U.S. Intelligence Tied Colombia's Uribe to Drug Trade in '91 Report

Times Staff Writer

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, one of the Bush administration's most steadfast allies in South America, was allegedly a "close personal friend" of slain drug lord Pablo Escobar and worked for his Medellin cartel, according to a newly released U.S. military intelligence report.

The 1991 report by the Defense Intelligence Agency describes Uribe, then a rising star in Colombian politics, as "dedicated to collaboration" with the Medellin cartel, at the time the world's richest criminal organization and the source of most of the cocaine imported into the U.S.

The memo devotes a single paragraph to Uribe and his alleged narcotics involvement, listing him 82nd among 104 of the "more important Colombian narco-traffickers."

The allegations about Uribe, who was elected president in 2002, were strongly repudiated by the Colombian government, the State Department and the Pentagon.

All three described the memo, released to a nonprofit research group under a public records request, as uncorroborated information contradicted by Uribe's strong support for efforts to wipe out cocaine in Colombia and extradite drug suspects to the United States.

Under Uribe, Colombia's production of coca, the source of cocaine, has dropped by more than 50% through intense, U.S.-funded fumigation efforts, and more than 160 suspected drug traffickers have been indicted, U.S. defense officials said.

"We completely disavow these allegations against President Uribe," said Robert Zimmerman, a spokesman for the State Department's Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau, which monitors Colombia. "We have no credible information that substantiates or corroborates the allegations."

News of the memo comes at a delicate time for Uribe, who is negotiating a peace deal with right-wing paramilitaries involved in drug dealing and is seeking a constitutional amendment to allow him to run for a second term in office.

The memo, which was made public today, appeared likely to resuscitate rumors about Uribe's controversial past, including his alleged connections with the drug trade. It also feeds perceptions of pervasive drug corruption in Colombia, which nearly felled former President Ernesto Samper in the 1990s, when it was discovered that his presidential campaign had received drug money.

"This is a very hard blow," said Daniel Garcia-Pena, a former Colombian government peace negotiator and left-leaning political analyst. "Being an official report from a U.S. agency, this is going to reopen a chapter that Uribe thought he'd closed. It's grave, grave."

Uribe isn't the only popular figure listed in the memo. No. 89 is Carlos Vives, then an aspiring actor and now a Grammy-winning pop star. The memo describes Vives as being "involved in narcotics trafficking" and said he worked closely with an uncle who was a trafficker in the Medellin cartel.

Vives, who has lived in Miami since the early 1990s, could not be reached for comment Sunday. Sources said he was a favorite performer of traffickers from his coastal region of Santa Marta, who would invite him to perform at their parties. The same sources said they doubted that Vives was directly involved in trafficking.

Pentagon and State Department officials took pains to deny the validity of the information in the document, which was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the National Security Archives, a nonprofit research group in Washington.

A Pentagon spokesman said the memo consisted of unconfirmed allegations and did not represent an official position of the Department of Defense. The spokesman said he knew of no other intelligence reports linking Uribe to the narcotics business.

"It's not a smoking gun. The reliability and validity of this raw data is very suspect, to say the least," said Army Lt. Col. Chris Conway, a Pentagon spokesman.

One U.S. intelligence official said that the memo, produced shortly after President George H. W. Bush ordered the military to begin tracking drug trafficking more closely, was based on a single confidential informant in Colombia.

The official noted that such information is typically passed on unedited to military intelligence analysts in Washington to avoid misinterpretation of the raw data.

This explanation is backed up by the presence of several errors in the report. One drug trafficker is listed as Fidel Castro with an alias of "Rambo" -- an apparent mix-up with Fidel Castano, a legendary onetime assassin and paramilitary fighter who went by that moniker.

"The one thing you don't want to do is sanitize the information in a report like this," the intelligence official said. "You want to keep it [as] close to raw intelligence as you can."

Colombian government officials denied that Uribe had dealings with the drug trade. They said the charges were similar to attacks Uribe faced during his 2002 presidential campaign and questioned whether the source for the document had political motives.

They pointed out factual errors in the document, which said Uribe had "attacked all forms" of an extradition treaty with the U.S. that Escobar had opposed. Uribe supported the treaty, they said, though he suggested postponing a vote to avoid pressure from drug lords.

They also noted that Uribe was studying at Harvard University in 1991 and questioned why the U.S. Embassy would issue a visa to someone suspected of having drug connections.

"The document shows that it is about information that was not evaluated," said a statement issued by Uribe's press office.

Nonetheless, Colombia experts said the document revived questions about Uribe's background.

Human rights groups have frequently alleged that the hard-charging politician had ties to right-wing paramilitary groups, and rumors have surfaced about purported drug links.

"We do know that DIA believed the document was serious and important enough to pass on to intelligence analysts in Washington," said Michael Evans, director of the Colombia Documentation Project for the National Security Archives.

But skeptics of Uribe were careful about the document's assertions about drug links. Uribe has based his political career on his reputation for honesty and his fight against corruption.

"It's not entirely unbelievable, but you need to put it in context, and you need a lot more specifics," said Adam Isacson, an expert on Colombia with the left-leaning Center for International Policy. "Was he turning a blind eye [to drug dealing], or was he actually part of the circle?"

The context goes back to the 1980s, when Pablo Escobar had turned a small drug-running operation into a criminal empire centered in Medellin, where Uribe was appointed mayor in 1982.

Uribe has long acknowledged that his youth and career in Medellin brought him into contact with drug world figures. A horse lover and cattle rancher, Uribe grew up competing in dressage events with the Ochoa clan, who would later become close allies of Escobar.

Cocaine money was omnipresent in Medellin at the time and Escobar was seen as a Robin Hood type who built houses and soccer fields for the poor. He paid off some politicians, killed others and had himself elected as a substitute representative to the national assembly.

The memo suggests that Uribe's links to Escobar date at least from that period. It says Uribe "participated" in Escobar's political campaign to win the seat.

The memo also said Uribe had links to an unnamed business tied to narcotics activities in the U.S. and that Uribe's father was killed for ties to drug lords. Uribe's father was killed by rebels with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 1983. Colombian military officials have long described the incident as a botched kidnapping attempt.

Although several Colombian and U.S. officials said it was possible that Uribe knew Escobar or ignored signs of drug trafficking, they discounted the idea that he played an important role in the operations.

Thomas E. McNamara, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia until a few months before the memo was written, said Uribe "never came up on my screen."

"If everything said in that short paragraph were true, those of us in the embassy working the issue hard would have had him in our scopes," said McNamara, now a counterterrorism consultant to the State Department. "He wasn't."

Whatever its validity, the document is likely to play a role in Colombia's politics. Uribe has drawn a host of critics despite his popularity for curtailing rebel attacks and kidnappings.

The publication of the document comes as criticism of the talks with paramilitaries is increasing. The U.S. has faulted Uribe's negotiators for being overly forgiving of the rightists, who are suspected of killing thousands of peasants. And Colombians are demanding results, since as many as 400 people have been killed or kidnapped by paramilitaries since the talks began.

Military analyst Alfredo Rangel predicted that the president would emerge with his credibility intact.

"Since he's been the object of so many accusations that haven't taken root, the public will see this as a rehashing of old accusations," Rangel said. "The public won't trust the substance of these accusations, and it will give him an opportunity to show they aren't true."

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Special correspondent Ruth Morris in Bogota contributed to this report.

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