U.S., Voicing Fears of Tampered Elections, Is Rebuked by Colombia.

President álvaro Uribe of Colombia, the Bush administration's closest ally in Latin America, demanded on Friday that the United States stop interfering in Colombia after the American ambassador in Bogotá, William Wood, expressed concern that right-wing paramilitary commanders could manipulate congressional elections in March.

In a speech in a Bogotá hotel that same day, Mr. Wood said that the paramilitaries could inject themselves into the election the same way armed groups did in 2003. In those elections, the paramilitaries took control of governorships and mayors' offices across northern Colombia by killing, scaring off and bribing candidates who opposed them.

In many cases, candidates tied to or controlled by the paramilitaries won office unopposed, human rights groups and Colombian congressmen say. That helped expand paramilitary influence, permitting the group to rob state coffers while trafficking cocaine unhindered, most of it to the United States.

"There is wide concern that similar corrupt electoral practices may occur in the elections of 2006, notably by paramilitaries," Mr. Wood said in his speech, which focused on human rights and was presented to the government's inspector general, investigators from that office and military officers.

Mr. Wood said that he would ask the Colombian government to deny benefits to paramilitaries who interfere in the elections. The Colombian government is in the midst of granting large concessions to paramilitary commanders who pledge to disarm their fighters under the new Justice and Peace law, which has come under attack from rights groups and foreign diplomats as being too soft.

The ambassador's comments drew an immediate sharp rebuke on Friday from the presidency, which issued a statement saying, "The Colombian government does not accept the intrusion of foreign governments, even if it is the United States."

The statement said that the disarmament law, which governs the demobilization of up to 20,000 paramilitary fighters, ensures that those former paramilitaries who interfere in elections lose benefits. It also said that Washington should not use the leverage it has from its $4 billion antidrug aid plan for Colombia to pressure "our country."

But many Colombian lawmakers and human rights groups say Mr. Wood was raising a serious concern that threatens Colombian democracy. Indeed, election records examined recently by Semana, Colombia's leading weekly newsmagazine, showed how the paramilitaries had manipulated dozens of elections across a handful of states.

The paramilitaries have not been shy about the influence they already wield, with two top commanders publicly boasting that the group has influence over one-third of Congress. One leading commander, Ivan Roberto Duque, recently said that he wanted the group to become a political movement with the right to compete for congressional seats.

"There's no doubt the paramilitaries will have a big representation elected to the Congress," said Gustavo Petro, a liberal congressman critical of the government's handling of the paramilitaries. "It's an explosive situation."

Though the United States has listed the paramilitary as a terrorist organization, the Bush administration has been largely silent as revelations have surfaced in recent months of continued paramilitary involvement in extortion, murder and drug trafficking. Indeed, Mr. Wood has been publicly supportive of President Uribe as the government has pursued negotiations with the paramilitaries.

Myles Frechette, a former American ambassador to Colombia, said in a telephone interview from Washington, "The U.S. government has been so intent on not offending and being supportive of President Uribe that they have allowed huge elephants into the room, and one of those elephants is the increasing criminal influence in the Congress."

[Source: By Juan Forero, NYT, 18Dec05]

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