Is their investment advice this sloppy too? Friday links
Oct 112007

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has a famous tendency to fly into a rage when people ask too many probing questions about his past.

Perhaps the best-known example occurred during the 2002 presidential campaign, when Uribe stormed out of an interview with Newsweek reporter Joe Contreras.

Let’s not talk further. I see that you have come here to smear my political career. … I refuse to accept that you foreign correspondents come here to ask me these kinds of questions and repeat slanders made against me.

Or this 1994 interview with Simon Strong, author of Whitewash: Pablo Escobar and the Cocaine Wars, recounted by Gerardo Reyes of El Nuevo Herald.

Uribe reacted with visible anger to the reporter’s questions about his tenure as director of Colombia’s Civil Aeronautics agency [Colombia’s version of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, during the early 1980s] and his political support for Senator William Vélez, one of Escobar’s allies.

“This short-statured man jumped from his chair, furious, crossed the room between the waiters who were preparing for lunch, climbed the stairs, and did not stop until he was amid his bodyguards…” the reporter writes.

From there, wrote Strong, Uribe yelled several times, with rage, “I am honest.”

“I had not made any suggestion to the contrary,” Strong explained.

Following some other questions, the author adds, Uribe became even angrier, and with his hands jabbing at the reporter’s face demanded that he take back what he was saying.

At that point, Strong decided to suspend the interview.

Earlier this year, when Colombian opposition Senator Gustavo Petro announced his intention to investigate alleged links between President Uribe’s associates and paramilitary groups, Uribe called Sen. Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla, a terrorist in a business suit. Then during his early May visit to Washington, Uribe went after Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco at a dinner attended by several U.S. senators and congresspeople. “‘You’re biased to the guerrillas and everyone in Colombia thinks that,’ Mr. Uribe lectured, according to a number of people at the session,” the Wall Street Journal reported at the time.

In the past week or so, however, we have witnessed at least three new presidential outbursts.

  • Last week, Colombia’s media published excerpts from a book by Virginia Vallejo, a former newscaster who was drug lord Pablo Escobar’s girlfriend. The book indicated that Escobar knew the young Uribe. Bizarrely, the president chose to defend himself by lashing out at Gonzalo Guillén, a Colombian citizen who is a longtime correspondent for El Nuevo Herald, the sister newspaper of The Miami Herald. Guillén published an unflattering biography of Uribe earlier this year. “Behind this woman is Gonzalo Guillén, who has dedicated his journalistic career to slander and lies,” Uribe told a Bogotá radio program.Guillén, who said he had not even read Vallejo’s book, was forced to leave Colombia Saturday after receiving about two dozen threats.
  • Early this week, Uribe revealed that he had received a letter from an imprisoned mid-level paramilitary leader. The letter named one of the Supreme Court’s most effective investigators of the “para-politics” scandal. The paramilitary leader alleged that this investigator tried to induce him to testify that President Uribe had ordered him to kill another paramilitary leader in 2003. Though the charge sounded ridiculous on its face, President Uribe called the investigator directly, and made public calls for an investigation into the Supreme Court’s actions. The resulting war of words between the President and the Supreme Court has escalated all week.
  • Then on a radio call-in show on Tuesday, Uribe demanded that the hosts locate and contact Daniel Coronell, a columnist for Semana magazine and director of the Noticias Uno cable television program. Coronell, who has spent most of the past two years outside of Colombia because of threats, was just awarded the country’s Simón Bolívar journalism prize (Colombia’s version of a Pulitzer). In a column on Sunday, Coronell explored some of the alleged links between Uribe and Pablo Escobar mentioned in Vallejo’s book.Uribe shocked listeners of “La FM” radio on Tuesday, as he and Coronell engaged in a ferocious live verbal battle. “The only thing you do is shield yourself in your rights as a journalist,” Uribe told Coronell, “so that in my case you can wound me with lies. Enough of this cynicism behind your quote-unquote ‘journalistic ethics.’”

One wouldn’t expect going berserk to be a good strategy for deflecting allegations that, if proven, would shake the Uribe presidency to its foundations. For the most part, though, this strategy has worked. Though they fail to dispel all questions and allegations, Uribe’s fits have at least sent the message that “if you’re likely to send the president into public paroxysms of rage, you’d better have your evidence well in order.”

In fact, there isn’t enough evidence to prove conclusively that Álvaro Uribe spent at least some of his political career as an associate of narcotraffickers and paramilitaries. It’s all circumstantial, hearsay, or similarly flimsy.

But these allegations are a frequent topic of conversation all over Colombia, and throughout Colombia policy-making circles in the United States.

