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Colombian president's brother said to have lead death squads

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 24, 2010; A12

YARUMAL, COLOMBIA -- Colombian President Álvaro Uribe will leave office in August having largely succeeded in winning control of once-lawless swaths of countryside from Marxist rebels, an accomplishment partly made possible by more than $6 billion in U.S. aid.

But Uribe's government has also been tarnished by scandals, including accusations in congressional hearings that death squads hatched plots at his ranch in the 1980s and revelations that the secret police under his control spied on political opponents and helped kill leftist activists.

Now a former police major, Juan Carlos Meneses, has alleged that Uribe's younger brother, Santiago Uribe, led a fearsome paramilitary group in the 1990s in this northern town that killed petty thieves, guerrilla sympathizers and suspected subversives. In an interview with The Washington Post, Meneses said the group's hit men trained at La Carolina, where the Uribe family ran an agro-business in the early 1990s.

The revelations threaten to renew a criminal investigation against Santiago Uribe and raise new questions about the president's past in a region where private militias funded with drug-trafficking proceeds and supported by cattlemen wreaked havoc in the 1990s. The disclosures could prove uncomfortable to the United States, which has long seen Uribe as a trusted caretaker of American money in the fight against armed groups and the cocaine trade.

"This is what we have been hoping for -- that something like this could come out, and we could show what these paramilitary groups were," said María Eugenia López. She said five of her relatives were killed by paramilitaries based in Yarumal in 1990.

Human rights groups have long demanded that Uribe clarify his role, if any, in the formation of some of those groups, whose extensive war crimes are being untangled by special teams of prosecutors. Uribe was senator and then governor in this state, Antioquia, where the number of paramilitary groups grew exponentially with the help of military forces and business interests that wanted a proxy force to fight then-potent guerrilla forces.

In an interview in his home in Medellin, Santiago Uribe denied that he or his brother were involved in any crimes. He said the allegations are part of a carefully orchestrated campaign to hurt the president. "The enemies of the president will not rest, and he knows it very well," Uribe said.

The president's spokesman did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. But in his eight years in office, Uribe has frequently vented against human rights activists, accusing them of being guerrilla stooges who disseminate false accusations against his government.

But human rights advocates who have first-hand knowledge of Meneses's allegations said his declaration amounts to powerful evidence that should trigger an investigation. Several of them are prominent Argentines, including 1980 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who heard Meneses recount his story in a videotaped meeting in Buenos Aires in April.

"He incriminates himself and also the brother of the president who managed the paramilitary group, but also President Uribe," Pérez Esquivel said.

'12 Apostles'

Prosecutors investigated Santiago Uribe in the 1990s for paramilitary ties and temporarily jailed local businessmen, Meneses and another police commander, known as "Captain Dam" because he was accused of throwing victims' bodies into the local dam. Secret witnesses who participated in crimes gave depositions detailing Santiago Uribe's role. But no one was convicted for heading the group, known as the 12 Apostles because one of its members was a priest.

Meneses is the first close collaborator of the 12 Apostles to speak publicly about the group's inner workings. His declarations are also the most extensive recounting by a security services official of how Colombia's militarized police and its army worked in tandem with death squads in one community -- a model that investigators of the paramilitary movement say was duplicated nationwide.

Meneses has not yet provided testimony to judicial authorities, but he has written to the state's investigative agencies to announce that he wants to cooperate. The video made in Argentina has also been seen by investigators, and an official in the Colombian justice system said prosecutors want to depose Meneses. If his testimony is credible, the official said, it would reopen long-dormant cases.

"The case against Santiago Uribe can be revived," the judicial official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case.

Speaking at his home with his wife at his side, Santiago Uribe acknowledged that Meneses's accusations could "of course" reopen his case. In rambling responses to several questions, he admitted that a man had been killed at his hacienda under murky circumstances but said he was unaware paramilitaries operated in Yarumal.

Meneses's role

In his recounting, Meneses said he immediately began collaborating with the paramilitary group upon being assigned to head the police in Yarumal in early 1994. Santiago Uribe was the main fundraiser and strategist behind the group, Meneses said, describing meetings in which the two discussed who would be killed next. Meneses said his own role was simple: He ensured that his policemen were nowhere near where a killing was to take place.

"I allowed them to act," he said of the hit men, who included a police officer, Alexander de Jesús Amaya, who later cooperated with authorities. The dead included suspected guerrillas and extortionists, Meneses said, but also civilians with no ties to rebel groups.

"First, it was drug addicts and small-time criminals winding up dead," said one former town official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Then, there were more and more and more dead."

For his help, Meneses recalled, he received a monthly payment of about $2,000 delivered by Santiago Uribe.

Meneses said he came forward because associates in the security services warned him he would soon be killed for knowing too much. Meneses reasoned that going public transforms him from a little-known retired policeman into a valuable witness whose death would provoke serious inquiries.

In October, he fled to Venezuela, seeking refugee status with his wife and children. He contacted a prominent Colombian human rights activist, Javier Giraldo, a Catholic priest, who took Meneses to Argentina. Meneses's three-hour confession in Argentina gave him a level of legitimacy, said Pérez Esquivel, the Nobel laureate.

"Few police or military officers have had the valor to admit to crimes in Colombia," Pérez Esquivel said.

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