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Paramilitary scandal widens in Colombia

March 13, 2007|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — The scandal tying political supporters of President Alvaro Uribe with outlawed paramilitary leaders widened Monday as prosecutors filed electoral fraud charges against Trino Luna, the governor of the influential coastal state of Magdalena.

Also, Interpol disclosed that it had issued an international arrest warrant on kidnapping charges for Alvaro Araujo Noguera, a former congressman and minister who is the father of former Foreign Minister Maria Consuelo Araujo. She resigned last month after her brother, Sen. Alvaro Araujo, was jailed on suspicion of conspiring with paramilitaries to kidnap a political rival.

The theme of paramilitaries' infiltration of the Colombian government came up Sunday during President Bush's visit to Bogota.

At a news conference, Bush professed his confidence in Uribe's government to lead a thorough and impartial investigation that so far has resulted in the arrests of eight congressmen, all Uribe backers. Uribe has not been accused of illegal dealings.

"I support a plan that says that there be an independent judiciary analyzing every charge brought forth, and when someone is found guilty, there's punishment," Bush said. "That's the kind of plan I support. It happens to be the kind of plan [Uribe] supports."

Luna is the first Colombian governor to face arrest in the scandal, which is the fallout of probes by the Supreme Court and the attorney general's office into paramilitary influence and infiltration. Luna was the only candidate in the 2003 Magdalena gubernatorial election and prosecutors suspect him of colluding with paramilitaries to intimidate any would-be opponents.

The prosecutor's office also disclosed that Mayor Jose Francisco Zuniga of Santa Marta, a major port city in Magdalena, was under investigation in connection with Luna's case.

An arrest order for Luna is pending but will not be executed until Uribe appoints a replacement, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office said Monday.

Luna's whereabouts were unknown Monday night, and his office told reporters that he had left over the weekend on vacation.

The senior Araujo is believed to be at his ranch in Venezuela.

In a video released by Luna's office and broadcast over news channels here, Luna was seen denying the charges and asserting that he was the solo candidate as a result of an agreement made with several political parties in the region. He called the investigation a "witch hunt."

The governor of neighboring Cesar state, Hernando Molina Araujo, is also under investigation in connection with charges that he helped launder money for paramilitary leader Rodrigo Tovar while Molina was a consul in Panama. The leader, known as Jorge 40, is believed by investigators to have amassed a fortune in drug trafficking, extortion and land thefts.

Also jailed last month was Jorge Noguera, former chief of Colombia's investigative police. He is suspected of providing paramilitary leaders with information on left-wing labor organizers and of erasing case files damaging to the militias.

According to the spokesman for the prosecutor's office, Luna held several meetings with Hernan Giraldo, a paramilitary leader who is now in jail.

Paramilitary groups were formed in the 1980s to defend against leftist guerrillas. But many of them evolved into mafias that exert illegal control in many regions over local government, business and land.

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

Jenny Carolina Gonzalez of The Times' Bogota Bureau contributed to this report.

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