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Latin America

Colombian leader suspected of death squad ties

Savior of the fatherland or unscrupulous murderer? Colombia's ex-president Alvaro Uribe is coming under pressure as more and more of his staff are revealed to have worked with paramilitary squadrons.

For many Colombians, Alvaro Uribe is a hero. The security situation in the country improved dramatically during his presidency from 2002 to 2010.

When Uribe took office, Colombia was seen as a failed state. The leftist guerrilla groups FARC and ELN were stronger than ever. Armed confrontations with the military were a regular occurrence. Many Colombians were afraid to leave the towns and cities. Guerrillas lay in wait on the cross-country roads, ambushing and kidnapping travelers.

Uribe decided to pursue a military approach to ending the decades-old conflict between state and guerrillas. More personnel were recruited into the Colombian armed forces, and the government invested heavily in weapons and equipment.

Now, in 2012, the guerrillas are considerably weakened. According to estimates by the Colombian military there are only around 8,000 guerrilla fighters left. 12 years ago this figure was more like 18,000. Travel is possible once again: the main cross-country routes are now relatively safe. Soldiers patrol the spots where the FARC and ELN used to erect road blocks. Peace talks are taking place on Cuba this month between the FARC and the Colombian government. The economy, too, on the way up: the improvement in the security situation has encouraged investors to return.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe delivers a speech on the extradition of 13 members of the demobilized United Self-Defenses of Colombia (AUC) to the US on May 14, 2008, in Bogota during a military ceremony at General Santander Academy. Colombia on Tuesday extradited 14 of its nationals, including 13 paramilitary leaders, to the United States to face drug trafficking charges. AFP PHOTO/Mauricio DUE-AS (Photo credit should read MAURICIO DUENAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Coming under pressure: Alvaro Uribe as he spoke to the military in Bogota

Violence and counter-violence

But this improvement has come at a price. The guerrillas' retreat was paralleled by the rise of right-wing paramilitaries, private armies originally formed and employed by big landowners. The Colombian judiciary believes that these paramilitaries killed around 150,000 people during the campaign against the guerrillas. They allegedly massacred innocent people with chainsaws, depopulated entire regions, and seized their victims' land and property.

The paramilitaries frequently acted in conjunction with the military and the political establishment. This cooperation is something that human rights activists have been denouncing for years, but it took a very long time for a legal reappraisal to get off the ground. Judges and state prosecutors were reluctant to investigate. There was too much political influence involved, and lawyers were afraid of violent retribution.

(FILES) This undated file photo shows retired Colombian Army General Rito Alejo Del Rio during a press conference in Bogota. Del Rio has been detained 23 July, 2001 under charges of organizing and promoting right-wing paramilitary groups while he was commander of the XVI Army Brigade in 1995 and 1997. (Photo credit should read Luis ACOSTA /AFP/Getty Images)

Rito Alejo Del Rio was sentenced to a hefty jail term

Recently, however, a series of spectacular trials have taken place. At the end of August the former general Rito Alejo del Rio was sentenced to 26 years in jail. Del Rio was a military commander in the western Uraba region during the mid-1990s.

At the same time, according to prosecutors, he was also the leader of the local paramilitary. Del Rio was accused of providing the militias with both infrastructure and personnel. Eye-witnesses reported seeing joint patrols by the army and the militia.

During this period, there were a number of massacres among the civilian population of Uraba. At the time del Rio was active there, Alvaro Uribe was the governor of the region. The general is regarded as one of the military leaders who was closest to Uribe.

The president and the paramilitaries

In this Nov. 23, 2007 photo, Mauricio Santoyo Velasco, then a police colonel, speaks in Bogota, Colombia. The retired Colombian police general who was security chief for former President Alvaro Uribe from 2002 to 2005 betrayed international counter-narcotics operations for nearly a decade while on the payroll of major drug traffickers, according to a newly unsealed U.S. indictment. (Foto:El Tiempo/AP/dapd)

Mauricio Santoyo admitted collaboration with the paramilitary

So far the prosecutors have not yet investigated Uribe himself - but they are circling ever closer.

Jorge Noguera, for example, was head of Colombia's domestic secret service (DAS) during Uribe's presidency. Noguera has been sentenced to 25 years in prison. During his time in office, the secret service was infiltrated by paramilitaries. Then there is Maria del Pilar Hurtado, another former head of the DAS. Hurtado evaded justice by fleeing to Panama. She had initiated the illegal wiretapping of judges, politicians and human rights activists who stood in Uribe's way. Information obtained from the wiretaps was then passed on to the paramilitaries.

The most recent example is the case of Mauricio Santoyo. The chief of police was the head of security from 2002 to 2005, and one of then-president Uribe's most trusted confidants. Santoyo recently confessed that he had collaborated with the paramilitaries.

"This is the ultimate proof that the key elements of paramilitarism were controlled from within the presidential palace," believes Ivan Cepeda, a member of parliament and critic of Uribe. "We're not talking about some unimportant official here. Santoyo had access to all of the key aspects of national security policy."

Santoyo took part in all of Uribe's cabinet meetings. The chief of police wiretapped his colleagues, and passed on information about upcoming police operations to the paramilitaries. They are also active in the drugs trade, and among other things Santoyo also made sure that drug consignments would arrive safely at their destinations.

Uribe's defense

A woman puts a picture amid others during a demonstration against the false positives, massacres and forced disappearences by Colombian authorities on March 6, 2009, in Medellin, Antioquia Department, Colombia. AFP PHOTO/Raul ARBOLEDA (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)

A memorial to victims of state violence in Medellin

Alvaro Uribe rejects all accusations that he was connected to the paramilitaries, and insists that he knew nothing of the machinations of his ally Santoyo either. "Ask General Santoyo whether I or my ministers ever set him a bad example," the former president declared.

Juan Manuel Galan, a senator in the Colombian Congress, doesn't believe Uribe's declaration of innocence. "Alvaro Uribe personally made Santoyo both a general and his security adviser. That's why Uribe can't play dumb now and say he didn't know who this man was and what he was doing."

Uribe named Santoyo as his security adviser even though Santoyo was already a controversial figure accused of involvement in illegal wiretapping. As chief of the anti-kidnapping unit, Santoyo had tapped the phones of human rights organizations. Two activists were kidnapped and murdered by the paramilitaries, and their human rights organization suspects that information gleaned from the phonetapping was passed on to the murderers.

Nonetheless, Alvaro Uribe's position is still relatively secure. He still has many supporters. However, Colombia's neighbor Peru has shown that immunity from prosecution does not last indefinitely, even for ex-presidents. The former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori is now doing time for corruption and human rights violations, including the deployment of death squads. He, too, was once regarded as a shining light and beacon of hope for his country.

DW.DE