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 Difícil, 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 Álvaro 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.
A UN report released last month says that, in some cases, the political and economic influence of the paramilitaries has been strengthened.
President Uribe last month asked the attorney general's office to investigate allegations that paramilitaries were offering "sizable sums of money in the campaigns to buy candidates or votes," and he denounced several candidates for having met with one paramilitary leader known as Jorge 40.
The paramilitaries themselves deny influencing candidates or voters. "People have to understand that there is a friendship with the communities and ... we share some ideologies and political ideas," Jorge 40, who will demobilize along with 2,000 troops on Friday, told the newsweekly Semana. "But ... applying pressure, never."
Some political parties, however, ousted candidates based on the suspicion that they are financed by or somehow represent the interests of the right-wing militias.
Rocío Árias, a representative seeking a senate seat in the current race, was kicked out of the pro-Uribe Colombia Democrática party last month. As a member of Congress, she openly defended paramilitary interests but she denies any charges that she is their puppet. "I do not have any ties with the self defense forces, the only ties I have are to peace," she says.
Ms. Árias claims that her ouster from the party was orchestrated by the US Embassy in Bogotá, which allegedly threatened party chief Mario Uribe - Uribe's cousin - with losing his US visa if she remained on the party roster.
In a carefully worded statement, a State Department spokesman said: "We have not here at the State Department instructed the embassy in Bogotá to intervene in the selection of candidates."
All the candidates ousted from the mainstream parties were welcomed in lower-profile, pro-Uribe parties, and several are expected to win seats.
But even when the votes are tallied after Sunday's election, it won't be easy to measure how many seats will be under paramilitary control. Claudia López, a political analyst for the newsweekly Semana tried to gauge paramilitary influence in the last congressional elections by studying atypical voting patterns. In areas where the paramilitaries had consolidated their power through massacres in the preceding years, she found, candidates often won by overwhelming landslides of as much as 96 percent of the vote.
In the current context, with less direct paramilitary violence, analyzing the results of the vote will be more difficult, Ms. López says, "not because we don't know where they are, but because they have worked their way into the system."