Colombia's president has a problem — his supporters are corrupt

BOGOTA, Colombia — A one-time guerrilla turned senator stood up in Colombia's Congress six years ago and accused prominent colleagues of having political alliances with right-wing hit squads.

Sen. Gustavo Petro's accusations seemed to gain little traction given his controversial past as a member of a now-defunct Colombian guerrilla group called M-19.

But Petro began receiving anonymous packages that linked more members of Congress to the paramilitary groups. He denounced other congressmen. Others undertook their own investigations. In time, prosecutors began pursuing the cases aggressively.

Today, 33 members of Congress — about 10 percent of Colombia's House and Senate — are in prison for colluding with paramilitary groups that terrorize rural areas and control profitable cocaine-trafficking routes. Another 10 percent are under investigation, including the Senate president, and more cases are being added every month.

The congressmen have been convicted or accused of taking payoffs from paramilitary leaders, having the paramilitaries finance their campaigns or having plotted with paramilitaries to kill political rivals.

The scandal exposes the ugly underbelly of a nation that's been basking in the triumph of last week's audacious rescue of 15 hostages held by Colombia's oldest guerrilla group.

The extent of the corruption has wide implications, as it threatens to undermine the stunning success of President Alvaro Uribe, the Bush administration's strongest ally in Latin America. Nearly every tainted member of Congress has been a strong supporter of Uribe, including the president's closest political friend, his cousin Mario.

"It is most certainly the dark side of his presidency and an inevitable part of his legacy, even if it is glossed over or ignored altogether by his most fervent supporters now," said Bruce Bagley, the chairman of the University of Miami's international studies department. "I believe it still may come back to haunt him in the next 12 months or so."

Uribe has long denied accusations that he owed his political rise in the 1980s to his ties with illegal paramilitary groups in Antioquia state, where he rose through the political ranks before he was elected president in 2002.

His supporters are quick to note that the congressional scandal has yet to implicate him.

It certainly hasn't dented his popularity. An astounding 85 percent of Colombians polled in the country's four biggest cities view him favorably, up from 76 percent before the rescue mission. And 74 percent support changing the Constitution to allow him to seek an unprecedented third term.

Colombia's paramilitary groups date to the late 1970s and the rise of cocaine baron Pablo Escobar. They gained force in the late 1990s and now are thought to be responsible for the deaths of 20,000 to 25,000 people, mostly in rural areas.

Sen. Petro thinks that paramilitary leaders convened meetings across the country before the 2002 congressional elections to elect compliant lawmakers.

Indeed, Uribe and the Congress got some 30,000 paramilitary soldiers and their warlord bosses to surrender in exchange for amnesty or lesser sentences.

Sen. Jorge Enrique Gomez is among the Uribe supporters who think that many of the charges against congressmen are politically motivated.

"There are a lot of lies," said Gomez, a member of the Up with Colombia political party. "Ninety-nine percent of the accusations are exaggerated."

Gomez has a unique vantage point: He replaced a senator who replaced another senator who replaced the senator originally elected to the seat. That makes him the fourth senator from his party to occupy it.

"I don't think the seat is jinxed," said Gomez, an evangelical pastor.

In the Senate, 43 have been implicated. As in Gomez's case, some senators and their replacements have gone to prison or resigned because of the investigation. In that case, a lower vote-getter from the party takes over. Colombian senators run nationally.

In the House, 34 have been forced to resign because of ties to paramilitaries.

Of the 267 House and Senate seats overall, four are vacant waiting for replacements to take over. All the other vacancies due to the scandal have been filled.

Sen. Marta Lucia Ramirez sponsored a measure this year that would have left seats vacant when a member of Congress was forced to resign.

"Drug traffickers have for years wanted to gain a hold over politics," Ramirez said. "We have made only superficial reforms to stop it. We need to force the parties to choose clean candidates."

Uribe marshaled his forces to defeat the proposal, however. Leaving the seats vacant probably would have cost him his congressional majority, analysts noted.

"How does it serve democracy to have one senator or House member with paramilitary ties replaced by another?" asked Claudia Lopez, who helped uncover the scandal through her research for a nonprofit group. "Was it more important for Uribe to maintain his majority in Congress than to kick out the congressmen with paramilitary ties?"

Lopez began receiving death threats two months ago and now travels with a police bodyguard.

Petro has received so many death threats for his role in exposing the scandal that he travels in public with 10 bodyguards. His 6-year-old daughter goes to school in an armored SUV.

Petro even sleeps with an AK-47 submachine gun under his bed.

"Want to see it?" he asked. A minute later, he pulled it out of a knapsack and assembled it. He said he'd learned how to use it as an M-19 guerrilla during the 1980s.

Petro declined to be photographed with the weapon, saying that Uribe already has used Petro's M-19 past to discredit his investigation.

Petro said his mother and sister had had to leave the country to escape death threats.

He said he didn't regret sounding the alarm, however.

"I've lost all my freedom, but I'd do it 10 more times," Petro said. "This is one of the most important events in recent Colombian history."

Petro's biggest disappointment is the lack of public support for his efforts.

"A lot of the public thinks I shouldn't have made this an issue," he said. "Someone who discovers ties between politicians and the paramilitaries should become more popular, not less."