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Guerrillas take to government

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

Brazilian Congressman Fernando Gabeira was part of a group that kidnapped U.S. Ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969 to protest U.S.-backed military rule. The group released Elbrick four days later in exchange for the freedom of 15 political prisoners. One of them was Jose Dirceu, who went on to become Lula's chief adviser in the Workers' Party.

President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua actually did shoot his way into power with the Sandinista guerrillas before winning the presidency twice. Nicaragua's Congress includes guerrillas who fought with the Sandinistas and the so-called "Contras" who tried to overthrow them in the 1980s.

Victor Hugo Tinoco said he is one of several former Sandinista guerrillas elected to Congress who oppose Ortega because the government "doesn't respect the rights of individuals."

Yehude Simon was imprisoned for eight years on charges of conspiring with the MRTA guerrillas in Peru before being pardoned and then being elected governor of Lambayeque state. From 2008-09, he served as Peru's appointed prime minister.

"Not many people are improved by prison, but Yehude was one," said Curt Struble, a former U.S. ambassador in Peru. "His personal experience clearly left him convinced that an excess of passion in politics was extremely dangerous and that conciliation of divergent interests was best. I found Yehude to be an exemplary democrat in that sense."

At least a dozen members of Uruguay's 130-member Congress fought as Tupamaros against an authoritarian democratic government in the 1970s, including Juan Jose Dominguez, a substitute senator who spent nearly 16 years in prison and was freed in a 1985 amnesty.

"We've decided to fight through the electoral process," Dominguez said, noting that Mujica heads a coalition known as the Broad Front that has governed under a non-Tupamaro president, Tabare Vazquez, the last five years.

"We've instituted the program of one computer per child," Dominguez said. "We've improved salaries for workers, and we want maids to get a fairer salary. We're doing a lot of the things we wanted back then."

Dominguez added: "Mujica has told the military that they shouldn't be in the business of hating people."

Several former guerrillas have said the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and contact with moderate socialists in Europe convinced them that they could achieve more by surrendering their weapons and entering politics.

Several who went to live in the Soviet Union found that it wasn't the workers' paradise they had envisioned.

In the case of Sen. Gustavo Petro, the former M-19 guerrilla in Colombia, he said he decided that he could achieve more by returning to civilian life.

"The fight for social equality and democracy is the same," Petro said. "My methods are now peaceful. Times have changed."

What he learned living underground may still come in handy, however.

Petro keeps an AK-47 in his bedroom because his exposes of political corruption have produced an avalanche of death threats.