COLOMBIA: WASHINGTON & THE PARA SCANDAL

What is Behind Bush’s Andean “Anti-Terrorist” Strategy?

by Julian Monroy, WW4 REPORT

Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe Velez—the Bush administration’s main ally in the hemispheric war on terrorism and drugs, as well as in the pursuit of free trade policies—was in Washington DC on November 13-4 to meet key legislators. His agenda was to secure continued military aid and the extension of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), which was to expire at the end of 2006.

His visit took place in the midst of a huge scandal without precedent in Colombia. On November 8, the Criminal Division of the Supreme Court of Justice ordered the capture of Senator Alvaro Garcia Romero and Representative Elkin Morris from the Colombia Democratica Party and Senator Jorge Merlano from Uribe’s Partido de la U (for “unity”). All of them are government bigwigs and close friends of the Colombian president.

In December 2005, the US ambassador in Bogotá, William Wood, voiced concerns that the paramilitaries were corrupting democracy in Colombia. His intervention drew a terse response from Uribe’s government, and the matter was dealt with in private instead. In mid-January 2006, two pro-Uribe parties banned and expelled five of their own representatives from standing for re-election in March. Congresswoman Rocio Arias claimed she had been sacked after Wood threatened to withdraw the US visa of her Colombia Democratica party’s leader—and the president’s cousin—Mario Uribe.

The legislators have been accused of the creation of paramilitary groups, crimes against humanity, selective assassinations, massacres, forced disappearances, and embezzlement to finance paramilitary activity. They are presumably among the 35% of the members of Congress in the hands of right-wing paramilitaries, according to a statement by their commanders, Salvatore Mancuso and Vicente Castaño in 2005.

Uribe began dialogues with the paramilitaries on 2002 and granted them a series of benefits including a small area ceded to their control, the so-called “zona de distension” at Santa Fe de Ralito, a small ranching outpost in Cordoba department. In late 2004, Salvatore Mancuso and some 400 were given the 142 square-mile (368 sq. km.) safe haven as a supposed first step towards “demobilization” of the major paramilitary network, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). While the AUC leaders remained in this area, they were not subject to arrest warrants. Colombian authorities and security forces could enter and leave Santa Fe de Ralito at will, but paramilitary leaders required government authorization to do so.

Then president Uribe submitted the “Justice and Peace” bill for congress to approve on June 2005. The law would give maximum sentences of no longer than eight years to ex-paras—with the 18 months they had served in Santa Fe de Ralito counting as part of the time. After four years they would be eligible for parole. This deal would cover all crimes committed by paramilitary groups, among them more than 14,200 selective assassinations of civilians, many of whom tortured and dismembered by chainsaws, et cetera.

Nor have the abuses halted. Senator Gustavo Petro estimated in October 2006 the paras have killed 3,005 and held kidnapped 250 since the “demobilization” began, and they have continued their drug business, mainly in cocaine.

The apparent infiltration of the paramilitaries in Colombia’s congress is not the first scandal. The former Attorney General (Fiscal), Luis Camilo Osorio, left his job in the end of 2005 under charges he had allowed paramilitary infiltration of the office.

A similar scandal occurred when the director of the primary government intelligence agency, the Department of Administrative Security (DAS) Jorge Noguera faced charges of collaboration with the AUC. The allegations were made by a former DAS senior official, Rafael García, whowas under investigation for laundering money and erasing the records of several people from the DAS database. According to García’s statements to prosecutors and reporters, for approximately three years the DAS worked in close collaboration with several paramilitary gangs, particularly the “Northern Bloc” led by Jorge 40. Garcia charged that the DAS provided the paramilitaries with lists of labor union leaders and academics, many of whom were subsequently threatened or killed. He also said Noguera collaborated with the paramilitaries to carry out massive electoral fraud when he was Uribe’s campaign director in Magdalena state during the 2002 presidential elections—resulting in 300,000 additional votes for Uribe. He also charged that DAS collaborated with paramilitaries in a plot to assassinate several Venezuelan leaders, including President Hugo Chavez and a prosecutor, Danilo Anderson, who was in fact killed in November 2004. Based on testimony of one of some 100 alleged Colombian paramilitaries those arrested in Caracas, Venezuelan authorities have charged Noguera with in the Anderson case.

