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Colombia: All About The "Para-Politics" Scandal

A Short Practical Guide To Understanding All About The "Para-Politics" Scandal


by Élber Gutiérrez Roa
Revista Semana, in Rebelion 06-03-2007
Translated by Tortilla con Sal

The scandal Colombia is living through has undergone such accelerated development in the last weeks that few people really understand what is going on. Semana.com offers you all the clues you need so as to be up to date.

The political crisis unleashed by the trial linking members of Congress and government with the Self-Defence groups (1) began over a year ago, thanks to the appearance of new witnesses and evidence compromising high-level officials with paramilitaries of the Atlantic Coast. Although the matter was not new for the courts, only then did the State investigation apparatus get to work, although some entities like the Public Prosecutor's office have held most of the proof under wraps for over five years.

The first concrete event that prompted the investigations was the accusation made by Clara Lopez, former candidate for mayor in Bogota for the Democratic Pole.(2) Lopez decided to ask the court to investigate members of Congress to establish whether declarations made years earlier by Salvatore Mancuso (3) were true according to which the Self Defence groups controlled 35 per cent of Congress. Although the disputed quote had been rejected by legislators of all parties and some included it in sensational debates about political control, Lopez was the first to ask the justice system to investigate the case.

The press too played an important role through its insistent coverage and denunication of the case. Semana revealed in detail how the tentacles of now demobilised commander of the Self Defence groups' Northern Bloc, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, "Jorge 40", inflitrated the DAS (4) and how the electoral frauds of 2002 and 2006 were concocted. Those accusations, denied at first by President Alvaro Uribe, were proved little by little in the courts. El Tiempo, Cambio (5) and some research by Caludia Lopez (also published in Semana.com) touched the sore spot on how the paramilitaries shared out votes on the Atlantic Coast so as to make sure their friends made it into Congress.

All these initiatives added to valiant attempts by Congress towards political control by legislators like Gustavo Petro (who uncovered paramilitary infiltration in Sucre, Cordoba, Cesar and Magdalena) (6) the Public Prosecutor and other State entities and Senator Piedad Cordoba, who in more than five debates spoke out on the infiltration of the DAS and the armed imposition of candidates for municipal office, governorships, the Chamber and the Senate.

As if this were not enough, the authorities confiscated a computer from the paramilitary Edgar Ignacio Fierro, known by his alias of "Don Antonio", containing detailed information on Jorge 40's contacts with politicians; five members of congress were expelled from Uribe's party on his orders, owing to their links with paramilitaries, but they then remoulded themselves into other parties - also supporters of Uribe; one paramilitary deserter known as "Pitirry" (currently in exile in Canada) gave new details of the massacres carried out in Sucre; some senators out of nervous desperation admitted contacts with the Self Defence groups; and recently Salvatore Mancuso released a document compromising 28 leaders on the Atlantic Coast in a deal with the Self Defence groups to "refound the Homeland"

With all this evidence as well as the testimonies of various demobilised paramilitaries and relatives of anonymous victims the courts began to build a trial. These are the key pieces.

The detainees

As a result of the investigations ten political heavyweights are behind bars

The first three were congressional senators Alvaro Garcia and Jairo Merlano and Representative Erick Morris, all from the Sucre department and all members of Uribe's party in Congress. The Supreme Court, charged with investigating the congressmen opened the case on October 18th 2006; one week later it called them for hearings and finally issued arrest warrants for conspiracy to commit offences in association with the Self Defence groups. Garcia is accused of taking part in conspiring to order some of the massacres of rural workers carried out between 2000 and 2002. But the most serious case is that of Merlano who is under investigation as a leader of a Self Defence group. Four deputies of the political parties of these congressmen had been detained months previously by the Public Prosecutor's office.

On February 15th this year after two months of uncertainty over what would happen, the Court ordered the arrest of six more members of Congress, this time on accusations of paramilitary infiltration in Cesar and Magdalena departments. Involved were Alvaro Araujo, Mauricio Pimiento, Dieb Maloof, Luis Eduardo Vives, Alfonso Campo and Jorge Caballero, all Uribe supporters apparently with links to "Jorge 40" and beneficiaries of the electoral share-out managed by the paramilitaries and revealed by the analyst Claudia Lopez. Although the first five were arrested the same evening, the last is still on the run. Maloof, Caballero, and Vives had been expelled from Uribe's party at the start of 2006 for links with the Self Defence groups but later returned to the fold with the Presidential blessing.

