Colombian Unravels Government-Paramilitary Ties
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
BOGOTA, Colombia, March 19 -- Sitting in a dreary 7-by-5-foot cell, Rafael García predicts that he'll soon be murdered. It's a common threat in one of Colombia's toughest prisons, but it's made all the more real for the uncommon prisoner.
García is a star witness for prosecutors, revealing secret links between Colombian officials and right-wing paramilitary groups. His testimony has helped trigger the biggest political scandal faced yet by the government of President Álvaro Uribe, the Bush administration's closest ally in Latin America and recipient of more than $4 billion in American aid.
Once a high-level official in the government's intelligence agency, García has outlined for investigators how the intelligence chief, Jorge Noguera, funneled classified documents to paramilitary commanders, and how those commanders rigged elections to place their allies in Congress, giving an organization designated a terrorist group by the State Department unprecedented influence in government.
Along with secret paramilitary documents and other witness testimony, the information provided by García has led to the arrests of Noguera, eight congressmen and the governor of Magdalena state, Trino Luna. Another 15 current and former congressmen, as well as other local officials and military officers, are under investigation.
García is serving an 11-year prison sentence for money-laundering, conspiracy, and falsifying and destroying documents.
Despite the information he has furnished investigators, García said in an interview Saturday that authorities have denied his frequent petitions to be placed in a witness protection program. Already, a handful of mid-level paramilitary commanders with deep knowledge about the paramilitary structure have been murdered.
"As long as I'm in a Colombian jail, my death is only a matter of time," García, 43, said as he sat on the narrow bed in his cell at La Picota prison in Bogota, a bare light bulb hanging over his head.
García recently wrote Attorney General Mario Iguaran, saying that he would withhold further testimony unless the state offers him, his wife and their son more protection. He said he is not trying to blackmail the government. "This is to preserve my life and the integrity of my 11-year-old son, who is the most important thing I have in this life," he wrote in the letter.
Officials at the attorney general's office and the Interior Ministry did not return several phone calls on Monday.
U.S. authorities are also interested in hearing from García; his cooperation is considered important to understanding drug trafficking through Venezuela and alleged support from U.S. corporations for paramilitary groups.
García has information, for instance, about ties between paramilitary groups and Chiquita Brands International. Last week, the Cincinnati-based banana company agreed to pay $25 million to the Justice Department after admitting to having paid paramilitary groups $1.7 million for protection in the northern Uraba region.
In Alabama, a court is expected to rule soon on whether García's testimony can be admitted in a lawsuit that accuses Drummond Coal Co. of having paid paramilitary members to kill three union leaders. The company denies the accusations.