President Ãlvaro Uribe’s cousin and longtime political ally, former Senator Mario Uribe, walked out of BogotÃ¡’s La Picota prison today after being held for less than three months. He continues to be under investigation for working with paramilitary groups in his home department of Antioquia. The Prosecutor-General’s Office (FiscalÃa) nonetheless determined this week that the evidence against Uribe was “not sufficient to justify imprisonment” while he awaited trial.
The FiscalÃa and Colombia’s Supreme Court have placed 69 members of Colombia’s Congress under investigation or arrest on suspicion of having aided, abetted or collaborated with paramilitary groups. (Active members of Congress are investigated and tried by the Supreme Court, while former members are investigated and prosecuted by the FiscalÃa.) These politicians are under investigation for a very serious charge: working with criminals responsible for tens of thousands of murders and the production and transshipment of hundreds of tons of cocaine. Nearly all of the legislators caught up in the”para-politics” scandal are supporters of President Uribe.
Mario Uribe’s release comes amid an onslaught of political pressure on the judicial system’s “para-politics” investigators. Despite the seriousness of the charges, President Uribe and his allies are carrying out, in the words of an unusually strong communiquÃ© the Supreme Court put out last week, a “recurrent, systematic and even orchestrated” campaign “oriented exclusively to delegitimize the judicial public servants’ investigations or to undermine their credibility.” This campaign may be working.
The Uribe government’s pressure on the judiciary began to mount back in September 2007, when President Uribe angrily produced a letter written to him by a low-ranking imprisoned paramilitary leader nicknamed â€œTasmania.â€ The letter alleged that the Supreme Court’s chief investigator, IvÃ¡n VelÃ¡squez – a frequent target of those attacking the court – had sought to get the ex-paramilitary to give false evidence implicating the President in support for the paramilitary cause. “Tasmania” retracted his story in June, alleging that he had been put up to it by his lawyer, an individual closely tied to Mario Uribe.
Things heated up again in January, when President Uribe launched a slander lawsuit against the outgoing Supreme Court chief, Julio CÃ©sar Valencia. The judge had told Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper that Uribe had called him on his cell phone in September 2007 to talk about the allegations of “Tasmania,” and that during the conversation the President had asked him about the case of his cousin Mario. Uribe denies that he mentioned his cousin in the conversation, while Valencia insists that he did. The case is still before Colombia’s Congress, which has competence over charges against judicial officials and is controlled by a large pro-Uribe majority.
Last month, Colombia’s new interior minister, Fabio Valencia, announced that the Uribe administration would be sending Congress a package of constitutional reforms that would, among other things, strip the Supreme Court of its ability to investigate members of Congress. “This proposal serves no real purpose, other than to help members of Uribeâ€™s coalition get off the hook,” read a statement from Human Rights Watch.
Last week, the pressure on Colombia’s para-politics investigators further intensified. Former Senate President Nancy Patricia GutiÃ©rrez (whom we have praised in the past for her stance on peace negotiations, but who is now under investigation for para-politics herself) revealed a surreptitiously taped recording of a conversation with a FiscalÃa investigator. In the recording, the investigator – Juan Carlos DÃaz Rayo, a 33-year-old employee of the FiscalÃa’s Technical Investigations Unit (CTI) – told the senator that he felt that the Supreme Court’s chief investigator, IvÃ¡n VelÃ¡squez, was becoming so zealous in his pursuit of “para-politicians” that his work was becoming sloppy.
As Sen. GutiÃ©rrez revealed her recordings last week, President Uribe told an audience that “a senator has told me that she has felt that sectors of justice have wanted to ask her for money.” This charge has no basis in Senator GutiÃ©rrez’s tapes; it is not at all clear, in fact, what President Uribe was talking about.
In Sunday’s El Espectador, the disgraced CTI investigator, Juan Carlos DÃaz Rayo, gave a lengthy interview. His words make clear that – despite what President Uribe and his allies have been insinuating – the Supreme Court investigators have not done anything illegal or unethical. The interview does indicate, though, that the Court could stand to make some adjustments to its approach – provided, that is, that constant attacks from a very popular president and his supporters won’t prevent them from doing their job.
Here are a few translated excerpts from DÃaz Rayo’s interview. It’s a fascinating read; his final answer is especially incisive.
Q: You have been investigating “para-politics” for 3 years. What irregularities have you seen during this time?
A: At the beginning the investigations were well carried out. What I have emphasized: it is not that crimes are being committed nor that cases are being built on illegalities, because everything has been done according to the law. What does happen is that certain means are being used to avoid some defense methods, or to mantain ways to keep the accused from having access to some information.
