Some versions of this article about paramilitary links to congressmen in Colombia incorrectly said that Carlos García, president of the U Party, was jailed because of ties to the groups. Officials have opened a preliminary investigation against García but have not jailed him. Also, in some versions, García was misidentified as Carlos Gaviria.
Cousin of Colombian President Arrested in Death Squad Probe
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
BOGOTA, Colombia, April 22 -- Authorities on Tuesday arrested former senator Mario Uribe, a cousin and close ally of President Álvaro Uribe, for alleged ties to death squads in a widening inquiry that has implicated nearly a quarter of Colombia's Congress.
The arrest of the former senator, who built a formidable political movement that helped his cousin win the presidency in 2002, comes during an institutional crisis that has tarnished a country closely allied with the United States.
As the result of investigations that began in 2006, 32 members of Congress have been arrested and about 30 others are being formally investigated for ties to paramilitary groups that killed thousands of civilians, infiltrated state institutions and trafficked cocaine to the United States. Preliminary investigations have begun against dozens of others, including the president of Congress, Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez, who was implicated last week.
With the legitimacy of Congress at rock bottom, lawmakers have been locked in a series of heated debates over how to reform the 268-member body and punish those parties whose members have been linked to paramilitary groups.
"What we've seen happen is a de facto alliance between powerful economic interests and narco-traffickers, and the motives were to co-opt institutions and convert Colombia itself into a criminal enterprise," said Sen. Gustavo Petro, who has publicly denounced ties between his colleagues and paramilitary members. "Congress is one of the institutions that's been co-opted."
In the case of Mario Uribe's party, Democratic Colombia, five of six members who held seats in Congress have been accused of collaborating with paramilitary groups, with one member, Sen. Álvaro Garcia, charged with helping to organize a massacre.
Uribe, who is accused of meeting with a notorious commander named Salvatore Mancuso to plan land grabs, fled to the Costa Rican Embassy in Bogota on Tuesday and applied for political asylum. He was rejected hours later, with San Jose calling the petition "inappropriate" because of the outstanding warrant.
Uribe was arrested as he left the embassy, but not before police and protesters jostled outside the compound, located in a residential neighborhood.
"The Mario Uribe situation is very delicate for the president," said Elisabeth Ungar, a political scholar at the University of the Andes in Bogota who directs Visible Congress, a group monitoring the legislature. "He's his cousin, and he's done politics with him all his life. He's the closest person to the president who's ever fallen."
The latest developments are expected to further complicate Colombia's efforts to win support in Washington for a free-trade agreement, which has been blocked by Democrats concerned about rights abuses here and opposition to trade deals in their home districts.
The inquiry into ties between paramilitary groups and politicians has not directly damaged President Uribe, even after Petro, the senator, charged in a hearing last April that death squads met at an Uribe family ranch in the 1980s to plot murders. The government strenuously denied the allegations, and Uribe's approval rating recently reached 84 percent as a result of the government's battlefield successes against the country's guerrilla movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Still, the simmering scandal has indirectly hurt Colombia's president, the Bush administration's closest ally in Latin America and the beneficiary of billions of dollars in American military aid. Recently jailed allies include Carlos García, president of the pro-Uribe U Party, and Sen. Rubén Quintero, who was Uribe's private secretary when he was governor of Antioquia state in the late 1990s.