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New Colombian party linked to right-wing gangs

BOGOTA (AP) — A new party accused of ties to far-right criminal bands has emerged as a surprising force in Colombian politics, adding to worries that President Alvaro Uribe has failed to weaken drug-funded paramilitaries in the provinces.

Voters made the Party of National Integration, or PIN, Colombia's fourth-strongest party in Sunday's election to replace a Congress already badly tarnished by lawmaker links to far-right militias.

The party is comprised in large part by relatives and friends of lawmakers jailed or under investigation for alleged paramilitary links but denies any links with criminals. It won nearly a million votes in elections dominated by Uribe allies.

"It is no secret that drug mafias and some remnants of paramilitary groups have penetrated Colombia's political system," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. "But their capacity to organize politically in the current context is notable, and deeply troubling."

The vote was a key indicator of Colombians' preferences heading into the May 30 presidential election, providing a measure of Uribe's performance against this Andean nation's twin demons: organized crime and drug corruption. Uribe remains highly popular in Colombia for weakening leftist guerrillas.

While the vote highlighted the popularity of his administration's vigorous U.S.-backed military campaign against the drug-funded rebels, it also underlines the failure to curtail the power of the paramilitaries. The rightist groups emerged in the 1980s to counter leftist rebels but evolved into drug-trafficking gangs blamed for well over 20,000 murders.

Ariel Avila, a researcher with the independent Arco Iris Foundation, said the governing party has obtained loyalty through political patronage — doling out ambassadorships, notaries and other posts in exchange for loyalty — as few other Colombian governments have.

He accused the outgoing Uribe administration of being "one of the most corrupt governments ever" in Colombia.

Uribe administration officials, who have extradited a record number of alleged drug traffickers to the United States to stand trial, deny such charges. They have not commented on the PIN party, citing laws that bar them from public statements that could be construed as trying to influence electoral politics.

Colombia's next president — a February court decision disqualified Uribe from running for a third straight four-year term — will have to decide whether to include PIN in the governing coalition.

The current front-runner, former Defense Minister Manuel Santos, declined to say Monday if he would do so.

"We're not at the moment planning to make mechanical alliances," he told reporters.

His National Unity party — Uribe's former standard-bearer — won the most votes Sunday, followed by the allied Conservative party. Together they fall just short of a majority in Congress and will need allies. The opposition Liberal party was the third-largest vote-getter, PIN was fourth and the Uribe-allied Radical Change party finished fifth.

Some of the Uribe-allied parties won seats with candidates who are relatives or friends of politicians jailed for ties to the paramilitaries. But PIN, which was created in November, had the most.

Its candidates won eight of the Senate's 102 seats.

They include Teresita Garcia. Her brother Alvaro Garcia, an ex-senator, was convicted and sentenced last month to 40 years in prison for ordering a 2000 massacre of 15 peasants in the remote northern town of Macayepo.

Also prominent among PIN's senators-elect is Hector Julio Lopez, son of Enilce Lopez, a lottery entrepreneur known as "La Gata" who has been on trial on murder and money-laundering charges.

Vote-buying, nothing new in Colombian politics, apparently was rampant Sunday outside the cosmopolitan capital of Bogota, where a nascent anti-corruption Green Party emerged.

Organization of American States election observers said Tuesday they confirmed vote-buying in six of the 16 provinces where they were present Sunday. One was Lopez's stronghold of Magangue near the Caribbean coast. Mission chief Enrique Correa said votes were paid for at tables that political parties put at voting stations "to assist the voters."

Veteran columnist Maria Jimena Duzan says the going rate in the region is about $50-$70 per voter.

PIN's legal representative, Alvaro Caicedo, disputed the claim of critics that PIN's success provides compelling evidence that right-wing criminal bands involved in drug trafficking continue to plague Colombia's countryside.

"Under no circumstance does the party have anything to do with the guerrillas, or with paramilitarism or drug-trafficking," he told The Associated Press in his office at Bogota's city council, to which he was elected two years ago.

He insisted he assiduously vetted each of the more than 80 congressional candidates the party ran.

Caicedo also denied published reports that the true power behind PIN is former Sen. Luis Alberto Gil, who has been jailed since 1988 on criminal conspiracy charges for alleged collusion with paramilitaries.

But Caicedo, a self-described peasant from the southern state of Narino, acknowledged he regularly visits Gil, whose wife ran unsuccessfully for the Senate on the PIN slate, and other jailed politicians at La Picota penitentiary.

More than 40 members of the outgoing Congress have been arrested since 2006 on criminal conspiracy charges for allegedly benefiting from ties with paramilitaries, and a similar number are under investigation. That's roughly a third of Congress.

One of Uribe's former close advisors, Jose Obdulio Gaviria, said that people who voted for PIN candidates clearly don't consider politicians who allied themselves with the right-wing militias to be criminals.

"There are 900,000 Colombians who have a different perception of (them), a matter that hasn't been closely scrutiinzed by the analysts and administrators of justice," he said.

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Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera and Luisa Fernanda Cuellar contributed to this report.