In the middle of last week, Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered the arrest of four members of Colombia’s Congress, a former governor, and other local officials on suspicion of collusion with paramilitary groups. At the same time, the government’s internal-affairs branch brought charges against the former head of President Uribe’s intelligence service, alleging that he essentially placed the agency at the service of paramilitary leaders. The arrests and charges, and the likelihood that more are to come, have sent a major shock wave through Colombia’s political system.
Much – very, very much – remains to be revealed. Nonetheless, the events of the past week have, to an unprecedented degree, lifted the lid on one of Colombia’s most shameful, most widely recognized – but also most widely denied – secrets. In many regions of the country, new revelations are rapidly emerging about years of close collusion and collaboration between high government officials, the security forces, wealthy landowners, businesspeople, and murderous, drug-dealing paramilitary groups.
These revelations and arrests are good news, for many reasons. First, people responsible for some of the most horrible crimes in recent Colombian history may not get away with it simply because they didn’t wear paramilitary uniforms – or at least, they will not remain happily anonymous. Second, Colombia’s institutions appear to be working: in a justice system with a severe record of impunity and failure to confront the powerful, the Supreme Court and prosecutors appear to be determined to do their jobs. Third, if this initial step goes well, it may embolden other witnesses – including the paramilitary leaders themselves – to come forward with more information about what happened. Many analysts see this process as Colombia’s best chance to avoid a future of de facto rule by mafias and warlords.
The scandal is growing quickly – analysts keep using the metaphor of a snowball rolling downhill. There is too much happening, and too quickly, to process into a coherent narrative. Just consider these thirty-two quotes from Colombia’s media – taken from just three days (Saturday, Sunday and Monday). This is a very big deal.
As the crisis grows, more people close to the president, such as the former director of the DAS, a former diplomat in Chile and several of his congressional supporters are being accused of the worst crimes. If this snowball keeps growing, it is almost inevitable that his government will end up stained. – Semana magazine
The question is: how many more of the President’s friends have to go down before the situation becomes unsustainable? – Patricia Lara Salive, El PaÃs (Cali)
It is indispensable that there be a large mobilization, of the government and all the parties, to prevent the tentacles of armed narcodemocracy from drowning the state. Let’s hope it’s not too late. – Humberto de la Calle, El Espectador
Fear stalks the Congress
The general rule these days in Congress is worry and uncertainty. There is no shortage of long faces in the halls of the National Capitol. While so far only a small number of legislators have been called before the justice system to clarify their suspected ties to paramilitary groups, the fear is that many more may get the call. – Colprensa, El PaÃs (Cali)
The Congress has ended up like the ham in a sandwich, between a President who does not want to see himself affected by this scandal and a Supreme Court that, as the days go by, may become the toughest judge. – El Tiempo
In â€œthe regions,â€ everyone supported paramilitaries
The paramilitaries have not been groups of bandits isolated from their environment, but rather armed groups firmly and deeply rooted in the social and political dynamic of the regions where they were born, grew and consolidated themselves. – Alfredo Rangel, Cambio magazine
In some regions of the country, to be a paramilitary became a status symbol. And nobody put any limits on it. Many wealthy â€œlords of societyâ€ grew fond of the camouflage, the well-embroidered armbands and the private armies. And nobody ever said anything. They also grew fond of winning votes thanks to collective fear in a country starved for order. That is how the â€œparaâ€ monster, which is now beginning to be decapitated, came into being. In the end, if the easy money from coca no longer conferred power, it could be had from the freedom to kill in the name of the principle of self-defense. – Jorge Leyva, El Espectador
Your political spokesman at the time [IvÃ¡n Roberto Duque or â€œErnesto BÃ¡ez,â€ in an interview with researchers LeÃ³n Valencia and Mauricio Romero] told us that in 1999, a large number of political bosses, businessmen and narcotraffickers came to speak with the AUC leadership to urge them to take an offensive posture and to occupy new regions. To make this possible they provided them with money and arms, and put them in contact with political and social leaders in these regions. – LeÃ³n Valencia, El Tiempo
