A deteriorating situation in the heart of “Plan Patriota” “Mission Accomplished,” says State’s Nicholas Burns
Apr 242006

In a March 31 entry to his blog, El Espectador columnist Felipe Zuleta referred to the case of Gabriel Puerta Parra (alias “The Doctor”), a longtime narcotrafficker and paramilitary associate arrested in late 2004. The U.S. government requested Puerta’s extradition in early 2004, and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe gave his final approval over two months ago. The extradition policy, notes Zuleta,

is the one that is going to put our ruling class into a jam. That is why they haven’t wanted to extradite Gabriel Puerta Parra, whose extradition has been ready since February 20, despite the rapidity with which this government extradites. Could it be that Puerta Parra knows too many things about our president? What could it be?

“He Knows Too Much” is the title of an article about Puerta that appeared a few days later on the website of Colombia’s Semana newsmagazine. It includes an overview of his background as an important behind-the-scenes figure in the twin rise of narcotrafficking and paramilitarism in Colombia during the last fifteen years.

Puerta served as head of the DAS ,the government security agency currently riven by scandal, in Boyacá department during the 1960s. A major cattle rancher in northern Colombia, he was an early supporter and organizer of paramilitary groups in the Magdalena Medio region. He has served as an intermediary between paramilitaries and narcotraffickers (inlcuding as a bagman bringing narcos’ money to top paramilitary leaders), and between feuding drug lords. His U.S. extradition request calls Puerta one of the leaders of the Northern Valle cartel, the largest single drug-trafficking organization (other than armed groups) in Colombia today.

According to an October 2004 article in El Tiempo (see Google’s cache of it here), in August of that year, two months before his arrest, Puerta had written to an unnamed top AUC leader asking permission to join the ranks of the paramilitary leadership in the demilitarized zone where demobilization talks were taking place. By becoming "Comandante Agamez," the name he chose for himself, Puerta Parra hoped not only to evade arrest, but to negotiate a possible amnesty and a way to avoid extradition to the United States. However, the article that appeared in Semana this month contains a different version of this episode; it says that the paramilitaries offered to make Puerta a comandante to avoid extradition, but that he turned them down.

Alongside its profile of Puerta, Semana published the text of an interview it secured with the jailed narcotrafficker, who remains unextradited. The interview, conducted by phone, offers a disturbing and revealing look at Colombia’s criminal underworld and its intersection with both paramilitaries and politics. Here it is in English.

Semana.com, April 3, 2006

“As soon as they get me on the plane, I’ll plead guilty”

Semana: What do you think about the paramilitary process?

Gabriel Puerta: That it is a farce. I don’t see any future for it. There are many internal problems. With an army that has grown so much, it is impossible for this process to work. This story about how “if you behave we won’t turn you over” is a very pretty thing, but there is no secure legal guarantee behind that promise, and the United States doesn’t pardon.

S: You were a witness of how narcotraffickers took over paramilitarism.

G.P.: Look, in the Magdalena Medio all of the cattlemen supported the AUC, absolutely all of them. There were sugar-cane farmers, industrialists, businessmen, politicians and soldiers. Along with the business leaders, we did a lot of lobbying in Montería [the capital of Córdoba department, where AUC leaders Salvatore Mancuso and Carlos Castaño spent much of their time]. I didn’t have an army, but the campesinos were the biggest intelligence service in the country. But the cost of war was immense, and they would keep asking us for more money for guns and ammunition. Everyone who wanted help gave them 25 men, who cost at least 25 million pesos per month to sustain. The oil-palm growers put up the money, and the military trained them. Afterward, the soldiers got skittish and only sergeants, majors and captains remained. And when the businessmen realized that they weren’t able to sustain this, each armed comandante became a loose cannon. By now they were very powerful and they fell under the sway of narcotraffickers.

S: What was your big sin in this process?

G.P.: To bring money from the narcos to Carlos Castaño.

S: And why did you offer this service, if you weren’t involved in the drug business?

G.P.: Because I was a friend of the self-defense groups and because I am a man of peace. [Note: Puerta’s irony here is purely unintentional.] We had to stop the extortions, free the kidnapped people and stop the war. The narcos collaborated with money. Or do you think I could show up before Castaño with only five centavos? I had to perform certain services so that they would pay attention to me and to save lives.

S: How much money did you end up bringing them?

G.P.: A lot. All of the narcos took up collections.

S: But you also met at your ranch with narcos like Diego Montoya, “Don Diego,” Hernando Gómez, “Rasguño,” and Wílber Varela [“Jabón.” All three are top leaders of the Northern Valle cartel whose frequent feuds have left hundreds of people dead].

G.P.: My great sin was to meet with them to talk about peace. So that they might stop shooting at each other, and now I’m going to be extradited. Like an idiot I got involved in the solution to problems that weren’t mine. But I’m not anybody’s right hand or left hand. “Don Diego” wanted to end the problem of the war within the Northern Valle cartel and I sat him down with his enemy to talk peace. And I accompanied Hernando Gómez to a meeting with Monsignor Giraldo, the bishop of Buga, to ask for his help in arranging narcos’ eventual surrender to the authorities. I knew that he spoke to his brother in Medellín, but this all ended up being just an aspiration.

