By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
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."
Last week, the inspector general's office, which has been collecting evidence about the meeting, heard testimony from Edmundo Del Castillo, Uribe's legal adviser, and Velásquez, the presidential spokesman. The attorney general's office is also assigning a special prosecutor to investigate the case, which could lead to criminal charges.
Government officials have acknowledged that the president knew that Del Castillo was planning to meet with Diego Álvarez, a lawyer for Murillo, the paramilitary commander. Uribe said recently that the government was open to receiving "anyone who wants to give information about the manipulation of witnesses. We are not interested in entangling judges, but we are interested that investigations against crime be impartial and without the manipulation of witnesses."
At the time of the meeting, Murillo was looking for ways to avoid extradition to New York on cocaine-trafficking charges, officials in the court said. Álvarez told Del Castillo that he had tapes containing evidence of a possible plot by the Supreme Court against Uribe, participants close to the talks said in interviews.
Antonio "Job" López, who had participated in a government-run demobilization of paramilitary groups and was the spokesman for disarmed fighters, accompanied Álvarez to the meeting. But investigators and the security services said López remained steeped in cocaine trafficking and killings.
Also in attendance were a representative of the intelligence service; Óscar Iván Palacio, a close associate of Uribe's; and Juan José Chaux, a former governor and ambassador who has been accused by a top paramilitary commander of collaborating with the militias.
The tapes included recordings of the court's top investigator, Iván Velásquez, and others who participated in meetings with Murillo aimed at getting him to cooperate with the inquiry. Álvarez had also secretly recorded Henry Anaya, a lawyer who is close to court officials and has provided investigators with useful evidence.
"All this shows an effort against the court," Velásquez said.
Del Castillo did not return phone calls seeking comment. But in an interview with Colombia's La W Radio, he said that he coordinated the April meeting and that the president knew Álvarez was handing over "material that supposedly questioned the responsibility of some investigators of para-politics."
"I simply consulted with the president, and he told me, 'Receive the information,' " Del Castillo said last week.
César Mauricio Velásquez, the presidential spokesman, said, "The idea was to listen to some people who had information that was important for the government and the president."
In July, López, the demobilized paramilitary fighter, was killed by a hit man in Medellin -- a slaying that astonished government officials and has yet to be solved. Murillo was extradited in May and is in jail in New York. He has pleaded guilty to drug-trafficking charges and faces sentencing in December.
"All this reinforces the suspicion about a connection between some people close to Uribe and some very unsavory characters," said Michael Shifter, a senior analyst who tracks Colombia for the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy group in Washington. "It's sort of hard to explain why these practices and meetings continue, given the scrutiny that has been raised over time."