Latin America: Colombian President Forced to Probe Paramilitary Influence-Buying 1/20/06

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https://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle-old/419/uribeprobe.shtml

In the wake of widely publicized allegations that drug-running rightist paramilitary groups are using their cocaine profits to buy their way into Colombia's political system, President Alvaro Uribe has ordered an investigation into the campaign finances of two senators who are Uribe allies. Uribe was forced to act after the two senators, Miguel de La Espriella and Juan Manuel Lopez, nearly came to blows over the issue during a meeting with Uribe January 3 -- a dust-up that ended up gracing the pages of the country's most important newspaper, El Tiempo, last week.

"Democratic legitimacy and institutional credibility must be fundamental to the transparency of the elections," said a statement posted on the presidential web site.

Uribe, who is seeking reelection to a second four-year term in May, has long been accused of going easy on the rightist militias, which have been linked to numerous atrocities since their formation two decades ago in the midst of an ongoing civil war between the Colombian state and leftist guerrilla formations of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). In a controversial deal with the Uribe government, about half of the 20,000 paras have turned in their weapons in return for protection from serious punishment for crime including mass murder, kidnapping, and drug trafficking.

Evidence has been mounting for months that the demobilized paras are using the amnesty to plow their drug profits into the political system in an effort to retain influence while continuing to operate drug production and smuggling rings. On Wednesday, Colombian anti-narcotics police announced they had raided and destroyed eight cocaine labs run by the paramilitary United Self-Defenses Forces in Santander province.

"Most paramilitary power is still intact and it is logical to think they will gain power as they go from being a military force to a political and economic force linked to the cocaine trade and other criminal enterprises," German Espejo, analyst at Bogota think tank Seguridad & Democracia told Reuters this week.

"The government should long ago have started encouraging investigations of paramilitary political and financial networks," Maria McFarland, a lawyer for New York-based Human Rights Watch told the news agency.

While Uribe may use the investigation to polish his anti-crime credentials, analysts said public pressure forced his hand. "Once the incident became public Uribe needed to take this step in order to combat charges that he and his allies are linked with the paramilitaries," said Mauricio Romero, political analyst at Bogota's Rosario University. Still, Uribe's ploy may serve a larger good, he said. "The motive for the investigation is political but it could be very positive in that it could finally legally prove the influential role that the paras are playing," he told Reuters.

The paramilitaries originally emerged as militias to defend wealthy landowners from leftist rebels, but they now have their own interests to protect. With various paramilitary leaders indicted in the US for drug trafficking offenses, they seek power in the Colombian congress to block relentless US demands that they be extradited. The nature of the punishments they will endure for their atrocities as armed combatants will also continue to be a contentious issue in the country that suffered their depradations.

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Issue #419 -- 1/20/06

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