Colombia : Official Corruption and Mr. Big

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe.

A history of official corruption:
Colombia and the Uribe family

By Marion Delgado / The Rag Blog / December 16, 2009

See ‘A Stroll down Paramilitary Lane,’ below.

…the sheer number of cases, their geographic spread, and the diversity of military units implicated, indicate that these killings were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the [Colombian] military… [Whose] cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit, stand out as one of the most serious abusive practices by state agents we have documented in Latin America in recent years.” — UN Special Rapporteur.

Cocaine smugglers have infiltrated senior levels of the Colombian army… While other cases of infiltration have been discovered in the past, officials suggested that those cases often were not investigated properly.” — Juan Santos, Minister ofDefense

CARTAGENA DE INDIES, Colombia — Cocaine, corruption, mass murder, right-wing gangs operating with impunity, chainsaw massacres, not just once in a while, but wholesale violations of the Colombian people by well-armed and funded criminals have occurred by the hundreds and thousands for years and years, right up to this very moment.

On March 1, 2008, Colombian armed forces crossed into Ecuador to kill 24 leftist Colombian guerrillas, including a senior commander, Raul Reyes, aka “Sure Shot.” The attack touched off a confrontation pitting Colombia against Ecuador and Venezuela, the latter condemning the violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty and noting that Reyes was a key figure in negotiations over prisoner releases and a possible reduction in political tensions.

Under George W. Bush, the U.S. defended Colombia’s right to attack “terrorists” even if it required crossing a border, a position echoed by last year’s presidential candidates, and this year’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. President Barack Obama.

Despite the corruption disclosures — and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s failure to stem Colombian cocaine smuggling to the United States — the Bush administration showered Uribe’s government with trade incentives and billions of dollars in military and development aid.

Obama continues this trend, with more billions of your dollars, first with a military pact to create seven new U.S. military bases, and very soon a new free trade agreement that will send more American jobs to South America, if there are any jobs left to send.

Ironically, the latest evidence against Uribe’s government emerged from a U.S.-backed peace process that offered leniency to right-wing paramilitary death squads and their financial backers in exchange for giving up their guns and disclosing past crimes.

The right-wing paramilitaries and their cocaine-trafficking benefactors testified that elements of the Colombian government collaborated in a decade-long scorched-earth campaign, killing almost 10,000 civilians under the guise of dislodging the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo, (FARC or FARC-EP; Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – Peoples Army), a leftist guerrilla army.

How deeply is the government involved? Let’s look at who the government is and how he got there. It was all prearranged in 2001, according to paramilitary and drug lord accounts. If Uribe won the presidency, paramilitary leaders would be offered generous sentence reductions and could serve their time outside prison walls if they demobilized and confessed. Go and sin no more; chu hoi; Allie, Allie infree.

The Uribe family

Recent disclosures of official corruption have brought back to public attention the Uribe family’s long history of ties to drug lords and paramilitaries. Colombia’s Supreme Court said in July it was investigating Senator Mario Uribe, the president’s cousin and his point man in the Congress, for alleged links to the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, (AUC; United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia). Several paramilitary leaders have said Mario Uribe was their ally and an intermediary with the government. He has denied any wrongdoing.

The purported family link to drug lords dates back several decades. As a young man and an aspiring politician, Álvaro Uribe lost his position as mayor of Medellín — after only five months on the job — because the country’s then-president, Belisario Betancur, ousted him over his family’s suspected connections to traffickers, according to media reports at the time. Betancur’s daughter was running for President when she was kidnapped by the FARC; she was rescued in 2008 after several years in captivity.

The president’s father, Alberto Uribe, a wealthy landowner, reportedly was a close associate of the Medellín cartel and its kingpins Pablo Escobar and the Ochoa brothers were his personal friends. Besides the three Ochoas and Pablito, another elite member of the Medellin cartel, Carlos Lederer, was sentenced to hundreds of years in a U.S. federal prison and admitted to dozens of murders. He was released after testilying against Manuel Noriega and now resides in England where he is the owner of… wait for it… wait… an insurance company.

In 1983 El Presidente’s father, reportedly wanted by the U.S. government for drug trafficking, was killed in a kidnapping attempt by FARC. According to media accounts, his body was airlifted back to his family by one of Pablo Escobar’s helicopters.

