Colombia Scandal Creeps Closer to Uribe

The Associated Press
Tuesday, April 17, 2007; 11:45 PM

BOGOTA, Colombia -- A leading opposition senator said Tuesday that far-right paramilitary fighters established their hold over the province of Antioquia while President Alvaro Uribe was governor of the region.

In a congressional debate, Sen. Gustavo Petro showed dozens of documents that he said described two farms owned by the Uribe family that were used as meeting points for paramilitary death squads during Uribe's time as governor between 1995 and 1997.

Petro triggered a scandal last year with accusations tying death squads to Colombia's establishment. The ongoing scandal, the worst in decades, had been inching closer to Uribe, ensnaring key allies in Congress and his former domestic intelligence chief, but on Tuesday it arrived in his political backyard.

Uribe has denied any connection to the paramilitaries, insisting that he is fighting all of Colombia's armed groups.

Petro, citing government records and statements by members of the security forces, revealed that a civilian self-defense program known as Convivir _ championed by Uribe when he was governor of Antioquia _ was infiltrated by members of the death squads. Convivir has been since shut down.

"Convivir ... ended up bringing paramilitaries to the farm of the current president of the republic, who apparently had no idea while he was governor," Petro claimed.

The paramilitary death squads, designated by the U.S. government as a "foreign terrorist organizations," were created by drug-traffickers, wealthy landowners and parts of the military to fight leftist rebels involved in a five-decade insurrection, as well as their civilian supporters and other leftists.

Eight politicians, all supporters of Uribe, are in jail awaiting trial for organizing the far-right militias.

Uribe, who was re-elected in a landslide last year, first won the presidency in 2002 on promises of a hard-line against leftist rebels. Uribe is the United States' closest South American ally.

The paramilitaries have demobilized more than 31,000 fighters under a peace deal with the government, but observers say new paramilitary groups are springing up, many run by the same warlords.

© 2007 The Associated Press