Noguera had to resign in October 2005, but later he was awarded an appointment as Colombian consul in Milan—where he finally resigned again, in the midst of more scandals and media pressure. Uribe responded to the revelations by accusing the Colombian news media of being dishonest and malicious, and with harming Colombian democratic institutions.

The president and his family have also been unable to distance themselves from charges they helped to create paramilitary organizations in the 1990s when he was governor of Antioquia. Between 1995 and 1997, he created a new public force of citizen vigilance committees called CONVIVIR in Antioquia. Supposedly formed to defend against guerrillas, CONVIVIR was accused of killing opposition leaders, activists and human rights advocates. Unions were especially targeted at the time. In 1996, 198 unionists were killed in Antioquia. In 1997, 210 were killed. At the end of his term, Uribe declared Antioquia’s northern region of Uraba—once an area of great labor militancy by the banana workers—to be “pacified.” The “pacification” had been won by the assassination of some 3,500 over three years. Rights advocates saw in CONVIVIR an effort to legalize the paramilitaries.

The US State Department has officially designated the AUC as a “foreign terrorist organization”—meaning that the pro-Uribe legislators meeting and working together closely with the AUC violated the State Department’s policy of not negotiating with terrorist, and may also have violated US law.

Therefore, human rights groups charge, the $4 billion paid by US taxpayers under Plan Colombia have been managed by a government which is essentially in the sway of narco-terrorists.

What is the real purpose of Plan Colombia?

Since the implementation of Plan Colombia under the Clinton administration, some detractors have been saying the official purpose of the policy—to fight drugs—is just a smoke screen. They assert the real interest behind Plan Colombia is geopolitical control of a strategic and oil-rich region which is fast deviating from the US orbit.

On December 21, 2006, Ecuador’s President-elect Rafael Correa canceled his visit to Colombia at the last minute to protest Colombia’s refusal to halt US-backed aerial fumigation of coca crops along the nations’ shared border. “With much pain, we have decided to suspend the visit to Bogota,” Correa said in Caracas at a joint news conference with leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Correa had been scheduled to fly from Venezuela’s capital to Bogota the following day.

Correa, a leftist and ally of Venezuela’s anti-U.S. leader, had called for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to at least temporarily stop glyphosate spraying during the two days that he had planned to visit. Correa said Uribe should have shown “some gesture of grace” by suspending the fumigation. “Lamentably, we did not get a positive response.”

Correa contends that the fumigation is unacceptable because it kills legal crops on the Ecuadoran side of the border and has been blamed for causing health problems. His decision threatens to further strain already tense relations with the Colombian government. Both Correa and Chavez say Colombia should find another way to stamp out cocaine production. The two are united by leftist ideology and critical stances toward the US. Correa, who takes office Jan. 15, also said he planned to restructure Ecuador’s foreign debt.

Rafael Correa has also recently done what no Colombian president has dared to in the last thirty years: hold the United States accountable when it comes to the war on drugs. He did it as a consequence of a threat by the US Congress made to cut the tariff benefits extended under ATPDEA, and to limit existing access to US markets for countries that refuse to sign the Andean Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) imposed by the United States. Correa said: “The ATPDEA is not charity, it is a compensation for the countries that have demonstrated efforts in the anti-drug struggle.” He also suggested that to compensate the Ecuadoran exporters affected by this US policy, his government will re-focus “the enormous resources” of the anti-drug struggle toward them.

Therefore, it seems Bush’s original plans to expand the NAFTA model through the FTAA are at jeopardy, at least in the Andean region. This first became evident when the US president notified Congress in November 2003 of his intention to negotiate a free trade agreement with the Andean countries rather than a sweeping FTAA for all the Americas. Venezuela refuse to be part of AFTA, as has Bolivia. The latter was invited as an observer to the negotiations—before the populist Evo Morales was elected. Each country has been negotiating with United States bilaterally, not in bloc.

