Women seek political place of jailed menfolk

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.)

"Now as I'm starting out, it's clear that my plan is a plan supported by my father, a person who has a very important leadership role here in Casanare, however the work of the future will show what I can do, as a person and as a professional,” she said on a Casanare radio station. She told the radio host she was prepared for national politics because she had worked over a year in a parlamentarian’s office. She was particularly well-poised to take on international affairs, she added, because she had studied in Paris for a year.

Many candidates of parapolitica families insist that they should be judged on their own merits and free of association from the criminal allegations hitting their close relatives. Their critics say they are propped up by a political machinery that has secured its power through vote-buying, corrupt deals and the support of criminal networks who have used intimidation and violence in the past to guarantee their allies political seats.

Candidates referred to here as the “inheritors of parapolitics” are expected to continue the same style of political governance — and alliances — as their predecessors.

“It’s a concern because the interest of criminal groups is to keep on counting on this political support and to have a door to the government that can give them exceptions for their crimes” said Monica Pachon, director of Visible Congress, a project of the University of the Andes in Bogota that seeks to make public legislative behavior.

The candidacy of Teresa Garcia, a former consul to Germany now running for the senate, embodies the concern of those worried about how these elections may keep alive the legacy of parapolitics.

Her brother, Alvaro Garcia, was a Senator before he was jailed for parapolitics. Last month, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison for homicide, criminal conspiracy, embezzlement and his role in a 2000 massacre in Macayepo. The courts found that he had helped create and finance paramilitary groups in the department of Sucre.

Garcia built a political structure in his department of Sucre from town counselors to mayors and deputies that gave paramilitary forces control over politics in the region. Now, with many Sucre politicians jailed for parapolitics, Teresa Garcia is trying to step up to the plate.

She described herself as “a candidate with an impeccable resumé in the public and private sector which has permitted me to ... carry forth the representation of our project,” she said in a press statement last month.

The women candidates of parapolitica families are by no means limited to the young, inexperienced and unlikely. Several are active politicians with considerable experience who are not only burdened with the normal pressures for re-election; with their men in jail,  maintaining the family political dynasty falls squarely on them.

There’s Doris Vega, a two-term Assembly member in the department of Santander who is married to the founder of Convergencia Ciudadania, a political party that transmuted into a new party because most of its leadership, including Vega’s husband, is now in jail on parapolitics charges.

Imagine the pressure for re-election on Senator Piedad Zuccardi to carry her family’s torch of political power: she is not only the wife of a former senator sentenced for corruption in the parapolitics scandal, but the sister-in-law of the above-mentioned Alvaro Garcia, found guilty for colluding with paramilitary groups and homicide.

Some parties’ candidate lists are so stacked with the relatives of politicians implicated in parapolitics, the Election Observation Mission has requested that they reconsider their slates, and suggested that family members of parapoliticians should not aspire to hold seats in Congress.

On Sunday, it will be up to the public to decide which candidates are worthy.

Oscar Sevillano, a parapolitics investigator with the Corporation New Rainbow, a center for investigation of the armed conflict, says that despite voters’ complaints of political corruption, their support of parapolitica families gives way to this behaviour — and gives hope to armed and criminal groups. “It’s serious that the electorate has not learned from past elections,” said Sevillano. “Power doesn’t stop in jail.”