We have lived in a society permeated by the self-defense groups. How can we say that we have not had contact with them? If that is a crime, half the country will have to go to jail. In CÃ³rdoba, where the self-defense groups were born, the Army and the Police always knew where they were. – Former CÃ³rdoba department Rep. Eleonora Pineda, El Espectador
Now, the case of CÃ³rdoba is unique because of the power that the paramilitaries had, which required the politicians, on some occasions, to have to talk with them in order to campaign [in areas they controlled]. There can’t be a single politician here who can say that he has not met with them. But there was not complicity. The paramilitary phenomenon in CÃ³rdoba was one of collective defense against the guerrillas and it involved everyone: politicians, cattlemen, industrialists, police, soldiers, the church and the community in general. – CÃ³rdoba Sen. Miguel de la Espriella, El Espectador
How are criminal responsibilities gauged, and how far should they go, taking into account that they range from serious crimes like masterminding massacres, to arranging financing, to the simple act of knowing paramilitaries personally (something hardly unusual in the Atlantic coast) and practicing politics in zones under their control? – Santiago Castro GÃ³mez, El PaÃs (Cali)
The problems of corruption, violence and paramilitarism in our country are not entirely attributable to narcotrafficking, as they also originate – maybe more than anything else – from the persistence of very antidemocratic practices in Colombian politics. These antidemocratic practices, for their part, appear to be very closely tied to the concentration of agricultural property and the continuity of large landowners’ power in Colombia. – Rodrigo Uprimny of the NGO DeJuSticia, Semana magazine
The paramilitaries and the security forces
The paramilitaries went to their contacts in the DAS [the presidential intelligence service, or secret police] with a list of names of people who, according to them, were guerrilla collaborators and should be assassinated. Along with the victim’s name, the agency’s functionaries then gave the â€œparasâ€ all possible information: addresses, telephone numbers, physical descriptions, family members’ details and locations, etc. Once the paramilitaries had this information, they went to their â€œfriendsâ€ in the police to carry out the crimes. The collaboration of that institution’s uniformed members is discussed by the paramilitaries themselves in what they called â€œoperation reports.â€ In these reports they tell â€œJorge 40â€ whom they killed, and where. At the end they provide annotations in which they say that the assassinations â€œcounted with the collaboration of members of the SIJIN [Judicial Police] or SIPOL [Police Intelligence].â€… But while some police carried out hitman duties for the paramilitaries, other members of the Army also carried out the same activities, though according to the â€œparas’â€ own documents, the main aid they received [from the Army] was alerts about the security forces’ upcoming operations against paramilitaries. – Semana magazine
According to the charges of the Procurator-General [the Colombian government's internal-affairs branch, which can hand out administrative punishments but not jail time], [former presidential intelligence (DAS) director Jorge] Noguera helped avoid judicial actions against paramilitary members, gave classified information to self-defense groups and never managed to explain why he had multiple meetings with paramilitary leaders. According to the procurator, Noguera helped to erase and change paramilitaries’ criminal records and, as if that weren’t enough, ordered his personnel to collaborate with, and to refrain from attacking, the self-defense groups. – Semana magazine
Sucre department, home to most of the arrested congressmen
This alliance goes back to 1996. JoaquÃn GarcÃa came up to meet the paramilitaries, and he met with â€œEl Profeâ€ Vicente CastaÃ±o and [Salvatore] Mancuso. He came with Miguel Nule AmÃn, Eduardo Chaui and Javier Piedrahita, a hard-core narco from the region. They began to form the groups. And then the â€œcleansing planâ€ began, and the people began to be afraid. In Sincelejo [the capital of Sucre department], every night there was one dead, two dead. That is how they grew stronger. I was JoaquÃn’s bodyguard, via the Army, and I carried a B-2 [military intelligence] identity card.â€œ – Sucre-based paramilitary informant Jairo Castillo, in Semana magazine
A few days before he died [in early April 2004], the mayor of Roble, Sucre, had warned his family: if something happens to me, the person responsible would be the political boss Salvador Arana, the former governor of Sucre and [the Uribe government's] former ambassador in Chile. … Later, in a public meeting before the president of the republic, Ãlvaro Uribe, he repeated his fears: â€Mr. President, they are going to kill me,â€œ the mayor, a member of the [left-of-center] Polo DemocrÃ¡tico party, said to the head of state, who ordered his staff to take note. Shortly afterward, the fears of this Sucre town’s leader were realized. His lifeless body appeared on one of the roads leading to the capital, Sincelejo. – Colprensa, El PaÃs (Cali)
Where was the attorney-general?
