Scandal in Colombia Raises Skepticism on Capitol Hill

President Álvaro Uribe has vowed to stand fast behind his foreign minister.
President Álvaro Uribe has vowed to stand fast behind his foreign minister. (By Henny Ray Abrams -- Associated Press)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 17, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia, Feb. 16 -- U.S. support for Colombia has been a foregone conclusion under the administration of President Álvaro Uribe, who was elected in 2002. But with a widening scandal tying the president's close supporters to paramilitary groups, policymakers on Capitol Hill say skepticism of Uribe's government is mounting, leading to closer scrutiny of a proposed aid package and free-trade agreement with the Andean nation.

On Thursday, Sen. Álvaro Araújo Castro, the brother of Foreign Minister Maria Consuelo Araújo, was arrested along with three other senators and a congressman. Authorities said they are investigating links that those lawmakers -- along with a sixth legislator who remains at large -- may have had ties to a paramilitary organization that has terrorized the country for years while shipping tons of cocaine to U.S. cities.

And Friday, the Supreme Court, which is heading a probe of Congress, announced that it would provide prosecutors with documentation to help determine whether the foreign minister's father, Álvaro Araújo Noguera, had ties to paramilitary groups and participated in the kidnapping of a businessman. The foreign minister's cousin, Hernando Molina, governor of the state of Cesar, is also under investigation by authorities for allegedly collaborating with paramilitary groups to carry out killings and finance his campaign.

Uribe said he would stand fast behind his foreign minister in the midst of a scandal that has put eight congressmen behind bars and led to the questioning of dozens of national and local politicians. At a news conference Friday, Foreign Minister Araújo told reporters, "I'm going to keep working with efficiency, honor, results and joy."

Officials in Washington said Uribe's support for the foreign minister would not help the Colombian government in its negotiations with U.S. lawmakers.

"The effects of what we call 'para-gate,' among Colombia followers in Congress, are that more and more folks are starting to get a bit skeptical regarding support, because there's a question of how far-reaching the relationship between the paramilitaries and the government officials is, vis-à-vis the president," a senior aide to a Republican senator said on condition of anonymity. "The confidence that we have in Uribe has been what's carried this for so long. That confidence has been brought into question."

Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) said Colombian officials cannot count on easy passage of a free-trade agreement or military assistance, as is currently being provided under a program known as Plan Colombia.

"Colombia F.T.A. cannot pass the Congress, as constructed, and Plan Colombia is in more jeopardy because of these scandals, the infiltration of the paramilitary into the inner workings of the Colombian government," Levin said by telephone from Washington. "I voted for Plan Colombia, at least the first few times, but this is a very worrisome development."

Though lawmakers in Washington remain intensely focused on Iraq, it is not lost on policymakers that Colombia remains the biggest recipient of U.S. assistance outside of the Middle East and Afghanistan. Nearly $4.7 billion has been funneled to Colombia since Plan Colombia, an extensive aid package designed to defoliate coca and erode support for Marxist rebels, was instituted in 2000. The assistance has helped Colombia lower violence and tightened bonds between Bogota and Washington.

But Colombia continues to produce more than enough cocaine to meet world demand. And despite a highly touted demobilization that started in 2003, paramilitary groups still thrive, with shadowy new forces killing rivals, union leaders and peasants while battling guerrillas for control of the country's lucrative drug business. In the midst of this tumult, the Supreme Court and a team of prosecutors have begun to unearth extensive ties between paramilitary commanders and dozens of congressmen, regional politicians from coastal states and mid-level administration officials.

For Uribe, the scandal couldn't have come at a worse moment. He, Vice President Francisco Santos and Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos have made recent trips to the United States to press for approval of a free-trade agreement and more assistance to help the state take control of an unruly countryside. In Colombia's latest proposal, Uribe and his cabinet say they want to spend $44 billion in the coming years -- a program that would rely on a heavy infusion of aid from Washington and European countries.

"The whole scandal and the fact that all of these people are close confidants of the president are really going to muddy the waters as they're looking at a free-trade agreement and a new aid package in a democratically controlled Congress," said Adam Isacson, who closely tracks U.S. aid to Colombia for the Center for International Policy in Washington. "The Colombian government has a rather big sales job ahead of it, and this makes it infinitely harder for them to do that sales job."

Vice President Santos, in an interview, said that the disclosures would never have come out if Uribe's government had not entered into negotiations with the paramilitary organizations, a process that he said not only led to a full-scale disarmament but emboldened institutions such as the Supreme Court to investigate authorities' paramilitary ties.

"We're going to deal with it openly, and confront reality and let the chips fall where they may," Santos said. "The most important thing is that we clearly present what we've done. The United States Congress should be totally calm about there being complete transparency here."

The Bush administration has reiterated its support for Uribe. "We remain committed to the free-trade agreement," Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, told reporters in Washington. He added that the administration would continue to back anti-narcotics operations in Colombia.

But the latest disclosures have drawn heated criticism, from organizations such as Human Rights Watch and from some of Capitol Hill's more influential shapers of U.S. policy in Latin America, including Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee.

"This confirms the concerns that many have had for a long time, that the paramilitaries have infiltrated the economic and political establishment of Colombian society," he said in a statement. "It should give us some pause as to who we are dealing with."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company