Colombia’s dark underbelly leaves Bush with an embarrassing best friend

There is little to cheer a United States president on a visit to Latin America these days. Where it once enforced its will on the region, the US now looks increasingly out of touch. The presidents of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Peru, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile were not elected as friends of the US, and China has quietly filled the economic gap left by seven years of US distraction and neglect.

President George W Bush’s plan for a Free Trade Area of the Americas has faltered, electorates blame free market liberalism for years of stagnation, and high oil prices help Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez bid for Fidel Castro’s crown as figurehead of the Latin left. When Bush visited Uruguay, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala this past week, he was received with little enthusiasm. Only in Colombia has Bush found an unconditional friend in President Alvaro Uribe, who he has praised as an ally and granted billions of dollars in military aid.

But Bush’s best friend is becoming his biggest embarrassment. Uribe leads a country mired in corruption, violence and drugs, and where critics of the government receive death threats, and drug barons and death squad leaders win amnesty.

Uribe didn’t invent Colombia’s problems — it has endured 40 years of civil war and narcotics flourished long before he became president in 2002. But Uribe, who changed the Constitution to permit his own re-election last year, has devised a “peace” plan that has opened the door to a future incorporation of amnestied narco-paramilitary­ groups into Colombian politics, who have close ties with Uribe’s own political machine.

The paramilitary forces were formed in the 1980s to fight the leftist guerrillas. They soon became as notorious for massacres and narcotics; they robbed Colombia’s peasants of millions of acres of land, creating three million internally displaced victims. Since their rise in Antioquia, the province where Uribe was governor, the paramilitary have been suspected of collaboration with state security forces. Uribe denies that they enjoyed political protection and claims amnesty is open to all.

About 31 000 paramilitary fighters have accepted Uribe’s demobilisation programme, gaining virtual immunity for past crimes. The president claims increased security and a dramatic drop in human rights abuse, but human rights organisations disagree and the recent discovery of mass graves attests to a four-year rise in disappearances. Nevertheless, Uribe’s Colombia has won praise from Whitehall to Washington and Colombia’s urban middle classes gave him an easy re-election last year.

But now, evidence of collaboration between paramilitary death squads and the administrative security department (DAS), the president’s intelligence service, has seen key members of Uribe’s political apparatus resign, disgraced or placed under arrest. An emboldened Colombian press is now demanding to know what the president knew.

Uribe’s troubles began last year when a computer was seized from a paramilitary leader known as “Jorge 40”. On it were the names of politicians who apparently collaborated with Jorge 40 to intimidate voters, seize land and kidnap or kill trade unionists and political rivals.

Jorge 40 is the nom de guerre of Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, leader of the Northern Bloc of the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia, a paramilitary umbrella group set up in 1997 and categorised by the US as a terrorist organisation. Tovar controlled drug trafficking on the eastern half of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Since then, eight pro-Uribe congressmen have been arrested and the foreign minister has been forced to resign.

But the most dangerous scandal for Uribe comes from the arrest of Jorge Noguera, his former campaign manager and, from 2002 to 2005, head of the DAS. Former DAS colleagues have told investigators of Noguera’s close collaboration with Jorge 40 and other paramilitary leaders. The accusations include an assassination plot against Chávez, the murder of political opponents, electoral fraud, and doctoring police and judicial records to erase paramilitary cases. Noguera worked directly with Uribe and, when the investigations began, the president appointed him consul in Milan. Colombia’s Supreme Court forced his return.

Before the US mid-term elections Bush might have toughed the scandal out. But a Democratic Congress is questioning a Latin America policy that has left Washington with few friends besides Uribe and asking whether he is the best recipient of the US taxpayer’s dollar.

Colombian Senator Gustavo Petro’s visit to Washington last week will no doubt have further stiffened the resolve of US lawmakers. Petro has accused the president’s brother, Santiago, of helping to form paramilitary groups and of personal involvement in murders and forced disappearances. He is calling for a Congressional investigation into charges that, as governor, Uribe ordered a halt to an investigation into his brother’s case. The president accused Petro, a former member of a legitimately disbanded guerrilla movement, of being a “terrorist in a business suit”. Petro has since received death threats.

Democratic congressmen are likely to have received Petro in a listening mood since the scandal in Colombia is clouding Bush’s request for $4-billion­ in anti-narcotics aid, most of it for Colombia.

In the rest of the region, Bush offers nothing to lift the atmosphere. Chávez is not the only politician to suspect that Washington’s enthusiasm for Uribe is connected to its concern over Venezuela — suspicions that the revelation of the Chávez assassination plot will do nothing to dispel. In a region that owes its recent growth to high oil prices and to China, the US seems to have lost the plot. — Â

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