Colombian senator faces down paramilitaries

Times Staff Writer

Some may object to his politics, but few question the courage of leftist Colombian Sen. Gustavo Petro, whose five-year campaign to prod the government into investigating elected officials’ links to illegal paramilitary groups finally bore fruit this month.

Colombia’s Supreme Court issued arrest orders for three sitting members of Congress and one former member as well as an ex-governor on charges including murder, electoral fraud and diversion of public funds in collusion with right-wing militia leaders. All charged are from the northern state of Sucre and all but the ex-governor, Salvador Arana, are behind bars.

Arrests of as many as 20 more Congress members may take place soon, officials said this week.

From the floor of the legislature, Petro, a former guerrilla, has declared repeatedly that members of Congress are up to their necks in illegal activities with the right-wing militias in Sucre state and has called on President Alvaro Uribe’s government to investigate them.

It has come at great personal risk in a country where opposition to the militias often is a death sentence. The Supreme Court also faces retribution for issuing the orders, as does Prosecutor General Mario Iguaran for requesting them.


Petro routinely receives death threats, and doesn’t go anywhere without a security escort of as many as 10 police officers. “They can kill me at any time without the least moral or ethical reluctance,” Petro said. “My assassin could be sitting next to me in the Senate.”

One of those accused, Sen. Alvaro Garcia Romero, was charged with having ordered militia leaders to conduct a massacre in 2000 and murder an election monitor in 1997.

The arrests came at a delicate point in Colombia’s demobilization process, after the surrender of about 31,000 paramilitary fighters since 2003 and as the Uribe government is beginning to prosecute their leaders.

The militias were formed in the 1980s by farmers and ranchers to defend against leftist guerrilla attacks. But some of the private armies took over much of the nation’s drug traffic; they were labeled terrorist organizations by the United States in the 1990s.

Recent revelations indicate that although militia leaders gave up their arms, many retain control of criminal networks that run illicit businesses with the aid of the local and national politicians they have co-opted.

“What is happening is that a large part of Colombia now feels under attack by the paramilitaries, and business interests feel threatened,” said Petro, 46, in an interview at his apartment complex in northern Bogota, as 10 police officers stood guard below. “Maybe this is why the charges are being brought now.”

Another factor could be the information contained in a laptop computer, seized in a government raid this year, allegedly documenting the activities of paramilitary leader Rodrigo Tovar, alias “Jorge 40.” Data in the laptop were said to chronicle several murders, continued militia activities and politician contacts made after Tovar demobilized, a sign to critics that demobilization has done little to curb the paramilitaries’ power.

A Supreme Court official confirmed to The Times in an interview last week that evidence from the computer was considered in the cases. “It was just one element of evidence, but we had no reason to think it was all an invention,” the official said.

In exchange for electoral support, politicians help the paramilitaries “accumulate wealth” by easing false documentation of property transfers, diverting or kicking back public works contracts, and putting the local police at the paramilitaries’ service, Petro said.

Even fellow legislators who oppose Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla, credit him for bringing the debate over paramilitary ties to the public’s attention.

“He brought these cases in Sucre to Congress, mounted the investigations and said publicly, ‘This is happening,’ ” said Sen. Gina Parody, who sits on the opposite side of the aisle but has joined with Petro in denouncing the paramilitaries’ cozy relations with some legislators. “Denouncing this illegality is very risky.”

All of those charged are allies of President Uribe, whose administration is facing one of its biggest crises because of the political damage that further revelations and arrests could bring.

Much damage has been done. Prosecutor Iguaran told reporters that the crisis confronting the Uribe government was worse than that faced by then-President Ernesto Samper in 1994 when it was alleged that his campaign received money from the Cali drug cartel.

There is no public evidence linking Uribe to paramilitaries, but the arrests have fueled criticism that he has been too easy on militia leaders in the pacification process, promising lenient sentences in exchange for disarmament and confessions. Some wonder why allegations that surfaced five years ago have taken so long to lead to charges.

Back then, before demobilization began, paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso boasted that 35% of Congress was loyal to him and other paramilitary chiefs.

“The issue facing Colombia is the nature and reach of paramilitarism,” said Cynthia Arnson, head of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “It’s a military force that has been demobilized, but it’s also a mafia-like criminal organization that has penetrated the legal economy and begun to subvert legitimate political institutions.”

Petro’s detractors say he is inconsistent, and less troubled by infractions by left-wing guerrillas than those by right-wing paramilitaries. One high-ranking Uribe official, while expressing admiration for Petro’s outspokenness, said the senator practiced “relative morality,” adding, “There are no good deaths and bad deaths.”

A native of Zipaquira radicalized in part by the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973, Petro joined the urban guerrilla group M-19 at age 17. He was elected to his town’s city council at 21, keeping his guerrilla membership a secret until then-President Belisario Betancur and rebels signed a peace accord in 1984.

But the peace was short-lived. Petro survived torture and spent 18 months in jail from 1985 to 1987.

Shortly after he was imprisoned, M-19 rebels seized the Palace of Justice in November 1985, a takeover that Petro says he knew nothing about beforehand. The army’s retaking of the building left dozens dead.

Upon his release from prison, Petro spent three years in hiding. “If the army had found me, they would have killed me,” he said.

Petro resurfaced in 1990, when President Virgilio Barco Vargas declared another peace accord.

Petro was elected to Congress from Bogota in 1991 on the M-19 ticket. But a series of slayings of his former comrades sent him fleeing again in 1994, this time to Europe.

He returned to Colombia and was elected again to Congress in 1998. He was reelected in 2002 before moving to the Senate this year as a candidate for the Democratic Pole, a party he co-founded. He got the second-most votes of any senatorial candidate.

Petro said his voice is no longer a lonely one. “Now there are many voices and many allies. Half the Congress wants this investigation to continue. The news media fill their pages with the allegations against the paramilitaries.”

Uncovering the truth and proceeding with investigations are crucial to Colombia’s democratic progress, he said.

“This is a crisis that either can lead us to national fragmentation, a Balkanization as in Yugoslavia, or to the construction of a real republic.”