Uribe's Cousin Is Arrested In 'Para-Politics' Affair

Uribe's Cousin Is Arrested In 'Para-Politics' Affair
April 23rd, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Uribe's Cousin Is Arrested In 'Para-Politics' Affair

Uribe's Cousin Is Arrested In 'Para-Politics' Affair
Wall Street Journal
April 23, 2008
Pg. 10
Scandal Could Hurt Colombia's Chance For Free-Trade Deal
By David Luhnow and Jose de Cordoba
Colombian prosecutors ordered the arrest of President Alvaro Uribe's second cousin Tuesday for alleged ties to right-wing paramilitary groups. The arrest is part of a scandal that may hurt Colombia's bid for a free-trade deal with Washington.
The Attorney General's Office ordered the arrest of Mario Uribe, a former senator and key ally of the president, on charges that he conspired to strike political deals with paramilitary commanders who led death squads. After the warrant was issued, Mr. Uribe took refuge in the Costa Rican embassy in Bogotá and requested political asylum. Late Tuesday, Costa Rica denied the request and Mr. Uribe surrendered to police.
Mr. Uribe has in the past denied the allegations against him.
The president's second cousin is one of the highest-profile figures to be swept up in the so-called para-politics scandal. The affair shows the extent to which paramilitary groups -- most of which have disbanded in a peace deal with the government -- infiltrated the Colombian political system during the past decade. More than 70 current and former congressmen and state governors are being investigated; at least 30 are in jail.
"The paramilitaries have systematically greased the wheels of politics in Colombia and brought people to power," says Bruce Bagley, a Colombia expert at the University of Miami. Mr. Bagley estimates the number of politicians implicated in the scandal could go as high as 80% of congress.
The arrest is likely to add to Colombia's difficulties in convincing the U.S. Congress to pass a trade pact. Democrats have held up the deal on concerns about U.S. job losses, but also because of the killing of union activists in Colombia by paramilitaries. Such killings have fallen sharply in recent years, but some human-rights activists say Colombia doesn't do enough to prosecute those who commit the crimes.
There is no evidence the president himself had links to paramilitary groups, who were responsible for many of the most gruesome killings in the country's civil war. But most of the lawmakers arrested or under investigation are members of Mr. Uribe's party or of parties that support him. Among those jailed is Mr. Uribe's former private secretary when he was a state governor.
Mr. Uribe hopes the case won't affect U.S. passage of the trade deal, said an official in his office. The Colombian president, among the Bush administration's closest allies in Latin America, has won high marks at home and abroad for bringing the country back from the edge of a failed state. An aggressive military push partly funded by the U.S. has driven left-wing guerrillas into remote areas, and a peace deal with paramilitaries reduced violence around the country. Colombia's economy is now growing quickly and Mr. Uribe enjoys an 84% approval rating.
Mr. Uribe says the scandal shows Colombia's institutions are working. To arrest so many lawmakers would be inconceivable in most Latin American countries, which are plagued by weak justice systems. Colombia's courts have proved to be aggressive in defending the law.
An official at the president's office said that Mr. Uribe "as president supports the course of justice, but as a person feels saddened by the case."
Previously, after the supreme court interrogated Mario Uribe, the outgoing chief justice claimed that the president had asked him about the case during a telephone conversation. The president denied such interference and sued the justice for slander, a case that is pending.
Many of the paramilitary groups, formed by ranchers and others to fight the influence of left-wing guerrillas, forged close links to the illegal-drug trade, including the remains of the Medellín cocaine cartel once headed by Pablo Escobar.
The paramilitary groups, often accused of working hand-in-hand with the army, carried out mass killings of guerrillas and suspected sympathizers. The now-disbanded AUC, an umbrella paramilitary group, was considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government -- the same designation given by Washington to their main opponents, the communist FARC guerrillas.
While the guerrillas were trying to overthrow the Colombian state, the paramilitaries worked to expand their power. They organized paramilitary groups to support specific candidates in each region, ensuring their politicians would win in districts and not compete with each other. They intimidated or assassinated competitors and pressured voters.
"Instead of trying to sabotage the state, they tried to co-opt it," says Claudia Lopez, an academic who led a probe into links between politicians and paramilitaries in Mr. Uribe's home state of Antioquia, where the president was governor during the growth of paramilitary activity. Her probe helped spark the judicial investigations.