Finally on February 22nd the ex-Director of the DAS, Jorge Noguera, was arrested, the closest to the President of those involved. Rafael Garcia, ex-director of information for the DAS appointed by Noguera, accused Noguera of permitting the paramilitary pincers to coopt the security body. According to Garcia, under arrest now for covering up the records of narcos wanted for extradition, Noguera himself allowed the infiltration and supplied the paramilitaries with data bases to alter election results and with information on trades unionsts who were then murdered. The scandal cost Noguera the post of Consul in Milan. However, Uribe insisted on his own innocence arguing that when Noguera was director of his election campaign in Magdalena "I stayed at home".

The fugitives

For the same scandal Salvador Arana, former governor of Sucre, and Representative Jorge Luis Caballero are on the run from the law.

Arana, a close friend of President Uribe was named as an embassy official for Chile, despite having been investigated by the Public Prosecutor for five years for links with the paramilitaries. In Congress, Senator Petro alleged in 2004 that Arana was responsible for murders committed by the group working as "Diego Vecino", now demobilised, and the fearsome Rodrigo Mercado Peluffo, "Cadena", disappeared mysteriously in Santa Fe Ralito. Other evidence against him is the testimony of Tito Diaz, former mayor of Roble (in Sucre department), who in a full meeting of the municipal council denounced in front of President Alvaro Uribe that Salvador Arana wanted him dead for his refusal to deal with the paramilitaries. Regrettably, the courts failed to act in time and Diaz, just as he had declared on television was killed by the Self Defence group, despite pleading for presidential support. Interpol has an arrest warrant out for Arana.

Caballero's case is different. The unusual vote gained in the congressional elections, which in some municipalities exceeded 93 per cent, alerted the Supreme Court which was dissatisfied with his replies in relation to his intimacy with "Chepe" Barrera, paramilitary chief in southern Magdalena. Furthermore, Caballero has a serious previous record. He had already been expelled from Uribe's party for his links with the Self Defence groups. Rumour has it that he is in Germany or Spain. He has shown no intention of returning to Colombia.

Who's next?

The case began on the Atlantic Coast and most of those involved belong to that region. However, in recent weeks the Supreme Court and the Public Prosecutor have also brought forward inquiries against Congress members in departments like Boyaca, Casanare and Antioquia.

In Cordoba department a large group of leaders are tainted as participants in the "Ralito agreement". Among them figure Senators Miguel de la Espriella, Reginaldo Montes and Juan Manuel Lopez as well as Luis Carlos Ordosgoitia, former governor and ex-director of INCO (7) and the former Senator Eleonora Pineda. it is expected that the Supreme Court will decide on their situation in the next few days

In Cesar department, governor Hernando Molina is under investigation, a cousin of Senator Araujo and of former Foreign Minister, Maria Consuelo Araujo. He is suspected of benefiting from a deal with "Jorge 40". Trino Luna, governor of Magdalena is also linked following accusations by congresswoman Piedad Cordoba that he was imposed as an only candidate by the Self Defence groups.

Now Fiscal General, Mario Iguaran has sent the Supreme Court evidence that he alleges links Representative Oscar Wilches with the Self Defence groups of Martin Llanos (8). In that same department, six mayors are under investigation for the same reason. And in Boyaca department, Ciro Ramirez, famous for his repeated efforts to extend the period of government of President Uribe, is now in the sights of the courts for some recordings in which he figures in compromising conversations with narcos.

Although none of them is under arrest and those who are have not been convicted yet, the favourable circumstances for the investigation have permitted the Supreme Court, in the case of members of Congress - and the Public Prosecutor's office to gather more and more evidence on the degree of involvement between functionaries and illegal groups.

The effect on Congress

The investigation has had the members of Congress living on their nerves since the end of last year. And not for nothing. The involvement of members of Congress who are influential in the social circles of Bogota makes one think that this time around the Court has decided to spare no effort in the difficult task of clarifying the matter in hand.