Peru was the first Andean nation to sign the AFTA, on April 12, 2006. This was under the outgoing administration of Alejandro Toledo, who had reason to push for a quick passage. In the coming presidential elections, the two favorites were the populist candidate Ollanta Humala—who was totally opposed to the AFTA—and former president Alan Garcia who was ambivalent on the FTA and had attacked Toledo for the way in which it was negotiated. On April 9, no single condidate obtained more than half of the total valid votes, thus leading to a nasty and tense run-off election held on June 4, which Alan Garcia finally won. After his election, he flip-flopped, endorsing the US-Peru FTA.

The leftist cocalero’s leader Evo Morales won the presidential elections in Bolivia in December 2005 with a big margin, and flatly refused to negotiate a FTA with the US. He has since been working on the nationalization of the Bolivia’s natural resources. The US Undersecretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Thomas Shannon signaled privately that while Washington might be open to “dialogue” on the issues of hydrocarbons and coca planting, the issue of free trade itself was non-negotiable.

Nearly a year later on November 26, 2006, Ecuador’s Correa won with a big difference against the eternal presidential candidate and pro-US banana tycoon Alvaro Novoa. When Correa was asked what he would do with the stagnated negotiations on the Free Trade Agreement if elected, he answered: “Al TLC lo voy a tirar al ‘tacho’ de la basura”—”I will throw the FTA to the garbage can”.

Ecuador is currently the second largest South American exporter of crude to the US. The small Andean country hosts the only US military base in South America, where 400 troops are currently stationed. Correa opposes an extension of the US lease at the air base in Manta, which serves as a staging ground for drug surveillance flights. The lease expires in 2009. “If they want,” Correa said ironically, “we won’t close the base in 2009, but the United States would have to allow us to have an Ecuadoran base in Miami in return.”

Correa denied claims by his conservative opponents that his campaign was financed by Chavez, and asserted that his friendship with the Venezuelan leader was as legitimate as President Bush’s friendship with the bin Laden family. “They have pursued the most immoral and dirty campaign against me in an effort to link me with communism, terrorism, and Chavismo,” Correa stated. “The only thing left is for them to say that bin Laden was financing me.”

Chavez and Correa certainly have a good rapport. During a stint in 2005 as finance minister under President Alfredo Palacio, Correa brokered a $300 million loan from Chavez. Reportedly, Correa pursued the loan deal behind Palacio’s back; in any event he was soon forced out of the government. He later visited Chavez’s home state of Barinas, where he met with the Venezuelan leader and spent the night with Chavez’s parents.

“It is necessary to overcome all the fallacies of neoliberalism,” Correa has stated. Echoing one of Chavez’s favorite slogans, Correa says he supports so-called “socialism for the twenty-first century.”

Meanwhile in Venezuela, on December 3, with more than 60% of the vote, Hugo Chavez was reelected: “It’s another defeat for the devil, who tries to dominate the world,” Chavez told cheering supporters, mocking George Bush, and sending a “brotherly” salute to Cuba’s President Fidel Castro.

Democrats cave in

The battle over AFTA may follow the pattern already set by the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). On July 27, 2005, DR-CAFTA passed in the US Congress, 217-215. The vote took place at midnight when Bush and Dick Cheney showed up to persuade some hesitant Republicans like Robert Hayes from North Carolina, who was facing outsourcing of jobs from his district’s traditional textile industry. Bush succeeded in convincing Hayes and other recalcitrants with promised concessions.

Weeks before the vote the media and insiders predicted DR-CAFTA was going to be defeated. Republicans and Democrats alike made public statements expressing their opposition, but they flipped at the last minute vote. Public Citizen, the watchdog group, found thate these flip-flop representatives were under a very strong lobby by the corporations with interests in DR-CAFTA.

Returning to the AFTA: Uribe came to Washington for a second time in the same month, on November 22, 2006 to sign the US-Colombia FTA. Now, both the Peru and Colombia free trade agreements await a ratification vote by the US Congress.

