While on Capitol Hill viewing yesterday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Colombia, we started getting calls and emails. Colombian police were raiding the offices of Gustavo Petro, the opposition senator and nemesis of President Ãlvaro Uribe. This was happening a mere seven days after Petro’s congressional hearing on paramilitarism in President Uribe’s home state of Antioquia had transfixed the country.
It sounded like something a hack screenwriter would have written: the scene where the would-be dictator begins his crackdown on the opposition. By the end of the day, however, the episode – while troubling – appeared to be much less serious than that.
Two police delegations appeared at Petro’s office. One was there to discuss Petro’s own security, apparently with a prior appointment. A prosecutor had ordered the other – perhaps improperly – to obtain information from Petro’s records about allegations the senator had made regarding bribery of army officers in 2003.
The Uribe administration’s interior minister, Carlos HolguÃn, disassociated the government from the episode. Attorney-General Mario IguarÃ¡n, whose office is a separate branch of government beyond the president’s control, added that he had no role in the prosecutor’s decision to send police to Sen. Petro’s office.
The incident appears to have blown over. What happened yesterday was not an all-out frontal attack on President Uribe’s opponents. But it is still serious in the current context. Consider the following recent developments.
1. Espionage against the peaceful political opposition? In his extensive comments to the media last Thursday, President Uribe offered this startling piece of information.
Reporter: What evidence, what indicators do you have, that the free trade agreement is being attacked directly with this kind of information [allegations about President Uribe's past ties to paramilitaries]?
Uribe: I have proof, which I am not going to reveal – it is from military and police intelligence – that some of those who have gone to the United States say: we’re going to attack the Treaty by accusing this guy Uribe.
I have this proof. And going [to Washington] to discredit the government has been a persistent purpose. And the coincidences. Many of the critics who go there to defame the government are the adversaries of the FTA here. And I have specific proof. In order not to reveal them, I will not make any personal references.
Did Uribe really mean to say that Colombian “military and police intelligence” are reporting on members of the peaceful opposition who oppose a free-trade agreement with the United States? An agreement that Colombia’s Congress itself hasn’t even ratified?
2. A plot to kill Sen. Petro, with a name we’ve heard before. Sen. Petro offered a new revelation to the Associated Press yesterday.
Sen. Gustavo Petro told The Associated Press that the public prosecutor’s office learned of the plot from one of the would-be assassins, who testified he met with retired army Col. Julian Villate and others in January in the coastal city of Santa Marta to plan the killing.
The assassination was not carried out, and Petro said he had no more details about the plot.
Col. JuliÃ¡n Villate is a familiar name. He is a former U.S.-trained officer (Fort Leavenworth and the School of the Americas, where he was an instructor), who has headed a consulting / private security firm since retiring in 2004. The firm appears to specialize in helping companies embroiled in labor disputes.
Col. Villate is implicated in “Operation Dragon,” an alleged assassination plot targeting a colleague of Sen. Petro’s – opposition Sen. AlexÃ¡nder LÃ³pez Maya – his companion Berenice Celeyta, a prominent Cali human-rights activist, and several other Cali-based union leaders who opposed the privatization of the local utility company.
According to the Associated Press piece, another of Col. Villate’s clients is Drummond Co. Inc., the Alabama-based coal company that is currently facing a civil suit in U.S. federal court for allegedly paying paramilitaries to kill three union leaders in 2001.
Why does Col. Villate’s name keep popping up?
3. President Uribe’s defenders in the U.S. Congress fan the flames. Listen to this characterization of Sen. Petro from Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana), the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.
Transcript: I’m a little distressed that we jump to conclusions so rapidly. You know, I just read that a leading opposition senator said Tuesday that “far right paramilitary fighters established a hold over the province of – Anticola? – while President Uribe was the governor of the region.” And that he said that he was allowing these paramilitary death squads to convene on his property with his knowledge.
But what nobody really focuses on, is that this fella – this fella was with a – a terrorist organization down there for some time, and for him to be taken at his word, I think, is something that we should – really look at with a jaundiced eye. He was with – MI-21, was it? I’m trying to read – MI-19, MI-19. And he says he never fired a gun while he was with them, but nevertheless, he was one of their spokespeople. Now he’s in the Senate accusing President Uribe of things that he probably has done. So I think we ought to look at that very carefully.