Right now there is not as much rigor in the investigations. Rigor is lacking. At the beginning we looked at even the most minimal details. If there was a campaign contributor, we went and verified it and interviewed them. Today these situations are hardly seen. Today information in the area is established or sources are obtained, but not with the same attention to detail as before.
Q: So the Court is ordering arrests based on rumors?
A: No. What I mean is that the investigations used to take more time, more emphasis was put on everything, and only when there was already a big investigation underway were arrests ordered. I don’t say that what is being done today isn’t working, but what is happening is that, in the investigative sphere, they are no longer building as much.
Q: How did you [investigators] avoid getting caught up in the political feuds in the regions, in which witnesses might be used to attack political opponents?
A: At first this didn’t happen because the politicians, including their opponents, were quite closed and united. Sometimes they gave one piece of information or another, but never enough actually to take down the other side. Later, after a time, we did begin to see that (suspicious “witnesses”), but as everything is verified there was no problem. A politician in general never gives a statement, those who do it are the people lower down.
Q: And how did you begin to evaluate these witnesses? Why have some generated more doubts than certainties?
A: There were two possible types of witnesses: some who were valued by CTI agents, who were the witnesses we supplied and whom one evaluated directly and sent to the [investigating Supreme Court] magistrate. But there are some witnesses who have a problem, I always saw it this way, the witnesses who come from the Protection Program or who are recommended by someone at a high level. Witnesses who we don’t find but who come to the processes voluntarily. Those witnesses have always had their cover, if you understand me, and almost all have been ex-paramilitaries. And with this type of witness the CTI investigator almost never gets to perform the main evaluation. That is how witnesses work and it is still like that.
Q: What were your methods when you arrived in a new region?
A: The methods change as the investigations advance. At first we had nothing, and the method was baby step by baby step. Nobody denounced anything nor said anything. With time, anonymous sources and formal denunciations began to arrive, and these pieces of information began to be verified.
Q: And in the regions where you were, the experience was that the self-defense groups [paramilitaries] had penetrated the entire society?
A: Undoubtedly. In some departments more than others. It’s not just me saying that. One goes to the regions and finds some things.
Q: The witnesses you contacted only spoke of politicians, or did they also mention businessmen or members of the security forces?
A: One must focus on the principal issue, which are the legislators, but if the person perhaps wanted to provide other information, he gave it and the Supreme Court made official copies of the transcripts. In Cesar and Magdalena [northeastern Colombia] they would talk about some of the congresspeople and also they spoke of governors and mayors, of everything.
Q: From your perspective, what region was totally consumed by paramilitarism?
A: I can’t say anywhere was 100%, but the [Caribbean] coast was very compromised. Cesar and Sucre.
Q: At what moment did you begin to see irregularities in the Court’s management of the processes, or excesses that affected the investigations?
A: When they began to cease performing all the tasks they had done at the beginning. Before even the smallest indicator was sought, much was investigated, there was field work. Later the investigations began to be based more on testimonies, on things not so much from the field. Now there are processes in which it is seen that the relation between “this and this” is based on one testimony and nothing else. At the beginning one also resorted to witnesses, but documentation gave more accreditation to the processes.
Q: And to what do you attribute the speed with which, according to you, the Court is investigating?
A: I think that there is a rush to provide results. I don’t think that they are anxious to stick people in jail. But what I do believe is that at some moment greater speed came to be established, because once there were a lot of people [under investigation], there had to be many more results. And as the investigations kept coming out it was getting harder to obtain information. One would think that maybe it would have become easier, but no. So I think that the investigations could have been delayed longer.
For example, in Magdalena and Cesar the investigations were relatively easy, because the [paramilitary] phenomenon was almost palpable. One went to the area and felt that everyone was saying “yes, that’s how it is.” By contrast in other regions they would not say that. Instead they told us that they knew things but would not give a declaration. In the investigations of Sucre, Cesar and Magdalena we gathered many indicators and the processes were solid, but later the rhythm began to slow down.
I have never seen political bias or a drive for persecutions in the Court. On one occasion I may have felt something, but otherwise what I think is that there was just a rush to show results. And the more untouchable the person was considred the greater the desire for results was, because it is not the same to grab a representative from Arauca as it is to grab the main politician from Antioquia or Cundinamarca.
Q: And you who were within the Court, what is your vision of “para-politics?”
A: It is a term that we never liked. That came from the media. What is my vision? That there has been an evil affecting the country, that what the Court has done has been good at attacking that problem.
Of course in reality I don’t believe that things have changed much, because I don’t think that the paramilitaries infiltrated the politicians – instead, the politicians infiltrated the paramilitaries. Look at who the politicians were 15 years ago, and look at who they are now: they are the same. At least in those zones. And if it had been the other way around the paramilitaries would have put in “their” politicians, not the ones who are there now.