In the early 1990s, Álvaro Uribe’s brother, Santiago, was investigated for allegedly organizing and leading a paramilitary outfit headquartered at the Uribe family hacienda. He was never charged, due to a lack of evidence. Santiago was photographed alongside Fabio Ochoa Vasco at a party even after the government declared Ochoa one of the most notorious traffickers of the Medellín cartel. This happened during Álvaro Uribe’s eight years in the Senate, where he opposed extradition of drug suspects. His critics accused him of working for the Medellín drug lords; can you imagine?

The relationship between right-wing narco-financed paramilitaries and the Colombian government has been long and complex, with alliances shifting by the self-interest of the moment.

Alienation from Washington widened in 1994, and the flood of U.S. dollars slowed temporarily, when President Ernesto Samper came to power amid disclosures that his campaign had received generous donations from cartels. The Colombian Army (COLAR) lost ground against the FARC and coca growers. In turn, the Samper government pushed what was known as the Convivir project. It armed, trained and organized local defense cooperatives to provide “special private security and vigilance services” alongside the military, another cover for right-wing paramilitary forces.

The rise of Uribe

Álvaro Uribe’s political rise was tied to the success of Convivir. In 1995, Uribe became the governor of Antioquia, a northwestern Departmento with Medellín as the capital.

He became the country’s most vocal supporter of the defense cooperatives, authorizing almost 20 run by paramilitary leaders including AUC’s then-top commander, Salvatore Mancuso.

Carlos Castaño, originator of AUC’s predecessor, the United Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU), has been quoted as saying Uribe was the presidential candidate of AUC’s social support base. “Deep down, he’s the closest man to our philosophy,” Castaño said, adding that Uribe’s support for Convivir was based on the same principle that gave rise to paramilitarism in Colombia, the right to self-defense against “guerrillas.”

Confronted with accusations of complicity between Convivir and drug-connected paramilitaries, Uribe said that at the time, nobody knew who the right-wing leaders and coke traffickers were.

After an international outcry, however, the government phased out Convivir. When it was outlawed in 1998, over 200 defense cooperatives, consisting of thousands of men, defied the order to demobilize and joined Castaño’s revived paramilitary alliance, now AUC.

While running for the presidency in 2002, Uribe cited the perceived success of the Convivir program in damaging FARC’s infrastructure in Antioquia as a key reason why Colombians should vote for him. Despite the drug suspicions — and the links to paramilitary death squads — Uribe benefited from public disenchantment with a sputtering peace process that had failed to end the civil war and emerged as the winner with 53% of the vote.

After his election, several drug barons claimed they had financed his campaign. Indicted drug trafficker Fabio Ochoa Vasco said he contributed $150,000 of his own money at AUC’s request.

Ochoa also said he witnessed a conversation between AUC’s leaders and supposed representatives of Uribe’s campaign before the election. “They talked about the peace process,” Fabio Ochoa stated. “They said anyone with problems with the U.S. could get involved. In another meeting, there were businessmen, landowners, and drug traffickers who [the AUC] thought could also be included, so they told them to get ready for the peace process.”

All the paramilitary leaders who negotiated peace agreements “know the truth. They know that to be there, they invested more than 10 million dollars [in the political process, including Uribe’s campaign],” he added.

Government negotiations with the AUC began four months after Uribe took office. Castaño repositioned himself as an opponent of the drug corruption that, by then, clearly pervaded the organization. He resigned as AUC’s military leader. In April, 2004, Castaño was ambushed by 20 elite paramilitaries on orders from AUC’s top leaders. He was shot almost two dozen times in the face, chopped into pieces, and burned.

Presidents Uribe and Bush: Partners in crime?

Uribe-Bush alliance

Among opinion makers of Washington, there has been almost no criticism of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, although his inner circle has long been linked to both right-wing terrorism and cocaine trafficking.

Uribe lined up solidly behind George W. Bush, the only South American leader to endorse the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Uribe in turn sought more U.S. military aid, defining civil war against the leftist FARC as part of the “global war on terror.”

The backbone of U.S. policy in Colombia during the Bush years was Plan Colombia, a mostly military aid program to fight both drug production and irregular armies, most notably the FARC and AUC. Since 2001, Washington has sent over $5 billion to Bogotá.

