Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA: US Freezes Aid as ‘Parapolitics’ Scandal Burns On

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTÁ, Apr 19 2007 (IPS) - A package of U.S. military aid for Colombia that received the green light this month was blocked again in the U.S. Senate, while Colombian President Álvaro Uribe finds himself in increasingly deep water as a result of the scandal over ties between pro-Uribe politicians and the paramilitaries.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice certified to Congress on Apr. 4 that Colombia’s government and armed forces are “fulfilling U.S. requirements on human rights,” which led to the release of 55 million dollars in military aid that were frozen since last year.

But on Monday, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate’s state and foreign operations subcommittee, once again blocked the funds, in order to discuss with the State Department concerns about the links between far-right paramilitary militias and high-level officials and legislators in Colombia.

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and human rights watchdogs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch praised the decision to block the funds, which comprise 25 percent of U.S. aid earmarked for the Colombian armed forces for 2006.

This is the third time the funds have been frozen.

At the same time, Congressman Sander Levin, who chairs the ways and means trade subcommittee in the lower house, said he and other Democratic lawmakers were discussing the possibility of holding hearings on Colombia.

Levin said the U.S. Congress needs “to try to figure out exactly what’s going on in Colombia, exactly what is the role of the paramilitary, how much a part of the government they are, how the government is trying to address this.”

The rightwing Uribe administration is Washington’s main ally in Latin America, and its security policy depends on U.S. financing. (Colombia is the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world, after Israel and Egypt.)

An article in the Los Angeles Times reported last month that U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) documents showed that Colombia’s current army chief, General Mario Montoya, collaborated with paramilitaries in Operation Orión.

The army operation was carried out in October 2002 in Comuna 13, a poor neighbourhood of Medellín, the capital of the northwestern province of Antioquia. At the time, Comuna 13 was caught up in a turf war between leftist guerrillas and the paramilitaries. Eight civilians were “disappeared” as a result of Operation Orión.

After the Los Angeles Times published the article, Montoya attended a demonstration in his support in Comuna 13, to which local residents were bussed by the military. According to press reports, some of the participants did not even know where they were going.

Senator Gustavo Petro of the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA) led a debate that ran on into the early hours of Wednesday morning on the phenomenon of the paramilitaries in Antioquia, Uribe’s home province, which the president represented as a senator from 1986 to 1994 and governed from 1995 to 1997.

Since the 1980s, Antioquia has suffered the largest numbers of civilian victims in Colombia’s four-decade civil war.

Petro wondered out loud who organised and financed the demonstration in support of Montoya, after stating that “a new Medellín cartel” has emerged, one that is wealthier and more powerful than any drug cartel of the past, which “can count on a national paramilitary army and has become a form of blackmail for the government,” although he did not provide further details.

“Paramilitarism constantly recycles and destroys itself. It is a cannibal; it kills itself,” said Petro.

He outlined a history of vendettas among paramilitary and drug mafias and the different stages the paramilitary forces have gone through since first emerging in the mid-19th century, by the hand of large landholders eager for more land, and regional politicians, in this country that is rich in oil, minerals and other natural resources.

The current phase began in December 1982, when a small group of military officers helped organise the paramilitary militias, to target civilians suspected of being insurgents or guerrilla sympathisers, said Petro.

The Uribe administration and the parties that support it replied that the militias were formed in self-defence against attacks by the insurgent groups.

Petro especially focused on the private security cooperatives known as Convivir, which he said ended up fuelling the creation of paramilitary groups commanded by drug traffickers.

The Convivir were recognised by a government decree in 1993, and until 1997 – when the Constitutional Court handed down a ruling placing restrictions on the groups – their members could carry long arms with the mission of backing up the security forces in the counterinsurgency fight, Gustavo Gallón, director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), a local human rights group, told IPS.

In the debate, Senator Petro held up documents and testimony that have been presented to the authorities, in court, and even to the U.S. embassy. The testimony came from repentant members of paramilitary groups and former soldiers who refused to take part in killings and today are either dead or living in exile.

“The Convivir are the paramilitaries themselves,” one soldier told the prosecutor’s office. “I joined the army to protect lives, not to put an end to them,” he said, in one of the depositions that Petro showed in the debate, which implicates retired General Rito Alejo del Río, who has been publicly backed by Uribe.

Two of the Uribe family estates were reportedly used as meeting points by paramilitary groups, and even allegedly served as paramilitary bases of operations under the coordination of one of the president’s brothers, Santiago – accusations that have been vehemently denied by the president and the government.

On Wednesday, reporters were shown Uribe’s signature authorising paramilitary chiefs to create two Convivir cooperatives, when he was governor of Antioquia.

The common denominator of Petro’s accusations is that the cases were buried, many of them by former prosecutor Luis Camilo Osorio, who is today ambassador in Mexico.

“Listening to Senator Petro, sometimes I have the impression that I’m hearing Luis Carlos Galán,” said Galán’s son, Senator Juan Manuel Galán, during the debate that clearly made government officials nervous.

Galán was assassinated in 1989 during the campaign in which he was running for president as the Liberal Party candidate.

“The difference,” said Juan Manuel Galán, “is that Luis Carlos Galán told the country what was going to happen to it, and Petro over the last few years has told the country what has happened to it. I really hope Petro does not end up like Galán.”

“The alliance of anti-Communist members of the military, the (paramilitary) self-defence forces and drug traffickers, which is what I call ‘paramilitarism’, killed Luis Carlos Galán,” Petro said in the debate, which lasted 10 and a half hours.

Paramilitarism “didn’t emerge because the state didn’t exist. It was born of sectors of the state,” said the senator, contradicting the arguments of many, including the government.

The ongoing “parapolitics” scandal erupted last year. Eight leading pro-Uribe politicians are behind bars for their ties to the paramilitary militias, and many others are under investigation.

A partial demobilisation of the paramilitary umbrella group, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), was completed last year. The contents of their closed-door negotiations with Uribe remain secret.

Some 31,000 combatants, 10 times more than the total number of AUC members estimated prior to the demobilisation, handed over 18,000 weapons. Virtually all of them were pardoned for their crimes under the controversial law that governed the demobilisation process.

Meanwhile, 2,695 paramilitary leaders must confess to all of their crimes in order to qualify for legal benefits under the law, which provides for a maximum sentence of eight years. They must also compensate their victims, by returning property that was seized, for example, according to a Constitutional Court ruling that upset the paramilitary chiefs and that the government unsuccessfully attempted to amend.

Congress, where Uribe’s supporters hold a majority of seats, had initially demanded a partial confession and a fine, in exchange for time served on estates specially conditioned for that purpose.

Faced with the prospect of losing the chance to find out the truth – through full confessions from all of the paramilitaries – about what happened to their loved ones, the families of victims of murder or forced disappearance, as well as survivors, have begun to organise.

Some 50,000 people who have been affected by paramilitary abuses have registered their cases with the Attorney General’s Office, and there is a National Movement of Victims of Crimes of the State, one of whose members is the father of a soldier who was killed when he spoke out against the collusion between the armed forces and the paramilitaries.

“Paramilitarism is alive, armed, in business and in power,” and drug trafficking “is going to have a very strong influence” on the October local and regional elections, the Liberal Party spokesman in the Senate, Luis Fernando Velasco, said in the debate.

“We are failing in the negotiations (with the paramilitaries) because we are negotiating with the drug traffickers. And what would have to be done instead is to negotiate directly with the drug traffickers,” said Velasco, who said his party is calling for protection for the Supreme Court, which is investigating the links between politicians and paramilitaries.

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