Alvaro Uribe Velez holds a comfortable lead in the polls for Colombia’s Presidential elections on 26th May. The candidate of the ultra-right is often alarmingly frank in his support for paramilitarism, but as recent developments show, it is far more dangerous to investigate his ties with the drug cartels.
In his article ‘Cuando era Moscorrofio’ (El Espectador, 17th February 2002) Fernando Garavito sheds light on Uribe Velez’s and his father Alberto Uribe Sierra’s links with the Medellin cartel’s Ochoa brothers and with Pablo Escobar himself. Garavito reports that the USA tried unsuccessfully to extradite Uribe Sierra, a well known mafioso, on charges of drug trafficking, and how later, Uribe Velez when he became a Senator in Colombia, played an important role in sabotaging the new legislation that allowed for the extradition of drug traffickers to the United States. Five days after the publication of this article, Garavito was forced to flee the country after receiving repeated death threats.
The following report is taken from extracts from an article released by the Latin American Solidarity Collective, entitled, ‘Uribe Velez, a candidate to be aware of’.
The rise of Uribe Velez began at an early age. At just 26 years old, having recently completed his university studies, he was named Mayor of Medellin, at a time when the drug cartels were booming. As Mayor he was fully able to ally himself with the leaders of the Medellin cartel, who at that time were attempting to win image and social acceptance through publicity campaigns and civic programmes such as building sports fields and stadiums, and also housing for the poor.
‘Medellin without slums’ was a programme launched publicly by Mayor Uribe Velez, and consisted, as was later discovered, of one thousand half-built homes donated to the residents of a city rubbish tip, completely financed by Pablo Escobar.
Another programme was ‘Civic Medellin’ which involved the planting of trees in the city’s streets and parks, again financed by Escobar. With the huge publicity that he was given by the press, and with the approval of the church and of the authorities themselves, Pablo Escobar managed to recast himself in the image of a great benefactor and illustrious citizen.
After the drug traffickers had acquired the image of honest citizens, Alvaro Uribe Velez won the post of Director of Civil Aviation (March 1980- August 1982) where he was in charge of aerial navigation, airports the granting of pilots licenses and the construction of public and private airfields. This post he undertook generously and contributed to the consolidation of the conditions and infrastructure that allowed drug trafficking to flourish. According to the investigative reporter Fabio Castillo ‘Senator Alvaro Uribe Velez granted most of the licences to the mafia pilots when he was Director of Civil Aviation’ (Los Jinetes de la Cocaina, p72)
As Director of Civil Aviation, Uribe Velez had as his deputy Cesar Villegas, who developed strong relationships with the Cali cartel, and who was later prosecuted and sentenced to five years in prison for accepting several million dollars from the Cali mafia for the ‘Ernesto Samper- Presidente’ campaign in 1996. Villegas was assassinated in Bogotá on 4th March of this year.
After leaving Civil Aviation, Uribe Velez was elected as Governor of Antioquia, a position from which he initiated, promoted and defended the CONVIVIR private security associations that have been widely condemned by national and international human rights organisations as the official project to legalise the paramilitaries or ‘Autodefensas’.
Ernesto Samper was in government at the time, with ministers Haracio Serpa (Interior) and Fernando Botero (Defence). Botero was also convicted for accepting donations from the Cali cartel. Samper’s government gave legal life to the CONVIVIR with decree 356/94 describing them as ‘special services for vigilance and private security, licensed to use arms for defensive reasons, with the aim of supporting the armed forces with communications and armed networks.’
Uribe Velez was the special guest of the Ranchers’ Congress in 1996, where he spoke enthusiastically of expanding the CONVIVIR networks throughout the country. The President of the Ranchers Association, Jorge Visbal Martelo suggested that the multi-national oil companies should create their own CONVIVIR. ‘At the [ranchers] congress, the strongest applause was saved for the Governor of Antioquia, Alvaro Uribe Velez, who the ranchers proclaimed as a future President. The applause that the governor received is explained by the fact that Uribe Velez had initiated the CONVIVIR project in his department. General Faruk Yanine also received a huge applause. He has been accused of collaboration with paramilitary groups.’ (El Tiempo, 17th October 1996)
Despite efforts to cover up the criminal nature of these associations, the newspaper El Pais (3rd August 1998) published the following: ‘Representatives of more than 200 private security associations (CONVIVIR) have announced that they will unite with the paramilitary group AUC under their leader Carlos Castano, chief of the main far-right organisation in the country.’
During a recent interview with Newsweek magazine, (which was abruptly terminated when the reporter asked about his links with drug trafficking) Uribe Velez chose as his principle discourse to praise Generals Rito Alejo Del Rio and Fernando Millan who had been forcibly retired due to their links with paramilitary groups accused of carrying out massacres and other atrocities in 1996 and 1997. He described Del Rio as ‘an honourable man.’ In the same interview he went to great lengths to defend the reputations of old friends such as Pedro Juan Moreno Villa. In 1997 the DEA confiscated 3 shipment of potassium permanganate, a chemical used in the processing of cocaine, that belonged to Pedro Juan Moreno.
According to a journalist writing in El Tiempo (19th March 2002) Moreno Villa ‘is nothing but a bully. If he is famous for anything in Antioquia, its for being a very violent man, and as secretary to the governor of Antioquia, during Uribe Velez’s mandate, he was one of the major forces behind the CONVIVIR. He is a person who relies on violence, overt or covert, to impose his will.’
Jesus Maria Valle Jaramillo, President of Antioquia Human Rights Committee, made the following denunciation a few days before his assassination. ‘Through a mistaken concept of public order we are exporting violence to previously peaceful departments like Choco. We are exporting violence all over the country through CONVIVIR. The military and CONVIVIR share everything, their uniforms, their camps and the vehicles they travel in.’ Valle Jaramillo was assassinated in his office on the 27th February 1998.
Unionised workers also saw a change in management-worker relationships in Uribe Velez’s Antioquia. Threats to workers and their families were constant. Jose Luis Jaramillo, General Secretary of his union was followed and received telephone calls that threatened ‘stop smearing Dr. Uribe Velez, or you’ll pay with your life.’ Between 18 and 21 November 1998, the President of the same union received threatening phone calls at his house, ‘ tell that son of a bitch that we’re going to kill him, we’re going to make him pay for what he has said about the governor [Uribe Velez] we know where he is, or maybe we’ll get one of his kids.’
All of these different elements, give us a clear idea of the interests that Uribe Velez represents, interests that at times seem contradictory, but which all aim to maintain and give credence to an exclusive, arbitrary, corrupt and criminal system. As Jesus Maria Valle Jaramillo said, ‘the state, big business, land owners, drug traffickers and the military are all the legitimate parents of paramilitarism’.