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BOGOTA, Nov 17 2006 (IPS) - The arrests of several Colombian lawmakers for their links to extreme-right paramilitary militias have given further credence to reports by human rights organisations “of how deeply embedded the paramilitaries are in the local and regional public institutions,” the assistant director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists told IPS.
The arrests of several Colombian lawmakers for their links to extreme-right paramilitary militias have given further credence to reports by human rights organisations “of how deeply embedded the paramilitaries are in the local and regional public institutions,” Carlos Rodríguez, assistant director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), told IPS.
The Supreme Court has evidence that several ruling coalition legislators from the northwestern province of Sucre organised a death squad and actively took part in it, masterminded massacres of campesinos (peasant farmers) that led to the forced displacement of thousands of people, and influenced election results through the use of violence.
Senator Álvaro García Romero, who turned himself in to the justice system on Thursday; Senator Jairo Merlano, who is wanted by Interpol; and Congressman Eric Morris, who turned himself in on Tuesday, are also accused of taking kickbacks for each contract granted, funds that were reportedly divvied up among themselves and their paramilitary militia.
The right-wing government of Alvaro Uribe has offered a 22 million dollar reward for information leading to Merlano’s capture, and the U.S. government has cancelled the visas of both Merlano and García Romero.
Former Congresswoman Muriel Benito-Revollo was arrested Wednesday, and four provincial lawmakers from Sucre had previously been taken into custody, in connection with the same case.
“A large part of the establishment could collapse,” warned ruling coalition Senator Gina Parodi, who said “the trials must not be mere show trialsàfor once we have to think about the future and reveal the entire truth.”
Parodi, who had criticised a legal framework for the demobilisation of the paramilitary umbrella group AUC, known as the Justice and Peace Law, had been booed in Congress when the new legislation was passed.
At that time, the AUC, which has supported the military in Colombia’s civil war, had a direct influence over 35 percent of the members of Congress, as the paramilitaries themselves boasted.
The paramilitary militias were formed in the early 1980s to fight the leftist insurgent groups that took up arms in 1964, and to attack the rebels’ alleged support base among the civilian population.
But the extreme-rightwing groups, which have close ties to the drug trade, soon became an instrument used to force campesinos off their land. United Nations agencies blame the AUC for 80 percent of the atrocities committed in the armed conflict.
The National Movement of Victims of Crimes of the State (MNVCE) in Sucre stated in a report to which IPS had access that demobilised members of AUC, who receive a monthly stipend from the government in exchange for laying down their weapons and rejoining civilian life, are today active in new groups known as the “Águilas Negras” (Black Eagles) and “Nueva Generación” (New Generation).
Furthermore, the “demobilised” paramilitary chiefs continue to coordinate “actions to exterminate campesinos, social leaders, and human rights defenders in every region,” says the MNVCE report.
The implicated legislators were “protecting the drug trafficking route in Sucre, which is basically what generated the ‘holocaust’ in this region,” says the report.
According to paramilitary chief Ernesto Báez, who had ties to the Medellín drug cartel, several politicians approached him in 1999 to discuss the need to create new paramilitary groups.
That information came from León Valencia, an activist with the non-governmental Corporación Arco Iris and a columnist with the El Tiempo newspaper, who interviewed Báez a few months ago.
Valencia told the CMI television news programme that the politicians argued to Báez that a peace accord was going to be reached with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and that as a result they would all lose their hold on power.
At that time, the government of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) was in the midst of peace talks with the FARC in a Switzerland-sized demilitarised zone in the southern region of Caguán.
During the peace talks with the FARC, which began in January 1999 but were broken off three years later, paramilitary militias expanded all over the country, and the number of human rights crimes they committed soared.
The Supreme Court is also now focusing on links between the paramilitary groups and armed pressure aimed at bringing about specific election results. Senator García Romero is accused of murdering a 30-year-old schoolteacher who had reported fraud after serving as an election official.
