COLOMBIA: Moving Towards a Paramilitary State?

  • Analysis by Javier Darío Restrepo (bogota)
  • Inter Press Service

He was referring to 'article four, which allows paramilitary chiefs to run for popularly elected posts, to enter into contracts with the state, and to become public employees. They are trying to turn what was knocked down by the Constitutional Court and the Justice and Peace Law into something that is consecrated by the constitution,' said Gaviria, the head of the opposition Liberal Party.

Although article four ended up being removed from the draft political reform law, partly due to the public outcry, the controversy to which it gave rise revived the uneasy sensation that the construction of a paramilitary state in Colombia has been moving forward, step by step.

The article in question was not the first time that Colombia’s far-right paramilitary groups have figured in a privileged position in initiatives put forward by the Colombian government. Shortly after he began his first term, in 2002, rightwing President Álvaro Uribe proposed that Congress issue a general pardon for paramilitaries and allow them to have direct parliamentary representation.

In his second term, which began in 2006, just after the outbreak of the scandal over politicians who benefited at the polls thanks to pressure on voters by the paramilitaries – locally dubbed the 'parapoliticans' – the president has promoted measures aimed at securing the release of the numerous members of Congress in prison on charges of having ties to the paramilitary groups.

In a report titled 'A las puertas del Ubérrimo' (At the Gates of Ubérrimo – the name of the Uribe family ranch), prominent human rights defenders Iván Cepeda and Jorge Rojas pointed to much earlier signs of the president’s tendency to favour the paramilitaries.

For instance, as governor of the northern province of Antioquia, Uribe granted a permit to the private security cooperative Convivir Horizonte, at the request of paramilitary chief Salvatore Mancuso in 1996, 'after they had already committed 10 massacres,' say the authors of the report.

That same year, the then governor justified providing long-range weapons to the Convivir, which were paramilitary groups set up by large landowners to protect their land and livestock, as well as their lives, which were threatened by guerrillas that were harassing rural estates in Antioquia and neighbouring Córdoba.

While Uribe governed Antioquia, from 1995 to 1997, the mutual admiration between the governor and the leaders of these groups was clearly evident. According to Uribe, they were 'a transparent model' and 'a support group for the military forces.'

For his part, Cepeda and Rojas wrote, 'Mancuso did not conceal his admiration. ‘Uribe has maintained a firm stance,’ he said. And Carlos Castaño (another paramilitary leader) said Uribe ‘is the man closest to our philosophy’.'

These close ties were put on open public display on three occasions, which have taken on special relevance today.

The first was the homage paid to General Rito Alejo del Río, known as the 'pacifier of Urabá,' who is now facing charges for ties to paramilitary groups in that northwestern Colombian region. At the ceremony in Bogotá, Uribe was the keynote speaker.

He was also the chief speaker at a ceremony organised by ranchers in Córdoba in honour of the leader of their association, Rodrigo García Caicedo, known as part of the inner circle of the Castaño brothers and as an advocate of the doctrine of the self-defence groups.

The celebration of the 10th anniversary of the El Meridiano newspaper in Córdoba provided another clear sign of that close relationship. The paper’s owners are on the list of those who finance the paramilitary Self-Defence Forces of Córdoba, as shown by documents in the hands of the Attorney General’s Office. Uribe’s presence and participation in the event were broadly covered and highlighted in the pages of the newspaper.

An incident that was an embarrassment to Uribe, because of the then governor’s proximity to the paramilitaries, was the 1998 murder of lawyer Jesús María Valle. A few days before the prominent lawyer was killed, the governor had publicly referred to him as an 'enemy of the armed forces.'

As president of the Antioquia branch of the Permanent Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, Valle had denounced an alliance between the paramilitaries and the army in the killings of 19 people in the municipality of Ituango in 1996 and 1997. The link between Uribe’s public berating of Valle and his murder, pointed to by the El Colombiano newspaper, prompted a heated exchange of letters between Uribe and the paper.

At the end of his term as governor and the start of his campaign for the presidency, Uribe named General del Río, who is now under arrest, as his security adviser; made Roger Taboada, who currently faces an arrest warrant, as his campaign treasurer in Córdoba; and included José María Maroso, presently accused by the Attorney General’s Office of financing the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), as a member of his campaign staff.

Twenty of the friends involved in Uribe’s campaign turned out to have signed the so-called Ralito pact, a paramilitary initiative, and today are accused of forming part of an alliance with the extreme-right groups, many of which were closely associated with drug trafficking.

The secret Ralito pact was signed in 2001 by paramilitary chiefs and more than 50 politicians with the stated aim of 'refounding the country.'

As Interior Minister Fabio Valencia Cossio defended controversial article four of the draft political reform law, this history of alliances and close ties with the paramilitaries appeared to be an explanation of the latest attempt at favouring the far-right groups.

The incidents from the past are further underscored by the revealing numbers provided by the Supreme Court and the Attorney General’s Office. Of the more than 80 legislators under arrest or investigation in connection with the 'parapolitics' scandal, 60 – in other words, 75 percent – belong to the governing coalition. If article four of the draft law had been approved, they would have been the first to benefit.

Pragmatic political arguments were set forth to justify the attempt to benefit them, in order to keep their seats from being left empty.

According to commentator Rodolfo Arango, based on official data, 'a total of 2,324,751 votes' for pro-Uribe candidates were compromised by the parapolitics scandal.

What would appear to really matter then is to preserve a decisive number of votes, to maintain the pro-Uribe majority in Congress.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service