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Top Colombia official resigns

A scandal involving alleged links to paramilitary forces claims foreign minister.

February 20, 2007|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Colombia's foreign minister resigned Monday, the latest casualty in the country's growing investigation into ties between right-wing paramilitary forces and top politicians.

Maria Consuelo Araujo, a favorite of President Alvaro Uribe and a member of a powerful clan, stepped down following the arrest Thursday of her brother and four other lawmakers for alleged links to illegal paramilitary fighters.

Araujo, 35, had not been tied to paramilitary forces or the charges against her brother. However, analysts said her status as Colombia's representative abroad had become untenable at a time when the influence of right-wing fighters on various levels of government is an overriding theme.

"It's an unjust waste of a brilliant career of a woman who apparently had no involvement in her family's supposed links to the paramilitaries," said Claudia Lopez, a Bogota-based political analyst. "But it's a reasonable decision because the public debate will now focus around President Uribe, not her."

In a brief statement to reporters Monday, Araujo said she had told Uribe, "I am leaving the government and I am going for one reason, and it's that I am attached not to any single job but only to what benefits the country."

As a replacement, Uribe named Fernando Araujo, a former development minister who was held captive by leftist guerrillas for six years until his dramatic escape Dec. 31. He is no relation to his predecessor.

The country's Supreme Court has been probing the extent to which the paramilitary forces, labeled terrorists by the U.S. State Department, have infiltrated the highest levels of the Colombian government. Critics have charged that Uribe has not done enough to rein in the militias' influence.

Formed in the 1980s as self-defense groups against leftist guerrilla armies, the paramilitary forces in time evolved into mafias that trafficked in drugs, committed murder and rigged elections. A 2003 peace agreement called on 31,000 paramilitary fighters to lay down their arms and offered their leaders relatively light sentences, but critics allege that the top commanders still direct followers' criminal activities from prison cells.

Questions about the militias' ties to top politicians could jeopardize Colombia's relations with the U.S. American lawmakers are expected to vote this year on a free trade agreement between the two countries and a one-year extension of Plan Colombia, which now delivers more than $700 million in U.S. aid to this nation each year.

"The resignation of the foreign minister and the recent arrests of members of the Colombian Congress are positive, though overdue, steps, but they leave many questions unanswered," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that approves funding for the U.S. assistance. "As the new U.S. Congress takes stock of this situation and the justification for continued U.S. outlays to Colombia, American taxpayers deserve assurances that the Colombian government has severed links to these terrorist groups."

U.S. critics of Plan Colombia have long complained of what Leahy described as "the symbiotic relationship between the paramilitaries and the Colombian government" and have complained that Uribe has not done enough to stop human rights abuses committed by the militias.

Uribe's supporters respond that last week's arrests of Sen. Alvaro Araujo, the former minister's brother, and other lawmakers show that the president, who enjoys a 70% approval rating among poll respondents here for reducing violence since taking office in 2002, is committed to justice.

Supreme Court charges against the minister's brother detailed an alleged bargain the 44-year-old senator struck with paramilitary groups to ensure his 2002 election. According to Supreme Court sources, the charges state that he conspired in the kidnapping by paramilitary fighters of Victor Ochoa, brother of the ex-mayor of Valledupar, to intimidate Ochoa's associates from running and assure the senator's election.

The sources said the former foreign minister's father, also named Alvaro Araujo, and her cousin, Gov. Hernando Molina of Cesar state, were being investigated on allegations of illegal dealings with the paramilitary forces as well.

In addition to Sen. Araujo, five lawmakers were ordered arrested last week; one of them was not immediately taken into custody.

In November, four other sitting or former members of Colombia's Congress were arrested on charges ranging from mass murder to electoral fraud.

The president has yet to be touched by allegations, but political analyst Cynthia Arnson said he has been less than vigorous in condemning his supporters' links to right-wing militias.

"What has been conspicuous by its absence is any response from President Uribe himself expressing concern and alarm about the degree of paramilitary penetration of Colombian political institutions," said Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "He should not remain aloof and disengaged from this."

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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