Within ex-attorney-general Osorio’s [2004 order to drop an investigation into Sucre governor Salvador Arana's alleged paramilitary ties and responsibility for murder], the real gem is a paragraph that says that the witnesses’ allegations â€appear unlikely, since it cannot be believed that a person with the career and education of Dr. Salvador Arana Sus (a doctor, a surgeon, with long experience in the public sector and without a criminal or disciplinary record) could participate in conduct as horrible as the charges being gratuitously tossed at him.â€œ – Semana magazine
Some of the evidence against the politicians accused of collusion with paramilitaries has been in the possession of the attorney-general’s office for years. Why did the former attorney-general [Luis Camilo Osorio] fail to move forward with investigations that could have saved so many lives? – MarÃa Teresa Ronderos, Semana magazine
The case of Cesar department Senator Ãlvaro AraÃºjo
In 2002, a year after the killing of my Aunt Consuelo [AraÃºjo, murdered in a botched FARC kidnapping attempt], a security summit [Consejo de Seguridad] was held in Valledupar. I denounced that the paramilitaries’ â€Comandante 39â€œ practically held all local governments captive. A week later there was a military operation and the Army killed 19 paramilitaries. As a result I began to feel persecution from the self-defense groups, because â€39â€œ accused me of being responsible for the military operation. The scene became horrible, I practically couldn’t leave Valledupar, my town councilmember friends did not want to talk to me, I was like a leper, until I said to myself: I can’t go on like this. At that time the official talks between the government and the paramilitaries began, and I decided to seek an interview with Jorge 40 to clear up the threats. – Cesar department Sen. Ãlvaro AraÃºjo, El Espectador
â€Alvarito [Cesar department Senator Ãlvaro AraÃºjo] is my personal friend and a friend of [top AUC leader] Jorge 40, and right now he is the leader from the Atlantic Coast with the best political chances of becoming president.â€œ – â€Gonzalo,â€œ political advisor to AUC Northern Bloc leader â€Jorge 40,â€œ in a taped telephone conversation cited in Cambio magazine
Senator Ãlvaro AraÃºjo, with no compunction, in a meeting in the presidential palace to discuss the issue of the Uribista coalition’s relations with paramilitarism, called for his colleagues’ solidarity by uttering a sentence that sounded delirious in the mouth of a congressman. He said that if the Supreme Court were to investigate him, it would bring down the foreign minister [his sister], the procurator-general [his uncle] and even the president himself. The sentence is not just a direct threat to the Supreme Court, which by itself would be more than worthy of reproach. It is also a threat to President Uribe, because it sounds like a warning: something like, if you don’t do something so that they don’t investigate me, I won’t be responsible for what might happen. – MarÃa Jimena DuzÃ¡n, El Tiempo
Sucre is just the tip of the iceberg. The rudeness of Sen. AraÃºjo’s words reveals that the immediate future will bring much more serious things. The turbid marriage between politics and criminality, a fundamental component of elite domination in Colombia for the last seventy years, has reached Frankenstein-esque levels. – Daniel GarcÃa-PeÃ±a, El Espectador
This is going to get bigger
The snowball has begun to roll downhill and nobody can stop it. The media will keep contributing information and let’s hope that society helps. And after what the paramilitary leaders have said from [their current detention center in] La Ceja, it seems that they too will tell their part. I believe that they should do so not just because the law says they should for the good of their fatherland, but because it would be unfair for them to be the only ones to pay for what the entire monster did. They, more than anyone, know that they are only one part of the hydra and that without the other heads, some active and others retired, this never would have come so far. – Salud HernÃ¡ndez-Mora, El Tiempo
