Colombian Foreign Minister Resigns

The Associated Press
Monday, February 19, 2007; 7:39 PM

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombia's foreign minister resigned Monday after becoming a lightning rod for critics who allege that President Alvaro Uribe's political camp is too cozy with brutal far-right militias that the U.S. calls terrorist organizations.

At stake are billions of dollars in international aid for a fragile democracy struggling for control against powerful rebels and drug traffickers.

Foreign Minister Maria Consuelo Araujo's brother, a senator, was jailed last week on charges of colluding with the illegal paramilitaries and orchestrating the kidnapping of a political rival.

The Supreme Court also recommended that prosecutors investigate her father _ a regional power-broker in northern Colombia who has served as agriculture minister, senator and governor _ for the same crimes.

Uribe named a new foreign minister almost immediately: Fernando Araujo, whose dramatic escape on New Year's Eve from six years in rebel captivity made headlines. He is not related to his predecessor.

Fernando Araujo, a former development minister, was under investigation for alleged involvement in a corrupt land deal when he was kidnapped by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

In the growing scandal, eight Uribe-allied federal lawmakers have now been jailed for allegedly benefiting at the ballot box from collusion with the paramilitaries, which are responsible for some of the worst massacres in Colombia's five-decade civil conflict, widespread land theft and much of the country's cocaine trade.

The alleged ties between Uribe's political backers and the paramilitaries, particularly along the Caribbean coast where the Araujo family of Maria Consuelo is politically dominant, complicates the president's international appeals for help to fight leftist rebels and drug traffickers and shore up a shaky judicial system.

Uribe is counting on billions of dollars in aid from the United States. In light of the scandal, U.S. Democratic lawmakers led by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate subcommittee that controls aid to Colombia, are calling for a rethinking of the $700 million in mostly military aid that Colombia gets each year.

"The resignation of the foreign minister and the recent arrests of members of the Colombian Congress are positive, though overdue, steps but they leave many questions unanswered," Leahy said in a statement. "American taxpayers deserve assurances that the Colombian government has severed links to these terrorist groups."

The European Union's delegation in Bogota declined to comment on Araujo's resignation. The outgoing foreign minister is married to an AP photographer.

Uribe's supporters say he should be applauded for his determination to tackle corruption and the roots of Colombia's violence, even when it involves his own supporters.

"The international community must understand that this scandal has been possible because of Alvaro Uribe's policy to confront these groups and achieve a peace deal with the paramilitaries," said Sen. Martha Lucia Ramirez, a former defense minister.

In terms of foreign aid, she said "donor countries must understand the help Colombia needs to combat drug trafficking, which is precisely the source of financing for these illegal groups."

But as the scandal unfolds _ more than 60 federal and regional politicians are being questioned, almost all of them supporters of the president _ it appears to be edging closer to Uribe himself.

Despite all this, Uribe himself remains popular for reducing violence since he was first elected in 2002. Homicides are down to a two-decade low.

The paramilitary bosses and more than 31,000 of their fighters surrendered last year under a government peace deal that promises reduced sentences in exchange for confessing crimes and surrendering ill-gotten gains. But new groups have formed since then, and many Colombians complain that little or none of the stolen land has been returned.

© 2007 The Associated Press