Colombia: para scandal threatens trade deal

We hope. From Reuters, Feb. 16:

BOGOTA – A scandal over suspected Colombian government links to illegal right-wing militias could hamper President Alvaro Uribe’s bid to clinch a free-trade deal with the United States.

Sen. Alvaro Araujo, the brother of Colombia’s foreign minister, was arrested on Thursday on suspicion of financing drug-running paramilitaries who have committed atrocities in a the name of fighting leftist rebels.

Araujo is in jail awaiting trial along with seven other members of Uribe’s congressional coalition also accused of paramilitary links.

Uribe wants to sign a free-trade deal with Washington. But Democrats who took control of the U.S. Congress last month have said the Andean country must first improve its human-rights record.

“Every time something like this (scandal) comes to light it confirms what people have suspected for a long time, that paramilitary influence has permeated Colombian society and politics. This does not help chances of passing a free-trade agreement,” said Tim Rieser, an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the subcommittee that funds foreign assistance programs.

“On the other hand, the fact that the Colombian justice system is beginning to address this problem is very positive,” he said.

The opposition is calling for Foreign Minister Maria Consuelo Araujo, sister of the arrested senator, to resign.

For years, the right-wing paramilitaries have boasted about their influence in (Colombia’s) Congress, but Araujo is the highest-profile politician to be arrested as part of the widening “para-political” scandal.

“The larger issue is how does Colombia explain this to a Democratic (U.S.) Congress that is looking very hard at the free-trade deal,” said Stephen Donehoo, Latin America expert at the Washington-based Kissinger McLarty Associates consultancy.

More than 4,000 Colombian union leaders have been assassinated since 1986, according to the U.S. State Department. Families of the victims and human-rights groups accuse the paramilitaries of being involved in many of the killings.

“If links are proved between the paramilitaries and the labor killings, this political scandal makes passing the free-trade deal all the more difficult,” Donehoo added.

The paramilitaries were organized as private militias in the 1980s to help protect private property from leftist rebels. Both groups, branded terrorists by Washington, fund themselves with Colombia’s multibillion-dollar cocaine trade.

Uribe is popular for cutting crime as part of his U.S.-backed crackdown on leftist rebels, who have decline to enter peace talks while more than 31,000 paramilitaries have turn in their arms in exchange for reduced jail sentences and other benefits.

See our last posts on Colombia, the para scandal and trade deal.