What exactly are Uribe’s detractors claiming? Here are some of the principal allegations. All of these remain unproven in any court of law, and denied – often quite passionately denied – by President Uribe himself.

  • Family ties: According to Time magazine, President Uribe’s father, Alberto Uribe, “was a friend of Fabio Ochoa, the late patriarch of the city’s notorious drug cartel (the two shared a love of horses).” (Ochoa and Uribe’s mother were cousins.) In a much-circulated 1985 photograph, President Uribe’s brother Santiago can be seen partying with Ochoa’s son.
  • Aerocivil: In 1980, a 27-year-old Álvaro Uribe was named to head the Colombian government agency in charge of civilian aviation, the analogue to the FAA in the United States. The agency director who preceded Uribe, who had sought to close airstrips used by narcotraffickers, was killed after twenty days in office. During Uribe’s tenure, according to Newsweek reporter Joe Contreras, “Well-informed sources say that a record number of pilot’s licenses and airstrip construction permits were issued by the civil-aviation authority, … a period when drug trafficking was on the rise.”A 2002 book that Contreras co-authored with Colombian journalist Fernando Garavito notes: “One year after Uribe Vélez left his post, the National Drugs Council [Colombian 'drug czar' office], presided by the justice minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, ordered Aerocivil ‘to suspend narcotraffickers’ flights’ and indicated that in the past this agency had suffered from a passive and negligent attitude.”

  • Cesar Villegas: Uribe’s deputy at Aerocivil, César Villegas, was later jailed for five years due to his ties to the Cali cartel. In his on-air fight with Daniel Coronell this week, Uribe vigorously denied having visited Villegas in prison. Villegas was murdered in early 2002.
  • Mayor of Medellín: Just as he turned 30 in 1982, Uribe became mayor of Medellín, which was then an appointed post. He served for five months at a time when the city was solidly under the sway of Pablo Escobar’s narcotrafficking organization. That year, Escobar was elected to Colombia’s Congress as a legislative alternate from the same party (Liberal) as Uribe.
  • Virginia Vallejo’s allegations: Escobar’s ex-girlfriend has just released a book with passages that President Uribe says are total fabrications.

    Page 48: “I asked him how Pablo manages to have his own runway and fleet of aircraft, to get tons of coca out of the country, and to bring giraffes and elephants from Africa, and to smuggle in Rolligons [all-terrain vehicles] and six-meter boats. … Pablito is a ‘big guy’: he has the key guy at the Civilian Aviation Agency, a young kid who is the son of one of the first narcos… a guy named Uribes [sic], a cousin of the Ochoas… Álvaro Uribe.”

    Page 111: “One night, after inaugurating one of his sports projects, Pablo introduces me to the former mayor of Medellín, whose mother is cousin of the Ochoas’ father; he calls him ‘Doptor Varito’ [Little Doctor Álvaro] and he immediately leaves a good impression on me because I think that he is one of Pablo’s few friends with the face of a decent person and, as I recall, the only one who wore glasses like a student. [President Uribe says he did not wear glasses until 1990.] … He is named Álvaro Uribe Vélez and Pablo idolizes him. … Pablo later explains to me … that this blessed kid, with the help of sub-director César Villegas, gave us dozens of licenses for planes and helicopters. … Thanks to him I know everything that happens in Civil Aviation and in the Medellín airport, because his successor was trained to give us what we needed. … If one day something should stop me and Santofimio [Alberto Santofimio, a Colombian senator sentenced to jail today for the 1989 murder of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán] in our path to the presidency, this kid would be my candidate. You see him with his glasses and his seminarian’s face, but he is a nasty fighter.”

  • The helicopter: On the June 1983 day that the FARC killed his father and wounded his brother in eastern Antioquia, Álvaro Uribe tried to reach the site by taking one of Pablo Escobar’s helicopters from Medellín. Uribe says he did not know the helicopter belonged to Escobar. Daniel Coronell’s Sunday Semana column includes scanned images (PDF and PDF) of 24-year-old news coverage of Uribe’s “frustrated rescue.”
  • Pedro Juan Moreno and the precursor chemicals: This from Joe Contreras’ ill-starred Newsweek interview with Uribe:

    Contreras: In 1997 and 1998, agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA] seized 50,000 kilos of a chemical precursor used in the processing of cocaine. Those chemicals had been allegedly purchased by a company belonging to Pedro Juan Moreno, who served as your cabinet chief when you were governor of Antioquia.

    Uribe: I became aware of that only after my term as governor ended. If the charges are true, he should go to jail. If they are groundless, the DEA should rectify that error. I believe that an error was made in his case.

    Pedro Juan Moreno died in a helicopter crash in February 2006.

