By Rodrigo Acuña
18 April 2007
A recent article by Paul Richter and Greg Miller in the Los Angeles Times has again brought international attention on Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez. At the centre of the LA Times article is a leaked report from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which claims that Colombian army chief General Mario Montoya and a paramilitary group carried out an operation against Marxist rebels in 2002, that left 14 people dead and ‘dozens more disappeared in its aftermath’.
Given the nature of the activities of paramilitary groups in Colombia and Uribe’s ‘long and close association’ with Montoya, the revelation adds to a scandal which, Richter and Miller say, ‘already has implicated the country’s former Foreign Minister, at least one State Governor, legislators and the head of the national police’.
Uribe and his Government have long been beyond the pale. His close relationships with Colombia’s drug cartels and paramilitaries run so deep that political scientists should seriously consider categorising Colombia as a ‘narco-terrorist State’ — with strong backing from Washington, of course. (As Richter and Miller point out: ‘President Bush called Uribe a "personal friend" … during [last month’s] visit to Bogotá, and his Government is one of the Bush Administration’s closest allies in Latin America’.)
The history of the current Colombian President is ghastly. His papá, Alberto Uribe Sierra, did not set Álvaro a good example. During the 1970s, Uribe Sierra lived in a middle-class neighbourhood in the Colombian city of Medellín and was heavily in debt. However, as Forrest Hylton notes in his excellent history, Evil Hour in Colombia, by a ‘strange reversal of fortune’ Uribe Sierra became a ‘political broker, real-estate intermediary, and recognised trafficker’.
Having also become a huge cattle rancher, Uribe Sierra was part of a group of narco-speculators who purchased cheap land where Left-wing guerrillas were active. In 1983, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — the guerrilla group commonly known by their Spanish acronym FARC — decided to pay Uribe Sierra a visit and he was killed after a failed kidnapping attempt. When the younger Uribe became aware of his father’s death, according to Hylton, he flew to his father’s ranch in the private helicopter of Medellín’s cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar.
Escobar and Uribe Sierra had become good friends after the latter had been involved in ‘fund raising’ for a project known as ‘Medellín without slums’ — most likely another one of Escobar’s countless scams to launder his huge empire’s drug money.
Álvaro Uribe entered politics at the age of 26 when he was elected mayor of Medellín in 1982 — a payback for his father helping finance the campaign of Belisario Betancur, President of Colombia from 1982 to 1986. Sacked after three months for what Tom Feiling writing in New Internationalist termed his ‘ties to the drug Mafia’, Uribe then became Director of Civil Aviation and ‘issued pilots’ licences to Pablo Escobar’s fleet of light aircraft flying cocaine to Florida’. Feiling goes on to report that:
'In 1995 Uribe became Governor of his home province of Antioquia … [P]rivate security services and paramilitary death squads enjoyed immunity from prosecution under Governor Uribe and were free to launch a campaign of terror. Thousands of trade unionists, students and human rights workers were murdered, disappeared or driven out of the province.'
During his run for President in 2002, Uribe’s tough talk against FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN) — Colombia’s second largest Left-wing guerrilla army — was popular with many middle- and upper-class Colombians. And his paramilitary friends made sure the rest of the population made the right choice as well. Even then, Uribe only managed 53 per cent of the votes, after just 25 per cent of the electorate bothered to vote.
According to Rafael García — a former high-level official in Colombia’s intelligence agency serving an 11-year sentence for money-laundering (amongst other charges) — what happened in 2002 was a ‘massive electoral fraud’ as paramilitary groups personally selected candidates for Congress.
Since gaining power, these politicos and Uribe have persuaded up to 30,000 paramilitaries to demobilise, serve ‘symbolic jail terms’ and/or continue in the drug trade — a case in point being the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country’s most notorious paramilitary organisation with deep ties to narco-trafficking.
Colombian Senator Jorge Robledo — representing the Polo Democrático Alternativo (PDA), who with Gustavo Preto has been instrumental in pushing the Senate to discuss Uribe’s past — has commented about the latest scandals:
'The director of the nation’s secret service, DAS, Jorge Noguera, is in prison for his participation in paramilitary crimes … All the Congresspeople who have gone to prison already are Uribistas [supporters of Uribe]. Of the 19 in line for judgement, 17 are Uribistas … The organisation ARCOIRIS, with 83 congresspeople from paramilitary-controlled zones — 90 per cent are Uribistas. This is not to say that all Uribistas are [paramilitaries], but it does say the phenomenon is that these are friends of the President. This is understood in the exterior, and Democratic Senators in the US like McGovern and Leahy have noticed as much. Leahy said in [the Colombian newspaper] El Tiempo that the US Government must correct its support for Uribe. Leahy said ‘someone explain to me who we are working with in Colombia’.
We in the PDA insist that these are political, not just penal, responsibilities for Uribe. He has to explain why so many of his friends are involved. And we also want to know how far is the US involved? The US Embassy is full of CIA, DEA, FBI, and they don’t have any idea what is happening with paramilitarism? It is not credible.'
In an article published in the January edition of NACLA Report on the Americas — a distinguished journal on Latin American studies — Colombian economist and human rights worker, Héctor Mondragón, notes that: ‘Never before have drug traffickers had so much power in Colombia’. Using the Government’s own statistics, Mondragón argues that in 2005 over $US3 billion entered the country with no record of its origin, and this is ‘just a portion of the billions of dollars and euros that the paramilitaries have laundered’. In his view, the Bush Administration is well aware of these actions, but prefers to turn a blind eye as:
'Colombia is becoming the eternal battleground, in order to secure the country as a base of operations for controlling Ecuador, Venezuela and possibly even Peru, Brazil and Bolivia. They say, ‘Have patience with Colombia; we’re heading to Venezuela and Ecuador! Be patient with Iraq; we’re on our way to Iran’.'
If one considers how Ronald Reagan and Bush senior’s Administrations supported the Contras — also deeply involved in the drug trade — to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua during the 1980s, then such developments are not without precedent. And remember that Colombian paramilitaries were used in 2004 to try to overthrow the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
The current involvement in the drug trade by the Colombian cartels, paramilitaries and their political allies such as Uribe, of course, overshadow the relationship FARC has with cocaine and their own human rights abuses. Although FARC’s involvement with drugs is ‘hard to measure’ according to expert Mario Murillo in his book Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilisation, their involvement is ‘still seen as a small percentage of the overall amounts of money exchanged globally in the international drug market’.
And anyway, since the 1980s according to numerous reports, between 75-85 per cent of all human rights violations have been carried out by the Colombian military and their paramilitary allies, with the rest attributed to the guerrillas. While FARC and ELN should certainly be held accountable for violations against civilians, their record pales in comparison to the brutal and systematic crimes of the Colombian State.
Since Uribe took power in 2002, over 500 trade unionists have been killed, often in the most brutal manner. His utter contempt for human rights organisers was expressed openly in 2003 when he declared them to be ‘spokesmen for terrorism’ and challenged them to ‘take off their masks … and drop this cowardice of hiding their ideas behind human rights’.
Whether the current crisis will see Uribe resign or call new elections is unclear, but if Bush is remotely serious about the ‘War on Terror’ and the ‘War on Drugs’, then he could start by dealing with his amigo in Bogotá.