Colombia Probes Vice President Over Militia Ties
By Patrick Markey
October 19, 2009
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian prosecutors have reopened a probe into Vice President Francisco Santos over charges by a former paramilitary boss that he had sought to organize outlawed militias, an investigator said on Monday.
The attorney general opened an initial investigation into Santos in 2007 after a former warlord Salvatore Mancuso testified Santos had proposed in the late 1990s creating a paramilitary group to tackle rebels fighting around Bogota.
That probe was suspended for lack of evidence. But prosecutors reopened the investigation into Santos' suspected ties to militia bosses, extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges, to put to rest any lingering suspicions.
"It has been decided to continue with the initial investigation to clear up any doubts," acting Attorney General Guillermo Mendoza told local W Radio.
Santos, a former newspaper columnist, said he was open to cooperating in a "swift and efficient" investigation. But he urged that the probe not be abused politically to tarnish the government's image.
"I have never defended or been a friend of drug traffickers, paramilitaries, rebels or the corrupt," Santos said in a statement released by his office.
Colombia's long conflict has waned since President Alvaro Uribe sent troops to retake areas once under the sway of leftist rebels and outlawed militias organized to battle them in regions where state presence was weak.
Uribe in 2003 began negotiating the surrender of paramilitary commanders and has since extradited most of the top bosses to the United States. But dozens of his lawmaker allies have been probed for militia ties and some were jailed on charges they collaborated with the warlords.
SCANDALS FUEL CRITICISM
Organized by wealthy landowners to protect themselves from kidnapping and rebel attacks, the paramilitaries soon controlled large parts of Colombia, where they ruled brutally, massacring and stealing rich farmland from peasants.
Former militia boss Mancuso, testifying on his crimes as part of the peace deal, in May 2007 said Santos had met with militia bosses and discussed setting up a paramilitary group to counter rebel violence around the capital.
Santos was a journalist and columnist at the time Mancuso said the meeting took place and interviewed paramilitary bosses in the late 1990s.
Scandals over paramilitary ties have fueled criticism of Uribe at home and in the United States, where Democratic lawmakers have resisted a free-trade deal with Colombia and called for tighter control over military funding for Colombia.
Uribe says the arrests of his allies show Colombian justice now works better than ever. Rights groups say the scandal has unearthed the depth of collusion among militias and politicians and some elements in the armed forces.
(Reporting by Patrick Markey in Bogota; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)