The Para-Uribe Regime, the Extraditions, and Justice in Colombia
by Justin Podur, Dawn Paley, and Manuel Rozental
A New York Times article by Simon Romero on August 15 suggested that the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo was going to investigate the FARC in Colombia, and its connections to other countries. In the 12-paragraph article, one paragraph (the 10th) noted that the ICC would also look at paramilitarism:
“In relation to the paramilitaries, Mr. Moreno-Ocampo said he was concerned that there had been few convictions of paramilitary warlords, despite the extradition of more than a dozen to the United States and a scandal over paramilitary ties among senior members of Colombia’s political establishment.”
The NYT article is deceptive. The ICC’s main concern was with paramilitarism, not the FARC, whose crimes are dwarfed by those of the paramilitaries. The Supreme Court of Colombia have been seeking convictions of the politicians involved in the ‘scandal over paramilitary ties’, not just the paramilitaries themselves. These cases are going to be harmed by the extraditions of the main witnesses, the mentioned dozen paramilitary leaders. The paramilitaries (and politicians) are guilty of major massacres, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, but they will be tried in the US exclusively on drug charges. Above all, the motive for the crimes is lost in the article. The paramilitarism, and for that matter the drug trafficking to help finance it, was done to destroy social opposition and displace people from territory, to facilitate the plunder of the country through violence.
Some background is necessary. Colombia’s civil war has been running, by some counts, for sixty years, since change through the political system was closed when Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was assassinated in 1948. For the first few decades the instrument of destruction of social movements and indigenous and afro-colombian peoples was the national army and police, supplemented by private armies affiliated with political parties. Starting in the 1960s, the United States became heavily involved in sponsoring counterinsurgency warfare. The paramilitarism currently seen in Colombia, in which private armies act as auxiliaries to the military, conduct narcotrafficking, perform ‘social cleansing’, and contract with landowners, multinationals, and politicians to commit murder and massacre, has been around since at least the 1980s, when the Castano brothers helped found Muerte a los Secuestradores (MAS), which then became Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC).
Colombia’s current President Alvaro Uribe Velez’ political history is intimately tied with paramilitarism. He was mayor of the then drug-trafficker controlled Medellin in 1982, and when he became governor of Antioquia in 1995-1997, he supported the legalized paramilitarism of groups called CONVIVIR. Elected president in 2002 he changed the constitution so he could be re-elected in 2006, and reams of evidence have accumulated of links between politicians in his party and the paramilitary death squads. During Uribe’s nearly three decades in politics, paramilitaries have ravaged the country, killing several thousand Colombians every single year, carrying out spectacular public atrocities like playing soccer with victims’ heads and creating mass graves.
As President, Uribe’s strategy was to attack the FARC continuously, politically and militarily, to capitalize on the political errors of the guerrillas and suggest a military solution to the conflict with them. In tandem, he also initiated a full-blown ‘peace process’ with the paramilitaries. The idea of a peace process between the government and the paramilitaries, which were basically the clients of the state and multinationals, performing the killings and terrorism these institutions did not want to be openly associated with, was always preposterous, a mechanism for legalizing paramiltarism. But the process went forward over a number of years. Many paramilitaries who came forward and surrendered their arms were allowed impunity for their crimes and in some cases, were also allowed to keep the territories of the peasants they had driven from the land by terror. Others were incorporated into Uribe’s ‘democratic security’ apparatus as paid informants. Still others came forward to confess to lesser crimes than they had actually committed.
The peace process and the ‘demobilization’ of paramilitaries did not end paramilitarism. Assassinations and death threats proceed as normal despite the supposed demobilization. The new generation of paramilitaries on August 11/08 made genocidal threats against the indigenous of Cauca, saying the region had been surrounded by their agents and that “there will be a significant number of you murdered and disappeared. We know that your population will not go above 1 million people in Colombia. We want Popayan, Bogota, and Cali free of Indians…” The current indigenous population of Colombia is about 1.4 million.
The number of paramilitary atrocities has decreased somewhat since the peace process, but the Colombian army and police have taken up the slack. An LA Times report on August 20/08 by Chris Kraul quoted figures from the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ) that the military killed 329 people in 2007 compared to 223 in 2006. The murders that would have been committed by the paramilitaries are now being committed directly by the greatly-expanded military forces.
One major political risk in the paramilitary peace process was that, while the killings could continue, for the process to succeed even as theatre at least some people would have to be punished for the horrendous crimes. But no one wanted to be the scapegoat, and paramilitarism was deeply embedded – in the military, in local politics, in Congress, and in relationships with the multinationals on the ground. One general, Jaime Uscategui, on trial for a paramilitary massacre of civilians at Mapiripan in 1997, suggested publicly that if he went down for it, he would bring many others down with him and had the evidence to do so (he was acquitted).
