Francisco Santos. (Photo source and article link)
The former paramilitary chief [Salvatore Mancuso] stated that [Vice President Francisco] Santos … also met several times with the paramilitaries’ leaders and that “I was surprised because I noticed how much he identified with the cause” and because “he told [AUC paramilitary leader Carlos] CastaÃ±o that he liked the model (of self-defense groups) in [the northern Colombian department of] CÃ³rdoba and that he would like to see it repeated in BogotÃ¡.” In one of these meetings, Mancuso continued, “CastaÃ±o proposed to Santos that he be the commander of the Capital Bloc, but he turned him down, saying that he did not know about such things.”
That, as recounted by Colombia’s Semana magazine in 2007, was the essence of a series of exchanges between Francisco Santos, Colombia’s vice-president, and top paramilitary leaders about a decade ago. At the time, Santos was an editor at Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper and a leading anti-kidnapping activist. The allegation that Vice President Santos, who holds the Uribe administration’s human rights portfolio, urged the paramilitaries to set up a unit in BogotÃ¡, comes from 2007 testimony to “Justice and Peace” prosecutors by Salvatore Mancuso, a paramount leader of the disbanded United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Mancuso has since been extradited to the United States, where he awaits trial in a Virginia jail cell.
Santos insists that the comment was a joke – a joke in terrible taste. There is no known evidence that Santos followed up on his suggestion. Another top paramilitary leader, Freddy RendÃ³n (alias “El AlemÃ¡n“) has testified that while he met with Santos, he did not discuss the “Capital Bloc” idea. While a “Capital Bloc” of the paramilitaries later appeared, under the command of “Centaurs Bloc” leader Miguel Arroyave, it seemed to be largely focused on illicit fundraising: extortion and drug-dealing in poor Colombian neighborhoods, and involvement in sectors like bus transportation, food distribution and black-market items like pirated DVDs.
Still, Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (FiscalÃa), which closed an investigation of Santos in August 2008, announced yesterday that it was re-opening its probe. The decision made headlines in Colombia yesterday, drawing attention to Santos, who said he would cooperate with the prosecutors’ investigation.
It is unlikely that the investigators will find that Francisco Santos was a mastermind of paramilitary expansion. It may find, however, that the vice president’s words and attitude toward the paramilitary leadership were friendlier and more supportive than he would ever acknowledge in public.
Just as 2007 photos of herself wearing a black beret and posing with FARC negotiators were a setback for leftist Colombian Senator Piedad CÃ³rdoba, revelations of bonhomie and camaraderie with the mass-murdering paramilitaries could be deeply embarrassing to Francisco Santos.