Uribe and the Para Scandal

Just months after Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Vélez’s landslide re-election in May 2006, some critics began pointing to ‘cracks in the pedestal’ of his popularity. The ongoing brouhaha surrounding the evident connections between the Uribe government and the paramilitary organizations, however, make that claim seem like so much wishful thinking. Uribe’s millions of supporters have long been aware of his ties to the paramilitaries but have chosen to ignore them, though they realize that they made a deal with the Devil. Without question, a majority of voting Colombians want to stay the course.

However tempting, given the heinous crimes possibly committed by the vigilantes, it would be wrong to view Colombians as callous and uncaring. Rather, they are extraordinarily war-weary. They continue to believe that Uribe’s iron-fisted and uncompromising approach is the only way to end a conflict that, in different avatars, goes back more than six decades. Unfortunately, the evidence does not bear out their hopes. The leftist FARC guerrillas are alive and in no danger of defeat by the military. Paramilitary political violence will continue to benefit the landed classes and will not end the country’s horrific civil war. The more pertinent question is: how much longer will the United States continue to play enabler to Colombia’s paramilitary habits? Let’s speak plain: Uribe is no to-the-core democrat; rather, he is a cynical pragmatist who says he is bending plow but somehow ends up with more swords. But that’s good enough to feed the eagerness of the State Department to go along with this elaborate hoax that Colombia is a working democracy.

Who Is Uribe? Is He The God Father Of His Country?

Alvaro Uribe has been closely associated with paramilitarism since early in his political career, with his overt loathing of the leftist guerrillas forever linked by the condemnable murder of his father at the hands of the FARC in 1983. Uribe has never gone out of his way to deny his links to the various manifestations of this paramilitary phenomenon and has continued to derive political benefits from this association. It has remained at the core of his hard-line persona. Indeed, he was swept into office in 2002 on a wave of revulsion over the failed peace process unsuccessfully pursued by Conservative President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002).

The Para’s Ancestry

As governor of Antioquia between 1995 and 1997, Uribe was the bell cow in the legalization of paramilitary Convivir groups, the so-called ‘Rural Vigilance Cooperatives,’ that recalled the Colombia’s government-backed death squads of the 1940s and 50s. These largely served to legalize the paramilitary militias that had emerged in the early 1980s. These latter units were enthusiastically supported by General Harold Bedoya, head of the Colombian Armed Forces from 1994-97. The army worked closely with the Convivirs in their anti-guerrilla deployments. Before being outlawed in 1999 due to their egregious excesses, the Convivirs helped displace over 200,000 campesinos, mostly from the Urabá region. In particular, the organizations that Uribe nurtured so lovingly, presided over one of Colombia’s most gory massacres. In July 1997, two chartered flights of paramilitary gunmen flew from Urabá into the military-controlled airport at San José de Guaviare, Department of Meta, where Army soldiers helped transport their weapons and gear. After being reinforced by 180 local paramilitary brethren, the paras were waved through various military checkpoints as they made their way up the Guaiviare River to Mapiripán. Once there, they spent five days hunting specific ‘subversives’ that they had earlier been identified as guerrilla supporters. These individuals were taken to the local slaughterhouse and murdered. Their bodies were disemboweled (so as not to float) and dumped in the river.

Uribe’s immediate predecessor in the presidential palace, Andrés Pastrana, had initiated one of the periodic attempts at peace making that went back to the presidency of Belsario Betancur in the early 1980s. To break the cycle of political violence, Pastrana sought to recognize the political legitimacy of the guerrilla groups, especially the FARC. He withdrew the army from an area of 162,000 hectares (effectively neutralizing it), and promised serious land, political, and socio-economic reforms. Not surprisingly, he could not deliver. Whether or not the FARC was actually serious about the peace process, there was no doubt about the crushing hostility of the army, many local elites, and their paramilitary minions. With the military withdrawn, the paras were given a free hand to increase their attacks on civilian ‘guerrilla supporters,’ while the FARC soon moved to use the area as a strategic zone for training, and as a place to hide their kidnap victims. These series of ruses eventually broke down by February 2002, just before Uribe’s campaign swept on to a dramatic electoral victory. Despite the clear ill-will of much of the political, military, and economic establishment to Pastrana’s quixotic peace process, the politically tone-deaf nature of the FARC received most of the blame, and set the stage for Uribe’s spectacular rise to power. The FARC’s inner feelings were clear: since the government couldn’t guarantee their security after demobilization, laying down their arms would be equivalent to laying down their lives.

From the start, Uribe was the wildly preferred candidate of the AUC, the umbrella organization of paramilitary groups founded and led by Carlos Castaño, who by the way, enthusiastically took credit for the massacre at Mapiripán (among many others.) Castaño was the permanent paramilitary leader who never minced words about paramilitary goals or point of view. He believed that Uribe was the candidate who was most clearly emblematic of their ‘philosophy.’ Castaño claimed that two thirds of the ‘guerrillas’ were unarmed collaborators (and therefore legitimate military targets), a view that is almost universally held among Colombia’s more well-heeled sectors, including the business community.