In his 10 years as a legislator, García Romero has only spoken twice in Congress, and that was simply to respond to accusations that he had links with the paramilitaries, voiced by Senator Gustavo Petro, the spokesman for the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole.
According to the Supreme Court, García Romero is accused of “organising, promoting, arming or financing illegal armed groups” since 1997, and of planning the murder of 20 campesinos in Macayepo, Sucre in 2000. The campesinos were beaten and stoned to death.
García Romero and Morris belong to Democratic Colombia, the party founded by President Uribe and headed up by his cousin, Senator Mario Uribe. Merlano is a member of the ‘Partido de la U’, the strongest pro-Uribe party.
“The president’s silence on legislators from his movement who approve a law in the morning and order a massacre in the afternoon appalls us,” Petro said Tuesday.
Rodríguez said Uribe’s silence is “surprising and disturbing.”
“What is expected from the president is action, given that it is his obligation to promote compliance with and respect for human rights,” added the jurist.
The assistant director of the CCJ – a group that holds consultative status with the United Nations – urged the Supreme Court “to get to the bottom of this, not only in the province of Sucre but throughout the country.”
While the ruling coalition, which holds 70 percent of the seats in Congress, urged everyone to wait for the courts to reach a decision, the government argued that the revelations of the past few weeks were a direct result of the paramilitary demobilisation process.
But the evidence and testimony that have served as the basis for the Supreme Court decision have been in the hands of the prosecutors for over five years, a witness who worked as a bodyguard and chauffeur for the legislators now facing charges told W Radio this week. He was speaking by telephone from abroad, because he is living in exile.
The novelty was the discovery in March of two computers seized during a search of a paramilitary fighter under the command of “Jorge 40”, an officially demobilised paramilitary chief. The contents of the two computers gave the prosecutors new evidence to back up what they already knew.
Further information came from the confessions of Rafael García, former head of information technology in the civil intelligence service (DAS), who was sentenced last month to 18 years in prison for “purging” DAS computer files that contained information on drug traffickers and paramilitaries.
García also alleged that fraud was committed in the 2002 presidential elections.
On Wednesday the Supreme Court summoned him to testify, and the Public Prosecutor’s Office brought charges against former DAS Director Jorge Noguera, accusing him of leaking privileged information to drug traffickers and paramilitaries.
Communist Senator Gloria Ramírez pointed out that until recently, within Congress itself, areas dominated by the paramilitary militias were referred to as “liberated zones.”
Ramírez, a survivor of the Patriotic Union, a leftwing party that was destroyed when at least 3,000 of its members were killed, said that according to former DAS official García, the lists of people to be murdered “were provided by the intelligence bodies..”
She also noted that several paramilitaries implicated in the current Sucre scandal initially belonged to Convivir, a network of private security cooperatives promoted by Uribe when he was governor of the northwestern province of Antioquia, under then president Ernesto Samper (1994-1998), who was accused of receiving drug money to finance his campaign.
Liberal Party spokesman in the Senate, Juan Fernando Cristo, warned of Colombia’s growing reputation as a “mafioso state,” and urged the demobilised paramilitary leaders to “tell the truth about ‘paramilitarismo’s’ infiltration in the state, and about its drug trafficking activities.”
The violence in Sucre flared up after 1996, with an increasing number of armed clashes, selective murders of civilians, indiscriminate killings and kidnappings. In five of the province’s municipalities the murder rate is more than double the national average, according to the vice-president’s office. More than 5,000 people have been killed in the province since 1990.
The remains of the victims, many of whom were “disappeared”, sometimes show up in common graves identified by family members or local residents, or even repentant members of the AUC. Prosecutors have so far exhumed 193 bodies. Many others were cut into pieces and thrown into the sea.
* With additional reporting from Helda Martínez.
BOGOTA, Nov 17 2006 (IPS) - The arrests of several Colombian lawmakers for their links to extreme-right paramilitary militias have given further credence to reports by human rights organisations “of how deeply embedded the paramilitaries are in the local and regional public institutions,” Carlos Rodríguez, assistant director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), told IPS.
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