Álvaro Uribe Vélez
Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez is a loyal ally of George Bush and Tony Blair in the ‘war on terror’, but has used all the means at his disposal to make sure that the truth about his links to paramilitary death squads and the drugs cartels remains hidden.
By his own admission Uribe is a man of the Right, determined to use a ‘firm hand’ against the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia), the world’s largest and oldest guerrilla army. He inherited swathes of cattle-ranching land from his father Alberto Uribe Vélez, himself subject to an extradition warrant to face charges of drug trafficking in the US. Uribe Jr grew up with the children of Fabio Ochoa, a key player at the time in the Medellín cocaine cartel.
Uribe’s credentials are impeccable: educated at Harvard and Oxford, he was elected Mayor of Medellín, the second city of Colombia, at the tender age of 26. But he was removed from office after only three months by a central government embarrassed by his public ties to the drug Mafia. He was then made Director of Civil Aviation, where he issued pilots’ licences to Pablo Escobar’s fleet of light aircraft flying cocaine to Florida.
In 1995 Uribe became Governor of his home province of Antioquia. Convivirs – private security services – and paramilitary death squads enjoyed immunity from prosecution under Governor Uribe and were free to launch a campaign of terror. Thousands of trade unionists, students and human rights workers were murdered, disappeared or driven out of the province.
Uribe’s paramilitary connections deterred many journalists from looking into his ties to the drug cartels. An exception was Noticias Uno, a current affairs programme on the TV station Canal Uno. In April 2002 this programme examined alleged links between Uribe and the Medellín cocaine cartel. After the reports were aired, unidentified men threatened to kill the show’s producer, Ignacio Gómez.
Noticias Uno told the story of how in 1997 the US Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) seized 50,000 kilos of potassium permanganate from a ship docked in San Francisco. Permanganate is a chemical used in the production of cocaine. The cargo was bound for a company headed by Pedro Juan Moreno Villa, President Uribe’s campaign manager, and was sufficient to produce cocaine with a street value of $15 billion. Morena Villa’s company was Colombia’s biggest importer of potassium permanganate between 1994 and 1998. When Uribe was Governor of Antioquia, Moreno Villa was his chief of staff and Medellín was the world’s cocaine capital.
Despite these links to the paramilitaries and the drug cartels, in 2002 Uribe managed to get elected President with 53 per cent of the vote – although only 25 per cent of the electorate bothered to vote.
Now that Uribe is top dog, he is tightening his stranglehold on the legal opposition, branding all opponents to his privatization and militarization programme as ‘terrorists’, and sidling ever closer to the Republican White House in Washington DC. Uribe was the only South American leader to back Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He even went so far as to invite the Americans to invade Colombia.
Many in the Bush Administration are keen to expand Plan Colombia, a $1.6 billion military aid package ostensibly designed to tackle cocaine production, but increasingly being used to fight the FARC guerrillas. Before that happens, the Americans want Uribe to rein in his paramilitary allies. The peasant militias and the million-strong informers’ network that Uribe wants to ‘institutionalize’ are first steps towards a ‘paramilitarization’ of Colombian society. As George W Bush has subsumed the ‘war on drugs’ into the ‘war on terror’, so Uribe’s cocaine-addled past has been brushed under the carpet.
Uribe, like Bush, has said that in the ‘war on terror’ there can be no neutrals, and has accused his critics of being ‘political agitators in the service of terrorism’ and ‘cowards who wrap themselves in the banner of human rights’. Uribe’s strategy is to declare social organizations illegal and to use the army and police against them directly, while making the paramilitaries legal and holding ‘negotiations’ with them.
Given the murderous tactics that Uribe is prepared to resort to, the unquestioning support offered him by the British and US governments is all the more immoral.