Video Links Colombia Militia Boss, Uribe

The Associated Press
Sunday, June 17, 2007; 8:10 PM

BARRANCABERMEJA, Colombia -- In his five years as president, Alvaro Uribe has repeatedly denied accusations that he's been cozy with Colombia's murderous right-wing militias, whose thousands of victims include suspected rebel sympathizers and union activists.

Yet newly uncovered video of his 2001 campaign shows him shaking hands with a militia leader who was arrested only weeks later on suspicion of involvement in multiple murders, and is now a fugitive with a price on his head. It's the latest headache for the law-and-order president, who has seen one ally after another jailed for allegedly colluding with the outlawed militias.

"I haven't known the paramilitaries, haven't been friends with them, haven't had contact with them," Uribe declared on national television on April 19.

The militia chief in the video, which bears an Oct. 31, 2001, time stamp, was identified by three people familiar with him _ including human rights activists _ as Fremio Sanchez Carreno. Sanchez, better known as "Comandante Esteban," had just finished spearheading the bloody militia takeover of this steamy oil-refining city on Colombia's main river when Uribe met with him and about a dozen other people.

The Associated Press obtained the video independently and to confirm its authenticity, traveled to Barrancabermeja, where human rights activists identified the person standing behind Uribe as Comandante Esteban _ the same militia leader who had signed letters threatening local human rights and labor leaders with death in the months before the meeting. The activists asked not to be identified for their own safety because militias remain active in the area.

While the video does not show Uribe speaking with Sanchez, the image of them together in a private meeting further enmeshes the president _ the Bush administration's staunchest ally in Latin America _ in a scandal that has alarmed congressional Democrats, who want to cut some of Colombia's $600 million in annual military aid.

The video also shows Sanchez receiving a diploma from the region's top paramilitary leaders during a ceremony timestamped Nov. 25, 2000, with the camera zooming in on his "Comandante Esteban" nametag.

"He was the paramilitary boss of this entire zone," said David Ravelo, who runs the local human rights group CREDHOS. "He was very well-known."

The AP obtained the video from a person who would like to see Uribe toppled and provided it on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. This person said the video was recorded by paramilitaries and said the Uribe-Sanchez encounter occurred in the city council's chambers in Puerto Berrio, a paramilitary stronghold an hour from Barrancabermeja.

One of the rights activists said a person who attended the meeting confirmed Saturday that it took place in Puerto Berrio and said Sanchez had all but obliged the participants to go.

Authorities offered a $5,000 reward Friday for Sanchez's arrest on murder charges, saying he continues to lead a criminal band. The Colombian government didn't describe the crimes, but human rights activists in the area say the band is one of many paramilitary units that have reconstituted themselves despite an Uribe-engineered amnesty that was supposed to require them to disband.

Meanwhile, Uribe aides say the president cannot be expected to know about everyone he meets.

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© 2007 The Associated Press