Colombia: Early Returns Signal Run-Off Election

With 96 percent of polling stations in Colombia reporting, President Juan Manuel Santos has 25.5 percent of the vote to right-wing challenger Oscar Ivan Zuluaga's 29.2%. That means a run-off election will be held next month since neither candidate got 50%.

Zuluaga is a protege of former President Aliviro Uribe. He has opposed the FARC peace talks, and before slightly softening his position in recent days, said he would shut them down.

Santos has been a big promoter of the peace talks. Like Zuluaga, at one time he worked in Uribe's cabinet. Santos and Uribe have since had a falling out, thus, Uribe's support of Zuluaga. [More....]

The media continues to blast FARC for its role in drug trafficking and violence. It has a short memory. The AUC, the right-wing paramilitary groups formed to battle FARC, from what I can tell, were far more involved in mass murders, drug trafficking and bribes.

The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC) was a coalition of right-wing death squads that used the conflict to camouflage their illicit economic activities. These included drug trafficking, displacement, kidnapping, and extortion. The AUC once operated in two-thirds of the country with approximately 30,000 soldiers.

The AUC were demobilized under Uribe and its leaders were extradited to the U.S. Under the Justice and Peace Act, they got short sentences and many have been allowed to legally remain in the U.S. after serving their sentences. Their victims in Colombia and the Santos administration are unhappy about this. They say the U.S. let the AUC off without divesting themselves of all their ill-gotten gains which were supposed to go to the victims, and they didn't tell the full truth about their crimes.

Just this month, Colombia and the U.S. have had a disagreement over the fate of one AUC leader and major drug trafficker, Juan Carlos Sierra Ramirez, alias, “El Tuso.” He ended up with just a five year sentence (a reward for his cooperation here), and when released in 2013, instead of sending him home to Colombia to face criminal charges of drug trafficking, financing of terrorism, and money laundering, the U.S. gave him papers to live and work in the U.S. Colombia filed an extradition request, and it was denied.

During a forum in Bogota on Tuesday, Colombia’s deputy minister of justice, Miguel Samper, was critical of past decisions to send drug lords and paramilitaries to the United States pointing out that, “this is the serious flaw in sending and extraditing the truth and justice without putting any condition on the government of the United States.”

Samper inferred that the Uribe administration — which is credited with achieving the demobilization of many Colombian paramilitary groups such as the AUC — intentionally did not safeguard against possible impunity of paramilitiaries such as Sierra.

“The main objective of the previous government was to generate impunity for the paramilitaries,” he continued forcefully, saying on Twitter that “with this worrisome case, impunity is settled and the extradition of the bosses of the AUC was feigned.”

(This is reminiscent of recent remarks by Mexico's Attorney General as to why Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman won't be sent here -- we can't be trusted. When it extradited Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla (son of Ismael Zambada-Garcia) to Illinois, it was supposed to get him back to face charges there. But his plea agreement, which calls for only a 10 year sentence due to his cooperation, also states he and his family can stay in the U.S. when his sentence is up. Why should Mexico trust the U.S. to return El Chapo? It might let him cooperate, give him 10 years, a new identity and a green card.)

El Tuso testified to ties between Uribe and the AUC. He was one of 13 AUC leaders extradited by Uribe's government to the U.S. in 2008 -- without the approval of the Colombian Supreme Court. Victims' groups and Santos' administration have claimed the whole process was a fraud, designed to protect Uribe from being exposed as an ally of the AUC. According to El Tuso (who may have falsely pretended to be an AUC leader by paying off the AUC to say he was one so he could get into the Justice and Peace program):

“We all worked for a common good” and that the main political accomplices in the conspiracy “were [the ex president's jailed cousin] Mario Uribe, [the ex-president's brother] Santiago Uribe, [former presidential adviser] Jose Obdulio Gaviria, [jailed former chief of staff] Bernardo Moreno, [exiled former spy chief] Maria del Pilar Hurtado, [jailed intelligence executive] Martha Leal and former President Alvaro Uribe.”

Diego Fernando Murillo, aka Don Berna, the AUC leader and drug trafficker who is still in prison in New York, also claimed last year that Uribe and the AUC were in cahoots. Berna said he paid $1 million to Uribe's 2002 election campaign. Berna, along with the Castano brothers, Felix, Vicente and Carlos, were the original AUC leaders. They also formed "the Pepes", the group dedicated to killing Pablo Escobar. The AUC had the support of many in the Colombian Army.

Another AUC leader, Pablo Hernan Sierra, alias “Alberto Guerrero”, said Uribe was "our man at the top."

[Sierra said] the AUC used Uribe’s farmhouse “Guacharacas” as their home base, from where they committed massacres and forcefully displaced local people.

The allegations against Uribe have been coming out for years.