  • Death squad meetings on Uribe’s ranch: During his April 2007 congressional hearing on paramilitarism in Uribe’s home state of Antioquia, opposition Senator Gustavo Petro brought out testimony from an investigation, closed many years ago, claiming that the president may have fostered paramilitary activity during the late 1980s. The Washington Post reported:

    Sen. Gustavo Petro said the militiamen met at Uribe’s Guacharacas farm as well as ranches owned by his brother, Santiago Uribe, and a close associate, Luis Alberto Villegas.

    “From there, at night, they would go out and kill people,” Petro said, referring to the sprawling ranch owned by Álvaro Uribe, who served as a senator from 1986 to 1994.

  • 1991 DIA document: A September 1991 document from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, declassified in 2004, includes Uribe on a list of “the more important Colombian narco-traffickers contracted by the Colombian narcotic cartels for security, transportation, distribution, collection and enforcement of narcotics operations.” The document lists Uribe as:

    A Colombian politician and senator dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín cartel at high government levels. Uribe was linked to a business involved in narcotics activities in the US. His father was murdered in Colombia for his connection with the narcotraffickers. Uribe has worked for the Medellín cartel and is a close personal friend of Pablo Escobar Gaviria. He has participated in Escobar’s political campaign to win the position of assistant parliamentarian to Jorge Ortega. Uribe has been one of the politicians, form the Senate, hwo has attacked all forms of the extradition treaty.

    The DIA has backed away from this intelligence report – a very strange document that also lists Colombian pop star Carlos Vives (then a soap-opera actor) as a narcotics figure. The document is considered to be “not finally evaluated” intelligence: only as reliable as its anonymous source.

  • Governor of Antioquia: Uribe’s tenure as governor of Antioquia department spanned 1995 to 1997. This was a period of very rapid paramilitary expansion in Antioquia, with near-daily massacres, particularly in the northwestern region of Urabá. Uribe’s active sponsorship of “Convivir” – government-sponsored citizen self-defense militias, many of which came under paramilitary control – contributed to this phenomenon. Gen. Rito Alejo, who headed the army’s 17th Brigade at the time in the Urabá region, stands widely accused of sponsoring the paramilitaries’ growth. After Alejo and another general were forced out of office in 1999 – many claim under U.S. pressure – Uribe was the keynote speaker at a Bogotá dinner in their honor.
  • Carlos Náder: Some of the threats that forced journalist Daniel Coronell to leave Colombia in 2005 came via e-mail. These e-mail threats were traced to the computer of Carlos Náder Simmonds, a former member of the Colombian Congress who spent three years in a U.S. jail for narcotrafficking. The subsequent investigation revealed that among the several dozen people who may have used Náder’s home computer were Uribe’s two sons, who frequented the disgraced politician’s house. As we noted in a 2005 blog entry:

    Náder has a shady past. In 1983, while a member of Congress from Córdoba, he was arrested and later found guilty by a New York court of trying to sell cocaine to a DEA agent. He spent at least three years in a U.S. prison. He was close enough to Medellín Cartel chief Pablo Escobar that, in 1990, recordings of phone conversations surfaced in which Náder calls Escobar “brother” and “compadre,” they discuss threats against César Gaviria (then a presidential candidate) and the daily newspaper El Tiempo, and Náder expresses support for the 1989 assassination of popular presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán (“better dead than a son of a b***h”).

    According to Náder himself, President Uribe even celebrated the 2004 New Year together with the convicted former narco-trafficker in the town of Ríonegro, just outside Medellín. “It is difficult to understand why the President shares his family with someone who served a prison term in the United
    States for cocaine trafficking, without this being seen as a moral impediment,” notes El Espectador columnist [and former presidential intelligence (DAS) chief] Ramiro Bejarano.

  • Fabio Ochoa’s allegations: In a June 2007 interview with Semana magazine, Fabio Ochoa – a member of the Medellín cartel family who is currently a fugitive in Mexico – alleged that he had helped paramilitaries gather money to contribute to Uribe’s 2002 presidential campaign. Most observers dismissed these allegations as the words of a hardened criminal with no credibility.
  • The campaign video: A video made public in June 2007 shows Uribe in a late 2001 campaign meeting in the paramilitary-dominated town of Puerto Berrío, Antioquia. Seated near the candidate is a local paramilitary leader known as “Comandante Esteban.” Uribe says that neither he, nor most of those at the meeting, had any idea that a paramilitary member was present; the meeting was intended to be a visit with local campaign supporters.
  • Para-Politics: The list of Uribe’s political supporters currently under investigation for paramilitary links continues to grow. The scandal has not touched the president himself, but has claimed members of his inner circle, including his presidential intelligence chief and his cousin Mario Uribe. (Don’t miss Semana magazine’s “Gallery of Para-Politics,” with photos and profiles of the 40 legislators currently embroiled in the scandal.)

