The paramilitary candidate

IssueJune - August 2004
Comment by Tom Feiling

Colombia's president Alvaro Uribe Velez is, by his own admission, a man of the right. Unlike most recent Colombian Presidents, Uribe is from the land-owning class. He inherited huge swathes of cattle ranching land from his father Alberto Uribe Velez, himself subject to an extradition warrant to face charges of drug trafficking in the USA, until he was killed, allegedly by left-wing FARC guerrillas, in 1983. Uribe Jnr grew up with the children of Fabio Ochoa, three of whom were to become leading lights in Pablo Escobar's Medellín cocaine cartel.

President Uribe's credentials are impeccable: educated at Harvard and Oxford, he is sharp as a tack, and a very able bureaucrat to boot. At the tender age of 26 he was elected Mayor of Medellín, the second city of Colombia.

The city's elite in the '80s was as rich as it was corrupt as it was nepotistic, and they loved the young Uribe. But he was removed from office after only three months, by a central government embarrassed by his public ties to the drugs mafia. He was then made Director of Civil Aviation, where he used his mandate to issue pilots' licences to Pablo Escobar's fleet of light aircraft flying cocaine to the US.

In 1995 Uribe became governor of the Department of Antioquia, of which Medellín is the capital. The region became the test bed for the institutionalisation of paramilitary forces that he has now made a key plank of his presidency.

Convivir were “special private security and vigilance services, designed to group the civilian population alongside the Armed Forces”. Security forces and paramilitary groups enjoyed immunity from prosecution under governor Uribe, and used this immunity to launch a campaign of terror in Antioquia. Thousands of people were murdered, `disappeared', detained and driven out of the department.

In the town of Apartado for example, three of the Convivir leaders were well-known paramilitaries. All were trained by the 17th

Brigade of the Army. In 1998, representatives of more than 200 Convivir associations announced that they would unite with the paramilitary AUC under its murderous leader Carlos Castano.

Free and fair press?

Even when he announced his intention to run for President, Uribe's paramilitary connections appear to have deterred many journalists from examining the ties between drug gangs and the Uribe family. An exception was Noticias Uno, a current affairs programme on the TV station Canal Uno. In April 2002, the programme ran a series on alleged links between Uribe and the Medellín drug cartel. After the reports aired, unidentified men began calling the news station, threatening to kill the show's producer Ignacio Go'mez, director Daniel Coronell, and Coronell's three-year-old daughter, who was flown out of the country soon after the calls began. Go'mez too was later forced to flee and is currently living in exile.

Noticias Uno told the story of how, in 1997, the US Drugs Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized 50,000 kilos of potassium permanganate from a ship docked in San Francisco harbour. Permanganate is a chemical used in the production of cocaine. The cargo was heading for a company called GMP, headed by Pedro Moreno Villa, who was Uribe's campaign manager when he was running for the presidency. The chemicals seized were sufficient to produce cocaine with a street value of $15bn. The DEA confirmed that GMP was the biggest importer of the chemical to Colombia between 1994 and 1998, when Uribe was Governor of Medellín and Moreno Villa was his chief of staff.

Uribe had slipped the noose again. Two powerful business groups with ties to the political establishment own RCN and Caracol, the biggest television and radio networks in Colombia. As the presidential race gathered pace, journalists became increasingly concerned that these media bosses were threatening their editorial independence. Their concerns were heightened when Uribe picked a member of the Santos family that owns the country's most influential daily newspaper to be his vice-president.

Free and fair election?

So, despite his links to the paramilitaries and the drug cartels, Uribe won the presidency. But to call Uribe's victory a landslide - as many in and outside Colombia did - is a gross distortion of the facts. Uribe got 53% of the official vote, but only 25% of the electorate voted. Many urban and middle class Colombians, who have been largely sheltered from the civil war to date, were thoroughly disillusioned by the peace process of former President Andres Pastrana and were willing to back a hardliner like Uribe. But the election was hardly a fair one.

Mapiripan is the site of one of the worst paramilitary massacres to date, yet many of the people there voted for the “paramilitary” candidate Uribe. Father Javier Giraldo of the NGO Justicia y Paz was in Mapiripan on election day: “There was a great deal of fraud. There were paramilitaries in the voting booths. They destroyed a lot of ballots. This was denounced to the Ombudsman, but nothing happened.”

Electoral fraud, widespread paramilitary threats (denounced by virtually all the other candidates during the election campaign) and the almost total decimation of the parliamentary left in the preceeding decade all contributed to Uribe's election win.

“Democratic security”

Though Uribe has vowed that his “democratic security” platform will bring peace and security to all Colombians, statistics from the Trade Union School in Medellin suggest that while the persecution of the trade unionists and human rights activists has indeed changed, it has in no way diminished.

The number of trade unionists killed in 2003 declined to a “mere” 90, suggesting that the paramilitaries are being reined in a little. But the number of death threats issued are up by 20%, and death threats to trade unionists' families are up by 30%. Police raids, mass detentions and forced “disappearances” are all up too.

Uribe is tightening his grip on the opposition, and sidling yet closer to the Republican White House in Washington DC. Uribe was the only South American leader to back Bush's invasion of Iraq. At the time he even went so far as to invite the US to invade Colombia. Well, George Bush has a lot on his plate, so in the meantime Uribe hopes to double the size of the armed forces, and has asked the US government for more helicopters, and for greater involvement in areas such as intelligence gathering.

Many in the Bush administration are keen to see the US expand its $1.6bn “Plan Colombia”. US Army Lt Gen James T Hill, for example, recently told a senate committee that “it would be a terrible loss if democracy failed in Colombia. You need to let me get on the ground.”

But before that happens, the US are pushing for Uribe to rein in his illegal paramilitary allies. However, the peasant militias and million-strong informers' network that Uribe is pushing for testify to the way in which the paramilitary strategy is being institutionalised.

NGOs under attack

As Bush and Uribe have both said time and again, in the “war on terrorism” there can be no neutrals. President Uribe has branded those NGOs that do claim to occupy a non-partisan position on the armed conflict “political agitators in the service of terrorism, cowards who wrap themselves in the banner of human rights”. Only pro-government, anti-guerrilla NGOs are left untouched.

Under the “state of emergency” that he decreed upon assuming the presidency, the police and army were granted the right to detain citizens on the merest suspicion of supporting the guerrillas, without evidence or legal counsel, and to enter people's homes without a warrant.

Uribe's strategy is to bring the war out into the open: to declare social organisations illegal, and to use the army and police against them directly, while making the paramilitaries legal and holding “negotiations” with them. Given the murderous tactics that Uribe is prepared to resort to, it is easy to understand why trade unionists and human rights defenders are inclined to feel despondent. It also makes the unquestioning support being offered Uribe by the British government and the Bush administration all the more immoral.