Saturday, December 13, 2008

At Ubérrimo’s Gates

This is a post from CIP's Colombia Program:

Authors Jorge Rojas and Iván Cepeda. (Picture from the website of Semana magazine.)

At Ubérrimo’s Gates is the name of a book released this week in Colombia, jointly written by two of the country’s most prominent human rights defenders: Iván Cepeda of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes and Jorge Rojas, the director of the Consultancy for Human Rights and Internal Displacement (CODHES.)

The book’s title cites the name of the extensive ranch outside Montería, a small city that serves as capital of the northwestern Colombian department of Córdoba, that is the property of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. Though he is from the neighboring department of Antioquia, where he served as governor from 1995 to 1997, Uribe owns significant amounts of land in Córdoba as well, and frequently receives visitors at El Ubérrimo.

The authors make note of this because Montería, and the department of Córdoba in general, are practically synonymous with the rise of paramilitarism in Colombia since the 1980s. By the 1990s much of the department was firmly under the control of the founding group of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the United Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU), led by Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso. The AUC/ACCU was headquartered in Córdoba’s Nudo de Paramillo region, it received generous and open support from Montería’s landowning elite and politicians, and its leaders were frequently seen in the city.

Cepeda’s and Rojas’s book is not principally about Álvaro Uribe. It contains no juicy “smoking gun” evidence that Colombia’s president has ties to paramilitaries and narcotraffickers. The authors’ focus is on the growth and pervasiveness of paramilitarism in a city and province that became a chief AUC stronghold, with local elites’ acquiescence and support.

The book goes on to ask how Álvaro Uribe could have spent years as a prominent public figure and landholder in Montería without showing any signs that he was uncomfortable with, or even aware of, the paramilitaries’ strong dominion over the zone. It also notes Uribe’s close relationships with Córdoba business and political leaders who have since become embroiled in scandal over their ties to paramilitary groups, among other corruption.

Here is an excerpt from the opening chapter of At Ubérrimo’s Gates, published Sunday by the Colombian daily El Espectador.

Excerpt from At Ubérrimo’s Gates, by Iván Cepeda and Jorge Rojas

Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s successful political career was bearing fruit. His name began to be heard in political circles as a card in the deck of aspirants for the Presidency of the Republic. Followers and regional leaders launched his candidacy. Shortly before he finished his term as governor [in 1997], representatives of Antioquia’s commercial, industrial and cattle-raising sectors asked him to resign the governorship and begin his campaign. As a show of their support, the business associations organized a public demonstration that gathered more than 3,000 people in the Plaza Cisneros, across from La Alpujarra, where the governor’s office is located. The media highlighted that among those headlining the event was found the head of the Ochoa clan [associates of the Medellín cartel], the horse enthusiast Fabio Ochoa. The Uribes and the Ochoas never hid their friendly relationship. The event closed with the songs of Darío Gómez, “the king of despecho music.”

In Córdoba, the cattlemen’s associations’ leaders saw in Uribe Vélez a politician inextricably tied to the department, as the owner of “El Ubérrimo” and other lands. His first public appearance in Córdoba as a presidential pre-candidate was to take place, with him as the central speaker, at an event in honor of Rodrigo García Caicedo, considered one of the clearest exponents of the self-defense doctrine, a confessed admirer of the Castaño Gil brothers [founders of the AUC] and the victim of a dynamite attack.

Last-minute difficulties kept the governor of Antioquia from attending. Among those attending the event were Jorge Visbal Martelo, who convened it, and the ex-commander of the [Montería-based] 11th Brigade, Iván Ramírez. A few months after the event, in May 1998, Gen. Ramírez would see himself tied down by a complicated situation, when the U.S. embassy decided to revoke his visa to enter that country due to presumed human rights violations committed when he commanded the army brigade in Montería. Upon learning of the decision, the general said that all he had done was fight terrorists for 36 years, and that it was an outrage that, near the end of his career, he would be treated like one of them.

It wasn’t until 1999 that the new candidate attended several public events in Córdoba that had an electoral connotation. He participated in the 39th Agricultural, Commercial, Microenterprise and Equine Fair and Exposition. The local media referred to him as “the owner of considerable extensions of land in Córdoba” and as one who “has been credited, during his occupation of the Antioquia governor’s office, with revitalizing the controversial Convivir [state-sanctioned self-defense militias], many of which later turned into paramilitary groups.” On the night of June 18, the ex-governor of Antioquia was at a cocktail party at this event. In the photos published in the social pages of Córdoba’s El Meridiano newspaper, Uribe Vélez appeared with Johanna Mancuso, the newspaper’s sales executive and the cousin of Salvatore Mancuso, who at the time was one of the AUC’s commanders. At the same event was Giuliana Mancuso, the national “cattle queen” and cousin of the paramilitary chief. The presidential candidate, who had known Mancuso years earlier, knew to whom the El Meridiano executive and the queen were related.

Along with the young Mancusos, the cattlemen’s fair’s social event counted with the presence of Róger Taboada, who at the time was the vice president of the Banco Ganadero. Months later, Taboada became treasurer of Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s presidential campaign. His friendship with Uribe led him to be Colombia’s consul-general in San Francisco, California. After his tenure as a diplomat, his legal problems began: the Prosecutor-General’s Office [Fiscalía] ordered his arrest for his alleged participation in a series of illegal operations that made up part of the multi-million-dollar theft from the Fond for the Financing of the Agrarian Sector, Finagro, of which he was president, which benefited the narcotrafficker Luis Enrique Micky Ramírez, a former partner of Pablo Escobar. The investigations indicated that Taboada may have given out 855 credits of 29 million pesos each [about US$14,000], supposedly loaned to cattlemen. The former official faced an arrest warrant for conspiracy, money-laundering, document falsification and procedural fraud. After being a fugitive, he was captured in June 2008.

Accompanied by two of the main signers of the Santa Fe de Ralito Pact [a 2001 mutual-support document signed by politicians and paramilitary leaders], Miguel Alfonso de la Espriella and Eleonora Pineda, candidate Álvaro Uribe traveled throughout Córdoba, held public events, spoke at conferences and spoke with the people. In ads and photos published in El Meridiano de Córdoba he appeared in a red shirt, hand on his heart, behind him the national flag and beside him the smiling faces of Miguel Alfonso and Eleonora. With them he went to Montería’s neighborhoods and spoke of defeating violence and corruption; he attended the demonstrations carried out in the zones of Bajo and Alto Sinú, San Jorge, Sahagún and Cereté. He met with young Córdoba university students, to whom he spoke of the need to “rebuild the Fatherland.”

Continue reading »