Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA: War Orphans Sound Alert on Paramilitary Candidates

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Oct 25 2007 (IPS) - “The parapolitics scandal has new names,” said the Daughters and Sons for Memory and Against Impunity movement, which warned that paramilitary groups will meddle in Sunday’s local and regional elections in Colombia.

The ongoing “parapolitics” scandal, which erupted last year, has revealed an intricate web of relations between powerful politicians and ultra-right paramilitary groups led in many cases by drug lords, involving the forced displacement of rural populations and occupation of coveted land or resource-rich property throughout the country.

The Daughters and Sons, a human rights group made up of people who have lost parents in Colombia’s civil war, sent out an e-mail alert, just as they did 10 days before the March 2006 parliamentary elections.

As on that occasion, the organisation has drawn up a list of candidates with regard to whom “there are serious signs that they have links to the paramilitary militias and crimes of the state.”

The list contains the names of 10 candidates for governor of seven departments (provinces) and seven candidates for mayor in six departmental capitals in those districts. They represent groups that support rightwing President Álvaro Uribe as well as opposition parties or factions. But all of them have been implicated in abuses or corruption by legal investigations, human rights reports or press coverage.

“Their ethical qualifications have been seriously compromised by their alleged participation in crimes against humanity, support for paramilitary groups and acts of corruption,” said the Daughters and Sons.

All of the candidates included on the list drawn up by the organisation last year “are in prison, with the exception of retired general Rito Alejo del Río, one of those who helped set up paramilitary groups in Urabá (a region in the northwest) and one of those who allowed so many massacres to be committed,” Jessica Hoyos, a 23-year-old law student, told IPS.

Her father, trade unionist and community leader Jorge Darío Hoyos, was killed in 2001.

Most of the candidates on last year’s list were defeated at the polls, but not because the power of the paramilitaries in parliament was waning, as some thought at the time.

The paramilitary structures fall into different categories, only one of which is identified with armed groups, while others focus on strengthening and financing the interests of the paramilitaries and their allies, said the human rights organisation.

According to the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a think tank in Bogotá, the 33 senators and 50 parliamentary deputies currently under investigation in connection with the parapolitics scandal took one-quarter of the votes garnered by pro-Uribe candidates last year, which amounted to 62 percent of the total.

Among the candidates that Daughters and Sons are trying to get voters to boycott are Luis Pérez, candidate for mayor of Medellín in the northwest, Colombia’s second-biggest city and its industrial hub, and Alex Char, candidate for mayor of Barranquilla on the northern Caribbean coast, the country’s fourth most populous city.

Pérez, mayor of Medellín from 2000 to 2003, has a tendency to bring legal action against journalists who criticise him. “He sues and issues veiled threats through his lawyers who wear dark glasses and gold chains,” wrote Héctor Abad Faciolince in his column in the Bogotá weekly Semana. The writer is the son of human rights activist Héctor Abad Gómez, who was killed in 1987. Daughters and Sons pointed out that the Supreme Court provided the Attorney-General’s Office with the testimony of a witness who stated that Pérez – who is likely to win on Sunday – met in the past with a paramilitary leader with the purpose of forming an illegal armed group.

Abad Faciolince has dubbed Pérez “lord of the guns” because seven years ago the former mayor had unsuccessfully set forth the proposal to “arm every bold Antioqueño” (resident of the department of Antioquia, of which Medellín is the capital).

On Tuesday, Pérez filed legal charges against the writer.

For his part, Char has the backing of one of the many members of Congress with paramilitary ties.

Also on the group’s list is Alfonso Eljach, candidate for mayor of Barrancabermeja, an oil port on the Magdalena river in central Colombia that is under paramilitary control.

Pérez, Char and Eljach are all pro-Uribe candidates. But the Daughters and Sons also mention Efrén Antonio Hernández, candidate for governor of the oil-producing Casanare, the country’s richest department, in eastern Colombia.

Hernández is representing the centrist Liberal Party, one of the country’s traditional parties, which is now in the opposition.

The media revealed a compromising video in which the candidate appears at a party with a well-known local paramilitary leader.

The human rights group is also urging people not to vote for Juan Carlos Abadía, who is seeking the office of governor in the western department of Valle del Cauca, where Buenaventura, the country’s only Pacific ocean port, is located.

Abadía is supported by a pro-Uribe party, Convergencia Ciudadana, that has practically been dismantled as a result of the parapolitics scandal.

Also on the list are gubernatorial candidates for the majority of the northern and Caribbean coastal departments: from west to east – Córdoba, Sucre, Bolívar and Magdalena; and of two departmental capitals, Sincelejo (Sucre) and Santa Marta (Magdalena).

In addition, it mentions the pro-Uribe candidates for the governorship of the coal-rich northeastern department of Cesar, on the border with Venezuela, and the mayorship of its capital, Valledupar.

They are both backed by the powerful family of former Uribe administration foreign minister María Consuelo Araújo, who resigned after her father and brother began to be investigated for allegedly helping to create paramilitary groups.

These regions, where nearly all of the most prominent pro-Uribe leaders are now behind bars, “are undergoing a political changing of the guard that in many cases has the public support of the leaders who are in prison,” said the e-mail alert sent out by the Daughters and Sons.

Sixty percent of the municipalities in Sucre, for example, face problems in the coming elections because of corruption and clientelism, according to a map of “electoral risks” drawn up by the non-governmental Electoral Observation Mission (MOE), made up of Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris analysts and university researchers.

In these areas, voters have been forced for years, on threat of death, to cast their ballots for the candidates representing paramilitary interests.

Hoyos is urging people “not to vote for them, to stop them from continuing to legitimise the crimes that have been committed in this country. Realise and remember who these people really are,” she says. “And if they have not yet been convicted in court, at least they can feel society’s rejection.”

The government wants people “to forget the victims as well as the victimisers” in the case of “the leaders of the Patriotic Union, rural community activists and trade unionists,” she said. (The Patriotic Union was a leftwing party that emerged in 1985 out of peace agreements with the guerrillas, but which was exterminated, with more than 5,000 of its leaders and members killed, including Hoyos’ father).

“What they have done to our parents not only affects us – their children and family members – but Colombian society as a whole,” said the activist.

The Supreme Court has played a starring role in uncovering the scandal.

Veteran Supreme Court auxiliary Judge Iván Velásquez was the target of a harsh verbal attack on Oct. 8 by Uribe, after the president’s cousin and political partner, Mario Uribe, began to be investigated by the Court.

As several other lawmakers have done in order to avoid an investigation by the much-feared Court, which probes public officials, Mario Uribe stepped down from the Senate, preferring to be questioned by the Attorney-General’s Office instead.

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