Bush's Visit to Colombia Comes at a Time of Political Turmoil

Security measures for George Bush's March 11 visit to Bogota, Colombia will be anything but lax: The airport and main thoroughfares will be closed, while tanks and thousands of riot police, in full robo-cop gear, will be deployed around the city. No alcohol can be served or sold until the US president leaves. The transport of rubble and of gas cylinders is prohibited (to prevent fabrication of home-made projectiles); and two cannot share a motorcycle (to hinder the mobility of potential shooters).

Bush will be shielded from any potential threat posed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla movement. But the real danger may turn out to come from fraternizing with his friend, President Alvaro Uribe, just as Uribe is attempting to stave off "Paragate," the worst scandal to threaten a Colombian leader since the US denied a entry visa to President Ernesto Samper due to revelations that drug cartels financed his 1994 campaign.

Why "Paragate"?

The name, "Paragate," coined by the Colombian press, derives from the word "paramilitary," referring to the AUC, (Autodefensas Unidas de Cordoba or, United Self-Defence Movement of Colombia) the outlaw right-wing militia that dominates much of Colombia; with "gate," of course, suggesting that the scandal could even bring down the president, who is increasingly suspected of ties to the AUC.

The Paramilitaries:

The AUC was set up in the mid-1990's by wealthy landholders and drug traffickers as a counter-force to left-wing guerrillas. The AUC was popularly dubbed "paramilitary" because of a long history of collaboration between the AUC and the official Colombian armed forces. This teamwork in the perpetration of numerous atrocities over the last decade has been amply documented by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and by courageous reporters within Colombia, many of whom were killed or driven into exile for their efforts.

In the late 1990's leading up to the present, the AUC gained tremendous power over large swatches of countryside and in all northern cities -- Medellin, Santa Marta Barranquilla, Monteria -- of Colombia. By 2006, this outlaw army boasted some 30,000 armed fighters, who carried out a scorched-earth counter-insurgency policy resulting in the assassination or disappearance of tens of thousands of civilians they accused of leftist sympathies. An estimated 2,000,000 peasants were driven from their homes in order to clear and claim their land.

Their modus operandi -- often involving the use of chainsaws -- makes for a record of crimes against humanity that rivals that of Augusto Pinochet or Slobodan Milosevic. Such tactics were effective in gaining the AUC control hold over a large part of the Colombian territory, population and the state, and securing for them the land and export routes they needed for their cocaine export business to flourish.

The AUC appears smack on the US list of international terrorist organizations, while numerous individual AUC commanders -- including "Jorge 40," -- are wanted by the US Justice Department for shipping north the very cocaine that turns thousands of Americans into addicts.

The Scandal:

The Paragate cat jumped out of the bag in September, 2006. when Colombian police came upon the hard drive of alias "don Antonio," lieutenant to alias "Jorge 40" -- a widely feared AUC regional commander who ruled the Caribbean coast. This laptop and the results of on-going investigations by the Colombian Supreme Court and Attorney General's office have proved to be a Pandora's Box of evidence directly linking dozens important Uribista politicians to the AUC.

The biggest fish caught so far may be members of the Araujo clan -- regional caciques whose power stretches from the state of Cesar to Bogota. Two weeks ago, Consuelo Araujo, Uribe's Foreign Minister, had to resign due to the arrest of her Senator brother, Alvaro Araujo, for conspiracy with the AUC to kidnap a rival politician; and the issuing of an arrest warrant for her father (now in hiding) on the same charges.

Senator Alvaro Garcia is behind bars, charged with conspioring to plan an AUC massacre of unarmed peasants. Senator Garcia is a long-time friend of the president, who appointed his sister, Teresita Garcia Romero, as the current Consul General of Colombia in Frankfurt. Another good friend, Salvador Arana, ex-Governor of the state of Sucre, went fugitive shortly after resigning from his post as ambassador to Chile, a plum job given to him by Uribe, despite growing prosecutorial interest in Arana as a paramilitary confederate. A dozen other jailed politicians comprise a cross-section of Uribe's political allies in the north, with several of them belonging to a political party led by the first cousin of the president, Senator Mario Uribe.

Then, just last week, came the worst blow to Uribe so far: Jorge Noguera, the director of the country's intelligence agency, the DAS (Department of Administrative Security) was arrested for supplying names of trade unionists and other activists to Jorge 40 who subsequently had them murdered. Noguera had little law-enforcement experience before being appointed to the top intelligence post, but he did manage Uribe's 2002 campaign in Magdalena state, where, as current investigations by the Arco Iris Foundation strongly suggest, Jorge 40's troops may have used widespread intimidation of voters to throw the election in Uribe's favor.

