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U.S. Intelligence Tied Colombia's Uribe to Drug Trade in '91 Report

August 02, 2004|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, one of the Bush administration's most steadfast allies in South America, was allegedly a "close personal friend" of slain drug lord Pablo Escobar and worked for his Medellin cartel, according to a newly released U.S. military intelligence report.

The 1991 report by the Defense Intelligence Agency describes Uribe, then a rising star in Colombian politics, as "dedicated to collaboration" with the Medellin cartel, at the time the world's richest criminal organization and the source of most of the cocaine imported into the U.S.

The memo devotes a single paragraph to Uribe and his alleged narcotics involvement, listing him 82nd among 104 of the "more important Colombian narco-traffickers."

The allegations about Uribe, who was elected president in 2002, were strongly repudiated by the Colombian government, the State Department and the Pentagon.

All three described the memo, released to a nonprofit research group under a public records request, as uncorroborated information contradicted by Uribe's strong support for efforts to wipe out cocaine in Colombia and extradite drug suspects to the United States.

Under Uribe, Colombia's production of coca, the source of cocaine, has dropped by more than 50% through intense, U.S.-funded fumigation efforts, and more than 160 suspected drug traffickers have been indicted, U.S. defense officials said.

"We completely disavow these allegations against President Uribe," said Robert Zimmerman, a spokesman for the State Department's Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau, which monitors Colombia. "We have no credible information that substantiates or corroborates the allegations."

News of the memo comes at a delicate time for Uribe, who is negotiating a peace deal with right-wing paramilitaries involved in drug dealing and is seeking a constitutional amendment to allow him to run for a second term in office.

The memo, which was made public today, appeared likely to resuscitate rumors about Uribe's controversial past, including his alleged connections with the drug trade. It also feeds perceptions of pervasive drug corruption in Colombia, which nearly felled former President Ernesto Samper in the 1990s, when it was discovered that his presidential campaign had received drug money.

"This is a very hard blow," said Daniel Garcia-Pena, a former Colombian government peace negotiator and left-leaning political analyst. "Being an official report from a U.S. agency, this is going to reopen a chapter that Uribe thought he'd closed. It's grave, grave."

Uribe isn't the only popular figure listed in the memo. No. 89 is Carlos Vives, then an aspiring actor and now a Grammy-winning pop star. The memo describes Vives as being "involved in narcotics trafficking" and said he worked closely with an uncle who was a trafficker in the Medellin cartel.

Vives, who has lived in Miami since the early 1990s, could not be reached for comment Sunday. Sources said he was a favorite performer of traffickers from his coastal region of Santa Marta, who would invite him to perform at their parties. The same sources said they doubted that Vives was directly involved in trafficking.

Pentagon and State Department officials took pains to deny the validity of the information in the document, which was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the National Security Archives, a nonprofit research group in Washington.

A Pentagon spokesman said the memo consisted of unconfirmed allegations and did not represent an official position of the Department of Defense. The spokesman said he knew of no other intelligence reports linking Uribe to the narcotics business.

"It's not a smoking gun. The reliability and validity of this raw data is very suspect, to say the least," said Army Lt. Col. Chris Conway, a Pentagon spokesman.

One U.S. intelligence official said that the memo, produced shortly after President George H. W. Bush ordered the military to begin tracking drug trafficking more closely, was based on a single confidential informant in Colombia.

The official noted that such information is typically passed on unedited to military intelligence analysts in Washington to avoid misinterpretation of the raw data.

This explanation is backed up by the presence of several errors in the report. One drug trafficker is listed as Fidel Castro with an alias of "Rambo" -- an apparent mix-up with Fidel Castano, a legendary onetime assassin and paramilitary fighter who went by that moniker.

"The one thing you don't want to do is sanitize the information in a report like this," the intelligence official said. "You want to keep it [as] close to raw intelligence as you can."

Colombian government officials denied that Uribe had dealings with the drug trade. They said the charges were similar to attacks Uribe faced during his 2002 presidential campaign and questioned whether the source for the document had political motives.

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