S: How much do you know about the “baby cartels” that Gen. Óscar Naranjo [the head of SIJIN, or police intelligence] talks about?

G.P.: They are very professional and more educated. They are rich. They have bank accounts in Paraguay, Argentina, Switzerland and Spain.

S: Will this business [the drug business] ever be eliminated?

G.P.: Nobody will ever eliminate narcotrafficking.

S: Why did you refuse to enter the paramilitary peace process?

G.P.: Because they offered to hide me and I didn’t agree. I didn’t want to cause problems for the government.

S: You’ve got one foot on a DEA plane [for his imminent extradition].

G.P.: That’s right. I go full of fear. As soon as they get me on the DEA plane, I’ll plead guilty. I’m not willing to go to trial. I wasn’t trafficking in drugs, but I know the heart of the business, as well as that of the self-defense groups and paramilitarism.

S: If U.S. justice asks you what you know about accusations that President Álvaro Uribe’s government has ties to paramilitaries, what are you going to say to them?

G.P.: I’m not going to shake up the government, even though Álvaro Uribe is not a saint whom I worship. The public [la sociedad] is who is being deceived. Those who peacefully walk down Carrera Séptima in Bogotá and know nothing about the critical situation in the countryside.

S: And if they ask you about the ties between politicians and paramilitaries?

G.P.: The only thing I’ll say is that the political class and ruling class flirt with narcotraffickers in private, and reject them in public. Double morality rules in Colombia.

3 Responses to ““He Knows Too Much””

  1. jcg Says:

    I had read the original piece in Spanish sometime ago. It’s still a fairly interesting read. Though Puerta’s words do share one thing that these kind of individuals all have in common: you can’t always immediately tell exactly where the truth ends and the exaggerations or lies begin.

    Beyond general statements about the situation that pretty much anybody can agree about by now (ie: “The political class and ruling class flirt with narcotraffickers in private, and reject them in public. Double morality rules in Colombia”). Again, it’s easy to enough to agree with that. But what then? That’s where the details come in and they might not be as straightforward.

    And maybe it’s just me, but perhaps he means something not that obvious when he talks about the “critical situation in the countryside.” Somehow, I really don’t think he’s referring to paramilitary and military abuses, land issues or lack of social investment, for example.

    Considering Puerta’s open pro-paramilitarism and that he only regrets an apparently small part of his activities, he might even be implying something else. For example, that it is a deception to think that the guerrillas are anywhere close to defeat. That’s just one possibility though.

  2. Rainer Cale Says:

    I sense that Puerta is speaking in code here. He’s advertising to a bunch of people, from paramiltary commanders to business elites to the President himself, that he has a lot of information and that they will all pay a heavy price if he is extradited (i.e. he will talk to the DEA to reduce his sentence, name names, etc.).

    If that’s true, then the Puerta case does go–or at least has the great potential to go–beyond our general speculation and what we already agree with to actually substantiating our suspicions and claims.

    How? If the President is willing to postpone this extradition at the high price of stirring up more red herrings and negative press just a short time before the election (on top of the DAS scandal), it must mean that the price he would pay by extraditing Puerta is much higher still.

    In this sense, what we have here is actually a very telling situation. It tells us not only that Uribe must have a good reason for postponing the extradition (that he’s probably hiding something), but also the degree to which whatever he’s hiding is significantly incriminating–i.e. we know its disclosure must come at a higher price than the high price he is paying (bad press right before election) by delaying the extradition.

    Apart from the main theme, one detail leapt out at me: the involvement of palm oil business in paramilitary/narcotrafficking rings. Puerta mentions it in passing. I’d like to look into that more. Can anyone here give me a headstart? Adam? Jcg? Javier? Durandal?

  3. jcg Says:

    Well Rainer, that’s a possibility certainly…but much of that argument depends on assuming that it is Uribe that has postponed the guy’s extradition. Reading the article, and Adam’s introductory piece, that doesn’t immediately appear to be the case.

    Both say that Uribe has already signed the guy’s extradition so, at least for now, I don’t clearly see the postponing happening on his end. There are actually several links in the “extradition chain” that could also be possibly responsible for the delay, whether incidently or due to outside pressure from other “politicos”, paras, narcos or what have you. For example, the Supreme Court also has to approve all extraditions (even though it’s just a formality most of the time).

    Btw, I’ve heard about the palm oil – paramilitary links before.

    I’m not an expert on the subject, but there’s a July 2005 EL TIEMPO article that addresses part of the issue:

    According to it, palm oil plantations and enterprises in Chocó have developed in territories that were previously collectively owned by local African-Colombian communities, some of which were acquired through paramilitary pressure.

    I also think that Adam may have at least mentioned the subject in one of his previous blog posts too.

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