as friends," he said. "And for the next elections, we're going to increase that percentage of friends."

Colombian congressman Gustavo Petro, a frequent critic of Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe who has denounced paramilitary ties with politicians, says the AUC's entrance into politics "means a pardon for the mafia. The political presence of narco-traffickers in congress implies a changing political model in our country."

Mr. Petro fears that ex-paramilitary congressmen may change the balance of power and corrupt Colombian democracy because they own a large percentage of land in the country, making social equity an even more difficult goal.

Not all demobilized paramilitaries will be allowed to run for office. A newly passed "Justice and Peace" law would pardon the large majority of rank-and-file former paramilitaries from serving jail time and allow them to seek office. But those who have committed more serious "crimes against humanity," such as kidnapping and murder, would be prohibited from running.

Despite Marin's high position in AUC, he hasn't been charged with specific crimes.

His political base is being constructed through the Democratic Corporation, which exerts considerable control in the Medellín slums where the BCN once ruled by force. Its head is Diego Fernando Murillo, or "Don Berna," an AUC heavyweight who is wanted by the US on drug trafficking charges and is currently under house arrest on suspicion of masterminding the murder of a Córdoba politician.

Marin refused requests for interviews, but his plans - and those of the corporation - have been well-documented in the Colombian media. "The Democratic Corporation, in its social work, should have a goal: that the communities better their lives. And secondly, politics. Of course, there are leaders that the community would like to see as town councilmen or regional assemblymen," he told the Colombian weekly El Espectador.

Gustavo Villegas, head of the Medellín program of Peace and Reincorporation, which oversees the resocialization process, says that ex-paramilitaries had every right to participate in politics.

"In democratic life, they are welcome," Mr. Villegas says. "But there cannot be another type of improper pressure. They have to gain the confidence of the community from the standpoint of legality," he added. The community only "trusted them when they had arms."

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