That’s me, third from left, with (to my right) CaquetÃ¡ Congressman Luis Fernando Almario, on a July 2006 panel discussion in Colombia’s Congress. Almario was arrested yesterday in connection with the “para-politics” scandal.
I first met Alvaro AraÃºjo in 2000, after he sent me an e-mail asking to meet the next time I visited Colombia. Over the next year or two, we had coffee or breakfast on three occasions and traded periodic e-mails.
He was a young congressman – only three years older than me – from a powerful political family in Cesar department, in Colombia’s Caribbean coast region. He was ambitious and deeply conservative (though at the same time a principal backer of ownership rights for gay couples in Colombia). Attracting foreign investment in Cesar’s mining industry seemed to be one of his main priorities. But he was quite articulate and seemed to have a genuine interest in policymaking.
We disagreed on almost everything politically, and ended up debating each other, at times heatedly, every time we met. The last time, if I remember right, was in late 2001 or early 2002. I recall him being perplexed by my lack of enthusiasm for presidential candidate Ãlvaro Uribe, whom Rep. AraÃºjo was backing while running for the Senate.
Both candidates won, of course, and I sort of lost touch with Sen. AraÃºjo after that. Nonetheless, I was personally disappointed when, in 2006, my acquaintance’s name came up as an alleged sponsor of paramilitary groups in his home department of Cesar. AraÃºjo is accused of helping the AUC’s Northern Bloc, then headed by Rodrigo Tovar Pupo (”Jorge 40″), to raise funds and to influence elections. AraÃºjo may have even conspired with paramilitaries to kidnap a political rival.
Alvaro AraÃºjo has been in jail for a year now, and his court case is ongoing.
In July 2006, meanwhile, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion, held in Colombia’s Congress, on anti-drug policy. The panel was hosted by Luis Fernando Almario, a congressman from CaquetÃ¡, a department in southern Colombia overrun by guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the coca trade. CaquetÃ¡ has been heavily fumigated with glyphosate since the mid-1990s, with little alternative-development investment to go along with it. This combination of policies has had litle discernible effect on the amount of coca grown in the department.
Congressman Almario understood why fumigation was failing in CaquetÃ¡, he said, based on his constant interactions with his constituents. He said that nearly everyone in the department is angry about being sprayed while getting so little help from BogotÃ¡ and Washington. He conveyed demands for new social investment so that legal economic alternatives can take root. It was Rep. Almario who told me about the U.S. Agency for International Development’s decision to cease future investment in CaquetÃ¡ and elsewhere in southern Colombia, showing me a letter from Colombia’s presidency explaining the decision. I reported this revelation in a blog post, which helped generate a few news stories in 2006.
About a year later, though, some very disturbing allegations about Rep. Almario began to emerge. Opposition Senator Gustavo Petro alleged in mid-2007 that the congressman had frequent dealings with the FARC guerrillas, including a possible conspiratorial role in the guerrillas’ brutal December 2001 murder of a political rival, Rep. Diego Turbay. Then, in October 2007, Colombia’s Supreme Court opened an investigation of Almario for alleged collusion with paramilitaries in CaquetÃ¡.
Luis Fernando Almario was placed under arrest yesterday.
Though he is not a part of the “para-politics” scandal, in 2005 this blog inteviewed another politician who ran into trouble: Carlos Palacios, a former priest and human-rights activist who was elected governor of Putumayo in 2003. Palacios was removed from his post under a cloud of corruption allegations in 2006. (Palacios claims he was the victim of a setup by Putumayo’s narco-dominated local political elite – but according to Colombia’s ProcuradurÃa, the corruption evidence was sufficient to remove him.)
The point here is not that I tend to associate with a criminal element when I visit Colombia. The problem is how hard this is to avoid, especially when in any contact with people in positions of local or regional power. (Even the Smithsonian Institution’s Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars hosted Antioquia “para-politician” RocÃo Arias at a 2004 conference on the paramilitary demobilization process – an event at which U.S. Ambassador William Wood was a featured speaker. This was a perfectly legitimate invitation, since Rep. Arias was intimately involved in that process.)
But this reflection does yield a few lessons.
- It is very hard to know whom you’re working with. In much of Colombia, it is often the case that politicians and other local leaders are only able to maintain themselves in their positions through compromises or other deals with violent illegal groups – paramilitaries, guerrillas, or narcotraffickers. These local leaders can run the gamut from politicians to military officers to wealthy individuals to religious figures. Their “arrangements” may range from non-aggression agreements to active collusion, including conspiracy to commit atrocities. Even people who see themselves as agents of social justice or opponents of corruption may have these skeletons rattling in their closets – otherwise the violent armed group(s) in question would have ensured that they ceased to hold their positions of power.
- In much of Colombia, these sort of relationships with illegality have long been considered “normal” – merely the way to do business. That is one reason the “para-politics” investigations are so important. They hold the hope that, in the future, this behavior will no longer be “normal” in Colombia. It will be something that is openly condemned and systematically investigated and punished in the judicial system. For Colombia, that would mean an enormous leap toward modernity. Hope for this new definition of the “normal” way to govern Colombia
is a major reason why the “para-politics” investigations must continue. And if the evidence is there, the people who are implicated – including, of course, those whom I have met – should absolutely be punished to the law’s fullest extent. At a minimum, they betrayed the public trust.
- The investigations must go beyond the more marginal regions. As the map in last week’s “para-politics” post indicated, the bulk of the “para-politicians” implicated so far have come from peripheral, largely rural areas. In places like Cesar, Sucre or Magdalena, local politicians and warlords hold great sway – but they have less political and economic clout in Colombia’s centers of political and economic power like BogotÃ¡ and MedellÃn. Many departments on that map remain suspiciously empty. In an important piece published today, El Tiempo columnist Claudia LÃ³pez points a finger at Antioquia, Colombia’s most economically prosperous and powerful department, whose capital is MedellÃn. She notes that the “para-politics” scandal has yet to break in Antioquia, other than a few rural political figures, despite a widespread belief that paramilitary collusion with the political and economic elite has been commonplace.
In core power centers like Antioquia, para-politicians continue to remain unscathed – and even to do well in elections.
- That “it’s hard to know whom you’re working with” doesn’t erase the questions about President Uribe’s many scandal-tarred supporters. It is one thing to have breakfast or appear on a panel with someone who, months or years later, gets embroiled in the “para-politics” scanda. It is another to campaign for them, or have them campaign – or raise campaign funds – for you. Or for them to be your cousin or the director of your intelligence service. This is not to say that President Uribe himself is a “para-politician.” But it does put him in a position where he must be seen to be doing all he can to ensure that the “para-politics” judicial investigations proceed smoothly, thus providing Colombia the historical housecleaning that it needs. When President Uribe is even perceived to be standing in the way – as in the case of his wars of words with top judicial officials – he does himself no favors whatsoever.