Colombia’s Foreign Minister, Maria Consuelo Araujo, has resigned because of her brother’s alleged connections to paramilitary groups.
By Nicole Ferrand
Colombia’s Foreign Minister resigned on Monday February 19, after her brother, Alvaro Araujo Castro, a Senator, was accused of conspiring with paramilitary groups in a political scandal that could hurt President Alvaro Uribe, a key ally of the United States in its fight against drugs and the terrorist group known as the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). “I am leaving,” Maria Consuelo Araujo said…I see clearly that the judicial process must be free of any interference”… “The certainty of the innocence of my father and brother forces me to leave, so I can be free to be by their side and help them as a daughter and a sister.” 
President Alvaro Uribe gave his total support to Maria Consuelo Arajo and urged her to continue with her duties, but since in addition to her brother, her cousin, governor of the state of Cesar, Hernando Molina Araujo, was also under investigation for the same case, authorities were concerned that the nation’s international image could be damaged by the family’s alleged ties with paramilitaries, so she stepped down. Mrs. Arajo’s husband is an Associated Press photographer.
Uribe has already named former development minister Fernando Arajo Perdomo, 51, as his new foreign minister. Arajo, who is not related to his predecessor, escaped six weeks ago from leftist rebels who kidnapped him in 2000. Arajo Perdomo is a civil engineer from the city of Cartagena who on December 4 of 2000 was kidnapped by the FARC while jogging. Although his family paid the ransom, he managed to escape during a military attack with helicopters on the site he was held captive at the end of 2006. He is one of the 59 politicians, soldiers and policemen that have been held by FARC during the last nine years with hopes of exchanging them for 500 imprisoned guerrillas. After he was liberated, Arajo promised to keep working for the liberation of all hostages and political prisoners and several political groups proposed his name to President Uribe as Colombia’s Peace Counselor.
Alvaro Arajo, the brother of Maria Consuelo Arajo, was arrested with four other pro-Uribe lawmakers last week on charges of meeting with the AUC (United Self-defense forces of Colombia) paramilitary leaders. AUC is a right-wing paramilitary group involved in Colombia’s forty-year civil war with the FARC. Prosecutors allege Araujo helped finance the AUC and that he was involved in the kidnapping of a political rival. Colombia’s Supreme Court has recommended that prosecutors also investigate his father, former minister of Agriculture, lvaro Arajo Noguera. Eight pro-Uribe lawmakers have been jailed since the scandal broke in November, another is on the run and an active army colonel has been suspended. 
The Para-political scandal began in June 2005 after the leader of the opposition, Clara Lopes Obregn from the Alternative Democratic Pole party claimed the existence of links between paramilitaries and some congressmen. Soon after, Paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso publicly declared that 35% of the elected Congress in 2006 were “friendly towards his former group.” The police confiscated a computer whose owner was former AUC leader Rodrigo Tovar Pupo a.k.a. ” Jorge 40″ which contained documents with information that implicated many politicians. On November 9, 2006 the Supreme Court ordered the detention of three implicated congressmen. 
Days later, members of Uribes group met in the Palacio de Nario to discuss the Supreme Court’s decision to arrest the three congressmen. In that meeting Senator Alvaro Arajo Castro said, ” If they come for me, it means that they are also coming for the minister (his sister), the Inspector General ( Edgardo Maya Villazon) and the President (Uribe).” After this, Arajo temporarily resigned from his post. He was called to testify to the Supreme Court and on February 15, 2007 was arrested for the crimes of kidnapping and extortion in association with the paramilitaries. 
In 2006 several right-leaning congressmen were charged with colluding with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The group has been accused of infiltrating Colombian politics and even the people in the government. According to El Tiempo, paramilitary leader Rodrigo Tovar Pupo wanted to attain total power in Colombia, and to achieve this, he claims, he bought influential politicians during the AUC demobilization in Santa Fe de Ralito, offering money to 40 members of congress to support the groups fight to achieve power. 
