COLOMBIA'S PARAMILITARY PARADOX

Far-Right Militias Survive "Peace Process" and "Para-Politics" Scandal

by Memo Montevino, WW4 REPORT

On July 24, Colombia's imprisoned paramilitary warlords announced they were cutting off cooperation with prosecutors investigating massacres and other atrocities—throwing into question the country's peace process. The move was taken to protest the July 11 ruling of the Supreme Court of Justice that paramilitary fighters and "parapoliticos" (politicians who collaborate with the paras) are not automatically charged with "sedition"—meaning politically motivated violence, carrying reduced penalties under the legislation establishing the peace process.

"With this decision the reconstruction of the historical truth, the handing over of mass graves and other legal obligations assumed under the peace pact are frozen," said Antonio López, once-commander of Medellin's feared Bloque Cacique Nutibara and now appointed spokesman for the imprisoned warlords. "We can't allow our fighters to be treated like common criminals." López said he was speaking for some 30 top commanders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and 30 other mid-level commanders, being held at Itagüí maximum security prison outside Medellin.

The ruling came in the case of Orlando Cesar Caballero, an Antioquia AUC commander accused of arms smuggling and other crimes. The court's decision denies him benefits such as a maximum eight-year sentence in exchange for renouncing violence and confessing crimes to special prosecutors.

"To accept that instead of criminal conspiracy, paramilitary members committed treason not only supposes they acted with altruistic aims for the collective good, but also flaunts the rights of victims and society to obtain justice and truth," the court wrote.

President Alvaro Uribe also protested ruling, asserting that "if the sedition of the guerilla is recognized, the sedition of the same elements paramilitarismo should be recognized, and if the sedition of paramilitarismo is denied, the sedition of the guerilla should be denied for the same reasons."

Administration Shaken by Para-Scandal

However, the "sedition of the guerilla" is only recognized theoretically, as Uribe has never re-established talks with Colombia's left-wing insurgents. In fact, it was his hardline anti-guerilla creds that allowed him to bring the AUC into a peace process.

The peace process has officially led to the disarmament of some 31,000 paramilitary fighters, and the exhumation of several mass graves earlier this year, mostly in the Putumayo rainforest region along the Ecuador border. But it has not yet secured reparations for the AUC's victims, or won major confessions from the 60 imprisoned warlords.

Ironically, Uribe—the man who was able to effect the AUC's official "demobilization"—has simultaneously seen his administration rocked by a scandal over links to the outlawed paramilitaries.

On July 7, Jorge Noguera, former chief of Colombia's secret police, was arrested on charges of paramilitary collaboration—for the second time. Noguera, freed from prison three months earlier due to procedural errors, was ordered detained again by Colombia's chief prosecutor, Mario Iguaran. He is accused of providing the paras with information that led to several slayings.

Noguera, who ran Colombia's Administrative Security Department (DAS) from 2002 to 2005, was but the closest Uribe ally to be imprisoned in the co-called "para-politics" scandal.

Foreign Minister Maria Consuelo Araujo stepped down Feb. 19, four days after the Supreme Court of Justice ordered the arrest of her brother Senator Alvaro Araujo, and 12 other legislators for their ties to the AUC. The court also called for an investigation into the suspected paramilitary activities of Araujo's father, Alvaro Araujo Noguera, including the kidnapping and extortion of a businessman.

In early May, imprisoned AUC jefe Salvatore Mancuso fingered the vice president, defense minister and top Colombian businessmen as collaborators in an explosive judicial hearing. He also said the paramilitaries were aided by top army brass in training and logistics. Uribe told national radio that he had "every confidence in the honesty and moral fiber" of Vice President Francisco Santos and Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos.

National Police chief Gen. Jorge Daniel Castro and his intelligence boss Gen. Guillermo Chaves were forced to retire May 14 following claims that agents illegally tapped calls of opposition political figures, journalists and members of the government. The scandal broke when news-weekly Semana reported the interception of phone conversations revealing that the imprisoned warlords continued to operate their networks from behind bars. The scandal was dubbed the "Colombian Watergate."

Colombia's lower house voted overwhelmingly May 23 to request President Alvaro Uribe "immediately remove for incompetence" Sergio Caramagna, head of the OAS peace mission in the country, responsible for overseeing the "safe haven" established for demobilizing AUC fighters at Santa Fe de Ralito, in Cordoba department. José Castro Caycedo, the legislator who sponsored the resolution, told the Associated Press that paramilitaries made a mockery of the peace talks by "holding orgies on the negotiating table." The resolution followed press reports that paras held all-night, whiskey-fueled orgies with high-class prostitutes, football stars and famous Mexican mariachi bands. The revelations were based on transcripts of phone conversations between paramilitary bosses and several madams published by Semana.

