Connect to share and comment

Women seek political place of jailed menfolk

In Colombia's scandal-ridden politics, female relatives of jailed politicians are now standing for office.

Shelcy Sanchez, a transgender member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, poses for a photo during the launching of her campaign to the Congress of Colombia, on Jan. 26, 2010, in Cali, Valle del Cauca, Colombia. Sanchez, a sex worker in Cali, is the first transsexual in Colombia to become a political candidate for the legislative elections on March 14. (Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)

BOGOTA, Colombia — In the week before Sunday’s congressional election here, many articles in the Colombian press expressed concern over the deplorably low rate of women candidates —  only 20 percent.

There are many viable female candidates, but among the most likely to become elected — greatly advantaged by their membership in Colombia’s most powerful political families and heavily financed campaigns — are women who are expected to keep alive a dirty chapter of politics in this country known as “parapolitics,” the alliance-making between narco-trafficking paramilitary groups and politicians.

With 86 members — about a third — of Congress currently under investigation, jailed or sentenced for parapolitics, many would-be candidates are out of the running — but their wives, sisters and daughters have emerged as candidates.

“We are very concerned because there are women candidates who are replacements of these men in jail,” said Maria Ramirez, director of Corporacion Contigo Mujer, a women’s rights group. “We can’t accept that women’s participation in politics increases at the cost of ethics.”

Election watchdog groups fear that their election could continue the same kind of political dealings for which the men in their families are now jailed or criminally charged.

The “parapolitics scandal” as it is known here broke open in 2005 as mounting evidence pointed to about a third of Colombia’s congress — most of them belonging to parties in President Alvaro Uribe’s alliance — having ties with paramilitary groups. For years, the paramilitary force known as the AUC had been consolidating political and economic control in the country through political alliances while running their narco-trafficking operations and terrorizing local populations. The AUC was branded a terrorist group in 2001 and is guilty of murdering and displacing thousands of alleged guerrilla sympathizers.

A report by the Electoral Observation Mission suggests that parapolitics in the 2010 election could persevere with the re-election of politicians currently under investigation (there are 18 such members of congress who are running) or through “political front men.” There are at least 80 candidates who are known family members of “parapoliticians,” Caracol news agency reported.

Among them, the female candidates suspected of being “front women” for parapolitics run the gamut — from young women with no political experience only known for their last name, to current senators and regional assembly members.

Karen Ramirez, at only 26 years of age, is trying to step out of her shoes as an accountant and into those of a senator. She considers she’s had a life of political training by watching her father, a House Representative until he was ordered detained under charges for criminal conspiracy and parapolitics. “My father showed me what it is to be a politician and develop something for the people,” Ramirez said in a phone interview from her home in the coastal city of Santa Marta.

Ramirez’s campaigned is being financed with family savings and profits from her father’s construction business, she said. Reports submitted by senatorial candidates on their campaign costs are often in the area of $350,000 (and assumed to exceed reported amounts). Ramirez said she did not know how much her campaign was costing because her father oversaw its finances.

Another young candidate for the House, Maria Paula Perez, says she seeks advice from her father, a former governor of Casanare department who has been sentenced to six years for parapolitics. (Colombian press reported a video showed him receiving the equivalent of about $250,000 from a paramilitary emissary to finance his campaign.)