Colombian Officials Linked to Drug Trade

Washington's closest ally in Latin America is Colombia, which receives $4 billion from the U.S. in military and anti-drug aid. Now, the Colombian government is being rocked as paramilitary groups publicly claim to have the cooperation of the country's army, politicians and big businessmen.

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Colombia is Washington's closest ally in Latin America. It receives $4 billion in mostly military and anti-drug aid. Yet President Alvaro Uribe's government has been rocked by disclosures that a growing list of congressional allies collaborated with right-wing paramilitary groups. The government has insisted those ties were isolated, but now paramilitary commanders have publicly said that the country's paramilitary movement expanded with the close cooperation of the army, politicians and businessmen.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Medellin.

JUAN FORERO: The Palace of Justice in Colombia's second largest city attracts victims, victims of paramilitary violence. They hold pictures of loved ones killed - husbands, sons, daughters and wives. Drawing them on this day is testimony by a Salvatore Mancuso. He's a cattleman who became one of the most feared paramilitary warlords. He himself is accused of hundreds of murders. It is testimony that only victims and human rights groups are allowed to hear.

But the gripping account has drawn reporters who try catching the commander's words through thin walls. In exchange for laying down his arms, Mancuso has been promised lenient treatment. But he's compelled to detail his crimes in special hearings.

For years, officials claim the paramilitaries simply sprouted up to fill a vacuum of power in lawless regions, that they fought Marxist rebels independent of the government, and then morphed into a terror group that massacred peasants and trafficked cocaine. But Mancuso paints a far different version: that paramilitarism here was nothing short of state policy.

Maximo Alejandro Oyos(ph) lost two brothers to paramilitary hitmen, and the paramilitary stole the family farm. After listening to Mancuso, he bitterly said the government did nothing.

Mr. MAXIMO ALEJANDRO OYOS: (Through translator) I think paramilitarism isn't just state policy; it's the legitimate child of the state.

FORERO: Not far from the Palace of Justice, just outside Medellin, is the Itagui Prison. Cops with assault rifles stand guard and music plays softly from roadside stands that sell soft drinks to visitors. But it is here where Mancuso is held and the only place he's safe. His testimony is so explosive that prosecutors believe Mancuso is a marked man.

When he leaves in the morning or returns at night, he's guarded by 50 heavily armed policemen on motorcycles and in pickup trucks. Itagui, with its cinderblock watchtowers and barbed wire, houses dozens of paramilitary commanders, all of whom are expected to testify as Colombia unravels the roots of paramilitary violence.

One of them is Ivan Duque. He's a paramilitary commander, ideologue of a force that once had 17,000 fighters. In a rare jailhouse interview, he said the army worked hand-in-hand with the paramilitaries, and that businessmen bankrolled paramilitary operations. He said how else could the right wing forces operate so freely?

Mr. IVAN DUQUE (Paramilitary Commander): (Through translator) Men armed to the teeth. Could you really travel the whole territory so that no one could see them, notice them, that no one collaborate with them? That's why I talk of this country of hypocrisies, the society of lies.

FORERO: Such comments have been highly embarrassing to government officials. Defense minister Juan Manuel Santos gives credit to the state for disarming paramilitaries.

Mr. JUAN MANUEL SANTOS (Defense Minister, Colombia): What the government has done as a first step is to dismantle the paramilitary structure, demobilize the paramilitaries, and take control of the areas that they controlled.

FORERO: But it's Uribe's government that's under the spotlight. U.S. lawmakers are balking at approving a free trade agreement because of the scandal. So far, 14 congressmen, all but one allies of the president, have been charged. In his testimony Mancuso spoke of soft drink and beer companies that supported the paramilitaries, and the biggest banana companies, including Chiquita.

That Ohio company, in fact, admitted to the U.S. Justice Department in March of having paid $1.7 million to the paramilitaries. Ivan Duque, the jailed paramilitary, had plenty to say about corporate support for the paramilitaries, once called the United Self-Defense Forces.

Mr. DUQUE: (Through translator) I never saw or perceived or noticed in some territory that a company or economic entity existed that didn't pay the Self-Defense Forces.

FORERO: The next paramilitary who will testify will be Rodrigo Tovar, the commander of a brutal force that authorities say murdered union members, sacked institutions and ran a well-oiled cocaine trafficking operation. Colombians can only brace for more revelations.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Medellin, Colombia.

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