Uribe Offers No Quarter

Uribe was elected to end all attempts at negotiation. He has always surreptitiously believed that his mandate, arising from both of his presidential elections, was to eradicate the guerrillas. His overt and covert support comes from various interests: cattle ranchers, flower exporters (Colombia dominates the U.S. “Mother’s Day” market), emerald miners, narcos, and liberal party bosses, who fear the guerrilla’s inroads into legitimate politics. As well, Uribe is also quite popular with large portions of the urban populace (now a majority of the population) because he addresses their concerns about security. For decades, members of the elite have been kidnapped and sometimes murdered by the various guerrilla organizations, but in recent years, middle-class urbanites have also been increasingly targeted. And having lost his father to the FARC, no one had a better claim of their sympathy than Uribe.

Uribe and his team offered what to the nation was largely a military solution. Immediately after being elected in 2002 he declared a State of Emergency, and changed legal structures to allow for political negotiation with the paramilitary militias. He pushed his idea of ‘democratic security,’ which was little more than a subterfuge that was aimed at increasing cooperative ventures between military, police, and ‘civilian’ groups ­ a version of the Convivirs, updated and writ. The bellicose president set out to construct a first line of defense of so-called ‘peasant soldiers’ to protect their immediate regions, and encouraged local campesinos to spy on possible “agents of subversion.” With more attention now being paid to quashing urban guerrilla networks, Uribe also had to force a good deal of existing guerrilla activity back into the countryside. In April 2004, he also launched Plan Patriota, the largest military operation in Modern Colombian history, particularly aimed at FARC installations in the country’s southern departments. Finally, and most importantly politically, Uribe beefed up security on the nation’s highways, making it possible for middle and upper class Colombians to head for their mountain houses, and to drive to the beach as well as to other outings.

None of this means, however, that Uribe is in fact winning the war against the FARC. Over the decades, the FARC has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to survive and assert itself, even if it has never truly threatened the existence of the Colombian state. Part of this success may arise from its supple organizational structure, formed in a series of semi-autonomous fronts or frentes. This durability has been evident ever since 1983 when paramilitary organizations began their brutal offensives against real, perceived, or potential guerrilla supporters. Though in ‘strategic retreat’ since the beginning of 2002, the FARC is very far from defeated. Ironically, government efforts may simply have weeded out the weaker members and frentes, and thus created an arguably stronger guerrilla force. This fact is not lost on segments of the Colombian military, and was driven home recently by Jennifer Schirmer, a Senior Fellow at the United States Institute for Peace, who has been studying the armed actors in Colombia’s never-ending conflict. Many army officers there, she said, “have admitted that they know they can’t defeat the FARC.”

Demobilization a Sham

Uribe inherited ‘Plan Colombia,’ the multi-billion dollar U.S. aid package conceptualized by Pastrana during the final years of the Clinton administration that have been expanded and heavily militarized under President Bush. Though initially sold as an anti-narcotics strategy, much of the training and hardware it provides actually has gone largely to the Colombian army’s struggle with the FARC, and its economic base which is found in the coca producing regions. While the army’s close ties to the paramilitary units are universally recognized and even condemned, in practice this has somewhat declined (it is believed that more than half of the army’s brigades still have paramilitary ties). Over the last two decades, most of the untoward aspects of Colombia’s dirty war have been outsourced to the paras. Plan Colombia’s most tangible political impact, therefore, has been to dramatically strengthen the groups that make up the AUC.

President Uribe’s supreme nod to the paramilitary interests was the passage in 2005 of the euphemistically baptized ‘Justice and Peace Law.’ Purportedly meant to ‘demobilize’ the paramilitary units of the AUC, most international observers hold to the belief that the process has done little to disband the groups, but has provided them with impunity for their crimes against the country’s brutally abused rural civilian population. Many paramilitary fighters now have taken off their blood splattered camouflage fatigues and replaced them with the antiseptic uniforms of ‘private security’ firms, but they still maintain the same contempt for the laws.

This point was made in December 2006, when representatives of Ruta Pacífica de Mujeres, (a national Colombian grassroots movement) spoke in Washington D.C. Referring to the situations in Cauca, Antioquia, and Chocó, they insisted that paramilitary structures continue to exit and exercise power. Now called ‘civilian auxiliaries,’ they may wear new uniforms, but they are still armed and unified as well as control territory, especially in Chocó, where they have set themselves up as the effective local authority. They continue to expropriate communally held land from centuries-old Afro-Colombian communities. Para land clearing and population displacement are also connected to the drug trade, the mass commercialization of African palm cultivation, cattle ranching, and to new and proposed mega-economic projects.

