On May 16th, funeral wreaths arrived at the offices of three Colombian journalists known for their critical stance toward the Uribe government. They came with cards inviting the recipients to their own burials. One of the three, Daniel Coronell, received a separate floral arrangement bearing the names of his wife and six-year-old daughter.
Coronell directs Noticias Uno, an independent news program on Colombiaâ€™s Canal Uno cable network, and writes a weekly column for Semana magazine. Canal Uno also broadcasts the documentary show ContravÃa, hosted by Hollman Morris, who also received a funeral arrangement on May 16th. ContravÃa had produced two programs about the February 2006 massacre in the San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³ peace community, presenting much evidence that pointed to possible military responsibility for the massacre (view the programs as an .avi file in Spanish).
Coronell had begun to receive threats at the end of April. â€œSome anonymous coward called to say, amid horrible namecalling, that he would kill my daughter, my wife and me,â€ Coronell wrote in his column. â€œSince then he has called again with information about where we lived, my daily schedule and my familyâ€™s routine.â€
Coronell received several other threats via e-mail, and colleagues received e-mails threatening him as well. They came from somebody identifying himself as â€œZarovichâ€ (the name of a prince of imperial Russia), from the e-mail address email@example.com (the Ojrana was the name of the czarâ€™s secret police).
With help from technicians, Coronell tracked the e-mails back to their source. They came from a computer in the BogotÃ¡ mansion of Carlos NÃ¡der Simmonds, a former congressman and large landowner from the paramilitary-dominated department of CÃ³rdoba in northern Colombia. The 59-year-old former politician â€“ who, according to Coronell, â€œis such a Russian history enthusiast that his son is named Dmitriâ€ â€“ admitted that the threats came from his computer, but denied that he had sent them.
NÃ¡der has a shady past. In 1983, while a member of Congress from CÃ³rdoba, he was arrested and later found guilty by a New York court of trying to sell cocaine to a DEA agent. He spent at least three years in a U.S. prison. He was close enough to MedellÃn Cartel chief Pablo Escobar that, in 1990, recordings of phone conversations surfaced in which NÃ¡der calls Escobar â€œbrotherâ€ and â€œcompadre,â€ they discuss threats against CÃ©sar Gaviria (then a presidential candidate) and the daily newspaper El Tiempo, and NÃ¡der expresses support for the 1989 assassination of popular presidential candidate Luis Carlos GalÃ¡n (â€œbetter dead than a son of a b***hâ€).
This has not kept NÃ¡der from being close to those in power in Colombia, including President Ãlvaro Uribe himself. Journalist Fernando Garavito â€“ who left Colombia in 2002 after publishing allegations that Uribe has ties to Colombiaâ€™s criminal underworld â€“ calls NÃ¡der â€œone of the links between the countryâ€™s rulers, the corrupt politicians and the capos of the drug trade.â€
NÃ¡der has sought to defend himself from charges of threatening Coronell by pointing out that as many as 40 people, including President Uribeâ€™s two sons, have used his computer while visiting his house in the recent past.
While neither Coronell nor Colombiaâ€™s Attorney-General, Luis Camilo Osorio, think that TomÃ¡s and JerÃ³nimo Uribe â€“ both teenagers â€“ are suspects, the episode revealed uncomfortable details about NÃ¡derâ€™s friendship with President Uribe. The two men have known each other since the mid-1970s, when both were young Liberal Party activists. â€œHe is very nice, fun to be with, he has always been kind to me, with my sons, my sons have been fond of him,â€ President Uribe told Colombiaâ€™s RCN radio network in June.
According to NÃ¡der himself, President Uribe even celebrated the 2004 New Year together with the convicted former narco-trafficker in the town of RÃonegro, just outside MedellÃn. â€œIt is difficult to understand why the President shares his family with someone who served a prison term in the United States for cocaine trafficking, without this being seen as a moral impediment,â€ notes El Espectador columnist Ramiro Bejarano.
The Lord of the Shadows, a very unauthorized biography of Uribe that Fernando Garavito co-wrote in 2002 with Newsweek reporter Joseph Contreras, points out that NÃ¡der cannot enter the United States because of his past drug conviction. â€œBut his wife, Ana Trejos, who is a gringa, hosts the candidate [Uribe] and his family during their visits to Miami, and NÃ¡der himself is their host in a luxurious apartment that he bought in Madrid, thanks to the illegal multi-million-dollar commissions he gained by skimming funds from the construction of the UrrÃ¡ dam [in Tierrralta, CÃ³rdoba, the same municipality as Santa FÃ© de Ralito, where paramilitary leaders are currently negotiating with the Colombian government]. NÃ¡der is a man of the dark side, who knows many episodes of Uribeâ€™s past and who guards them closely in his memory to use them when he believes them to be useful for his own interests.â€
NÃ¡der continues to insist that he did not send the threatening e-mails to Coronell. He called the journalist and told him â€œI have nothing against you, you seem all right to me, I donâ€™t like your anti-Uribism but I respect it.â€ El Tiempo columnist (and brother of the former president) Daniel Samper is skeptical. â€œI had a chance to examine a list of the e-mails, and this argument doesnâ€™t hold up, unless a battalion sleeps in NÃ¡derâ€™s house. Some of the e-mails were sent at hours that seem too early for entertaining friends at home: 5:08 AM, 6:29 AM, 9:23 on a Sunday.â€
Whether the former politician sent the messages or not, says Coronell, â€œNÃ¡der is not the only responsible party, but a link in a chain of threats against people who criticize the government.â€ If Coronell is correct, the atmosphere is likely to grow still more threatening in the runup to the May 2006 elections.
Ãlvaro Uribe is probably the big loser from this NÃ¡der episode, as his critics in Colombia get more mileage out of the argument that the President should be known by the company he keeps.
â€œI get the impression, not just from the NÃ¡der example but from those of several of the governmentâ€™s ministers, functionaries, partners and interlocutors, that President Uribe enjoys being in poor company,â€ wrote Semana columnist Antonio Caballero, a leading Uribe critic. Added El Espectador columnist Felipe Zuleta, â€œThough the President gets angry when forced to answer about his past and his dangerous friendships, the point is that indications of mafia infiltration of the governmentâ€™s highest levels matter more than rude words and threats.â€