Colombia arrests 32 politicians over paramilitary ties

Members of a bandit group cover their faces as they surrender on May 21, 2009 in Uraba (AFP Photo/Raul Arboleda)

Bogota (AFP) - Colombian authorities have arrested 32 local politicians for alleged ties to right-wing paramilitary groups that fueled the country's 50-year conflict before being disbanded a decade ago, prosecutors said Thursday.

Current and former mayors, ex-town councilors, civic leaders and former Senate candidates were among those arrested in the region of Uraba in the violence-torn country's northwest.

The mayor of the port town of Turbo, William Palacio Valencia, was among those arrested.

A prosecution source said a total of 50 arrest warrants had been issued based on confessions from jailed paramilitary leaders.

"The investigation indicates these people are linked to the Elmer Cardenas block, which was led by Freddy Rendon Herrera, alias 'The German,'" said a prosecution statement.

Rendon is accused in the killings of 4,301 people during a wave of massacres and violence that swept the Uraba region in the 1990s and 2000s, when paramilitary groups waged a campaign of terror aimed at intimidating local voters.

The groups, originally formed in the late 1980s to fight Colombia's leftwing guerrilla groups, ended up forging an alliance with like-minded politicians and turning on the local population.

Some 32,000 paramilitary fighters disarmed between 2003 and 2006, after then-president Alvaro Uribe's government reached deals to officially disband the groups.

About 1,700 of them are now in prison under a 2005 law levying prison terms of up to eight years for those who confessed to their crimes.

They include Rendon, who is due for release this year.

Despite being disbanded, several ex-paramilitary groups have continued operating and forged alliances with drug traffickers.

The Colombian conflict, the longest in Latin America, has killed 220,000 people and caused more than five million to flee their homes since it erupted as a left-wing guerrilla uprising in the 1960s.

President Juan Manuel Santos's government is currently holding peace talks in Havana with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group, and has announced plans for talks with the second-largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).