Colombian Lawmakers Arrested

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia, May 14 -- The Colombian Supreme Court on Monday ordered the arrest of five more congressmen for alleged links with illegal paramilitary groups, bringing to 14 the number of lawmakers charged in the widening "para-politics" scandal that has shaken this Andean country and its conservative government. Four of the five have been taken into custody.

The attorney general's office also ordered the arrest of six former members of Congress, including Eleonora Pineda, who is well-known for her open friendship with paramilitary commanders. Authorities have accused the lawmakers -- as well as several local officials -- of meeting with paramilitary commanders in 2001 in Santa Fe de Ralito, a town the government had set aside as a haven for negotiations with paramilitary groups, and of signing a document in which they pledged to "refound the fatherland" and "build a new Colombia."

Supreme Court Justice Alfredo Gómez Quintero, who as head of the penal chamber of the court is overseeing the investigation of current congressmen, said that those who attended the meetings were not threatened or forced to attend, as some of the lawmakers have contended.

"Evidence was found to show the commitment that the five congressmen had in promoting illegal armed groups," Gomez said.

A spokesman for the Supreme Court said the government had arrested Sens. Miguel de la Espriella, Juan Manuel López and Reginaldo Montes, as well as Rep. José de los Santos. A fourth senator, William Montes, had not been detained as of late Monday afternoon. All except for López are supporters of the president, Álvaro Uribe.

The arrests are sure to further tarnish Uribe's government. Although the president remains popular, he has seen one ally in Congress after another arrested or linked to paramilitary groups.

Those groups are part of a loose coalition called the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, which the U.S. State Department has labeled a terrorist organization. Formed by landowners and drug traffickers to fight Marxist rebels, they entered into negotiations with the government that led to the disarmament of thousands of fighters. Rights organizations and others allege that, despite the talks, several paramilitary commanders remain active, ordering murders and trafficking in cocaine.

The para-political scandal, meanwhile, has expanded to a point that an opposition congressman alleged in a hearing last month that paramilitary members met at Uribe's ranch in the late 1980s. The Supreme Court is also collecting evidence to establish whether the president's cousin, Sen. Mario Uribe, had met with paramilitary commanders to plot land-grabs; the senator denied any such links in a recent interview.

The allegations prompted Uribe to fly to Washington earlier this month to assure members of the U.S. Congress that he has no ties to paramilitary groups and that his government is committed to dismantling them. The lobbying effort was important because the United States provides Colombia with up to $700 million in mostly military and anti-drug aid each year and is considering a free-trade pact, a priority for the Uribe administration.

The arrests came just a day after Semana, the country's leading newsweekly, published a report about secretly recorded conversations that appear to show how mid-level paramilitary operatives held in prison have been plotting murders and overseeing drug-trafficking operations and extortion rackets. The operatives work for three top paramilitary commanders now in prison: Salvatore Mancuso, Ramiro Vanoy and Freddy Rendón.

Uribe ordered the commanders jailed in Itagui prison in northern Antioquia state until they confessed their crimes and provided details about the land and other property they had stolen during a long and bloody dirty war. But the disclosures by Semana, coupled with the fact that the commanders have so far revealed little about their crimes, have cast doubt on the government's effort to dismantle the paramilitary groups and bring justice to victims.

Interior Minister Carlos Holguín described the disclosures as "very grave." He said that if the allegations were true, the Uribe administration could suspend the legal privileges given to the commanders for having disarmed and entered into negotiations with the government. The commanders have had access to the Internet and cellphones, which prompted Human Rights Watch to warn Holguín in February that such prison privileges could lead to more crimes.

"This was predictable," José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for the New York-based group, said from his office in Washington. "It's clear evidence that these individuals are not in compliance with their commitments, and President Uribe has promised Washington that if there is evidence that shows that these individuals are engaging in new crimes, they will lose their benefits."

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