Colombia's Uribe Said To Hinder Militia Probes

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 17, 2008

BOGOTA, Colombia, Oct. 16 -- Far from pressing to uncover the truth, President Álvaro Uribe's U.S.-backed government has hindered investigations into links between paramilitary groups and the country's political establishment, a leading human rights group said in a report released Thursday.

Human Rights Watch, which has documented ties between Colombia's army and paramilitary death squads since the 1980s, said in a 140-page report that officials have made important strides in investigating the illegal, anti-guerrilla paramilitary groups that terrorized this country until they were demobilized in 2006.

But the report accused Uribe of trying to obstruct the probes, instead of supporting them as he claims in his frequent trips to Washington. It also highlighted how Uribe and his aides have tried to tarnish the Supreme Court, which is carrying out an assertive probe that has already found ties between dozens of members of Congress and paramilitary groups.

"President Uribe's and his cabinet members' repeated verbal attacks, bizarre public accusations and personal phone calls to members of the court create an environment of intimidation," the report said.

"The Uribe administration has often spoken about the importance of the truth," it added. "However, at the same time, it has repeatedly taken steps that risk undermining the investigations."

In a statement, the Colombian government called the report simplistic and mistaken. It said the Uribe administration has done more than any other to dismantle a vast paramilitary network known for carrying out massacres and trafficking cocaine. The statement said the government has strengthened the attorney general's office and respected the independence of institutions.

"Colombians want to completely clear up the circumstances of the violence carried out against institutions and the people by all the armed groups," the statement said. "To assert that this is not in the government's interest is ridiculous."

The report comes at a delicate time for Colombia, which has been aggressively lobbying for the U.S. Congress to approve a free-trade agreement.

During the U.S. presidential debate Wednesday, Republican John McCain said approval of the pact was a "no-brainer," benefiting American exporters and solidifying American support for Washington's closest ally in Latin America. Democrat Barack Obama, however, said he opposed the agreement because of the killings of Colombian labor leaders and a lack of prosecutions in the cases.

The rights report, titled "Breaking the Grip? Obstacles to Justice for Paramilitary Mafias in Colombia," noted that the Uribe administration had shelved a proposal that would have allowed tainted politicians to avoid prison after it became clear the plan would hamper efforts to win the trade pact.

Still, Human Rights Watch said Uribe's government blocked legislation that would have reformed Colombia's Congress to reduce the influence of paramilitary commanders. That move has allowed lawmakers who are under investigation to be replaced by allies from their own tarnished parties.

The government also tried to push constitutional amendments that would have stripped the Supreme Court of the jurisdiction to investigate lawmakers implicated as having paramilitary ties. That proposal was tabled Tuesday.

Human Rights Watch said that in some cases, investigations into ties between paramilitary units and high-ranking military officers have stalled. The report noted that retired Adm. Rodrigo Quiñónez remains free, even though former officers and a top paramilitary commander have alleged that he had close links with death squads.

More recently, the report said, the government strongly supported Gen. Mario Montoya, the commander of the army, despite allegations that he smuggled arms to paramilitary groups earlier this decade. Montoya has denied allegations made by a former paramilitary fighter to prosecutors, and Uribe has called the general an "honest soldier of the nation."

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