In a March 31 entry to his blog, El Espectador columnist Felipe Zuleta referred to the case of Gabriel Puerta Parra (alias â€œThe Doctorâ€), a longtime narcotrafficker and paramilitary associate arrested in late 2004. The U.S. government requested Puertaâ€™s extradition in early 2004, and Colombian President Ãlvaro 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 havenâ€™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?
â€œHe Knows Too Muchâ€ is the title of an article about Puerta that appeared a few days later on the website of Colombiaâ€™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 BoyacÃ¡ 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 narcosâ€™ 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 Googleâ€™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 Colombiaâ€™s criminal underworld and its intersection with both paramilitaries and politics. Here it is in English.
Semana.com, April 3, 2006
â€œAs soon as they get me on the plane, Iâ€™ll plead guiltyâ€
Semana: What do you think about the paramilitary process?
Gabriel Puerta: That it is a farce. I donâ€™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 â€œif you behave we wonâ€™t turn you overâ€ is a very pretty thing, but there is no secure legal guarantee behind that promise, and the United States doesnâ€™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 MonterÃa [the capital of CÃ³rdoba department, where AUC leaders Salvatore Mancuso and Carlos CastaÃ±o spent much of their time]. I didnâ€™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 werenâ€™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 CastaÃ±o.
S: And why did you offer this service, if you werenâ€™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: Puertaâ€™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 CastaÃ±o 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, â€œDon Diego,â€ Hernando GÃ³mez, â€œRasguÃ±o,â€ and WÃlber Varela [â€œJabÃ³n.â€ 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 Iâ€™m going to be extradited. Like an idiot I got involved in the solution to problems that werenâ€™t mine. But Iâ€™m not anybodyâ€™s right hand or left hand. â€œDon Diegoâ€ 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 GÃ³mez to a meeting with Monsignor Giraldo, the bishop of Buga, to ask for his help in arranging narcosâ€™ eventual surrender to the authorities. I knew that he spoke to his brother in MedellÃn, but this all ended up being just an aspiration.
S: How much do you know about the â€œbaby cartelsâ€ that Gen. Ã“scar 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 didnâ€™t agree. I didnâ€™t want to cause problems for the government.
S: Youâ€™ve got one foot on a DEA plane [for his imminent extradition].
G.P.: Thatâ€™s right. I go full of fear. As soon as they get me on the DEA plane, Iâ€™ll plead guilty. Iâ€™m not willing to go to trial. I wasnâ€™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 Ãlvaro Uribeâ€™s government has ties to paramilitaries, what are you going to say to them?
G.P.: Iâ€™m not going to shake up the government, even though Ãlvaro Uribe is not a saint whom I worship. The public [la sociedad] is who is being deceived. Those who peacefully walk down Carrera SÃ©ptima in BogotÃ¡ 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 Iâ€™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.