It is for this reason that ever fewer deputies attend the sessions of Congress. Not even Presidential requests for emergency seesions to discuss the Free Trade Agreement with the Untied States and the Development Plan have managed to get legislators to focus on that task. The vacant corridors bear witness to what is happening. To cap it all, Uribe complains of a lack of support from his party every time he has to defend himself against another attack from the opposition. Uribe declared in a radio interview, "It looks as though they are afraid of the opposition."

The Fourth Committee of the Lower House is at a loss what to do because its president and vice-president are in prison and in those conditions many people think any decisions taken (on important matters like the Development Plan) could be rendered void. Nor is there a president for the Fifth Committee of the Senate since the day Araujo was arrested by DAS agents in one of Bogota's most luxurious malls.

Added to this extraordinary context is the expectancy created by the debate announced by Senator Petro against the Uribe family which he accuses of promoting paramilitary activity in Antioquia. Paranoia and highstrung nerves abound. Dark humour is ever more frequent and some, for example, reckon that at this rate it will be easier to form a quorum in the La Picota prison. (9)

Impact on the government

Despite President Alvaro Uribe doing all he could from the outset to prevent the scandal damaging his administration, the reality is that it is being brought more and more into question. First came the accusations against Noguera, who was neither more nor less than the chief of secret police answering directly to the President.

Then the Ralito agreement document appeared, compromising Ordosgoitia, ex-director of INCO. And finally, the Foreign Minister, whose resgination Uribe had to accept earlier this week faced with enormous international and national political pressure. Although Uribe insisted on not sacrificing her, events ending up forcing his hand: an individual, however talented they may be, cannot be in charge of the country's image abroad if their brother, a Senator, is in prison for paramilitary activity, their father is on trial for kidnapping and muder of indigenous leaders and their cousin is accused of winning the governorship of the Cesar department thanks to a deal with the Self Defence groups of "Jorge 40".

Every one of these losses in the government has a very special meaning for Uribe. All were his friends. He defended all of them to the last minute. Noguera, the most seriously compromised, is an intimate confidant and even managed his election campaign in Magdalena, one of the places where investigations are in hand into whether there was fraud in the recent elections. On balance, the government comes out of the scandal very badly, even when the President insists that the revelations until now have been uncovered as a result of his "democratic security" policies. When truth to tell, the government was the first to cast doubt on the reports of electoral fraud, the paramilitarization of the DAS and some of the discoveries from "Jorge 40"'s computer.

At the crossroads

Officials like the prosecutor Edgardo Maya Villazon and communications Minister María del Rosario Guerra de la Espriella are living a somewhat different chapter. The first faces the challenge of proving his independence as the head of the Ministry of Public Affairs, as well as being related to various of the individuals involved. He is the step-father of the controversial governor of Cesar department and uncle of Senator Araujo.

For her part, the Minister is a member of one of the most influential castes in Sucre, a department bathed in blood by paramilitary massacres. Her great dilemma is that the scandal has already touched her family since the latest news is that the government dismissed her cousin Victor Guerra de Espriella from the post of Delegate of the Autonomous Corporation of Sucre for having signed the Ralito agreement. Despite the Minister saying her case is very different from that of former foreign Minister Araujo and arguing that her family is very numerous ("I have 53 cousins on my mother's side and 23 on my father's"), the opposition has begun to ask for her resignation.

*************

Translation by Toni Solo copyleft by Tortilla con Sal

Translation notes
1. Self Defence groups - these are paramilitary groups supported by the Colombian army started up in the early 1990s by landowners and local big business. They have been responsible for thousands of murders of indigenous people, rural workers families, trades unionists and human rights defenders.
2. The Polo Democratico is an umbrella political grouping for some of Colombia's progressive political parties. The group won almost 25% of the votes in the 2006 presidential election.
3. Mancuso is a notorious paramilitary leader and narcotics dealer once wanted for extradition to the United States on charges relating to the trafficking of tons of cocaine.
4. DAS - Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad - Colombia's State security service roughly equivalent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States.
5. Mainstream Colombian news media.
6. Colombian administrative departments - Colombia is divided into 32 departments and a Capital District (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Departments_of_Colombia).
7. INCO is the Instituto de Concesiones of the Ministry of Transport responsible for coordinating transport infrastructure and services (see http://www.inco.gov.co/FormsWeb/WF_ConcesionCarreCo.aspx)
8. Martin Llanos - leader of a Self Defence group in Casanare department
9. La Picota is Bogota's central penitentiary

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