Nonetheless, Plan Colombia put little dent in cocaine production. The coca acreage in 2006 was slightly up from 2001, after some reductions in 2003 and 2004.

But Uribe’s success in curbing political violence boosted his popularity at home. He vigorously pressed the war against the FARC, forcing the guerrillas into tactical retreat. Overall, Uribe reduced murders, kidnappings and massacres by about one-third.

The Uribe-controlled Congress also passed the Justice and Peace Law, launching a peace process with the right-wing paramilitaries that demobilized 30,000 men and women. The law was written by Sen. Mario Uribe, the cousin now being investigated for his AUC ties. Even the Bush administration criticized its terms for amnesty as overly lenient.

Popularity soaring, Uribe got congressional allies to change the Constitution to permit a second presidential term. He was swept to reelection in 2006, with 62% of the vote.

He is trying to change the Constitution again, to allow himself an unprecedented third term in 2010. Not a peep is heard from the Washington administration or the U.S Congress that went berserk with shouts of “Dictator!” when the same thing was done by President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

Still, accusations of corruption and unpunished human rights violations, dog Uribe. Several investigations, especially those led by Colombia’s Supreme Court, have amassed evidence against former and current government officials and prominent members of the country’s elite. Those allegedly working for drug cartels include dozens of current and former members of Congress; high-ranking military officers, including the current chief of staff; entire army battalions; prominent businessmen; and some of Uribe’s closest allies, including the father and brother of Colombia’s former Foreign Minister, Maria Consuelo Araújo.

In December 2006, embarrassed by ongoing criminality in the AUC’s Santa Fe Ralito safe haven, the government put some paramilitary leaders in prison. There, they continued to live the high life and to keep on top of their criminal operations. The local press published last May transcripts of police wiretaps revealing AUC leaders ordering killings and directing drug trafficking from prison, while enjoying dance parties, sex orgies, and alcohol. They hosted “Mexican friends” and had unrestricted access to cell phones and the Internet.

Infuriated by the wiretap disclosures, Uribe fired the top 12 police generals, but said little about evidence of AUC criminality beyond promising yet another investigation.

AUC leaders then threatened to break off the peace process, accusing the government of changing the terms. They felt betrayed, they said, and threatened to incriminate all their elite allies, including politicians, businessmen, and multinationals. Talks finally did break off in July, 2009, leaving some of AUC’s regional blocs (see sidebar below) intact and others free to reorganize.

Regional trouble

The Organization of American States, which has overseen the peace process with the AUC, has been critical of the results. The OAS warns that paramilitaries are rearming and reorganizing under different names, with stronger ties to drug traffickers, led by some of the same leaders who supposedly have surrendered.

Despite Colombia’s corruption, its shaky internal peace process, and ineffective anti-drug program, Bush unstintingly supported Uribe. Calling Uribe a true democrat and strong leader, Dubya visited Colombia twice — once in 2008 — and met with Uribe several times in Washington. “I’m proud to call [Uribe] a friend and strategic ally,” Bush said, during one of Uribe’s visits. In Bogotá, he said: “I appreciate the [Colombian] president’s determination to bring human rights violators to justice… I believe that, given a fair chance, President Uribe can make the case.”

While not as publicly vocal as Bush about Uribe, Obama has continued U.S. financial and military support of the Colombian President.

Bush asked the U.S. Congress to increase financial support for Plan Colombia, but Democrats cut military aid from 80% to 65% of the total allocation, while increasing economic and humanitarian aid. Moreover, the Democrats attached strict conditions on the total $530 million increase. Democrats also more recently conditioned ratification of a free-trade agreement with Colombia on Uribe improving his human rights record and prosecuting paramilitary leaders.

In South America, Uribe has slowly backed himself into a corner by siding with the U.S. While most South American countries have grown more critical of U.S. foreign policy and the “Free Trade Agreement of the Americas,” Colombia staunchly supports the yanquis.

Brazil and Ecuador have closer relations with Venezuela, as do most countries in the region, in stark contrast to the situation a decade ago. Colombia has been left out of South America’s MERCOSUR regional trade union, including a meeting held just this last week. Venezuela was admitted in 2008.