Indeed, Arco Iris, a reputable Colombian research institute associated with Colombia's national University, recently published an exhaustive study of voting patterns in the 2002 and 2006 elections correlated with a detailed map of AUC influence. This study, which has been broadly reproduced in the Colombian press, seems to demonstrate that widespread intimidation by the AUC throughout northern Colombia figured in the election of dozens of Uribe supporters in Congress.

Who is Alvaro Uribe Velez?

Uribe, a conservative who is Washington's lone remaining partner in the restive Andean region, was overwhelmingly elected in 2002 on a staunch anti-guerrilla platform, which appealed to a broad majority of Colombians sick of guerrilla abuses and disgusted with the wishy-washy approacha of the citified former president Andres Pastrana. Uribe still enjoys great support in Colombia, thanks to his popular touch, his famously long days, and the success of his counter -- insurgency policies in reducing kidnappings and other atrocities by the FARC guerrillas.

During the 2002 presidential campaign and since, critics of Uribe have alleged that not only is he evidently sympathetic to the bloody tactics of the AUC, but that he has personal ties to the AUC and their druglord backers going decades to his years as a public official in Antioquia.

These accusations are summed up in the 2002 book, Lord of the Shadows, An Unauthorized Biography of Alvaro Uribe, by Newsweek staff reporter Joseph Contreras, which argues that Uribe has been mixed up with the AUC and their backers in the Cartel of Medellin going back for decades. (Contreras's book -- which suffers from disgracefully negligent copy-editing and fact -checking, making it easy to dismiss -- was discounted by Uribe's supporters as based on unfounded rumour.) Contreras bases his charges on the fact that Uribe's father -- Alberto Uribe Sierra, a wealthy Antioquian landowner, himself rumoured to be a drug trafficker -- was friendly with members the Ochoa narcotrafficking clan (a sympathy which president Uribe claims was based purely on their mutual affinity for show horses); a 1982 CIA report which lists Alvaro Uribe has "a politician with close ties to drug-trafficker. ..." (The report was later disavowed by US spokesmen during Bush's administration.) Contreras claims that when Uribe was head of Antioquia's Civil Aviation Department he regularly granted flight permits to known drug-traffickers; and he asserts that close associates of Pablo Escobar have also worked as advisors to Uribe.

But it is the history of paramilitarism in Antioquia between 1995 and 1997, when Uribe was governor of that state, that may return to haunt Uribe in the near future.

A powerful opponent of Uribe in the Congress, Gustavo Petro, has called for a full airing of Uribe's historic relations with the AUC in Antioquia, beginning with the accusation that Santiago Uribe, brother of the president, was member of a proto-AUC gang known as The Twelve Apostles. Colombian political analysts coincide in that Petro -- who was in Washington this past week to meet with the Organization of American States and with several liberal congressmen -- will concentrate his accusations on two points: first, how Uribe formed and armed civilian self-defense groups in Antioquia called the Convivir. The Convivir, while legal at the time, practiced the same savage tactics as the AUC -- as credibly documented by Human Rights Watch -- and many Convivir commanders -- including paramilitary chief Salvatore Mancuso -- later joined the AUC; and, secondly, the conditions which facilitated the rapid expansion of paramilitarism and subsequent dramatic rise in the number of massacres and forced displacements in Antioquia during Uribe's term as governor.

These coming months do not bode well for Uribe. Senator Petro seems determined to hold this debate into Uribe's past on the Senate floor by the end of this month And the Supreme Court is methodically continuing its investigations into the ties between paras and polticians by state, and the Court has not yet even begun looking in earnest at Antioquia. On top of all this, there is Uribe's controversial "peace process" with the AUC. The president guaranteed the AUC commanders that he would not allow them to be extradited to the US on drug charges, and that they would receive very lenient sentences for their crimes, if in turn they would demobilize their troops. But the process is becoming increasingly rocky, to the point that the AUC is rearming and AUC commanders are increasingly open about their previously secret dealings with the Colombian officials.

No one knows the outcome of Paragate, but if he is revealed to have colluded with warlords and major drug dealers wanted by the DEA and the US Justice Department, Uribe's reputation and possibly even his presidency will plummet, a circumstance that will be none too comfortable for Bush. Already, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and other Democrats in Congress are threatening to rethink US policy toward Colombia in light of Paragate. In this electoral year, Bush may well come to regret his public embrace of Uribe in Bogota on March 11, when the scandal was already well under way.

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