Bush Rallies Behind Colombian President, Despite Drug Allegations

The administration of President George W. Bush on Monday rallied behind Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in the face of allegations contained in a 13-year-old Pentagon intelligence report that he was a "close personal friend" of drug lord Pablo Escobar and had worked for his Medellin drug cartel.

"We completely disavow these allegations about President Uribe," said State Department spokesman Adam Ereli. "We have no credible information that substantiates or corroborates these allegations that appeared in an unevaluated 1991 report, linking President Uribe to the narcotics business or trafficking."

"What I can tell you is that this was a report that included information that was based on input from an uncorroborated source," said State Department spokesman Adam Ereli. "It is raw information … [not] finely evaluated intelligence, and my understanding from my Department of Defense colleagues is that it did not constitute an official DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] or DOD [Department of Defense] position."

The document, which was released last weekend by the independent National Security Archive (NSA) at George Washington University under the Freedom of Information Act, consists of a list and brief profiles of 104 of the "more important Colombian narco-terrorists contracted by the Colombian narcotic cartels for security, transportation, distribution, collection and enforcement of narcotics operations in both the U.S. and Colombia."

It also includes a warning at the top that not all of the intelligence has been "finally evaluated."

Uribe is listed as number 82, just after Pablo Escobar, "maximum chief of the Medellin cartel," Yair Klein, a retired Israeli Army colonel and mercenary who helped train cartel paramilitary forces, and Berta Inez, described as a "direct collaborator with Escobar," who was killed in a shoot-out with Colombian national police (backed up by U.S. intelligence and special forces) in 1993.

"Alvaro Uribe Velez," according to the document, is a "Colombian politician and senator dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin cartel at high government levels. Uribe was linked to a business involved in narcotics activities in the U.S. His father was murdered in Colombia for his connection with the narcotic traffickers."

"Uribe has worked for the Medellin cartel and is a close personal friend of Pablo Escobar Gaviria," the document went on. "He has participated in Escobar’s political campaign to win the position of assistant parliamentarian to Jorge [Ortega]. Uribe has been one of the politicians, from the Senate, who has attacked all forms of the extradition treaty."

While Uribe has staunchly denied any connection to drug trafficking – as he did again in a strong statement Sunday that was also published on the NSA website – some of the allegations contained in the profile have been raised in the past, notably by his political foes in the 2002 presidential elections.

"It’s something the left has been trying to pin on him for a while, and this gives them new ammunition," said Adam Isaacson, a Colombia specialist with the Center for International Policy (CIP), a Washington-based center-left think tank.

But Isaacson himself said no solid connections between Uribe and Escobar have ever been solidly established, and that the newly released document, which was fraught with factual errors, was unlikely to change many minds. He pointed in particular to the inclusion on the list of Adnan Khashoggi, a well-known Saudi arms dealer, as well as Carlos Vives, a Grammy-winning pop star, as likely mistakes.

U.S. counter-drug and counter-insurgency assistance to Colombia has increased during the Bush administration and that country is the biggest recipient by far of U.S. military and security assistance in the Americas.

In his statement issued from Bogota, Colombia’s capital, Uribe noted he was attending Harvard University in 1991 and was not living in Colombia. He also insisted that he had no business of any kind outside of the country and that his father, Alberto Uribe Sierra, was murdered by left-wing guerrillas in 1983 while resisting a kidnap attempt.

He added that he did not actively oppose extradition of alleged drug-traffickers to the United States but spoke out only in favor of delaying a referendum on the issue until after parliamentary and presidential elections pending at the time. In that connection, Uribe stressed he had authorized the extradition of more than 170 individuals to various countries on drug-trafficking and related charges since becoming president.

At the same time, Uribe’s statement did not deny what the NSA called the "most significant allegation reported in the document: that Uribe had a close personal relationship with Pablo Escobar and business dealings with the Medellin Cartel."

"Because both the source of the report and the reporting officer’s comments section were not declassified, we cannot be sure how the DIA judged the accuracy of this information," said Michael Evans, director of the NSA’s Colombia Documentation Project. "But we do know that intelligence officials believed the document was serious and important enough to pass on to analysts in Washington."

NSA also noted that much of the information on other individuals identified in the report "is accurate and easily verifiable. It is evident that a significant amount of time and energy went into compiling this report, and that it did not come from a single source at a cocktail party as these reports often do."

In a book published late last year entitled More Terrible Than Death: Massacres, Drugs and America’s War in Colombia, Robin Kirk, who has been chief Colombia researcher for the group Human Rights Watch (HRW) since 1992, noted that none of Uribe’s political foes had been able to prove his alleged links to drug trafficking "beyond the inevitable contact that anyone living in Antioquia during the 1980s might have had, particularly if that person had interests in land and politics."

In 1984, according to Kirk, Colombian police seized a helicopter at whose registry number corresponded to a machine purportedly owned by Alberto Uribe, Alvaro’s father. Investigators also once identified a brother’s telephone number stored in one of the cell phones used by Escobar.

"But on the day the calls were logged, the family claims that the brother was mute, hospitalized with throat cancer. Alvaro claims that the telephone had been ‘cloned,’ a technique used by Medellin criminals to steal cell phones to make free calls," adds Kirk.

Michael Shifter, vice president of the establishment oriented Inter-American Dialogue, predicts the release will not immediately affect Uribe.

"I think it’s going to reinforce on both sides: for those who are anti-Uribe, it will give them more ammunition; and Uribe defenders will see this as part of a smear campaign. So, at the end of the day, I don’t think it will make much difference in terms of Uribe’s bid to change the constitution to run for reelection or U.S. support for Colombia under Uribe, unless more evidence comes out to confirm or corroborate the report," he said.

"In the big picture," according to Isaacson, "almost everybody in Colombia’s ruling class was mixed up in drugs until [former U.S. President] Ronald Reagan declared war on drugs in the mid-1980s."

Isaacson said the report was unlikely to significant dent Uribe’s strong popularity in Colombia, which, in any event, has not translated into full support for his policies.

Last October, Uribe’s program for wide-ranging reforms were rejected in a referendum, while his recent efforts to negotiate a peace with leaders of right-wing paramilitaries – especially their appearance last week before the National Congress – has evoked skepticism, even revulsion, not only in Colombia, but even in Washington, which has otherwise provided strong support for his get-tough policies.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.