Corporate Connection Emerges

Captains of industry in the US as well as Colombia have been touched by the scandal.

In June, advocates for the families of 173 people murdered in the banana-growing regions of northern Colombia filed suit against Chiquita Brands International, in US District Court in Washington, DC. The families allege that Chiquita paid millions of dollars to the AUC. "This is a landmark case, maybe the biggest terrorism case in history," said attorney Terry Collingsworth. "In terms of casualties, it's the size of three World Trade Center attacks." Collingsworth has filed similar suits against Coca Cola, Drummond, and Nestle for the targeted killings of union leaders by the AUC.

The case began with an investigation by the US Justice Department, which filed criminal charges in March. Chiquita admitted the truth of the charges, and agreed to cooperate in the DOJ's ongoing investigation. Although Chiquita got off with a $25 million dollar fine and no prison time for executives‚ their admissions set the stage for the multi-billion dollar lawsuit.

"Chiquita's victims are living in dire poverty," said Paul Wolf, co-counsel in the case, who met with victims' groups at shanty towns in northern Colombia where terrorized families have sought refuge. "Reparations can't bring back the dead, but there are a lot of widows and orphans with no means of support. Most of them have fled their homes, and don't know where their next meal will come from," said Wolf.

Also in June, a lawyer for the United Steelworkers asked the US State Department to investigate AUC infiltration of Uribe's first electoral campaign, based on a video showing then-candidate Uribe meeting with a group that included a man identified as Frenio Sánchez Carreño, AKA "Comandante Esteban"—AUC chief for the violence-torn oil city of Barrancabermeja. The footage was apparently taken at a 2001 campaign stop outside the city. In a statement to Miami's Nuevo Herald, Uribe's office replied to questions about the video: "I beg you to abstain from making malevolent insinuations."

"This video raises grave concerns about the interconnection between the AUC and the Uribe campaign, and quite possibly, the current Uribe administration," United Steelworkers attorney Daniel Kovalik wrote in his letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "It stands to reason that Mr. Uribe must have known that he was meeting with members of the AUC, including 'Comandante Esteban,' given his broad notoriety."

Kovalik represents relatives of three employees of the Alabama-based Drummond coal company murdered by paramilitaries in 2001, who have filed a civil suit against the company. Kovalik wrote in his letter that he obtained the video during his investigation for the suit, but could not reveal the source for reasons of security.

Aid, Trade Deal Threatened

As the scandals mounted, Congressional Democrats proposed unprecedented amendments to the Bush administration's annual foreign aid appropriations request for Colombia. If the Democrats prevail, overall funding will be cut by 10%, while 45% of the total package will be devoted to economic and humanitarian aid, the remainder to the military. While this still means the majority of the aid would go to the military, it represents the most significant reduction since Plan Colombia was launched under the Clinton administration.

Even if the aid cuts go through, Colombia is "expected to get an additional $150 million in purely military and police assistance through a separate appropriation in the defense budget bill," the Houston Chronicle reported June 7. But years of activist pressure on Congress does appear to be finally bearing fruit.

"The Uribe government's support of the paramilitary preserves a situation of misery, exploitation and exclusion, which, on a daily basis, tramples upon labor rights and robs the Colombian people of freedom," wrote Jorge Enrique Gamboa, President of the Colombian Oil Workers Union (USO) in a letter to the US Congress in February. Up to 77 trade unionists were murdered in Colombia in 2006, and many more were threatened, attacked or kidnapped. Even the. State Department's annual human rights report on Colombia found: "Violence against union members and antiunion discrimination discouraged workers from joining unions and engaging in trade union activities, and the number of unions and union members continued to decline."

The AFL-CIO reports that more than 400 unionists have been murdered since Uribe took office in 2002, with only seven convictions. Of the 236 murdered from 2004 to 2006, there has been only one conviction, according to AFL-CIO figures.

The para scandal is also taking a toll on another lynchpin of Bush's strategy for Latin America: a free trade pact with Bogotá—already passed by Colombia's congress, and seen as a step towards an Andean Free Trade Agreement. "You cannot put together a free-trade agreement when there isn't freedom for workers in terms of their basic international rights," Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-MI), chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on trade, told the Washington Post in April.

When Uribe was in Washington the following month to petition for the deal (and continued economic and military aid), he was dressed down by Democratic lawmakers. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement: "Many of us expressed our growing concerns about the serious allegations of connections between illegal paramilitary forces and a number of high-ranking Colombian officials."

Pelosi's statement failed to actually mention the pending trade agreement. And a statement from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) included an implicit promise of capitulation. "It is possible we can work out something" to address the concerns of US lawmakers, Rangel told reporters.

