Colombia: para probe hits Uribe’s home turf

An investigation that has already exposed links between government officials and illegal paramilitary groups in six of Colombia’s coastal departments has now reached the home department of President Álvaro Uribe, focusing on his administration’s politically powerful allies. Colombia’s Supreme Court, responsible for investigating corruption in Congress, has opened a probe into three lawmakers from Antioquia department—including Sen. Rubén Darío Quintero, Uribe’s private secretary when he was governor there from 1995 to 1997. Investigators are also said to be probing Sen. Mario Uribe, the president’s cousin. Quintero and Sen. Uribe both deny involvement with the paramilitaries.

In Washington, Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-MI), House Ways and Means trade subcommittee, said he and other congressmen were holding talks with the Democratic leadership that could lead to hearings on the scandal. With Colombia pressing for the trade deal and more aid, Levin said Congress needs “to try to figure out exactly what’s going on in Colombia, exactly what is the role of the paramilitary, how much a part of the government they are, how the government is trying to address this.”

The Colombian investigation into Antioquia comes as an opposition lawmaker, Sen. Gustavo Petro, plans congressional hearings examining the history of paramilitary activity in the northwestern department.

The Supreme Court will soon send a team of investigators to Canada to interview an exiled paramilitary turncoat, Jairo Castillo, whose testimony has already helped put eight members of Congress behind bars. Investigators expect Castillo, who has political asylum, to provide to provide details of meetings in which Mario Uribe and paramilitary leaders planned how to wrest control of private lands from owners not tied to para commanders.

Castillo, in a telephone interview with the Washington Post, said he was present at two meetings in 1998 attended by the paramilitary members and the senator. “What we knew about him,” Castillo said, “was that he was a strong collaborator of the paramilitaries in that zone.”

Sen. Uribe denied any ties to the paras. “I know nothing about any investigation, nothing,” he said. An aide later produced a certificate from the Supreme Court that said he was not being investigated. Court officials acknowledged giving the senator the certificate, a common practice when a probe has not actually reached the stage at which charges are being prepared. But the officials said investigators are nevertheless seeking to question Castillo about Sen. Uribe and possible paramilitary ties.

Sen. Uribe heads a party allied with the president, Democratic Colombia, which had five lawmakers in Congress until investigators began uncovering links between its members and the paras. Two of them—Sen. Álvaro García and Rep. Eric Morris—are now in jail. A third, Sen. Miguel Alfonso de la Espriella, is being investigated by the court for having been among a group of 11 lawmakers to sign a 2001 pact with paramilitary leaders calling for them to “re-found the fatherland.”

President Uribe has repeatedly said he supports the investigations. But since the so-called “para-politics” scandal erupted last year, the court and Prosecutor General Mario Iguaran have uncovered details of how members of Congress, governors and mayors in six coastal departments orchestrated fraudulent elections with paramilitary commanders—and then infiltrated and stole from hospitals and other public institutions and assassinatied hundreds of adversaries. In addition to the eight members of Congress who have been imprisoned, a former congress member is behind bars, and nearly 20 current and former members of Congress are under investigation. Most of the lawmakers were allies of President Uribe who overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment that permitted him to run for reelection in 2006.

The new focus of investigations by the court and the prosecutor general’s office is the eastern departments of Meta, Santander, Norte de Santander and Casanare. That brings to 11 the number of departments—a third of the country—where evidence has shown close collaboration between politicians and para commanders.

Six mayors from Casanare, home to foreign oil operations, have been removed from their positions in recent days. In Cúcuta, capital of Norte de Santander, Mayor Ramiro Suarez is under investigation for allegedly ordering the murder of a senior official, among other crimes.

But Antioquia—which includes Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest city and the center of industry—is the big target. Myles Frechette, a former US ambassador who supports many of Uribe’s policies, said that the investigation in Antioquia is “going to be very uncomfortable for the obvious reason, that the president is from there.” Uribe, when he was governor, spearheaded the creation of a legal vigilante network in Antioquia, called Convivir, which critics say later morphed into paramilitary groups.

Frechette, who at the time had warned the Colombian government against creating the Convivir network, said turning the investigation to Antioquia is “an absolutely indispensable step.” He added: “This thing should be pursued right to the end because if it is not, it’s going to leave some clouds there.”

Sen. Quintero, in a telephone interview, steadfastly denied accusations that he gained higher office with the help of a paramilitary warlord known in Colombia as “the German” —an allegation first reported by the Bogota daily El Espectador. Quintero, a close ally of President Uribe, said the accusations are designed to discredit the president’s security policies. “They’re looking to harm this process that the country is now going through,” he said. (WP, April 16)

See our last posts on Colombia and the para scandal.