Uribe also has lost some regional backing in his fight against FARC. Ecuador has resisted labeling the FARC a terrorist organization, but criticized Plan Colombia, and sought reparations for collateral damage inflicted by Colombian forces on Ecuador’s border population.

Meanwhile, the drug and corruption scandal keeps growing. Though Uribe has denied most of the accusations, drug lord Fabio Ochoa Vasco said he is willing to negotiate his surrender to the DEA along with proof to support his charges. Fabio did surrender, and it’s widely believed he gave information, because he received a mere five year jail sentence.

Fabio also said some previously defiant AUC leaders and drug traffickers are now willing to surrender to U.S. law-enforcement agencies to avoid being murdered in Colombia, as powerful forces seek desperately to silence them and end the “Para-scandal.”

Whatever is ultimately proven the outpouring of evidence linking Uribe to Colombia’s vast cocaine industry and long history of political murders is bad news for President Obama, if he counts on Uribe to be a model for South America’s future and a bulwark against Chavez and his crazy social programs for the poor.

Right now, Uribe is Colombia’s “Mr. Big,” the man in whom all the monied interests find their best bet. But behind Mr. Big is his northern ally, the much-heralded “change” of U.S. presidents has not changed a damn thing about who is pulling the puppet strings.

This, then, is the Colombian government, and the Colombian military that our servicemen are meeting right now, these are the people they will be working with and fighting for, and this is what the Colombia you are sending your tax dollars to by the billions looks like.

For more about why, look for the next installment of “Build-up in Colombia” in the Rag Blog!

Así es en Colombia.

United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC), detail from the Afro-Colombian mural on U Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Image from Ronnie R / Flickr.

A Stroll down Paramilitary Lane

This week, instead of a visit to one of our new U.S. military bases, let’s saunter through the AUC (United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia), bloc by bloc. Amid peace talks with Álvaro Uribe’s government, which began in December 2002, the AUC agreed to a process of bloc-by-bloc demobilization, to culminate in August 2006. While many of the “paracos” claim to have demobilized, along with non-AUC units, each formerly included thousands of foot soldiers and commanded huge sums from narcotraffickers and landowners seeking protection.

Not all Colombian paramilitary blocs demobilized or even participated in the peace talks. In the Meta Department, for example, groups reorganized under mid-level commanders continue to battle over drug trafficking lanes, under the influence of leaders like Vicente Castaño and Hernán Hernandez.

There is certainly no shortage of paramilitaries today. In some areas, new groups step into the void. In urban barrios, paramilitaries made up of “former gangsters,” such as the “Guapo Rincon,” say they are keeping out mal elementos. The AUC name is unlikely to be used again.

The Northern Bloc

Run by AUC military leader Salvatore Mancuso, the Northern Bloc incorporated Fidel and Carlos Castaño’s original ACCU, controlling municipalities from the Panamanian border to the Venezuelan. Authorities believe Mancuso’s deputy on the Caribbean coast, Rodrigo Továr “Jorge 40” Pupo, controlled Colombia’s Caribbean drug routes. Vicente Castaño, Carlos’ and Fidel’s brother, is a third powerful player, widely thought to have played a role in Carlos’ death. The Northern Bloc demobilized in March of 2006. Vicente Castaño is a fugitive from justice.

The “Élmer Cárdenas Bloc”

Led by José Alfredo “El Aleman” Berrío, the Elmer Cárdenas Bloc was originally part of the ACCU that, through brutality and massacres, controlled the strategic Urabá region near the Colombian-Panamanian border in the 1990s. Substantial evidence suggests that Berrío and the Élmer Cárdenas Bloc are very big in coke. This bloc barely participated in peace talks and was one of the last to claim to demobilize.

The Catatumbo Bloc

This unit, an offshoot of the Northern Bloc, operated in the conflicted, drug-producing region of Catatumbo, in Norte de Santander department, near the Venezuelan border. It was commanded by Salvatore Mancuso (at one point AUC’s military commander, see article above), who dominated paramilitary activity in Departmento Córdoba and elsewhere in northwestern Colombia. It demobilized in late 2004.

The Magdalena Medio Bloc

Led by Ramón “El Viejo” Isaza on the west side of the Magdalena River, one of the most veteran paramilitaries, and Victor Triana “Botalón” Arias on the east side, the Magdalena Medio Bloc demobilized in Feb., 2006.

The Central Bolivar Bloc

Deeply involved in the drug trade the BCB rivaled (and perhaps exceeded) the Northern Bloc in size and wealth. Led by Ivan Roberto “Ernesto Baez” Duque and Carlos Mario “Macaco” Jimenez, the BCB controlled much of the greater Magdalena Medio region and significant southern Colombia’s coca-growing regions. The BCB, along with the Northern Bloc, was one of the first to enter negotiations with the government. It officially demobilized in Jan., 2006.

The Mineros Bloc

Though it controlled only a small area in northeast Antioquia, the Mineros Bloc was quite wealthy, largely from narcotrafficking. Led by Ramiro “Cuco” Vanoy, wanted by the U.S. for his participation in the North Valle drug cartel, the Mineros Bloc demobilized in Jan., 2006.

The Calima Bloc

Working in and around Cali and down the Pacific coast to northern Cauca, and led by Hernán Hernandez, this bloc formed in 1999 after the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional, (ELN; the National Liberation Army, another guerrilla force) pulled a kidnapping at a church in a wealthy Cali neighborhood. Heavily dependent on drug traffickers’ support, they demobilized in Dec., 2004.

The Avengers of Arauca Bloc

Commanded, at least on paper, by Pablo “El Mellizo” Mejia, a Northern Valle cartel figure wanted by the U.S., the Avengers operated in an oil-producing region that has been a principal destination of your military assistance. It demobilized in Dec., 2005.

The Libertadores del Sur Bloc

This outfit operated in the coca-growing zones of Nariño and Putumayo, led by Guillermo Perez “Pablo Sevillano” Alzate, a noted narcotrafficker wanted by U.S. authorities. They demobilized in July, 2005.

The Centauros Bloc

In oil-rich Casanare, Meta, Cundinamarca, and in Bogotá’s slums, this bloc really started disintegrating when its leader, Miguel Arroyave, died at the hands of his own men in Sept., 2004. The Centauros fought a bloody campaign against the Llanos Bloc in Casanare. They demobilized in Sept., 2005.

The Llanos Bloc

Headed by “Martin Llanos” in Casanare, this bloc has been decimated by repeated attacks from the rest of the AUC (especially the Centauros) and COLAR. However, it never participated in peace talks, and remnants still operate.

— Marion Delgado

  • For previous reports from Colombia by Marion Delgado, go here.

.The Rag Blog

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3 Responses to Colombia : Official Corruption and Mr. Big

  1. Tom BUrke says:

    Thank you for this article. I have never been able to find confirmation that Uribe’s father was kidnapped nor killed by the FARC? The FARC-EP makes no such claim. It seems like part of the convenient story told by US and Colombian intelligence services to white wash Uribe’s image and justify his war against the Colombian people. I think it more likely the senior Uribe was murdered by narco-traffickers unhappy with his unfair land dealings.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the article, this was very informative.

    I’d really like it if you expanded it with more on the Raul Reyes attack (this occured only a few days after a unilateral prisoner release you know) and the Betacourt rescue. I’m especially interested in how the military says they dressed their soldiers us as international aid workers (they used Colomiban soldiers who’s parents were born overseas i read) and claimed that these workers were merely transporting the hostages from one camp to another, this seems to play into the Colombian claim that international human rights workers are in cahoots with the FARC. It’s more believable they duped some FARC soldiers into a prisoner RELEASE, because they copied the modus operandi of the Feb 2008 hostage release. Unreleased footage shows the soldiers wearing Red Cross bibs, and banners on the side of the helicopter were burnt after the raid. In feb 2008, the Red Cross picked up the released prisoners. Perhaps Colombian authorities don’t want this to become widely known, because nobody would believe the Red Cross would be involved in helping a group labelled Terrorists in the US and EU

  3. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been searching for information about Carlos Lederer. It’s quite amazing that apart from a few comments here and there his name is basically absent from the internet; there isn’t even a Wikipedia page for him, which is extraordinary considering his prominence before the appearance of Pablo Escobar on the scene in Medellin. Apart from a comment here stating that he was released from a US jail and is now living in England and has an insurance business (uh???), I can find no information at all.
    Anyone here got any clues?

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