"We are going to find a way to get Colombia passed. It is very important," Senate Finance Committee Max Baucus (D-MT) would tell the press in July. But his statement revealed that real obstacles had emerged. Some House Democrats want a vote delayed for one to two years to see if Colombia has reduced violence against unionists and brought more killers to justice. Pressure from labor groups prompted Pelosi and senior Democrats to say they could not support the agreement until Colombia has shown "concrete evidence of sustained results on the ground."

Uribe reacted bitterly to the Congressional humiliation. In a June 30 press release, he protested that he's no "Somoza" (US puppet dictator), and that Colombia is no "banana republic" (rather an ironic assertion in light of the Chiquita revelations). He claimed many of the dead unionists were killed in "proven vendettas and clashes between the guerrilla bands of FARC and ELN."

He had some especially strong words for Congress: "US congressmen forgot that they were actually addressing a sovereign allied republic and not a puppet nation... We are not going to allow our relationship with the United States to become that of Master and Colombia as the servile republic."

The Struggle for Narco-Power

While Uribe has barred extradition of AUC figures to face drug charges in the US in the interests of the "peace process," two members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were tried in Washington federal courts this year: Sonia (Anayibe Rojas), charged with drug trafficking, and Simón Trinidad (Ricardo Palmera), accused of kidnapping. Uribe and Bush alike were clearly hoping convictions would demonstrate the "narco-terrorist" nature of the FARC.

Sonia was convicted in February, but Trinidad had to be tried twice for the same crime, after a hung jury in November 2006. Even the second time, the jury had difficulty reaching a verdict, and asked Judge Royce Lamberth to declare a mistrial. In a bizarre compromise, Trinidad was convicted of conspiring to kidnap three US military contractors, but mistrial was declared for the charges of actually kidnapping them, or of providing material support to the FARC.

Meanwhile, the para-scandal was revealing the AUC's narco-corruption in no uncertain terms. The New York Times July 28 ran a profile of imprisoned AUC top commander Salvatore Mancuso, who openly admitted to drug trafficking to finance his operations, ostensibly because the guerillas were doing so. "I could not lose the war," Mancuso said. "We have a narco-economy. We are a narco-society."

"New Generation" Paramilitaries

In May, a special report from the International Crisis Group, which monitors the Colombian conflict, warned that despite the supposed AUC demobilization, there is "growing evidence that new armed groups are emerging that are more than the simple 'criminal gangs' that the government describes. Some of them are increasingly acting as the next generation of paramilitaries..."

Citing data from the OAS Peace Support Mission in Colombia, the report, "Colombia's New Armed Groups," found: "These new groups do not yet have the AUC's organisation, reach and power. Their numbers are disputed but even the lowest count, from the police and the OAS mission, of some 3,000 is disturbing, and civil society groups estimate up to triple that figure." The report especially cited the New Generation Organization in southern Narino department, and the Black Eagles in Norte de Santander.

Colombia's paramilitaries have been, perhaps, downsized by the demobilization process and para-scandal—but by no means broken. The real question is whether the ties to official power have really been cut, and rogue elements are now sustained entirely by cocaine profits. Or, is there a shadow play at work—with Uribe, Mancuso and their collaborators in the security forces and private sector alike quietly running the new generation of right-wing terrorists?

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RESOURCES:

Simon Trinidad Convicted of Conspiracy to Take Hostages
ANNCOL, July 11
http://www.anncol.org/uk/site/doc.php?id=295

Uribe press release, June 30
translated by Publius Pundit
http://publiuspundit.com/2007/07/colombias_president_responds_t.php

See related story, this issue:

COLOMBIA: "DEMOBILIZED" PARAS TERRORIZE PEASANTS
from Weekly News Update on the Americas
http://ww4report.com/node/4287

See also:

AUTOPSY OF A NARCO-GUERILLA
Justice Department Scores One Against the FARC
by Paul Wolf
WW4 REPORT #131, March 2007
http://ww4report.com/node/3262

COLOMBIA: THE PARAS & THE OIL CARTEL
State Terror and the Struggle for Ecopetrol
by Bill Weinberg
WW4 REPORT #129, January 2007
http://ww4report.com/node/2975

From our weblog:

Colombia: para commanders break off peace process
WW4 REPORT, July 28, 2007
http://ww4report.com/node/4277

Congress to cut Colombia military aid?
WW4 REPORT, June 29, 2007
http://ww4report.com/node/4143

Democrats dress down Colombia's Uribe —sort of
WW4 REPORT, May 5, 2007
http://ww4report.com/node/3763

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Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Aug. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution