19 politicians arrested for supporting death squads in Colombia

Government sacks chief of police and chief of intelligence, in the biggest shake-up in years of the security forces.

In a move aimed at retake leadership in the growing narcopolitics scandal, the Colombian government has asked for the arrest of 19 current and former officials, as sacked the country’s police chief and the head of police intelligence. President Alvaro Uribe’s decision comes as local courts accuse politicians of signing a 2001 “devil’s pact” with outlawed right-wing militias 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 paramilitary groups in Colombia's decades-long civil war. These bandits were organized and founded by landowners and businessmen to fight leftist guerrillas in the 1980s, but later evolved into mafias engaged in farmers massacres, drug trafficking, kidnappings, 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.

"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. Mr Iguaran has also accused US firms of supporting this illegal bandits.

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. Uribe’s former Foreign Minister Maria Consuelo Araujo resigned earlier this year, as her father, a Senator, was also involved in the case.

The scandal has shaken-up Uribe’s conservative rule, as the current President has shown himself very flexible with paramilitary demands to negotiate a cease-fire, while leads a hard-line policy to fight leftist guerrillas.

"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.

To pass these package of Colombian laws, Democratic lawmakers claim for decisive actions from Uribe’s government to fight paramilitary groups, which have been found responsible for civil massacres by the Organization of American States (OAS) in several opportunities.

Uribe has repeatedly asked for a prompt approval of these bills, which could have been easily passed by a Republican-controlled Congress. The newly formed US Congress is being more reluctant to support Bush’s closest ally in Latin America.

The conservative Colombian President reacted quickly: he personally backed court’s decision to arrest lawmakers, as sacked police chief and the head of police intelligence for illegally tapping calls of opposition political figures, journalists and members of the government.

The wiretapping scandal broke over the weekend when news magazines reported the interception of phone conversations that supposedly showed jailed far-right warlords, who surrendered under a peace pact, continuing to commit crimes behind bars. Following a probe into the recordings, the government said it discovered that members of the police's intelligence service were responsible.

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

Hernan Etchaleco

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Author`s name Alex Naumov