Secret Meeting Sparks Inquiry
Thursday, September 25, 2008
BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombia's inspector general's office is investigating a secret meeting at the presidential palace in April between top aides to President Álvaro Uribe and emissaries of a feared paramilitary warlord.
The representatives of the warlord, Diego Fernando Murillo, brought tape recordings that could have been used to undermine a broad criminal investigation that has put key allies of the president in jail, two people familiar with the meeting said in interviews last week. Uribe's associates later said the tapes did not discredit the inquiry.
But the meeting has ignited a political firestorm and become the latest chapter of the "para-politics" scandal tying dozens of lawmakers and other officials to paramilitary groups.
The government has admitted that Uribe's aides were given audiotapes that Murillo and his attorney surreptitiously made in the Supreme Court, whose investigators have aggressively pursued links between officials and paramilitary groups. Uribe has called the court's investigation politically motivated and manipulative.
The court, whose judges and detectives are empowered to investigate allegations of malfeasance by sitting lawmakers, has chafed at the revelations, which were reported by Semana magazine late last month. The president of the court, Francisco Ricaurte, has told reporters that the Uribe administration is undercutting the institution's independence and that "sectors of the government have a plot" against it.
Ricaurte has said the campaign is a product of an alliance between some officials and paramilitary commanders. Speaking recently about the meeting, Ricaurte said it was unthinkable that the officials "received these people because they supposedly had evidence against judges."
Presidential spokesman César Mauricio Velásquez bristled at that portrayal. He said that the meeting was not secret and that the government has a duty to denounce anyone who falsely accused the president of being tied to armed groups.
"This is not a fight with the Supreme Court, but rather it is about witnesses showing up here, there and all over," Velásquez said. "You cannot be quiet about it. When we say it's a carnival of witnesses, it means we have to say something about it. They damage the government and the country."
The government has raised concerns about the investigation, which has implicated nearly 70 lawmakers. Investigators say the lawmakers collaborated with a paramilitary movement that terrorized villagers and trafficked cocaine to the United States before its militias disarmed in 2006.
More than 30 of the lawmakers have served time in jail, including former senator Mario Uribe, the president's cousin and political ally. The investigation has led to the arrest of other officials, including the former head of Colombia's intelligence service, Jorge Noguera, who is accused of helping paramilitary fighters kill trade union activists.
The scandal has raised questions about some of Uribe's associates as his administration embarks on a last-ditch effort to win U.S. congressional approval for a free-trade agreement. Uribe has defended Colombia as a faithful caretaker of billions of dollars in U.S. military aid designed to eradicate drug crops and fight leftist guerrillas.
"Uribe and many around him feel that the Supreme Court is overstepping its bounds, and they don't want them to be more aggressive than they've been on para-politics," said Adam Isacson, a Colombia analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington. "You cross a line when you start conspiring with criminals to try to discredit the court -- the same court that's investigating your ties."