Paramilitary link could sink Colombia’s Uribe

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The Wilmington News Journal
Published on October 1, 2009

During the last decade, the U.S. has spent or handed out more than $10 billion in social, defense and security assistance to the South American republic of Colombia, according to tabulations by the Washington Office on Latin America. Much of that funding was aimed at countering Colombia’s massive production of coca and export of cocaine to North America and Europe and eradicating human rights violations associated with paramilitary organizations operating freely in the country.

Smaller than Alaska, Colombia consistently produces more than half of the entire world’s supply of coca and cocaine. While trends on production and trafficking wax and wane, the 2009 World Drug Report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime suggests that little lasting progress is being made in wiping out that trade. Meanwhile, another United Nations report has called into question the efforts by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to demobilize paramilitary organizations and stem human rights violations.

On the contrary, the new report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights says more paramilitary gangs have been created since Colombia’s professed demobilization went into effect in 2003, and since last year 76 of the nation’s 268 members of Congress, most of them Uribe confederates, have been arrested for colluding with paramilitary groups — a scandal known as “parapolitics.”

The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, was, in its heyday, a paramilitary and narco-trafficking group whose 10,000-13,000 fighters were classified by the U.S. State Department as terrorists. Formed in 1997, ostensibly to fight the leftist FARC and other insurgent groups, the AUC supported itself by “taxing” landowners and drug trafficking. They generally aligned themselves with President Uribe’s policies and were linked to the deaths of approximately 10,000 Colombians during their peak years of activity.

In December 2002, under international pressure, the AUC accepted a cease-fire and started negotiations with the government that Uribe hoped would end up reinforcing Colombian security. AUC leadership has episodically cooperated with the Uribe government, receiving amnesty from drug charges in exchange. Though its territorial control and reliance upon drug profiteering has shrunk, AUC factions continue to thrive politically, claiming influence over 30 percent of the Colombian Congress.

The UN reports that approximately 150 paramilitary squads have formed since the demobilization process began. The involvement of various Bogota officials with paramilitary organizations has led to accusations of collaboration with the Uribe administration. It is no secret that four of the seven political parties that make up his governing coalition are linked with paramilitary bodies.

Uribe, who persists in trying to circumvent the country’s constitutional term limitations and run for a third term as president, has attempted to limit investigations and trials of the accused members of Congress. During his meeting this past July with Uribe, U.S. President Barack Obama suggested that Uribe give up on running again.

“Our experience in the United States is that two terms works for us, and that after eight years usually the American people want a change,” he said. Nevertheless, Uribe’s supporters in the national Congress have passed legislation giving him clear sailing for a new campaign.

Re-election would pose a threat to the checks and balances necessary for a healthy democracy. President Uribe would be able to appoint political allies to all autonomous state-controlled institutions. This includes most judges on the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court, the attorney general, the inspector general, the human rights ombudsman, the comptroller general, the Central Bank and the Broadcasting Board.

The ongoing links between the Uribe government and the surviving military organizations — essentially a mafia-like body — can only harm Uribe’s credibility on the continent and with U.S. officials. As the investigation continues, increasing evidence points toward complicity of Uribe himself in the parapolitics scandal. Some experts believe that Colombia’s network of crime can be directly linked to the military, members of the Uribe government and to street crime organizations.

If that becomes clearer, it would be a calamity for President Uribe.