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.
Sen. Uribe heads a party allied with the president, Democratic Colombia, which had five lawmakers in Congress until investigators began uncovering links its members had with death squads. Two of them -- Sen. Álvaro García and Rep. Eric Morris -- are now in jail. A third, Sen. Miguel Alfonso de la Espriella, is being investigated by the court for having been among a group of 11 lawmakers to sign a pact with paramilitary members in 2001 that called for them to "re-found the fatherland."
The investigation, though, goes well beyond Sen. Uribe, officials in the court said. "We're interested in everything," an official said.
President Uribe has repeatedly said he supports the investigations. But the developments are troubling for his government, which has received more than $4 billion in U.S. aid to fight drugs and guerrillas since his election in 2002.
Since the so-called para-politics scandal erupted last year, the court and Attorney General Mario Iguaran have rooted out intimate details of how members of Congress, governors and mayors in six coastal states orchestrated fraudulent elections with paramilitary commanders and then went about infiltrating and stealing from hospitals and other public institutions while assassinating hundreds of adversaries. In addition to the eight members of Congress who have been jailed, a former congresswoman is behind bars, and nearly 20 current and former members of Congress are under investigation.
Most of the lawmakers were allies of President Uribe. They overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment that permitted him to run for reelection in 2006. They also approved a law governing the disarmament of paramilitary groups that was considered a near amnesty by the United Nations. Colombia 's Constitutional Court later struck down several provisions of that law, making it far tougher.
Now the investigation is veering toward Colombia's heartland. "There is evidence in other [states], including Antioquia," a court official said. "The court is moving steadily, without pause, on that."
The focus, by investigators from the court and the attorney general's office, is the eastern states of Meta, Santander, North Santander and Casanare. That brings to 11 the number of states -- a third of the country -- where evidence has shown close collaboration between politicians and paramilitary commanders..
Six mayors from Casanare, home to foreign oil-drilling projects, were removed from their positions in recent days. In Cucuta, capital of North Santander, Mayor Ramiro Suarez is under investigation for, among other things, allegedly ordering the murder of a senior official in that state.
But Antioquia, which includes Medellin, Colombia's second-largest city and the center of industry, is the big target. Investigators want to show how the paramilitary members ensured that allies won congressional seats or remained in power. "It's about pacts between paramilitaries and politicians," said the court official.
Myles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador here who is supportive of many of Uribe's policies, said that the investigation in Antioquia is "going to be very uncomfortable for the obvious reason, that the president is from there." Uribe, when he was governor, spearheaded the creation of legal vigilante groups in Antioquia, called Convivirs, which later morphed into paramilitary organizations.
Frechette, who at the time had warned the Colombian government against creating the Convivirs, said turning the investigation toward Antioquia is "an absolutely indispensable step."
"This thing should be pursued right to the end because if it is not, it's going to leave some clouds there," he said.
Those under investigation, though, have said that the process has turned into a political witch hunt. Sen. Quintero, in a telephone interview, steadfastly denied accusations that he and others gained higher office with the help of a powerful paramilitary warlord known in Colombia as "the German" -- an allegation first reported by El Espectador, a Bogota newspaper.
Quintero, who is close to President Uribe, said that those who are making the accusations are simply trying to discredit the president's security policies, which have been recognized as having eroded support for guerrillas and restoring calm in many parts of the country.
"They're looking to harm this process that the country is now going through," he said.