Colombia’s compliant editorialists refer to the revelations as ‘incómodas coincidencias’ (uncomfortable coincidences). President Álvaro Uribe claims the accusations are ‘insinuaciones malévolas’ (malevolent insinuations) and has, as usual, attacked the messenger, criticising American newspapers, Colombian opposition politicians and even México in an attempt to divert attention from the latest evidence that ties him to the paramilitaries.
The first is a video that shows Álvaro Uribe at a private meeting on 31st October 2001 to organise support for his 2002 presidential campaign. According to the Colombian political magazine Semana, five of the 13 people present were associated with the paramilitaries in the far right AUC militia, and one of them, Frenio Sánchez Carreño, was a notorious narco boss whose militia name was Comandante Esteban.
Comandante Esteban had been complicit in at least 80 assassinations and also the forced displacement of more than 3000 peasant workers, according to Colombia’s DAS intelligence service, whose agents were actively searching for him at this time. He had threatened local journalists as far back as December 2000, and just twelve days before meeting with Álvaro Uribe, he had signed an AUC communiqué that declared union and worker organisers to be ‘military targets.’
The meeting pledged to support Uribe’s presidential campaign, and also other rightist candidates in the 2002 Senate and Congress elections, in the hope that legislation promoted by these politicians would ‘legitimise’ the paramilitaries. These militias succeeded in electing their candidates in 2002 — AUC national boss Salvatore Mancuso has since admitted that intimidation and bought votes, or threats and assassinations, allowed many rightist candidates to be ‘elected’ unopposed — and soon received a payback from the politicians in the form of virtual impunity for their crimes.
The DAS arrested Álvaro Uribe’s supporter, Comandante Esteban, just six weeks after the 31st October meeting, and charged him with aggravated homicide and attempted homicide, among other crimes. For ‘reasons that are still not clear’, according to Semana, and after Uribe became president, he was freed from jail in 2005. Now, as Frenio Sánchez Carreño, the authorities have offered a $5,000 reward for his arrest, accusing him of leading supposedly ‘demobilised’ paramilitaries reprised as criminal gangs.
An interview in México revealed more details about the president’s ties to the paramilitaries. Fabio Ochoa Vasco is a narcotics cartel boss who is one of the United States’ most wanted criminals — he has a $5 million price on his head — and he claimed to Colombian journalists that the paramilitaries’ boss of bosses, Salvatore Mancuso, had financed Álvaro Uribe’s presidential campaign in 2002.
It is suspected that Mancuso, in jail and expecting a lenient sentence while avoiding extradition to the US, has not revealed all about the paramilitaries’ ties to Colombia’s political elite for this reason. Ochoa, lacking Mancuso’s political protection to avoid his fate, has decided to detail his part in the parapolítica scandal in an attempt to be worth more to Colombian investigators and avoid an American jail.
Ochoa claimed that he took thousands of dollars in cash — paramilitaries’ narcotics profits — in suitcases to the capital, Bogotá, to finance rightist candidates in the 2002 elections. He claimed that the paramilitaries and Mancuso contributed $2 million to the president’s campaign, and that he also organised campaigns to intimidate voters in Medellín to ensure Álvaro Uribe was elected.
Mancuso said ‘that the paramilitaries should finance the (presidential) campaign because one of the promises is that there will be a law that should anyone be accused or suspected of being in the paramilitaries, they will be saved,’ Ochoa related, ‘so we made sure that all the votes had to be for Uribe.’ In Medellín’s barrios, people confirmed that the paramilitaries patrolled the streets that election day, demanding to see residents’ identification cards, and warning opposition supporters ‘not to show at the polls if you’re not going to vote for Uribe,’ as one barrio activist recalled.
The third revelation came in another video, this time posted on the opposition Polo Democrático Alternativo internet site that showed another paramilitary boss, Ernesto Báez, acclaiming Uribista politicians in the 2002 elections as ‘his candidates.’ The Colombia Democrática and Convergencia Popular Cívica parties that the paramilitaries supported succeeded in electing Senators and representatives to Congress in 2002, who subsequently went on to approve laws that gave the paramilitaries their virtual impunity.
The Colombia Democrática party was established by Álvaro Uribe’s first cousin, Mario Uribe, and one of the Congress reps that paramilitary boss ‘Ernesto Báez’ supported was the CD’s Rocío Arias. After the connections between the far right militias and the president’s Congressional supporters became known, Arias revealingly said, ‘No-one can blame us if the paras, for ideological reasons, supported us.’
The president responded to all the revelations with characteristic disdain, at first refusing to ‘make comments or give explanations about each photograph or video recorded’ during his political career. As the accusations mounted, he even resorted to criticising the Méxican police for not arresting Fabio Ochoa Vasco, rather than counter the narco boss’s allegations.
In the end the president was forced to make a US President Richard Nixon ‘I am not a crook’ style live television broadcast to all Colombia, claiming ‘I have never abused my position… I never sought to be president using illicit money, and I have never used illicit money to remain as the Republic’s president.’
Editorials and newspaper columnists, rather than investigate further, predictably echoed the president’s line, claiming the most recent revelations were ‘a disgrace’, not because of the details, but because they were published at all. ‘Against Colombia,’ declared the country’s single national newspaper, El Tiempo, commenting on the allegations, and taking up the elite’s favourite tactic of deliberately equating the president with the country in order to curtail debate, continued, ‘the campaign against Colombia is implacable, devastating and unjust.’
‘Implacable, devastating and unjust’ are adjectives that could more appropriately be applied to the terror the narco paramilitaries have inflicted on Colombia in recent times, but ‘a disgrace’ is too complaisant a term to describe a president supported, financed and bought by such terrorists.