With both founding Castano brothers (Fidel and Carlos) probably dead, the AUC had been under the control of a third Castano, Vicente, and Salvatore Mancuso, a commander with close links to Italian mafias. AUC leaders had a history of making comments embarrassing to the Colombian administration. According to the paramilitary ideology, they were performing a service, exterminating leftists, unionists, indigenous people and peasant leaders, all of whom they deemed enemies of Colombia, and were unashamed of it. Carlos Castano admitted that 70% of their revenues came from drug trafficking. In 2002, Mancuso praised the election of Uribe and said that 35% of Colombia’s congress were friendly to the paramilitaries.
At the end of 2006, these admissions spiralled out of the control of Uribe’s administration. Mancuso turned himself in. At around the same time, a document called the “Pact of Ralito”, signed by paramilitaries and politicians in 2001, was exposed. A paramilitary leader, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo (codename “Jorge 40”), had his laptop confiscated. Jorge 40’s computer contained many other documents that the Colombian Supreme Court used as the basis for an investigation into the links between elected politicians, most of whom were in Uribe’s camp, and the paramilitaries. Through 2007, between the Jorge 40 laptop documents and the testimony of Mancuso and others, some very uncomfortable realities were being exposed before the Supreme Court and the country. The scandal was called ‘para-politica’, though opposition Senator Jorge Robledo called it ‘para-Uribismo’, because most of the dozens of politicians involved were in Uribe’s camp.
Indeed, it is remarkable how much evidence of paramilitary and narcotrafficking involvement has emerged about Uribe himself. In April 2007 opposition Senator Gustavo Petro presented photos of Uribe’s brother Santiago with a drug dealer (Fabio Ochoa) in 1985 and suggested Uribe’s support for the CONVIVIR paramilitaries in Antioquia helped facilitate massacres in that department in the 1990s. A former lover of notorious drug dealer Pablo Escobar (Virginia Vallejo) said in her book that Escobar and Uribe had been great friends in the 1980s. More seriously, so too did the US Defense Intelligence Agency in 1991, as a document published by the US National Security Archive shows: Uribe was said to be “a close personal friend of Pablo Escobar”, “dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin cartel”, and was against extradition – something the narcotraffickers had always feared. In April 2008, Uribe’s cousin Mario was arrested as part of the para-Uribismo scandal, and another paramilitary fighter accused Uribe himself of helping plan a massacre in 1997.
Uribe met these varied accusations with a single response: attacking the source. Thus in Uribe’s accusations, Gustavo Petro and his party, the Polo Democratico, were guerrilla supporters. The photograph with an Uribe and an Ochoa existed because both families were famous ranchers and attended common horse breeding competitions. Virginia Vallejo couldn’t produce any photos of him with Escobar, and was only the vehicle of journalist Gonzalo Guillen, who Uribe attacked publicly (and who then was forced to flee the country due to death threats from paramiltiaries). He had supported the legalized CONVIVIR paramiltiaries as governor, but when he learned of their atrocities he tried to demobilize them. And the Supreme Court was partisan, political, and should be reformed. In recent weeks Uribe has suggested a reform to put the Supreme Court under the jurisdiction of the executive, to which we will return.
The “para-Uribismo” evidence included specific agreements between politicians and paramilitaries on planning specific massacres, arrangements on how to cover up and erase records of crimes in official databases, and more.
Among the most uncomfortable of the revelations came from Mancuso himself. In March 2007, the American fruit company Chiquita admitted before a US court to paying over a million dollars to the paramilitaries, who massacred banana workers in Uraba. Chiquita made a plea to pay a $25 million fine (in the US) as punishment. A separate case against Chiquita on behalf of the victims of the massacres, represented by Jim Reider, is currently being pursued in a New York Court. Chiquita argued the payments were capitulation to murderous extortion, and that they paid in order to protect their workers from the paramilitaries.
A year later, Chiquita’s relationship with the paramilitaries was brought to a wider American audience in a 60 Minutes program aired May 11, 2008. The interviewer, Steve Kroft, spoke to Mancuso:
* * *
60 Minutes did find one person who was willing to name names inside a maximum security prison outside Medellin: Salvatore Mancuso was once the leader of the paramilitaries.
“Chiquita says the reason they paid the money was because your people would kill them if they didn’t. Is that true?” Kroft asks.
“No it is not true,” Mancuso says. “They paid taxes because we were like a state in the area, and because we were providing them with protection which enabled them to continue making investments and a financial profit.”
“What would have happened to Chiquita and its employees if they had not paid you?” Kroft asks.
“The truth is, we never thought about what would happen because they did so willingly,” Mancuso says.
Asked if the company had a choice, Mancuso says, “Yes, they had a choice. They could go to the local police or army for protection from the guerillas, but the army and police at that time were barely able to protect themselves.”
Mancuso helped negotiate a deal with the Colombian government that allowed more than 30,000 paramilitaries to give up their arms and demobilize in return for reduced prison sentences. As part of the deal, the paramilitaries must truthfully confess to all crimes, or face much harsher penalties.
(CBS) “Dole and Del Monte say they never paid you any money,” Kroft tells Mancuso.
