Colombia to Expose Militia's Reach ; Six Lawmakers Face Questioning by Colombia's Supreme Court This Week over Their Alleged Links to Paramilitary Forces

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In Colombia's corridors of power, the tension is almost palpable. People worry and wonder who might be the next target in a widening probe into connections between politicians and the country's powerful right-wing militias that used terror and intimidation to impose their will on the population.

Six pro-government lawmakers face questioning by the Supreme Court this week over their alleged links to paramilitary forces in their home provinces in a scandal that is rocking the country's political establishment to its core.

Collusion between the right-wing militias and the US-backed government's military and police forces is well documented by human rights groups, but until now, the extent to which the paramilitaries had co-opted politics and local government was one of Colombia's best-known secrets.

"We always knew this phenomenon existed," says Vicente Torrijos, a political science professor at Bogota's Rosario University. "And what we've seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg," he says, adding that politicians tend to "save themselves by implicating others."

Senator Miguel de la Espriella, from northern Cordoba Province, did just that. In a Nov. 26 newspaper interview he admitted that he was among about 40 politicians that had signed a political pact with the paramilitary leaders when they were at the height of their power in 2001. That revelation resulted in the resignation of a minor official of Mr. Uribe's government, who also acknowledged signing the pact when he was a member of Congress.

As the crisis snowballs, it comes increasingly close to the country's top leadership. "No one knows how high this goes," says Adam Isacson, who monitors Colombia for the Washington-based Center for International Policy.

Mr. Isacson says that the scandals could threaten US aid to Colombia's armed forces. "Especially if we see generals and colonels being named, it will affect US aid," he says, noting that already, disbursement of part of US aid for this year has been delayed, apparently over concerns about unrelated scandals in the Army.

The US has provided $4.5 billion of mostly military aid to Colombia since 1999 to fight drug trafficking and leftist guerrillas. "But Democrats in the US Congress now could find ... reasons to question the president," says Gustavo Duncan, a security analyst with the Seguridad y Democracia think tank who has written a book on paramilitary power in Colombia.

Among the six lawmakers who are scheduled to testify this week before the Supreme Court is Senator Alvaro Araujo, the brother of Foreign Minister Maria Consuelo Araujo. So far, the foreign minister has withstood calls to step down. The former head of Colombia's intelligence agency during Uribe's first term is also being investigated by state prosecutors for collaborating with militias.

And a congressional committee is opening a preliminary investigation this week on accusations that Uribe himself is linked to the far-right paramilitaries. Despite persistent allegations against the president, no credible evidence has ever been presented, and in a recent speech, Uribe challenged the militia leaders to implicate him. …


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