Uribe woes slow U.S. funds for Colom­bia

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By Steve Sal­is­bury

BO­GOTA, Colom­bia — As Colom­bian Pres­i­dent Al­varo Uribe pre­pares for an­other visit to the United States in June, a mush­room­ing scan­dal over wire­tap­ping and ac­cu­sa­tions that some gov­ern­ment, mil­i­tary and po­lice mem­bers back paramil­i­tary vig­i­lantes is un­der­min­ing his sup­port in the U.S. Congress.

“We ask the Congress of the United States to re­spect the valiant strug­gle of the Colom­bian peo­ple against the ex­pres­sions of ter­ror­ism,” Mr. Uribe said two weeks ago in a plea to con­tinue fund­ing the anti-drug Plan Colom­bia and to pass a free-trade agree­ment.

He vis­ited Wash­ing­ton ear­lier this month seek­ing sup­port for both ini­tia­tives but en­coun­tered strong op­po­si­tion from Democrats in Congress. His vice pres­i­dent, Fran­cisco San­tos, was in Wash­ing­ton last week for ad­di­tional meet­ings.

Shortly af­ter Mr. Uribe re­turned to Colom­bia, his gov­ern­ment dis­closed that a po­lice intelligence di­vi­sion had been con­duct­ing il­le­gal wire­taps on jour­nal­ists, op­po­si­tion politi­cians and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials.

Also, Colom­bia’s courts or­dered the ar­rest of six leg­is­la­tors and sev­eral for­mer politi­cians — most of them al­lies of Mr. Uribe — who are ac­cused of hav­ing links to paramil­i­tary groups.

Eight pro-Uribe law­mak­ers al­ready were in jail for ties to the since-de­mo­bi­lized United Self-De­fense Forces of Colom­bia (AUC), the main paramil­i­tary group, which is con­sid­ered a ter­ror­ist out­fit by the United States.

So far, the scan­dal hasn’t hurt Mr. Uribe’s do­mes­tic ap­proval rat­ings, which re­main close to 70 per- cent largely be­cause of his per­ceived suc­cesses against ter­ror­ists and ur­ban crime. But the scan­dal is killing his sup­port in the U.S. Congress.

In April, Sen. Pa­trick J. Leahy, Ver­mont Demo­crat and chair­man of the Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions state, for­eign op­er­a­tions and re­lated pro­grams sub­com­mit­tee, put a hold on $55.2 mil­lion in aid to the Colom­bian mil­i­tary be­cause of his con­cerns that Colom­bian gen­er­als were col­lab­o­rat­ing with paramil­i­taries.

Paramil­i­taries were re­spon­si­ble for co­caine traf­fick­ing and the deaths of an es­ti­mated 10,000 Colom­bians dur­ing the civil war with Marx­ist guer­ril­las.

“I have with­held the re­lease of those funds be­cause I — and other mem­bers of Congress — are con­cerned about re­ports of paramil­i­tary in­fil­tra­tion of the Colom­bian gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary,” Mr. Leahy said at the time.

The AUC was cre­ated by Colom­bian landown­ers and peas­ants in the late 1990s to de­fend against the Revo­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia (FARC) and other guer­ril­las. But some of the paramil­i­taries be­came ma­jor drug traf­fick­ers and vig­i­lante killers.

Much of Mr. Uribe’s con­tin­ued pop­u­lar­ity is cred­ited to his ne­go­ti­at­ing the sur­ren­der and dis­ar­ma­ment of the paramil­i­taries in ex­change for con­fes­sions and re­duced jail sen­tences.

Sal­va­tore Man­cuso, a top AUC com­man­der, sent shock waves through the Uribe ad­min­is­tra­tion when he tes­ti­fied re­cently that Mr. San­tos, the vice pres­i­dent, and De­fense Min­is­ter Juan Manuel San­tos had met with paramil­i­tary lead­ers in the 1990s.

Juan Manuel San­tos sub­se­quently ad­mit­ted meet­ing with paramil­i­taries as a private cit­i­zen on a peace mis­sion. The vice pres­i­dent, who ar­rived in Wash­ing­ton on May 22, has not de­nied meet­ing paramil­i­tary mem­bers when he was a jour­nal­ist for the El Tiempo news­pa­per.

Both of­fi­cials deny that they did any­thing il­le­gal.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry Reid have in­di­cated that con­sid­er­a­tion of the free-trade agree­ment and fu­ture fund­ing for Plan Colom­bia are on hold un­til in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the paramil­i­tary scan­dal are com­plete.

As­so­ci­ated Press

Stu­dents march hold­ing a ban­ner that reads in Span­ish “Down with Uribe” in ref­er­ence to Colom­bia’s Pres­i­dent Al­varo Uribe dur­ing a demon­stra­tion in Bo­gota on May 23.

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