Court tell-alls tie the elite to Colombia's paramilitary killings

As the razor-wired gates slid open, an armored SUV escorted by police sharpshooters on motorcycles roared out of the prison yard.

The motorcade is part of the morning routine at this mountainside penitentiary. One by one, jailed leaders of Colombia's paramilitary death squads are whisked off to court to confess their crimes.

Their testimony has confirmed what many have suspected all along: that the cream of Colombian society -- senators, business leaders, army generals -- promoted and financed the paramilitaries, who committed hundreds of massacres during their 20-year dirty war against Marxist guerrillas and became major cocaine traffickers in the process. More revelations about the links between the outlawed gunmen and the country's elite are expected in the coming weeks.

"Do you think an irregular force of 17,000 fighters armed to the teeth could move throughout the country without anybody knowing? Without anybody collaborating?" paramilitary leader Ivan Duque asked in a jailhouse interview.

"That's why I call this a country of hypocrisies," he said, "a society of lies."

The most damaging allegations were leveled last week by Salvatore Mancuso, the commander-in-chief of the now-demobilized paramilitary army, during three days of testimony that shook the government of President Alvaro Uribe, the Bush administration's closest ally in Latin America.

Mancuso accused small-town mayors, big-time congress members and Uribe's vice president and defense minister of collaborating with the gunmen.

He described active-duty police officers piloting paramilitary helicopters packed with cocaine. He said businesses ranging from Colombia's state-run oil company to U.S. banana exporters regularly paid the paramilitaries for protection from the guerrillas.

What's more, Mancuso laid much of the blame for the outlawed militias' expansion at the Colombian government's feet.

His accusations will be investigated by Colombian authorities, but political analysts say many seem accurate.

In March, Chiquita Brands International pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to paying $1.7 million to the paramilitaries. Thirteen Colombian congressmen -- 12 of whom are political allies of Uribe -- have been jailed on charges of collaborating with the militias, and dozens of current and former government officials are under investigation.

"The government always said that we were making these things up," said Omaira Gomez of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, a human rights group that has long accused government officials of links with the paramilitaries. "What Mancuso did was to confirm what we've been saying for the past 10 years."

Daniel Garcia-Peña, a former government peace commissioner, noted that the paramilitaries have a strong incentive to tell the truth, because, if they lie under oath, they stand to lose benefits like reduced prison sentences of between five and eight years.

"The fact that their judicial futures are at stake gives a lot of credibility to what they are saying," he said.

President Uribe, who has not been directly linked to any wrongdoing, remains wildly popular here. But the scandal has tarnished his reputation among Democratic leaders of the U.S. Congress and hurt chances for congressional approval of a trade deal between the two countries.

In a defiant speech Friday, Uribe blasted the U.S. Congress for portraying his government as a pariah. "This is unacceptable," he said.

The paramilitaries were formed by landowners and drug dealers in the 1980s to fight Marxist guerrillas who carried out widespread killings and kidnappings at a time when the army was undermanned and outgunned. Some paramilitary operations were coordinated with the government troops, many of whom viewed the gunmen as allies.

But as they pacified regions of Colombia, paramilitaries began smuggling drugs, extorting and manipulating politics.

Most of the paramilitaries have disarmed under a government-sponsored peace deal. In the process, new documents and testimony have revealed the extent of official support for the death squads.

One of the jailed warlords who has testified to court officials is Duque, a pugnacious 50-year-old former teacher and mayor who became a top political leader for the paramilitaries. He now lives at the Itagui prison, a gray, cinderblock complex built on the green hills outside the city of Medellin.

Duque spends his days in a small cell surrounded by books, writing his memoirs on a computer. He has access to e-mail and cell phones -- now a bone of contention after recordings of calls made by several paramilitaries at the prison revealed that they were still running drugs and ordering killings.

As guards listened in and women were fingerprinted before conjugal visits with inmates, Duque spoke for hours about the cordial ties between the paramilitaries and Colombian powerbrokers. He scoffed at the way many are now denying having anything to do with the militias.

"When the guerrillas were expelled from these zones, it provoked relief among landowners and big business and happiness among the politicians," said Duque, who like other prisoners wore civilian clothes: jeans, sneakers and a red-and-blue baseball cap.

Referring to protection payments that he said the paramilitaries collected from all business owners in areas they controlled, he added: "They preferred giving money to the paramilitaries than paying taxes to the government because our security system was very efficient."

Last week, five Congress members were arrested for attending a 2001 meeting with paramilitary leaders where they signed a document pledging to "refound" the nation. Some of the legislators later insisted they were forced at gunpoint to attend, a claim that provoked a belly laugh from Duque.

"There was total collaboration," Duque said. "Some politicians were complaining because they weren't invited to the meeting."

The extent of nationwide support for the paramilitaries was made clear by a recent poll published by the Bogota newsweekly Semana. In the survey, 33 percent said the militias were necessary to combat the guerrillas, and 51 percent said it made sense for the Colombian army to collaborate with the gunmen.

"For the vast majority of Colombians, there is a little paramilitary hidden in their hearts," wrote columnist Maria Jimena Duzan in the Bogota daily El Tiempo.

For relatives of the thousands slaughtered by the gunmen, such tolerance is hard to fathom.

Standing outside the courtroom in downtown Medellin where Mancuso testified last week, Gilberto Ramirez hung a laminated black-and-white photo of his 21-year-old daughter, Angela, around his neck. Six years ago, paramilitaries pulled her off a bus, and she was never seen again.

"I feel so sad when I look around and see the families of the victims and all the orphans who were left behind," he said. "My only hope is that they tell us why they were killed."


The politicians snared in Colombia's paramilitary-politics scandal include:

In prison

  • 13 national legislators
  • 2 former legislators
  • 2 governors
  • 1 former governor
  • 4 regional legislators
  • 2 mayors


  • President Alvaro Uribe's foreign minister
  • Uribe's intelligence chief

Under investigation

  • 20 national legislators
  • 6 former legislators
  • 2 former governors
  • More than a dozen mayors
[Source: By John Otis, South America Bureau, The Houston Chronicle, 20May07]

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