Colombia: foreign minister resigns as para scandal heats up

Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Consuelo Araujo stepped down Feb. 19, four days after the Supreme Court ordered the arrest of her brother Senator Alvaro Araujo and 12 other legislators for their ties to the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), the feared paramilitary network. The court also called for an investigation into the suspected paramilitary activities of Araujo’s father, Alvaro Araujo Noguera, including the kidnapping and extortion of a businessman.

President Alvaro Uribe immediately named Fernando Araujo (no relation) as the new foreign minister. Fernando Araujo was held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) from December 4, 2000 to December 31, 2006, when he managed to escape. At the time when he was taken prisoner by the guerillas, he was minister of development under President Andres Pastrana. (Periodico 26, Cuba, Feb. 20) He is one of 59 Colombian politicians, soldiers and police officers that have been held by FARC during the last nine years with hopes of exchanging them for 500 imprisoned guerrillas. (Mercopress, Uruguay, Feb. 20)

The political scandal is being driven in large part by a guerilla-turned-senator who has defied death threats to become the Colombian opposition’s most fearless spokesman. Sen. Gustavo Petro has relentlessly accused the president of fostering a sinister alliance between the political class and the illegal paramilitaries. Petro, who has nine bodyguards and wears custom-tailored bulletproof sport jackets, has twice foiled paramilitary plots to kill him, and has periodically fled into exile for safety.

Undaunted, Petro presses his claims that the president’s brother, Santiago Uribe, was personally involved in murders and forced disappearances while helping to form paramilitary groups in the 1990s. A government investigation into the matter at the time was dropped without explanation. The president was governor of Antioquia department at the time, and Petro alleges that he may have helped cover up his brother’s crimes. He is calling for a debate on the matter in Colombia’s congress next month.

“This case which was in the prosecutor’s office of Antioquia, which Alvaro Uribe was governing, was shelved,” Petro said. “And that’s the president’s defense today. But nobody is asking, was the case shelved at Uribe’s behest?”

In a radio speech, Uribe charged Petro and other ex-members of the disbanded M-19 guerrilla group now in politics have gone from being “terrorists in camouflage to terrorists in business suits.” The same day Uribe made the statement, Petro’s brother was threatened with death if the senator goes ahead with the debate. “We’re going to break you into pieces,” the caller said after vulgar insults.

Authorities immediately assigned bodyguards to Petro’s brother and sister, who run a school for underprivileged children of flower workers just north of Bogota. Uribe was widely criticized in the Colombian media for reckless, unpresidential behavior.

The M-19 guerillas disarmed in a 1989 amnesty and many of their leaders were elected to the assembly that helped rewrite Colombia’s constitution two years later. Many, including Petro, are now active in Polo Democratico Alternativo.

Since Petro first aired his accusations on the Senate floor, eight members of Congress have been jailed on charges ranging from colluding with illegal armed groups to homicide. Several dozen other politicians are under investigation. The “para-politico” scandal first broke when a key witness who had fled into exile, Jairo Castillo, contacted Petro.

Despite his revolutionary past, Petro says the FARC is totalitarian and just as tainted by drug-trafficking as the AUC. He says M-19’s “project was democratic. Never was it even socialist.” Petro, who now counts Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez as a friend, joined the M-19 at age 17 as a clandestine community organizer in Zipaquira.

M-19 has been hounded by charges that its tragic blunder—the November 1985 seizure of the Palace of Justice—was funded by drug traffickers, a charge Uribe consistently echoes though no solid evidence has been produced. More than 100 people were killed in the raid, including 11 Supreme Court justices. A new book Petro co-authored blames nearly all the deaths on the military assault launched to retake the building. Petro himself was not involved. Captured before the raid, he still has scars from the Bogota army base where he was tortured with electro-shock and beaten. He was imprisoned for a year and a half on rebellion charges.

M-19 co-founder Rosemberg Pabon, a legendary fighter who now heads Colombia’s agency in charge of economic cooperatives, visited Uribe after the his radio outburst and pleaded for a halt in insults.

He also suggested Petro mute his style. “He fights with the president. He fights with the chief prosecutor. He fights with the financial groups. He fights with the paramilitaries. He fights with the FARC,” said Pabon. “He fights with the left that’s not with him. He fights with the whole world.” (AP, Feb. 20)

See our last post on Colombia and the para scandal.