During the AFTA negotiations, large blocs in Congress repeatedly issued demands to Bush administration and tits Trade Representative Robert Portman to add labor and environmental standards to treaty, with the same enforcement measures as those for commercial terms. They also demanded the removal of “data exclusivity” patent terms that drive up medicine prices; elimination of new foreign investor rights at US port operations; adding safeguards for prevailing wage laws and anti-sweatshop policies; reviewing the mandatory service privatization and deregulation rules affecting water, social security and other sensitive sectors; and rewriting farm rules predicted to displace millions of peasant farmers.

Two days before Uribe signed the treaty, Democratic Ways and Means committee members wrote the White House with a last letter warning that the Colombia FTA would only create unnecessary difficulties, given that aspects of both the Colombia and Peru FTAs must be renegotiated to garner the support necessary for approval. The emerging scandal revealed those days in the Washington Post regarding extensive links between civilian massacres by terrorist paramilitary groups and Colombian President Uribe’s ruling party should have provided another reason for President Bush to pause before signing the controversial pact with Uribe.

Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a right-wing Washington think-tank, told The Economist the Democrats are unlikely to halt the $600 or so of mainly military aid that Colombia gets each year since they will not want to be seen soft on either drugs and terror ahead of the 2008 presidential campaign.

In 2007 we will see if there is any real difference between Democrats and Republicans regarding the War on Drugs and Free Trade Agreements in Latin America.

SOURCES:

“Paramilitaries Trade Guns for Politics”
Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 7, 2005
http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0907/p07s02-woam.html?s=widep

“Rightist Militias are a Force in Colombia’s Congress”
New York Times, Nov. 10, 2004
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/10/international/americas/10colombia.html

“Petro: Colombian Paramilitaries Reviving”
Associated Press, Oct, 19, 2006
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/19/AR…

“Colombia: Drug Lords Join Paramilitaries to Seek Leniency”
New York Times, Nov. 27, 2004
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/27/international/americas/27colombia.html?ex=1259
211600&en=74cb028b9e563fa5&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland

“Uribe Must End Attacks on Media”
Human Rights Watch, April 17, 2006
http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/04/17/colomb13196.htm

“El Computador de ‘Jorge 40′”
Semana, Bogota, March 12, 2006
http://www.semana.com/wf_InfoArticulo.aspx?idArt=96785

“Donde estaba el fiscal Osorio?”
Semana, Bogota, Nov. 19, 2006
http://www.semana.com/wf_InfoArticulo.aspx?idArt=98273

“Cuando renunciara?
El consulado de Jorge Noguera en Milan es insostenible”
Semana, Bogota, April 16, 2006
http://www.semana.com/wf_InfoArticulo.aspx?idArt=93806

“El salario de la ambicion” (on Rafael Correa)
Semana, Bogota, Dec. 17, 2006
http://www.semana.com/wf_InfoArticulo.aspx?IdArt=100114

“The Rise of Rafael Correa: Ecuador and the Contradictions of Chavismo”
by Nikolas Kozloff
Counterpunch via ZNet Nov. 29, 2006
http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=11502

“Correa: No aceptamos amenazas por el TLC”
El Universal, Guayaquil, Dec. 7, 2006
http://www.eluniverso.com/2006/12/07/0001/9/C…14363072D1.asp

“New Day for Bolivia”
by Tom Hayden
The Nation, Jan. 27, 2006
http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060213/hayden

“Chavez wins Venezuela re-election”
BBC News, Dec 4, 2006
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6205128.stm

“Snubs and Opportunities:
The new United States Congress seems poised to strike a blow for Hugo
Chavez by killing trade deals in Latin America”
The Economist, Nov. 23, 2006
http://www.economist.com/world/la/displaystory.cfm?story_id=8322866

“Dangerous CAFTA Liaisons”
Public Citizen, February 2006

See also:

“VENEZUELA: MURDER CASE LEADS TO MIAMI?”
from Weekly News Update on the Americas
WW4 REPORT #105, Dec. 10, 2004
/andes/venezuela/miami

“CENTRAL AMERICA: CAFTA PASSES, STATE TERROR RESURGENT”
from Weekly News Update on the Americas
WW4 REPORT #112, August 2005
/node/856

From our weblog:

“Colombia: para leader testifies at tribunal; dialogue stalled”
WW4 REPORT, Dec. 21, 2006
/node/2932

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