By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 18, 2006
BOGOTA, Colombia, Nov. 17 -- The government of President Álvaro Uribe is being shaken by its most serious political crisis yet, as details emerge about members of Congress who collaborated with right-wing death squads to spread terror and exert political control across Colombia's Caribbean coast.
Two senators, Álvaro García and Jairo Merlano, are in custody, as is a congressman, Eric Morris, and a former congresswoman, Muriel Benito. Four local officials have been arrested, and a warrant has been issued for a former governor, Salvador Arana. All are from the state of Sucre, where the attorney general's office has been exhuming bodies from mass graves -- victims of a paramilitary campaign to erode civilian support for Marxist rebels in Colombia's long conflict.
The investigation, which has revealed how lawmakers and paramilitary commanders rigged elections and planned assassinations, has shaken Colombia's Congress to its core. One powerful senator from Cesar state, Álvaro Araujo, has warned that if he is targeted in the investigation, it would taint relatives of his in the government and, ultimately, the president, whom he has strongly supported.
The arrests and disclosures about the investigation, which is focusing on at least five more members of Congress, come weeks after prosecutors leaked a report revealing how paramilitary fighters have killed hundreds of people, trafficked cocaine to the United States and sacked government institutions while negotiating a disarmament with Uribe's government.
Mario Iguarán, the attorney general, said the crisis is worse than the scandal that tarnished former president Ernesto Samper, who in the 1990s was accused of having used drug money to fund his political campaign. The United States withdrew his visa in response.
Uribe's government says it has been tough on the paramilitary forces, noting that 30,000 fighters have demobilized in three years, a disarmament larger than that of any leftist rebel group in Latin American history.
But the latest scandal has raised questions about how effective the disarmament has been and whether the government is truly committed to dismantling an organization that has infiltrated town halls, hospitals and even the government's intelligence agency, the DAS. Just this week, the inspector general's office leveled disciplinary charges against the former head of the DAS, Jorge Noguera, for having given classified information about the agency's operations to paramilitary forces.
"In plain public view and with evidence, the tip of the iceberg has appeared, but it is just the tip of the iceberg," said Gustavo Petro, a senator who has revealed details of paramilitary infiltration of government institutions in hearings. "We see it today in Sucre, but it extends beyond."
Recalling past statements from top paramilitary commanders, who boasted of having formed alliances with as much as a third of Congress, Petro said, "I think the paramilitaries were right."
Reacting to the crisis on Friday, Uribe said, "It's healthy for the country to know the political ties that exist with paramilitarism."
"I call on all the congressmen to, of their own initiative, show up before judges and tell the truth," he said in a speech marking the anniversary of the Supreme Court.
Uribe's image as a crusader against Colombia's illegal armed groups, however, has been tarnished.
The congressmen who have been implicated were members of a bloc that was loyal to the president and that approved a law permitting him to run for a second four-year term in May. They also supported a law governing the disarmament of paramilitary fighters that has been roundly criticized by the United Nations and some on Capitol Hill for providing too many loopholes for commanders to evade justice.
"There's no doubt that the political base in the provinces is tainted," said Gustavo Duncan, a security analyst who has written a book on the paramilitary forces, "The Gentlemen of War." "Those are the great losers. And those regional leaders are where Uribe has gotten much of his power."
The tainted politicians came to the attention of authorities through an informer, a onetime paramilitary fighter named Jairo Castillo Peralta, and because their names turned up in a computer confiscated from one of the country's most powerful paramilitary commanders, Rodrigo Tovar. The computer files detail meetings between paramilitary forces and lawmakers such as Sen. Dieb Maloof, who lives in the city of Barranquilla but has campaigned in Sucre.
Reached by phone, Maloof denied involvement with the paramilitary groups but said he is ready to answer questions put forward by the Supreme Court, which is investigating the Congress. "I asked to be able to give my own version, and to find out if there is anything against me," he said.
The best-known of the lawmakers implicated in the scandal is Álvaro García, a rotund local boss known by friends and enemies alike as "the Fat Man." In a secret recording from Oct. 6, 2000, that is being used against him, Garcia and a well-known cattleman, Joaquín García, are heard coordinating the paramilitary assault on the town of Macayepo. A few days later, paramilitary fighters killed 16 peasant farmers there with rocks and machetes.
Petro, the senator, said the Uribe administration must aggressively purge those lawmakers with ties to paramilitary forces. "No matter how many congressmen go to jail, there are mafias still out there, and they will continue to find others to control," he said. "This is not just a judicial responsibility, this is a political responsibility."