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Colombia’s Hard-Line
New President Takes Office
With Questionable Record



Columbia: Clinton's Deadly Gamble ...

For background on Columbia, see "Columbia: Clinton's Deadly Gamble," a previously published UE News Feature

At the time of his assassination in 1998, Jesus Maria Valle Jaramillo was among Colombia’s most outspoken human rights activists. The 53-year-old lawyer had been a vigorous critic of Alvaro Uribe Velez, governor of the Province of Antioquia, for allowing the proliferation of vigilante groups.

Governor Uribe, who vigorously backed the vigilantes, was believed to be linked to the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), one of the most notorious of the paramilitary groups organized by ranchers and businessmen. The paramilitary groups are responsible for kidnappings, drug trafficking and mass killings of suspected guerilla sympathizers. AUC is regarded as among Colombia’s largest narcotics trafficking organizations.

"A part of the military is in cahoots with drug traffickers and paramilitaries," said Valle, a founder of Antioquia’s Human Rights Commission. In confirmation of his allegations, prosecutors said military commanders allowed paramilitary gunmen to carry out a series of massacres.

Paramilitaries backed by landowners were believed to be responsible for the attorney’s murder.


Today, former governor Uribe is Colombia’s newly elected president. He has vowed to end the nation’s decades-old civil war by dramatically intensifying military action against the country’s rebel armies — and would like U.S. taxpayers to pick up the bill. Colombia is already the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid.

Uribe has indicated he seeks results from the military, regardless of the consequences; his willingness to ignore abuses by the military has raised concerns by human rights groups.

The new president’s platform included a controversial "civilian resistance" plan to have more people deeply involved with their local police and military. For many, this recalls Convivirs, a failed national program to ally civilians with the armed forces. As governor, Uribe was a major advocate of Convivirs, even as some of these vigilante groups turned into paramilitary squads. Valle, the slain human rights attorney, was a prominent critic of the program.

So, too, was Gloria Cuartas, mayor of Apartadó, who saw Convivirs operating with paramilitary bands and destabilizing the region. Her complaints to Governor Uribe were disregarded. Her secretary was assassinated.


In February, Colombia’s second largest newspaper accused the hard-line candidate of having had a close relationship with the former Medellín drug cartel. The new president apparently comes from a drug trafficking family; El Espectador says that at one time the U.S. government attempted to extradite his father, Alberto Uribe Sierrra, for narcotics trafficking.

The newspaper asserted that Uribe was allegedly fired as director of Colombia’s Civil Aeronautics agency (1980-82) because of the numerous pilot licenses awarded to the Medellín drug cartel. He was mayor of Medellín in the early 1980s when the city was regarded as "The Sanctuary" because of the protection drug traffickers enjoyed from city government. As mayor, Uribe reportedly had a close relationship with Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord.

According to Colombian critics, Uribe consistently supported legislation backed by the drug cartel and opposed legislation opposed by the drug lords when in the Senate from 1986 to 1994. Critics say the best example of this was Uribe’s strenuous opposition to a proposed public referendum on allowing the courts to extradite drug traffickers to the United States.

Further, Uribe’s campaign manager and former chief of staff, Pedro Juan Moreno Villa, is president of GMP Chemical Products, a company at one time under investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. According to the DEA, GMP was the largest importer of potassium permanganate into Colombia between 1994 and 1998. In 1997 and 1998, U.S. Customs agents in California seized three suspicious Colombia-bound ships carrying 50,000 kilos of potassium permanganate, a key precursor chemical necessary for the manufacture of cocaine. The ships were destined for Medellín and GMP Chemical Products. Moreno was chief of staff when Uribe was governor of Antioquia (in its capital Medellín) from 1995-1997.


Colombia’s union members have been murdered by both sides in the deadly civil war which President Uribe plans to escalate, although the paramilitaries are believed to be responsible for more than 85 percent of the trade union assassinations. Human Rights Watch and most observers say the Colombian military provides the death squads with arms and logistical support.

Last year 159 Colombian trade union leaders were violently murdered. The nation’s labor federation says that 3,800 trade unionists have been assassinated in Colombia since 1986. It’s been estimated that three out of every five trade unionists killed in the world are Colombian.

Among the most recent victims was Tito Libio Hernandez, who was gunned down on April 14 by two masked men as he stood in the main entrance of the University of Narino where had worked for 28 years. He was an activist with the National University Workers Union and a community leader. Hernandez had received a number of death threats from a paramilitary organization.

He was the 52nd trade unionist to be murdered this year.

Colombians voters gave Uribe a clear majority in a desperate bid for security. However, it is not clear how Colombia will achieve democratic security without calling to account the paramilitary death squads and their backers in big business, the drug trade and the military.

UE News - 6/02

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