Taken together, this is a long and troubling list. Some of these allegations can be dismissed out of hand – but certainly not all of them. If only to ease concerns about with whom the United States is working so closely, we need more than vague denials and episodic temper tantrums. We need facts.

15 Responses to “A tantrum is not a defense”

  1. Jaime Bustos Says:

    This record is extensive, but not exhaustive. A correction, though, in the campaign meeting there was not only one paramilitary but seven

  2. John Lindsay-Poland Says:

    National Security Archives, which turned up the DIA document, was less dismissive of the document’s credibility, and had this to say:

    1) The summary indicates that information in the report was cross-checked “via interfaces with other agencies,” indicating that some evaluation had already taken place.

    2) The summary offers no caveats or qualifications on the credibility of the information and is stated as fact. It thus seems likely that the originator of the report (the “source”) believed the information to be true.

    3) The report includes many details like identification card numbers and dates of birth, giving it the appearance of an official, investigative document. The fact that the numbered list corresponds to photographs that were provided with the original suggests that the report had a variety of uses, including criminal investigations and immigration cases.

    4) Much of the information on other individuals identified in the report is accurate and easily verifiable.

    5) It is evident that a significant amount of time and energy went into compiling this report, and that it did not come from a single source at a cocktail party as these reports often do.

  3. jcg Says:

    Clearly not a real defense, but unfortunately it does seem to work, among Uribists at least.

    Regardless of Uribe’s specific innocence or guilt as far as each allegation is concerned, the President of a country, especially one such as Colombia, should be far more careful and tolerant when replying to critics.

    He doesn’t limit such behavior to questions about his past, however, but it’s definitely one of the touchier subjects that best illustrates his temper.

    Ultimately, I agree with Adam’s conclusion. The circumstances are bad enough already, but we need facts, not tantrums. The list in itself proves little, given how uneven some of the claims are (ie: apparently Pedro Juan Moreno won against the DEA in a judicial case in the U.S., if I recall correctly), but its contents should be properly addressed.

    Personally, my positions against Uribe do not depend on past allegations that may or may not be true (or only partially so), but on what his own policies, politics and actions have demonstrated. The rest I leave up to history to dig up, but I have enough reason to oppose him without trying to present him as an inhuman demon.

    John Lindsay-Poland : That still does not make the report automatically correct on any and all counts. IMHO, it would need verification, not “it’s a serious report, so you should believe it” argument.

    Consider too that there are indeed errors or at least questionable phrases and wordings in it. I believe Adam himself mentioned at least a couple at some earlier point in time, beyond the Carlos Vives example (it would seem that they should have actually included his uncle, from the description they provide).

    The so-called “via interfaces with other agencies” phrase actually refers, when placed in the context of the document itself, to the identification of some individuals. Not a generic statement about the information in the entire document, as the NSA interpretation implies.

  4. Jaime Bustos Says:

    jcg .. you always bringing on those arguments only proper for lawyers when trying to save their defendants. Real life is different. Or do you still believe OJ is innocent?

    Have you seen the video link I posted? There are 7 (seven) paramilitaries in the presidency campaign meeting with this guy (I ignore if you can understand Spanish), and the way Uribe shrug this one off was with the simplistic argument that he did not know who those people were. If you hear what they say it’s beyond reasonable doubt they are supporters and he knows who he is dealing with. I for one don’t have the slightest doubt Uribe is a Medellin Cartel kingpin. — Oh excuse me I forgot the Medellin Cartel is formally over ! :)

  5. jcg Says:

    Jaime Bustos: I don’t believe Uribe would want me as his defendant, considering I do oppose him overall and would refuse any such offer anyways.

    So sorry, but I’m not willing to make an ultimate and absolute judgment when not all the necessary elements are available, many questions remain, and malice need not be automatically assumed in each and every case. I don’t think the world is black and white, nor are most people. Heck, even though I’m also quite opposed to FARC, I don’t think they’re all “evil” either.

    I prefer to wait for more information and, in the meanwhile, base my opinions on factors that aren’t so open to interpretation and subject to later confirmation or dismissal. If you wish to do otherwise, you’re free to do so. I’m not stopping you.

    I’ve seen the whole video before (there are several clips from different dates/places, one of which involves Uribe), and the content doesn’t specify who they are nor what anyone else knew about them. Anyone can reach different conclusions from it. Pick and choose.

    Regardless of that, I believe that Uribe (or anyone else in similar circumstances) *should* have tried to find out beforehand. Not knowing, or accepting meeting proposals at face value, carries a responsibility that should be assumed. Failing to find out, if that is actually what happen, would at least be one more sign of opportunism on his part. At most, you might even be correct, but the video alone doesn’t resolve this.

    Btw, I’m Colombian myself so Spanish poses no problems for me. Podríamos hablar en español todo el día, pero ni hace falta ni cambia nada.

  6. Jaime Bustos Says:

    “the content doesn’t specify who they are” wrong . Just click the link I posted on my first message. ;-) .. And I don’t give a fig about Farc either, but this is not the topic of this discussion, I don’t know what you bring it up for.

  7. jcg Says:

    Noticias Uno and other people sitting in front of a TV screen specify who they are, not the actual videotape itself, which is what I meant.

  8. jcg Says:

    Btw, before you ask, the original videtape itself, without external comments, was posted on the Miami Herald’s website and is probably also on Youtube.

    The guys speak during the meeting but nothing they say, at least according to what’s on the tape, reveals their identities and true activities.

    Identifying those people after the fact on a TV screen isn’t what I was referring to.

  9. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Not so, but whatever fellow, you are good people. ;-)

  10. Manuel Celaya Says:

    We certainly need facts. Well, here is one: The Pedro Juan Moreno matter was cleared by the DEA, even receiving an apology from the Administrative Law Judge. In a long, complicated and ignored-by-the-press case, Mr. Moreno cleared the matter of the wrongly-seized shipment of chemicals headed to his family’s legitimate manufacturing plant. It is rather unfair to present his case as you’ve done in this write-up. Need supporting documentation from me? Glad to provide it! Just send me a note.

  11. Pedro Perez Says:

    You could be surprised. About the helicpoter, nobody asked for an investigation, but the Aerocivil “confirmed” on October 16th 2007 that the helicopter wasn’t from Escobar, but from… guess who… a new friend of uribe: Juan Gonzalo Angel. See note in spanish in Aeronáutica Civil niega que Pablo Escobar haya prestado helicóptero al presidente Uribe en 1983. According to the note the helicopter was the HK2967 and not the HK3081

  12. Juan Felipe Says:

    Jiame bustos: how can you be certain of your affirmations? first: you have to mention that the paramilitars at that meeting were precessed and required by the law at that time. Second: today the “aerocivil” showed that the incident involving Pablo Escobar helicopter was not true (Pablo Escobar´s helicopeter was purchaced 7 months after the time of Alvaro Uribes father was killed…still you insit is true). Third: It was demonstrated also that the visits to the politicans judicialized in the 8000 process (finance with narcotrafic money of the presicencial campaign of Former president Samper) were not true either.
    It is possible to continue writing with the ammount of innacurate, circunstancial and bad intentioned comments made daily against our goverments however i expect that also as you so promplty repeat these alegations you also explain when they are proven to be wrong.

  13. Emilio Zolá Says:

    Mr. Perez. Excuse me sir, but I heard personally Uribe explaining the chopper belonged to Pablo Escobar. Buddy, with all the power, influence and control that Uribe has accumulated, just do you think he would be so stupid lefting anything in the DAC (Dept de Aeronautica Civil) that it could uncover his dirty past? I invite everyone to try to get information of files during the Uribe tenure. Well, don’t waste your time. Files do not exist anymore. Someone stolen the records.

  14. jcg Says:

    Pedro Perez: Which is interesting information, but that doesn’t mean it’s flawless either. See below…

    Juan Felipe: Uribe did admit to visiting one person involved in that scandal, at least, and the Aerocivil statement still relates the other helicopter to a person who apparently did have connections to the drug trade. So even in that case, it’s hardly the best of scenarios.

    Emilio Zolá: I don’t recall his stating that in such a manner, even when he made recent statements about the topic. So it’s hard to tell what you’re referring to just from that.

    As for power and influence, possibly, but that doesn’t necessarily lead to what you’re arguing either. For example, I doubt that every single file has been stolen, which seems to be your (unsupported thus far) claim.

    And it’s been mentioned that there apparently was a previous investigation from the Inspector General’s Office into his term as well, which would have resulted in no charges, though I would like to know more details about it. It may or may not be valid, but it’s interesting, nevertheless.

  15. Prometheus Mapiripan Says:

    I would like to think that Uribe is nothing but a shameless supporter of drug bosses and bloody paramilitars, unfortunately for Colombians the whole true is even worst!. If someone wants to know Uribe´s hidden agenda go to: http://prometheus-mapiripan.blogspot.com

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