President Alvaro Uribe’s right-wing Colombian government is dealing with a scandal stemming from revelations of ties between the paramilitary United Self Defense Forces of Colombia and ruling elements in Colombian society.

According to U.S. government sources, the paramilitaries have accounted for over 80 percent of Colombia’s political assassinations and much drug trafficking. Washington’s support for Colombian military and police operations, totaling $3.8 billion over six years, raises questions of U.S. complicity with human rights abuses there.

Under pressure from the Bush administration and facing re-election last year, Uribe made some outward motions ostensibly aimed at controlling the paramilitaries. But his 2005 “Law of Justice and Peace” authorized prosecutors to assign political, rather than criminal, status to paramilitary leaders under investigation. Those who were so classified are now lodged in comfortable jail settings, confident their sentences will be light and their wealth untouched.

Although over 20,000 people left the paramilitary ranks as a result of the pressures, thousands are now reportedly regrouping. They are doing so despite the U.S. government’s pledge of $20 million last year to support their demobilization.

Detainees have admitted to thousands of assassinations. Early in 2006, investigators opened a computer belonging to Rodrigo Tovar, known as “Jorge 40.” The public learned about 558 killings in two years, government contracts with paramilitaries, drug trading records and evidence of paramilitary ties with elected officials, policemen, big landowners and businesspersons.

Sacked high-level security service operatives last year told journalists of secret police collaboration with paramilitaries in killings and intimidation of civilians and protection of drug merchants. Allegations surfaced of links between U.S. drug enforcement agents and paramilitaries.

Last month former paramilitary chieftain Salvatore Mancuso handed the prosecutor a document he and 31 others signed in 2001 to fashion a “new social contract.” Signatories included paramilitaries, four senators, eight representatives, two governors, four mayors and cattle ranchers. Mancuso himself admitted to ordering kidnappings, massacres and the murder of 336 individuals.

On Feb. 15 the Supreme Court authorized the arrests of four senators and two representatives close to the paramilitaries. One, Sen. Alvaro Araujo, is the brother of Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Araujo. The latter resigned Feb. 19. Four other congresspersons were arrested last November.

Prior to self-exile in 2002 due to death threats, journalist Fernando Garavito, collaborating with Newsweek reporter Joseph Contreras, documented the association of President Uribe and family with the Ochoa drug lords and Pablo Escobar.

In July 2004, Uribe rejected as unsubstantiated a declassified U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency document stating, “Alvaro Uribe used high government offices to collaborate with the Medellin cartel.” The document adds, “Uribe was implicated with drug dealing activities in the United States.”

The president’s brother, Santiago Uribe, has repeatedly been accused of having set up a paramilitary group that murdered peasants. Two first cousins spent a year in jail for paramilitary killings in Antioquia.

Senator Gustavo Petro recently called for congressional debate on paramilitary activities in Antioquia while Uribe was governor there. He also reminded an El Tiempo interviewer about Santiago Uribe’s paramilitary past. Now he’s in trouble.

In a Feb. 3 television interview, Uribe designated Petro and other leftist legislators as “terrorists dressed in civilian clothes.” He alleged their association with the M-19 guerilla group of the 1980s. Government opponents took the remark as an invitation to murder.

They were harking back to the 1985 slaughter of more than 5,000 Patriotic Union and Communist Party militants. The Patriotic Union was a united front joining left-wing armed insurgents with a range of democratic forces to engage in electoral politics

Gustavo Petro is a leader of the Democratic Alternative Pole (PDA), another unity coalition of smaller left parties, unions and social movements. On Feb. 9, 4,000 PDA activists protested in Bogota against Uribe’s anti-terrorist hyperbole. Union head Julio Roberto Gómez told reporters that “behind the [Uribe] aggressions is fear that the PDA, the people of Colombia, might take power in 2010, and on that count they want to polarize the country, fill it with fear.”

The PDA projects demonstrations on May 1 and May 23, and later on, a nationwide general strike. Meanwhile the Colombian Defense Minister has asked the Bush administration for $44 billion over the next decade.

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