If you are concerned about dismantling paramilitarism in Colombia and ending its influence over Colombia’s government, the past week has been very eventful. You are forgiven, though, if you missed these important developments:
- Since Monday, five top paramilitary leaders have been giving their “confessions” before prosecutors: Salvatore Mancuso, Diego “Don Berna” Murillo, Ever “H.H.” Veloza, Ramiro “Cuco” Vanoy, and Juan Carlos “El Tuso” Sierra.
“H.H.” acknowledged responsibility for up to 1,500 killings in the northwestern region of Urabá. “Don Berna” indicated that he would reveal the locations of 300 mass graves around Medellín and eastern Antioquia. Vanoy detailed his collaboration with Mexico’s Juárez cartel to ship drugs to the United States. Mancuso was publicly challenged by victims claiming that the paramilitary leader threatened them in late 2005 – a year after he “demobilized” – after they sought to get back land he had taken from them.
- The “para-politics” scandal continues to implicate Colombian politicians. Magdalena congressman Alfonso Campo was sentenced to six years in prison for helping paramilitary groups. In his confession, “H.H.” spoke of his assistance to the governor of Cauca department, Juan José Chaux, and his contacts with Senator Luis Fernando Velasco. “Don Berna” told of his support for Representative Eleonora Pineda and Senator Miguel de la Espriella. Salvatore Mancuso told of seventy murders his men carried out at the order of the mayor of Cúcuta, Ramiro Suárez.
- A bad precedent was almost set for the para-politics investigations. A judge in the town of Lorica, Córdoba, nearly absolved several politicians who signed a 2001 document pledging support for paramilitary leaders, arguing that they were not guilty of “aggravated” conspiracy. This threatened to set a precedent that might apply to many other accused “para-politicians.” This outcome was averted, for now, by a higher court’s reversal of this decision. However the “aggravated conspiracy” loophole has not been definitively closed.
- Last but not least: 10 years after the paramilitary massacre of nearly 50 people in Mapiripán, Meta, a court yesterday acquitted Gen. Jaime Uscátegui, the brigade commander who refused to come to the community’s aid.
This news, important as it is, has received little notice in Colombia’s public consciousness. It has been completely drowned out by the escalating war of words between Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Colombia’s Álvaro Uribe.
During the past day or two, in fact, most of the words have been coming out of Caracas. President Chávez has pulled his ambassador from Bogotá, announced a “break” in bilateral relations, and has sworn to have “no type of relationship” with Uribe, “a president capable of lying shamelessly,” as long as he remains in office.
These are strong words, and they are likely aimed at a domestic audience. Venezuelans go to the polls in three days to consider a package of constitutional reforms that could, among other things, give President Chávez the right to seek indefinite re-election. The most recent polls indicate that Chávez’s proposals may run into trouble at the ballot box. An international crisis, with appeals to nationalism, could work to Chávez’s advantage.
But it also works to President Uribe’s advantage. Gallup’s poll of people with telephones in major cities found Uribe’s approval rating to be at a stunning 78 percent last week. Now, after several days of attacks from Chávez, it could be well into the eighties. President Uribe should send Chávez a thank-you note.
President Chávez’s attacks have also helped Uribe by taking Colombians’ minds off of the alleged links between Uribe’s supporters and paramilitary groups. The louder Chávez’s rhetoric gets, the further the messy “para-politics” and “Justice and Peace” processes will get shoved to Colombia’s back burner.
This in turn will mean less pressure to address the problem of paramilitarism and organized crime, and its influence over Colombia’s government. It will also mean less pressure to find a new way to facilitate the release of the FARC’s hostages.
These are both topics that make the Uribe government very uncomfortable – but both are on hold this week. Ironically, President Chávez’s provocations are giving President Uribe a lot of political breathing room at home. They provide a distraction that Colombia can ill afford.