Colombia: Ties to Paramilitary Groups Bring Down Several Congressmembers, Implicate Foreign Relations Minister

Article excerpt

Congressmembers allied with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and a top member of his Cabinet were at the center of a major political scandal in October and November as prosecutors accused several politicians of ties to right-wing paramilitary groups. Courts detained three politicians and prosecutors named six more for questioning as evidence of a secret agreement between Uribistas and paramilitaries emerged, rocking Colombia's political establishment and bringing pressure on Foreign Relations Minister Maria Consuelo Araujo.

Uribe allies face prosecution, probes

Three congressmembers from Uribe's ruling group of legislative allies--Alvaro Garcia, Jairo Merlano, and Erik Morris--and former congressmember Muriel Benito Rebollo, who had the support of Araujo, faced investigations in mid-October and detention orders in November. All four are all solid supporters of Uribe from the northern Caribbean state of Sucre. Three have either been arrested or turned themselves over to police and a US$30,000 reward has been issued for the capture of the fourth.

In late November, Colombian prosecutors named six other politicians they wanted to question regarding alleged paramilitary links. The men were members of Uribe's governing coalition and included the foreign minister's brother, Sen. Alvaro Araujo. All are accused of conspiracy to commit a crime, the Corte Suprema de Justicia (CSJ) said in a statement.

Four other politicians from northern Colombia are already awaiting trial on charges ranging from funding the paramilitaries to ordering murders.

The investigation began after the police seized a laptop computer belonging to Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, who goes by the alias Jorge 40 and is one of the leaders of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). The AUC is accused of drug trafficking, extortion, and massacring civilians. Authorities found detailed accounts on the laptop of the AUC's activities along Colombia's Caribbean coast and its alleged dealings with local politicians.

The paramilitaries were created by landowners to combat left-wing rebels and anyone suspected of being their sympathizer. The AUC is engaged in a peace process with the government, which has led to more than 33,000 fighters surrendering their weapons (see NotiSur, 2005-07-22 and 2006-06-16). Most AUC leaders are now in jail awaiting trials in which they face a maximum of eight years in prison under the terms of the peace process (see NotiSur, 2006-09-22).

Previous allegations of paramilitary links among Uribe allies shook up the congressional election earlier this year, but the parties supporting the popular president still took control of the Congress (see NotiSur, 2006-02-03 and 2006-03-31).

Uribe refuses foreign relations minister's resignation

The scandal moved even closer to Uribe when Sen. Araujo acknowledged in a radio interview Nov. 17 that he attended a 2004 party at which one of the country's most feared paramilitary leaders was present. Araujo denied that his "marginal contact" with Jorge 40 implied any political dealings with the paramilitary commander, who is wanted in the US for being among Colombia's biggest drug traffickers.

Uribe sought to defuse what many Colombians think could become more damaging than the scandal involving drug-cartel financing of politicians in the mid-1990s that nearly toppled then President Ernesto Samper (1994-1998). Uribe said any member of Congress found to be conspiring with illegal armed groups should be jailed and "punished with extra severity."

Earlier, Uribe called upon "all congresspeople to tell the country the truth and reveal whatever contacts they had with the paramilitaries." Evidence is mounting that politicians across Colombia's Caribbean coast funneled public funds to the paramilitaries in exchange for election wins aided by paramilitary intimidation.

Despite the paramilitaries having disarmed as part of the 2004 peace deal, it is believed that they still hold sway over huge parts of the country after killing hundreds and forcibly displacing tens of thousands of mostly poor Colombians in a nearly decade-long reign of terror. …