Scandal Rocks Colombia's Leadership

Scandal Rocks Colombia's Leadership
December 14th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: Scandal Rocks Colombia's Leadership

Scandal Rocks Colombia's Leadership
Boston Globe
December 14, 2006
Evidence of links to death squads imperils progress
By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Globe Staff
BOGOTÁ -- The Colombian government, the recipient of billions of dollars in US aid to fight drugs and a leftist insurgency, is under siege as evidence mounts of links between right-wing death squads and dozens of officials loyal to President Álvaro Uribe.
In the past week, the country's Supreme Court summoned six legislators to answer accusations that they conspired with paramilitary leaders who are alleged to have killed tens of thousands of leftist sympathizers and ordinary civilians and run drug trafficking networks since the 1980s. They are among two dozen sitting and former lawmakers, governors, and other public servants being investigated for or charged with colluding with paramilitary death squads to fix elections, plan massacres, share in corruption proceeds, or help the militias get a better deal in peace talks.
The so-called "para-political" crisis threatens to close in on Uribe, President Bush's best friend in a region increasingly dominated by leftist politicians. It also risks setting back Colombia's efforts to make peace with armed insurgents on the left and right who have terrorized civilians and trafficked drugs for decades.
Despite the demobilization over the last three years of 31,000 members and allies of right-wing death squads, there are widespread reports that their political influence and hold over organized crime and drug trafficking remains intact.
A congressional committee is studying accusations that Uribe himself supported the rise of right-wing militias when he was a governor in the 1990s. Uribe has vehemently denied the allegations, challenging anyone with evidence to come forward.
Still, the accusations against Uribe and his allies have reopened old wounds in Colombian society.
Civilian militias formed in the 1980s to combat leftist guerrillas, and they later morphed into death squads that engaged in drug trafficking and extortion. It has long been alleged that powerful elites -- from cattle ranchers and politicians to military commanders -- helped establish and fund the militias. Several years ago, paramilitary leaders boldly declared that they controlled one-third of Colombia's Congress.
But after years of impunity, the paramilitaries have come under the microscope since they disarmed and agreed to confess their crimes in exchange for lenient sentences. Witnesses and whistleblowers, including a secret police official facing prosecution for destroying evidence of militia leaders' crimes, have given testimony.
The attorney general's office announced in October that a confiscated computer belonging to a paramilitary leader known as "Jorge 40" contained evidence that politicians had accepted funds from paramilitaries, used their links to militias to intimidate their constituents into supporting them, and even plotted massacres. Since then, fresh revelations, arrest warrants, and resignations have followed.
"They are just turning over the first rock to see what worms are under it, and there are many more rocks to go," said Adam Isacson, Colombia program director for the Center for International Policy, an independent think tank based in Washington, D.C. "We still haven't gotten to the generals and colonels, the industrialists and landowners, or senior members of Congress. Nobody has any idea how high this will go."
Two weeks ago, a pro-Uribe senator, Miguel de la Espriella, revealed that he and 39 other congressmen had signed a secret accord pledging loyalty to the militias at a meeting in 2001. The director of a government contracts agency resigned two days later, admitting that he had attended the meeting.
With the government's credibility at stake, Uribe is scrambling to salvage his reputation by taking a hard line against the paramilitaries and those who aided them.
On Dec. 1, his government moved 59 top paramilitary chiefs who had been confined at a converted resort to a maximum-security prison, citing rumors that they were plotting to flee and were involved in the murders of two paramilitary commanders who were not in custody. The militia chiefs angrily denied the rumors, and embarrassing allegations surfaced last week that corrupt police and prosecutors might have been involved in the murders.
While those now facing charges are politicians and police, human rights groups have long said the military was the worst offender, using militias to do the "dirty work" in the war against leftist guerrillas and sympathizers. The Department of Administrative Security, Colombia's secret police agency, was tainted last year when evidence emerged that its leadership was infiltrated by paramilitaries.
If charges against security forces are proven in court, Isacson said, "It'll be really hard for Washington to justify continuing $600 million a year in military and police aid to Colombia."
Uribe's three-year peace process with paramilitaries, criticized by victims' groups as too lenient, was the centerpiece of his first term. Coupled with his crackdown on leftist guerrillas and improvements in security, it won him a landslide re election last May and continued US support.
But the confidence between the government and the paramilitaries that allowed for a peace accord appears to have crumbled. Last week, the paramilitary chiefs angrily charged that the government broke its word that they would not serve time in ordinary jails by moving them high-security prison, and declared an end to talks with Uribe's envoys.
Militia chiefs allege the government is trying to silence them from exposing their links to power brokers and are refusing to eat prison food, claiming it could be poisoned. They have implored an erstwhile nemesis -- Senator Gustavo Petro, a former leftist guerrilla -- to press authorities to guarantee protection for them and their families before they expose collaborators.
Camilo González, president of the Institute for Development and Peace Studies in Bogotá, compared the peace process to a Pandora's box that "has gotten out of the government's hands. . . . There's more interest in shutting [the paramilitary chiefs] up than in getting them to tell the truth," because any one of them could be a star witness against scores of powerful officials, he said.
Security analysts worry that the rupture of trust in the peace process could be taken as a signal by the few thousand paramilitaries who have not demobilized to unleash a new cycle of violence.
"Those groups who haven't demobilized yet probably won't now . . . because the government broke its promise not to send [militiamen] to common prisons," said Alfredo Rangel, director of the Foundation for Security and Democracy in Bogotá.
González warned that "the peace process is in "intensive care and needs to be resuscitated. This crisis could set off vendettas and violence among paramilitaries and will implicate more sectors."

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