The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia began negotiations with the Uribe government in July 2003, and demobilized some 31,000 paramilitaries. The AUC, which is on both the U.S. and EU list of terrorist organizations, consist of militias formed in the 1980s to combat thousands of leftist guerrillas in Colombia. 
On November 21, 2006, Rafael Garca Torres, former Information Technologies Chief of the Administrative Department of Security (DAS) (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad) was interrogated by the Supreme Court after being accused of accepting bribes from paramilitaries and narcotraffickers in exchange for erasing their criminal past from the state intelligence database. Garca claimed to have knowledge of Jorge 40s plans to bribe several congressmen. 
Mr. Garca Torres also said that the former head of DAS, Jorge Noguera had close ties to “Jorge 40” and that they met many times to talk about local politics, including support for candidates in the 2003 municipal and presidential elections. He claims that during those meetings they discussed the situation of Hernando Molina Araujo, cousin of Mrs. Araujo and governor of the Department of Cesar. President Uribe publicly asked Noguera to appear before the Attorney General’s office, but Noguera refused alleging security reasons. Noguera was, at the time, consul in Milan. 
The scandal continues to grow and more than 60 federal and regional politicians are being questioned, almost all of them supporters of the President and it appears that the crisis could implicate the President himself. The opposition is calling for early congressional elections, claiming that the infiltration by the paramilitaries is so profound that the legislature has lost credibility. Colombian Interior Minister Carlos Holguin on Monday rejected a proposal by opposition senator, Gustavo Petro, to recall the nation’s legislature. It is important to acknowledge that the history of the paramilitaries in Colombia goes back to the 1960s, when U.S. President John F. Kennedy promoted regional security initiatives such as Plan LASO (Latin American Security Operation), to counter the possible expansion of Soviet influence in the region by guerrilla insurgents and local Communist Parties. Small groups of civilians throughout Latin America were armed and trained as informants and security personnel by military officers, to give aid in counterinsurgency operations and to establish a permanent citizen militia and intelligence network. 
Although many people in Colombia believe that the paramilitaries are criminals, others support AUC arguing that they are greatly responsible for fighting the terrorists and that if it wasn’t for the Self-defense forces (they refuse to call them paramilitaries), the country would be in the hands of the FARC. (Alvaro Uribe’s father was gunned down by the FARC in 1983 on the family ranch in the city of Antioquia).
It is estimated that AUC has between 10,000 and 20,000 men. It underwent gradual demobilization in 2003 during the process of negotiations with the administration of President Alvaro Uribe Velez. One of the most disputed issues between the paramilitaries and the Colombian government was the extradition of some of their top leaders to the United States for drug trafficking charges, which halted the demobilizations. In November, 2005 the demobilizations restarted and were expected to conclude by February 15, 2006. The AUC fully demobilized after the process, but remnants from these groups are still operating in small groups under new names, as the case of the guilas Negras (Black Eagles) in the Department of Norte de Santander or as common criminals. 
Mara Consuelo Arajo Castro has had an impeccable career, and has achieved excellent results in the Ministry of Culture before and as Colombia ‘s foreign minister. It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court’s decision to accuse her brother and father forced her to resign. But it is necessary to acknowledge the fact that this scandal was provoked by the revelations of links between some political leaders and paramilitary groups, who for years have been imposing their criminal power in many regions of the country.
It is curious that the scandal came just weeks before the visit of President George W. Bush who is scheduled to arrive in Colombia in March. President Bush is a big supporter of Alvaro Uribe because of his achievements in combating the FARC and drug trafficking and and considers him one of Washington’s staunchest allies in South America, capable of countering the regional influence of Hugo Chvez of Venezuela.
