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Guerrillas take to government

One-time rebels now hold key political positions across Latin America.

Uruguay's president-elect Jose Mujica celebrates winning the presidential run-off election in Montevideo, Nov. 29, 2009. Mujica, a former guerrilla fighter, has pledged to take a moderate path. (Andres Stapff/Reuters)

LIMA, Peru — Years after trying to shoot their way into power, dozens of former guerrillas in Latin America have found a better way to help chart their country's future — through the ballot box.

A former member of the M-19 guerrillas in Colombia is a senator. Several one-time rebels in El Salvador are congressmen, and one was elected as the country's vice president in March.

In the latest example, Jose Mujica, who spent 14 years in prison for waging war against the state as a Tupamaro guerrilla, was elected president of Uruguay at the end of November.

"Is there anything better than having the people who thought that killing, kidnapping and robbing was the path to power then decide to join the political process and earn their way to high office without rigging elections?" said Arturo Porzecanski, a Uruguayan who is an American University professor.

The one-time guerrillas typically express no regrets that they took up arms.

"We have democratic governments today in many cases because of the heroic struggles," said Sigfrido Reyes, a former FMLN guerrilla in El Salvador who is now the vice president of the country's Congress. "George Washington had to lead an armed struggle against the British. Simon Bolivar used arms to overthrow the Spanish."

Today's one-time rebels typically chose a violent path during the 1970s and 1980s when military dictatorships or authoritarian elected governments squelched dissident and freedom, often in the name of stamping out communists.

The generals returned to the barracks in the 1980s and 1990s, and newly elected democratic governments gave amnesties to guerrillas that allowed them to return to civilian life in return for forswearing violence.

Today, the only remaining guerrilla groups in Latin America are the FARC and the ELN, both in Colombia.

"The political success of leftist parties and movements in the region weakens the idea that violent strategies are necessary for substantive change, strengthening the legitimacy of electoral procedures and representative democracy," said William Aviles, a Latin American expert at the University of Nebraska.

The former guerrillas began winning elections in the 1980s in Central America and have steadily won more important races throughout Latin America as they have gained the public's trust. Their success has contributed to the leftward turn of Latin America in recent years.

Former guerrillas now hold key positions throughout Latin America.

Alvaro Garcia, who was just re-elected as Bolivia's vice president, was a leader in the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army that bombed 48 pipelines and electric pylons in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Garcia was captured in 1992, tortured and spent five years in prison, before becoming a respected professor and political analyst.

Vice President Salvador Sanchez of El Salvador and at least a dozen congressmen — including Reyes — fought with the FMLN guerrillas against the country's military dictatorship.

Dilma Rousseff, a former cabinet minister favored by President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva to succeed him in next year's presidential elections, joined a guerrilla movement against Brazil's military dictatorship and spent nearly three years in prison before becoming an economist.