By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
Uribe's allies are eager to see him serve a third four-year term, even though that is prohibited by the constitution. In 2005, the Constitutional Court approved an amendment that allowed him a single re-election in 2006. Many analysts here believe it is impractical for a tarnished Congress to try to amend the constitution or find other ways to spearhead another reelection effort.
"There's no possibility in a Congress with so much illegitimacy," said Claudia López, who co-authored "Parapolitics," a book about links between lawmakers and paramilitary commanders.
The legislature's image was further damaged Sunday after the Channel One news station aired an interview with a former congresswoman, Yidis Medina, who said the Uribe administration offered to provide jobs for her allies in return for her vote in favor of the 2004 constitutional amendment that permitted Uribe to run for reelection in 2006. That vote proved essential to the amendment's passage. Government officials denied Medina's accusations, but the attorney general's office has opened an investigation.
Lawmakers are now considering a reform package that would, among other things, take away seats in Congress from parties whose members are convicted of crimes. Pro-government parties are also considering the possibility of naming a commission of "notables" to propose reforms and creating a special tribunal to judge lawmakers.
López, an analyst who writes a column about politics in the El Tiempo newspaper, said Colombians are particularly incensed that tainted parties have not lost seats, even as their members sit in jail awaiting trials.
"These congressmen who are going to jail are being replaced in Congress, as if they're out sick," she said.
A more reasonable solution, she and Ungar said, would be to "freeze" their seats, with the party losing it permanently if the lawmaker is convicted.
Most of the politicians implicated in the scandal have had close ties to Uribe, and many of them supported the constitutional change that permitted him to run for reelection. Still, the "para-politics" scandal has touched politicians from nearly every party, including the opposition Liberal Party, which has more members linked to the paramilitary groups than any other.
After a preliminary investigation was opened against Gutiérrez, the president of Congress, Uribe called for prudence and "objectivity" among investigators in the Supreme Court, which in Colombia spearheads investigations of wrongdoing by lawmakers. Carlos Holguín, the interior and justice minister, expressed concern that the court was permanently damaging Congress and jailing lawmakers without hearing their side of the story.
"We have reservations over the elements being considered in opening investigations and taking away people's liberties," Holguín told El Tiempo on Sunday.