Colombian Officials Probe Uribe Allies In His Home State

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 16, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia, April 15 -- An investigation that has already bared ties between government officials and paramilitary death squads in six of Colombia's coastal states has now widened to the home state of President Álvaro Uribe, focusing on his administration's politically powerful allies, judicial officials say.

The development could further complicate Colombia's efforts to secure a free-trade pact with the United States, where some Democrats on Capitol Hill are increasingly concerned about the growing scandal.

Colombia's Supreme Court, which is responsible for investigating malfeasance in Congress, has received detailed evidence that has spurred an investigation concerning three lawmakers from Antioquia state, one of them Sen. Rubén Darío Quintero, Uribe's private secretary when he was governor there from 1995 to 1997.

Investigators are also collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses to establish whether there were ties between paramilitary groups and other lawmakers, including Sen. Mario Uribe, the president's cousin, said two high-ranking court officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case. Quintero and Sen. Uribe deny involvement with the paramilitary groups.

In Washington, Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) said he and other congressmen were holding talks with the Democratic leadership that could lead to hearings. With Colombia pressing for the trade deal and more aid, Levin said, 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 people of this country expect us to do that," Levin added, "to have oversight, to be active, and to not simply rubber stamp." Levin chairs the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee.

The Colombian investigation into Antioquia comes as an opposition lawmaker, Sen. Gustavo Petro, plans congressional hearings Tuesday that will delve into the history of paramilitary activity in the northwestern state.

Colombia's modern-day paramilitary movement began in Antioquia in the 1980s and expanded with the help of landowners, drug traffickers, senior military officials and an assortment of companies, including the banana firms that operate in the Urabá region. The illegal militias, operating alongside the military, ejected Marxist rebels from key regions of the state and, by the late 1990s, had spread across much of Colombia, carrying out massacres of peasants and assassinating leftist politicians.

As part of its probe, the Supreme Court will soon send a team of investigators to Canada to interview a paramilitary turncoat, Jairo Castillo, whose testimony has already helped put eight members of Congress behind bars. Investigators expect Castillo, who received political asylum, to provide a raft of new details, including allegations that Mario Uribe and a group of paramilitary members met to plan how to wrest control of private lands from owners not tied to paramilitary commanders.

Castillo, in a telephone interview earlier this month, said he was present at two meetings in 1998 attended by the paramilitary members and the senator. "What we knew about him," Castillo said, "was that he was a strong collaborator of the paramilitaries in that zone."

Sen. Uribe denied any ties to the paramilitary members. "I know nothing about any investigation, nothing," he said. An aide later produced a certificate from the court that said he was not being investigated.

Court officials acknowledged giving the senator the certificate, a common practice when a probe has not reached an advanced stage at which charges are being prepared. But the officials said that a team of investigators is nevertheless interested in talking to Castillo about Sen. Uribe and his possible paramilitary ties.

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