Finally, Colombia remains one of the most dangerous places on the planet for human rights activists, community leaders, and labor organizers. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned the killing of Yolanda Izquierdo in the city of Montería, Department of Córdoba. Izquierdo, the leader of ‘The People’s Housing Organization,’ was murdered on January 31, 2007, after receiving repeated death threats. Izquierdo had represented hundreds of survivors of paramilitary attacks led by Salvatore Mancuso. Human rights’ bodies claim that the killing was meant to silence anyone having the temerity of speaking out against war crimes committed by the paramilitaries, as well as to the assassination of rights activist Freddy Abel Espitia in Córdoba on January 29. Both organizations insist that these killings raise, yet again, serious doubts about the authenticity entire demobilization route.

In fact, Colombia’s specialists argue that Uribe’s stratagem has utterly failed to dismantle the paramilitary units. The best evidence for this claim can be found in the numbers of union leaders and activists assassinated in Colombia over the last six years, more than 800 by the government’s own count. Tellingly, the number of murders that have been solved can literally be counted on one hand. As reported by Sergio De Leon of the Associated Press, the number of murdered union members rose last year, despite a purported drop in the over all homicide rate, from 43 in 2005, to 58 in 2006.

The Unfolding Scandal

In late 2006, the deep-rooted relationship between Uribe and the paramilitary movement finally broke in the international news. What was meant to be a crowning moment in the ‘demobilization’ process- the testimony of Salvatore Mancuso (as required under the ‘Justice and Peace’ Law)-turned into a tellingly embarrassing ordeal for the Uribe administration as reams of evidence emerged that revealed close ties between paramilitary units and tainted legislators intimately associated with the president. Throughout December, investigators from the Supreme Court offered ample proof that ‘Uribista’ lawmakers helped paramilitary cadres to take over huge swaths of northern Colombia, and at the same time violently eliminate their ‘leftist’ enemies. Several congressmen were jailed, while investigations continued against other legislators, the most important being Senator Alvaro Araújo (whose sister, Maria Consuelo Araújo had served as Uribe’s foreign minister). While Senator Araújo admitted to meeting with Rodrigo Tovar, a paramilitary leader and known drug dealer, Senator Miguel de la Espriella explained how he and other elected officials met with paramilitary groups in 2001.

On December 19, 2006 Salvatore Mancuso, the nation’s highest profile paramilitary commander (since the murder of Carlos Castaño), sat before government officials in a closed proceeding to begin the demobilization process by outlining his crimes, ranging from ordering individual assassinations to the mass killing of entire communities. Over the course of several weeks, he admitted to ordering the murder of more than 300 people, though human rights advocates believe the actual number is much higher. These killings, he pointed to, were made possible by intelligence passed on by members of the military. He also alleged that his militia, and others, ordering citizens into voting for President Uribe in the 2002 election.

As the scandal rolled into February and March, foreign minister Araújo was ultimately forced to resign, while weeks later her father, Alvaro Araújo Noguera, was arrested for the kidnapping of a political rival. Then Jorge Noguera, the former head of the all-power DAS (Colombia’s omnibus administrative agency, covering internal and external security, customs, and even judicial matters), was charged with murder arising from links to the paramilitaries. These ties were outlined by Rafael García, one of Noguera’s chief subordinates, also under arrest. García laid out how his boss consistently shared classified information with paramilitary groups, and how they worked together to rig elections in favor of Uribe’s supporters in congress. In late March, news broke of payments made by senior executives of Chiquita Brands International to paramilitary groups who had fielded death squads. Finally, in April, opposition Senator Gustavo Petro came out with the explosive allegation that paramilitary death squads had used President Uribe’s own ranch as a staging area for their activities in the late 1980s, when Uribe was a Senator.

This is the man and cause who Bush and Uribe’s supporters in the Senate hope to dispatch hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funds to, and who his detractors, hope to reveal as a fraud and a mountebank when it comes to upholding democratic values.

Dr. W. JOHN GREEN is a senior research fellow at the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) and specializes in Andean affairs, particularly regarding Colombia. Dr. Green, formerly a biweekly columnist for Colombia Week, is a historian of modern Latin America and has specialized in twentieth-century socio-political popular mobilizations, mechanisms and practices of local and national politics, labor and insurgent movements, as well as the obstacles and repression they face. Dr. Green has focused in particular on questions of social justice, democracy problems of governance, grass-roots politics and popular participation in political institutions, human rights, the impact of economic development, globalization, media coverage of the region, and in finding ways to expand U.S. public interest regarding these issues. He is the author of Gaitanismo, Left Liberalism, and Popular Mobilization in Colombia (Gainesville: The University Press of Florida, 2003), a study that explores the dynamics of popular political mobilization, agency, and hegemony in Colombia from the 1920s to the 1950s.