Colombia issues arrest warrants for lawmakers

Times Staff Writer

In a move to curb the pernicious power of paramilitary leaders, the Colombian government over the last week has filed charges and issued arrest warrants for four current and former members of Congress, alleging ties to illegal militias.

A fifth member of Congress, Sen. Alvaro Araujo, has acknowledged that he is being investigated for alleged links to paramilitary groups in northern Colombia, Interior Minister Carlos Holguin said in a radio interview Thursday. Araujo is the brother of Foreign Minister Maria Consuelo Araujo and a close associate of President Alvaro Uribe.

On Wednesday, Jorge Noguera, the ex-director of Colombia’s equivalent of the FBI and current consul in Milan, Italy, was rebuked by an oversight agency for holding several unauthorized meetings with paramilitary leaders during his tenure.

Noguera resigned as head of the law enforcement agency this year after a scandal over its alleged infiltration by paramilitary spies.


The actions come as Uribe faces criticism for the growing power of paramilitary armies -- both lawful and illicit -- in some regions of the country. Formed in the 1980s by farmers and cattlemen to fight leftist guerrillas, the militias have evolved into drug- and arms-trafficking groups that wield political and economic power.

The U.S. government has classified the paramilitary forces as terrorist groups and has sought to extradite several leaders.

The approximately 30,000 paramilitary troops gave up their weapons under a demobilization pact pushed through by Uribe during his first term. But human rights groups say some militias have refocused their energies on more common criminal activities and have carried out at least 3,005 killings and “disappearances” since the demobilization accord was signed in late 2002. No one, they say, has been convicted of those crimes.

Paramilitaries exert much of their influence through their links to friendly members of the Colombian Congress, as well as to local officials, analysts say. One paramilitary leader boasted a few years ago that a third of all members of Congress were loyal to the militias.

Colombian critics of the paramilitary groups hailed the government’s decision to file charges against the three current members of Congress and one former deputy.

“We are satisfied that the court has confirmed what human rights groups have said for months and years, that demobilization of paramilitary groups has not led to disarmament or to the elimination of their infrastructure, which includes a closeness to people in power,” said Carlos Rodriguez Mejia, deputy director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

The four suspects come from the northern state of Sucre, where paramilitary groups exert enormous political and economic control.

Those facing charges include Sen. Alvaro Garcia Romero, who is accused of ordering the massacre of peasants in 2000 and the killing of human rights activist Georgina Narvaez in 1997. Garcia surrendered to police Thursday.

The Colombian Supreme Court issued the charges against the three sitting members of Congress because they are immune from prosecution by the attorney general’s office. The former deputy, Muriel Bonito Rebollo, was charged with collaboration with paramilitary groups. She surrendered to police Wednesday night.

This week’s charges come shortly after Democrats won control of the U.S. Congress, and some key party lawmakers have promised greater scrutiny of an American aid package called Plan Colombia. A proposed U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, set to be signed Wednesday, also may be revised when it goes before the new Congress.

Democrats have long complained that Uribe hasn’t done enough to curb the power of the paramilitary groups or stand up for human rights, and that aid and trade should be conditioned on improvements.

However, some observers interviewed Thursday thought the timing of the charges was merely coincidence, as the investigation had been in progress for 18 months. On Thursday, a high-level source at the court, who asked not to be identified, said he was aware of no outside pressure on the court’s nine justices.

“This has been brewing some time,” said Bruce M. Bagley, a political scientist at University of Miami and an expert on Colombian politics and drug trafficking.

“Uribe was driven to act for a variety of factors: the paras’ power along the Caribbean coast, which is so omnipresent; second, they think they can get away with murder; and third, with these guys exercising direct power in the Congress, the next step might be some sort of law giving the militia leaders a pardon.”

Sen. Gustavo Petro, a member of the opposition party and a critic of paramilitary links to Congress, said in an interview that the power of paramilitaries had reached such proportions that Uribe was forced to act.

The militias, Petro said, posed a threat to legitimate Colombian business and through intimidation had taken over a variety of concerns ranging from trucking firms to dairy farms. They have been aided in this consolidation by officials who do their bidding, he said.

“These charges are a milestone,” said Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy in Washington. “For years we have been hearing hints about paramilitaries’ political control, but ... we’ve never seen a criminal investigation until now.”