In 2004, a declassified US Intelligence Report, originally written in 1991, stated that Uribe had “worked for the Medellin Cartel”, run by notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, who the report described as a “close personal friend.

Uribe takes credit for demobilizing the AUC, but they are still around, just reorganized under different names:

New criminal gangs have inherited the paramilitaries’ weapons, personnel and modus operandi around the country. For many Colombians, the peace process and the AUC’s demobilization did not improve their situation. Fragments of the AUC, now referred to by the government as “criminal bands” or BACRIMs, for the Spanish acronym, are now dedicated to drug trafficking and organized crime, as well as attacks on civilians, especially activists and community leaders.

Some of these successor groups continue to make drug-trafficking headlines: the Urabeños, the Rastrojos, Oficina de Envigado and Nueva Generacion, to name a few. Insight Colombia says:

While more than 30,000 paramilitaries demobilized, many remained at large or abandoned the process and have since been implicated in grave human rights violations, drug trafficking, extortion, kidnappings and many other criminal acts, which could lead to legal action against the Colombian government for failing to properly regulate the peace process.

These new right-wing military groups, like their predecessor, have also penetrated politics, and corruption remains a big problem in Colombia. (One of the demands of FARC in the peace talks is that Colombia seriously tackle corruption.)

More on the AUC and drugs: The AUC was also involved with the Norte Valle cartel, a successor group to the Cali Cartel. From a 2007 report on the impact of economic sanctions by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC):

[The NVC] began as a splinter group of the Cali drug cartel following the arrest of Cali drug cartel leaders Miguel and Gilberto RODRIGUEZ OREJUELA in 1995. Through its brutal tactics and alliances with narco-terrorist organizations such as the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (“AUC”), the North Valle drug cartel was able to export over one million pounds of cocaine, worth an estimated $10 billion, to the United States via Mexico between 1990 and 2004. In 2004, the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”described the North Valle drug cartel as the “largest and most powerful drug cartel in Colombia” and stated that the North Valle drug cartel was responsible for one-third to one-half of the cocaine that reaches American shores.

...Since 1990, the North Valle drug cartel has been able to export more than one million pounds of cocaine worth more than $10 billion to the United States via Mexico. In order to protect its distribution routes and cocaine laboratories, the drug cartel employs the services of the Autodefenses Unidas de Colombia (“AUC”), a paramilitary group in Colombia that has been listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. Department of State and a Tier I drug kingpin by the President pursuant to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. The AUC also provides personal protection for North Valle drug cartel members and associates.

700 emails found on the computer of one of the Castano brothers revealed the CIA worked with the AUC. The U.S., like Colombia, has always slammed FARC harder than the AUC. From a 2007 article :

The vast bulk of US military assistance has been directed against coca cultivation in southern Colombia, the FARC's stronghold. By contrast, the cocaine industry in central and northern Colombia, where the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) — a right-wing paramilitary terror group — prevails, has been left largely untouched.

Unlike the FARC, which tends to tax peasant coca cultivators in the area under its control, the AUC has routinely participated in the full-scale manufacture and trafficking of cocaine.

That was written in 2007, and since then, there's been plenty of information that FARC's involvement extends beyond taxing growers. But it is now proposing to end its involvement in the drug trade altogether. The successor paramilitary groups aren't making that offer.

While recently a Colombian drug lord imprisoned in the U.S. said he paid a campaign aide of Santos millions to negotiate his surrender, which the aide, who resigned, denies, it's a far cry from the allegations against Uribe, who many say will be in the back room calling the shots if Zuluaga gets elected.

Coming back to the election: One candidate, President Santos, supports peace talks with FARC. Under his presidency, the economy in Colombia is booming. The other, according to critics, is a right wing puppet of Uribe who wants to shut down the talks and only cares about punishing FARC. Why there's even a runoff is beyond me. I'm no fan of Santos but he should have won by a mile. Peace with FARC is in everyone's best interest.

FARC remains an essentially peasant-based group fighting for social reform and to overthrow the government. The paramilitary groups want to protect their land and business interests though the use of private armies and defeat the leftist guerillas. Here's how Justice for Colombia describes the paramilitary groups, who have been backed by the Colombian army, which in turn, has been advised by U.S. military advisers:

Colombia’s rightwing paramilitary death squads are notorious for their brutality and have been responsible for the vast majority of the human rights abuses that have occurred in the country in the past 25 years. They are infamous for their use of vicious violence, including massacres with chainsaws, brutal torture, sexual violence and cutting off of limbs as tactics designed to instil fear and terror among those they target. The scale of their violence is astonishing and it is estimated that the paramilitaries have killed around 150,000 Colombians and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

I hope Colombia comes to its senses by next month and gives Zuluaga and his prime supporter Uribe the defeat they deserve.

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