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COLOMBIA
Unearthing horrors
Susan Abad
7/12/2007
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Right-wing paramilitaries killed more than 14,000 people.

For Iván Cepeda of Colombia’s National Movement of Victims of the State, the recent discovery of 4,000 graves that may hold remains of some 10,000 people is a “monstrous reality” that proves paramilitary invasions covered large areas in Colombia.

Colombia’s Attorney General’s office found 760 bodies, mostly dismembered, between April 2006 and June 2007 in the operation called “Dignity II.” The dismembered corpses mirror the horrific and unscrupulous methods used by the extreme-right United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) to maintain the political, social and economic power they have held throughout the country for 20 years.

Sen. Gustavo Petro of the opposition Alternative Democratic Pole party said that when the AUC began its power-grab more in 1985 they started with land appropriation, seizing thousands of hectares of the country’s best land through a campaign of massacres and other forms of terror, leaving “14,000 dead and 3 million displaced.”

According to a 2005 report of the General Comptroller’s Office, the paramilitaries’ and drug-traffickers’ land takeovers total about 1 million hectares (2.47 million acres), the equivalent of 2.8 percent of the national territory and 5 percent of Colombia’s arable land.

Petro says the AUC’s control over vast areas of the country, “often in complicity with the armed forces,” was not only about land.

The network of politicians and AUC members, an alliance that allowed them to have sway over government posts and public money, was pushed into the spotlight this past February when Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered the arrest of six lawmakers for alleged ties to the paramilitaries.

Political scandal mushrooms
In a 76-page report, the court said Rodrigo Tovar, known as “Jorge 40,” an AUC chief leader in northern Colombia, had a plan in the works to take over the country’s Caribbean coast in political capacities, “expanding its area of influence, procure financing and to have spokespeople” in important decision-making offices of the country.

In the months that followed, the court pursued politicians in the Magdalena, Bolívar, Sucre and Antioquia departments. Twelve politicians have been jailed thus far in the so-called “parapolitics scandal,” with the majority of them belonging to parties that support President Álvaro Uribe.

The arrests confirm what paramilitary leader Vicente Castaño told the magazine Semana in May 2005: 35 percent of the Congress was allied with the AUC. Vice President Francisco Santos warned in early May that “30 or 40 lawmakers will end up behind bars for the ‘parapolitics’ scandal.”
The alliance between politicians and paramilitaries also gave the group access to public funds.

An Attorney General’s report from last October said that in three Colombian departments — Atlántico, Magdalena and Bolívar — at least 10 percent of the contracts made by mayors, governors and public hospitals were taken over by the AUC. An income and expense statement by the Soledad Maternity Hospital was found showing, according to the office, that the hospital was the paramilitaries’ “petty cash.”

The report said that the AUC charged 10 percent on all contracts in various municipalities throughout the Caribbean coast and created phony companies through which they funneled 1.5 billion pesos (about US$628,000) from the Sabanagrande mayor’s office in the Atlántico department.

The paramilitaries also hooked up to important multinational companies that provided economic support to the armed group. Former AUC chief Salvatore Mancuso told reporters in mid-May that judges in the northern city of Medellín said that all the banana companies in the Uraba region paid US$1 “for every banana box they took out of the country.”

Apparently in return for the money, the paramilitaries killed union leaders who were headaches for these large companies (LP, April 18, 2007).

US company involvement
A US court in Alabama is currently hearing the case of the US-based mining Drummond Company Inc. for allegedly paying paramilitary groups in 2001 for the murder of union members Valmore Locarno Rodríguez, Víctor Hugo Orcasita and Gustavo Soler Mora. The Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. has also been accused by the National Food Industry Workers Syndicate of connection with the murders of seven union members between 1995 and 1996.

Even the country’s beloved sport hasn’t been spared from the scandal.
The Attorney-General’s office is investigating allegations that paramilitary groups laundered money through the country’s top three soccer divisions and through trading various players.

Gustavo Upegüi López, owner of Medellin’s soccer club Envigado FC, known as a paramilitary and head of the so-called “Envigado Office” dedicated to organizing hits and drug-trafficking, was killed July 3, 2006, apparently over differences with another AUC chief, Diego Fernando Murillo, known as “Don Berna”.

According to figures from the National Reparation and Reconciliation Commission, there are some 30,000 victims hoping that the government will return their lands to them and above all, tell them the whereabouts of their loved ones. Meanwhile, 58 disbanded paramilitary leaders have already begun to testify before the courts, hoping that the Justice and Peace law will apply to them. The law, approved in 2005, provides amnesty to demobilized paramilitaries (LP, July 26, 2006).


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