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Colombia orders 19 politicians arrested

Times Staff Writer

The Colombian government ordered the arrest of 19 current and former officials Monday who are accused of signing a 2001 “devil’s pact” with outlawed paramilitary groups in which they promised to work together to “re-found Colombia.”

The orders represent the government’s biggest move yet to bring to justice politicians it alleges were complicit with the right-wing militias in Colombia’s decades-long civil war. Farmers and businessmen formed the militias for self-defense against leftist guerrillas in the 1980s, but many of the groups evolved into mafias engaged in killings, drug trafficking, extortion, land grabs and election fraud.

The document, known as the Treaty of Ralito, came to light this year. Prosecutors here have described it as a “devil’s pact” that candidates signed to obtain political and financial advantage from association with the paramilitaries.

Paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso presented a copy of the document during court testimony he gave earlier this year.

Some of the officials alleged to have signed have said they were forced to do so.

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The Colombian government has declared paramilitary armies illegal and forbids citizens to have any contact with them. The government similarly prohibits any public contact with left-wing guerrilla groups, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

“The attendance of these people at this meeting was free, spontaneous and conscious. With this meeting, they promoted armed groups that were outside the law,” said Colombian Atty. Gen. Mario Iguaran in a statement issued Monday. He was referring to a meeting in 2001 at which the politicians are alleged to have signed the document.

Most rank-and-file paramilitary soldiers have been demobilized in recent years, while their leaders are in the process of making confessions and disgorging assets as part of a deal to avoid extradition and qualify for light sentences for mass murder and other crimes. Paramilitary leaders still exert control over many parts of Colombia, officials say.

“The government respects and supports justice,” President Alvaro Uribe said in a statement Monday afternoon. Nevertheless, the warrants come at a delicate time in United States-Colombia relations as the U.S. Congress considers passing a bilateral free trade agreement as well as extending the Plan Colombia aid package to fight drugs and terrorism.

Warrants for the arrests of five sitting congressmen were issued by the Supreme Court because only the highest court has the power to file charges against national legislators. Four of the five are in custody, including Sen. Miguel de la Espriella, who first disclosed the existence of the document in January.

The others in custody are Sen. Reginaldo Montes, Congressman Jose de los Santos Negrete and Sen. Juan Manuel Lopez. Still at large is Sen. William Montes. All except Lopez are Uribe supporters.

The other 14 politicians are ex-officeholders who were indicted by Colombia’s attorney general Monday because they have lost their immunity. They include former senators, congressmen, governors and mayors. Eleven were in custody as of Monday evening, including Eleonora Pineda, who frequently defended paramilitaries as a congresswoman.

Among the paramilitary leaders who signed the 2001 pact were Mancuso; Rodrigo Tovar, alias Jorge 40; and Diego Fernando Murillo, known as Don Berna. Mancuso and Murillo are wanted on drug-trafficking charges in the United States.

Eight sitting members of congress, all Uribe supporters, were arrested in November and February on charges of consorting with paramilitaries to commit crimes that ranged from electoral fraud to mass murder. Among them were the brother and cousin of former Foreign Minister Maria Consuelo Araujo.

chris.kraul@latimes.com

Jenny Carolina Gonzalez of The Times’ Bogota Bureau contributed to this report.


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