It is also peculiar that the Uribe administration was about to secure funds for the second stage of Plan Colombia. Plan Colombia is a U.S. strategy aimed at curbing drug smuggling by supporting different Drug War activities in Colombia. Its goals are aimed at social and economic revitalization. In addition it seeks to end the armed conflict and create an anti-narcotic strategy. It also includes aerial fumigation to eradicate coca. 
The United States Congress is also studying the approval of a free trade agreement (FTA) and a request from President Bush to provide Colombia with U$3.9 billion in military and antinarcotics assistance. Since 2000, Colombia has received more than U$4 billion in military funding to fight the cocaine trade and the FARC who use drug trafficking to finance the country’s internal conflict.
Political analysts are already speculating that the paramilitary crisis could damage Uribe’s efforts. The Democrats control the U.S. Congress and since they are against the ratification of the Free Trade Agreements with Peru and Colombia, they could use “human rights” as an excuse to block the initiative.
Senator Patrick Leahy , Democrat of Vermont, the chairman of the subcommittee that oversees aid to Colombia, said in a statement on Monday that the resignation and recent arrests were “positive” but left questions unanswered. He said assurances were needed that Colombia’s government had “severed links to these terrorist groups.” 
Some analysts have begun to speculate that the FARC and Hugo Chavez are behind this scandal to try to topple Alvaro Uribe. First, it is no secret that Chavez finances the FARC to assist him in spreading his Bolivarian Revolution. President Uribe has accused Senator Piedad Cordoba, who is in the opposition party, of having ties to the ELN and FARC terrorists. It is not difficult to imagine that others like Piedad Cordoba could have ties to these two groups and the paramilitaries and are trying to implicate people close to the President to reduce his popularity, which still remains at 70%.
Evo Morales from Bolivia has already joined Chavez in his plans to “unify the region” and create a new socialism, and together with his Venezuelan counterpart, constantly attack the neo-liberal model and consider the United States an enemy. Since Colombia has been successful in diminishing the group’s power, the existence of Uribe in the Presidency is an obstacle to accomplishing the Morales- Chavez plan.
In addition, Plan Colombia has been extremely successful. U.S. government statistics would show that a significant reduction in leftover coca (total cultivation minus eradicated coca) has been observed from peak 2001 levels of 1,698 square kilometers to an estimated 1,140 square kilometers in 2004. A record high aerial herbicide fumigation campaign of 1,366 square kilometers in 2004 has reduced the total area of surviving coca, even as newer areas are planted.  This is why the FARC, Chavez and their allies are desperate to stop the program and it is no surprise that the crisis comes at the verge of obtaining the resources needed to complete the program. The scandal gives ammunition to the critics who want to eliminate Plan Colombia.
Another factor of importance is that that Quito and Bogot are in the middle of a diplomatic mess over the fumigations of coca in the border by Colombia. Both countries had agreed to stop the spraying for a while because Ecuador said that it was damaging the environment. The FARC took advantage of this situation and planted coca crops in the area and when the Uribe administration re-started the fumigations, Ecuador immediately threatened to destroy the planes that were being used for that purpose and complained to the international court of The Hague. It is no coincidence that Hugo Chavez immediately sided with Rafael Correa.
Mr. Uribe and the people of Colombia are trying to put an end to a 40 year old civil war that has claimed the lives of thousands. They need the U$ 3.9 billion to continue disbanding the FARC to live in peace and they also need the ratification of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States to achieve economic prosperity. This scandal created by people linked to the FARC has emerged when the country needed it least. The US Congress dominated by the Democratic Party will possibly try to use this crisis to stop US aid and block the FTA, which could be catastrophic.
It is important to remember that the people that have been arrested are innocent until proven guilty. The investigations will hopefully clarify the situation, and the media and politicians should not jump to conclusions with an electoral agenda in mind. Colombia has demonstrated that their institutions still work independently and democratically.
If Colombia’s economic, politic and social situation deteriorates, Uribe could be toppled and that would mean a victory for the FARC and Chavez. With this scandal that is exactly what they are trying to achieve and the international community must understand this.
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