The â€paraâ€œ leaders know how the entire apparatus works, and they are wiling to say who helped them and helps them, who financed them and how they finance themselves, what lands and assets they have, who sold them weapons, who trained them and gave them intelligence. The truth that the government wanted was the truth of the crime reports: â€who did you kill?â€œ But not, never, â€who helped you?â€œ … What could be coming if they don’t make arrangements with the â€paras,â€œ giving them what was promised, is simply that from La Ceja [the paramilitary leaders] could lay bare much of our ruling class. Total chaos. Everyone stepping on each others’ garden hoses. It could even be fun to watch. The government does not appear willing to give don Vicente CastaÃ±o what he wants and sign [the promises of leniency] agreed in Ralito, because then the gringos would jump on them. This could be called â€checkmate.â€œ – Alfredo Molano, El Espectador
The complete confessions that the [paramilitary leaders] detained in La Ceja have promised should not scare anyone, other than those who collaborated with them. … In addition to the investigative work that the [Supreme] Court is doing, one must prepare for the spattering that will come from the â€paraâ€œ leaders’ confessions. And what will come from the accused politicians over the next several months, as they seek lowered sentences in exchange for giving evidence. – Rafael Nieto, Semana magazine
Now, the attorney-general’s office and the Supreme Court have begun to blow the whistle on the Sucre politicians, but we await information from other departments – CÃ³rdoba, Cesar, Magdalena, AtlÃ¡ntico, Guajira, BolÃvar, Antioquia, the Santanders… – where the local authorities in many municipalities are pieces on the paramilitary chessboard. – MarÃa Elvira Samper, Cambio magazine
Now the authorities must judge all who participated in paramilitarism, regardless of who falls. … The investigations have hardly begun and there are many criminal acts to uncover, among them, whether or not paramilitaries altered electoral results to favor the president or members of his coalition, whether public funds were used to strengthen paramilitarism, or who has illegally taken land from displaced people. – former DAS (presidential intelligence / secret police) director Ramiro Bejarano GuzmÃ¡n, El Espectador
What about President Uribe?
The President’s image is at stake. In particular, his credibility as an alternative promising to renew politics, a promoter of a new way of practicing it, a break with the past. All of the politicians implicated so far supported his re-election and are members of uribista parties. Uribe’s own speech on Friday morning sought to defend himself with the argument that there was also paramilitary influence and a tepid response to such crimes in the past, but this tends to muddy the waters for everyone. Including the current government, which doesn’t look much different amid the generalized muddiness. – Semana magazine
If any of the 30,000 paramilitaries can say that the President of the Republic has been complicit, let them say so. – President Ãlvaro Uribe
Many of the guerrillas’ defenders, the only recourse they have to criticize Uribe for fighting the guerrillas is to call him a â€paramilitary.â€œ – President Ãlvaro Uribe
During the  campaign, I asked the President to say that he did not want any type of support from sectors tied to paramilitarism. I said it many times. Unfortunately, I failed to get a response. This is not an accusation against the President; it is simply that the President has yet to say expressly that he does not want paramilitary support … and he and his government have remained silent. – Former President CÃ©sar Gaviria, El Tiempo
Amid this panorama, the obvious question is for the man at the summit [President Uribe]. How can someone be a successful politician and a prosperous landowner in two cradles of paramilitarism – Antioquia and CÃ³rdoba – and arrive twice in a row to the presidency with the support of all the accused politicians (and many, many others), while having nothing to do with the paramilitaries? – Ãlvaro Sierra, Cambio magazine