“Chiquita has been honest by acknowledging the reality of the conflict and the payments that it made; the others also made payments, not only international companies, but also the national companies in the region,” Mancuso says.
“So you’re saying Dole and Del Monte are lying?” Kroft asks.
“I’m saying they all paid,” Mancuso says.
Mancuso has been indicted in the U.S. for smuggling 17 tons of cocaine into the country. He says he’s more than willing to tell U.S prosecutors anything they want to know.
“Has anyone come down here from the United States to talk to you about Dole, or to talk to you about Del Monte or any other companies?” Kroft asks.
“No one has come from the Department of Justice of the United States to talk to us,” Mancuso says. “I am taking the opportunity to invite the Department of State and the Department of Justice, so that they can come and so I can tell them all that they want to know from us.”
“And you would name names?” Kroft asks.
“Certainly, I would do so,” Mancuso says.
* * *
About 24 hours after the program aired, on May 13, 2008, Uribe had Mancuso extradited to the United States for drug trafficking, along with a dozen other paramilitary leaders.
The extraditions continue, disrupting the spiral of revelations and given Uribe a chance to try to return to the initiative. Uribe’s attack is three-pronged. First, attack the evidence by deporting the paramilitary leaders who can testify to the links between paramilitary massacre and displacement with Colombian politicians and, more importantly, with multinational and US corporations. Second, attack the Supreme Court institutionally and try to bring it under political control. Also use the legal offices that are under the President’s influence to get people close to the President released: Mario Uribe, the President’s cousin, and William Montes, another accused “para-politician”, were released by Colombia’s prosecutors in the past few days. Third, use the popularity gained from successful operations against FARC to attack anyone pointing to the evidence of para-Uribismo as guerrillas.
These popularity-swelling operations are tarred by their own illegality: Uribe admitted that the Colombian government rescued FARC hostage Ingrid Betancourt and the other captured soldiers and police by impersonating an international humanitarian organization and using the Red Cross logo, something that is also illegal under international law (AFP, July 17/08, “Uribe Admits Red Cross Emblem Used in Hostage Rescue”).
But yet another challenge to Uribe and to “para-Uribismo” has come from an unexpected direction: the International Criminal Court (ICC). Its prosecutor, Argentine attorney Luis Moreno Ocampo, began proceedings against a sitting head of state last month when he sought a warrant for the arrest of Sudan’s President Omar Bashir for war crimes in Darfur. Observers of the Darfur conflict argued that doing so was a mistake, that it mixed false accusations with legitimate ones and would damage the prospects for peace in Darfur (see for example Alex de Waal’s comment).
Others have argued that the ICC’s actions in Rwanda and Yugoslavia were also politicized: US officials would never go on trial for their crimes, nor in most cases would their clients – so what justice was the ICC dispensing? And yet, when Uribe’s office received the ICC’s letter about the paramilitary extraditions, the Colombian president had to be aware that he was receiving a letter from someone who had issued a warrant for the arrest of a sitting president for crimes committed in the name of counterinsurgency and carried out by proxy forces.
Moreno’s letter, addressed to the Colombian Ambassador at the Hague, was diplomatically worded. Its key paragraph:
“How will the prosecution of those primarily responsible for crimes that are under the jurisdiction of the ICC (translator’s note – these are genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and aggression), including political leaders and members of Congress presumably linked to the demobilized paramilitaries, be guaranteed? In particular, I would like to know if the investigations into crimes punishable under the Rome Statute will continue and if the extradition of the paramilitary leaders presents an obstacle to the effective investigation of the aforementioned politicians. I should clarify that as of today there is no decision on opening an investigation. The situation remains under the analysis of my office.”
Colombia is a signatory to the Rome Statute, but it exempted itself for 7 years from the war crimes article of the statute in 2002, the year Uribe came to power. Should the ICC open an investigation, the legality of this exemption will no doubt be considered.
Colombia is not Sudan: Colombia is a devoted US ally and Sudan, an official enemy. Colombia is a sought-after free trade partner of Canada and the US and Sudan, the subject of sanctions. For the ICC to intervene in Colombia to ensure that the evidence against the regime, its links to crimes against humanity, and the relationship between these crimes and the enrichment of multinational corporations is allowed to emerge would be a different direction for the court, one that could damage support for Colombia’s regime in the US and Canada. Perhaps the threat of an ICC investigation could help undermine Uribe’s efforts to abuse Colombia’s Supreme Court and force Canada and the US to stop their armed plunder of that country.
Justin Podur and Manuel Rozental are activists with Pueblos en Camino (www.en-camino.org). Dawn Paley is a contributing editor of The Dominion (www.dominionpaper.ca)
Manuel Rozental, Que justicia exige la Corte, ALAI: http://www.alainet.org/active/25831
Dawn Paley, ICC investigates extraditions, Dominion Weblog: http://www.dominionpaper.ca/weblogs/dawn/1999
For basic information: see wikipedia on Alvaro Uribe Velez, Para-political scandal, and Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia.