Colombia's president denies warlord's accusations regarding paramilitaries

Guards escorted former paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso to a court Wednesday in Medellin, Colombia. President Alvaro Uribe defended his vice president and defense minister against Mancuso's accusations that they conspired with illegal right-wing militias in the late 1990s. (Fredy Amariles ~ Associated Press)

BOGOTA, Colombia -- President Alvaro Uribe defended his battered administration Wednesday against a flurry of new blows: a wiretapping scandal, the jailing of more congressional allies and a paramilitary warlord's claims that two high-ranking officials conspired with far-right militias.

Salvatore Mancuso, in an explosive judicial hearing, affirmed what human rights organizations have long claimed: that Colombia's top military commanders systematically colluded with the illegal militias. He also claimed that two conglomerates paid the paramilitaries.

Since Uribe's 2002 election, Colombia's armed forces have forced leftist rebels to retreat into Colombia's thick jungles and Andean highlands, spurred by more than half a billion dollars in mostly U.S. military aid each year.

But Uribe is now on the defensive as congressional Democrats question whether to maintain that support, given growing evidence that the paramilitary onslaught, launched when Uribe was a law-and-order provincial governor, had broad official sanction.

Mancuso said the right-wing militias, branded "foreign terrorist organizations" by Washington in 2001, were aided by top army brass in training and logistics. Separately, ex-paramilitary fighters have told The Associated Press of joint operations they mounted with soldiers and of obtaining weapons from army garrisons.

'Honesty and moral fiber'

Uribe said in a radio interview Wednesday that he had "every confidence in the honesty and moral fiber" of Vice President Francisco Santos and Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, cousins who were both accused by Mancuso of seeking to enlist paramilitary support in the 1990s.

But the president got indignant when pressed for what his government has refused to reveal -- the names of all those targeted by the illegal wiretapping program, which catalogued 8,000 hours of recordings of conversations involving Uribe's political opponents, journalists and government officials.

A magazine expose about the illegal wiretapping forced the early retirement of Uribe's national police chief and police intelligence director on Monday, and Uribe lashed out at the media for refusing to disclose the story's source.

"I'm in complete disagreement with journalism that doesn't name its sources," he said.

The right-wing paramilitaries were first created in the early 1980s by landowners and drug traffickers to counter leftist rebel extortion, but later degenerated into criminal gangs and poisoned regional politics.

The warlords surrendered last year under a 2003 peace pact in which 31,000 of their fighters disarmed. But many militia soldiers never disbanded or were absorbed into new criminal gangs that continue to traffic in drugs and extort rich and poor. The wiretaps reportedly recorded some paramilitary lieutenants dispatching hit men and coordinating drug deals from jail.

The peace pact guarantees warlords no more than eight years in jail if they confess their crimes, but those who continue to break the law could face extradition to the United States on drug-trafficking charges.

Mancuso and about 60 other jailed warlords ordered the massacres of about 10,000 people over a period of about 10 years, beginning in the mid-1990s, according to Colombia's chief prosecutor. They also stole millions of acres of land.

Much of Colombia's political and economic class also benefited, and the warlords have begun to point fingers. Eleven Uribe allies in Congress are now in jail on charges of colluding with the militias, including three arrested this week.

Mancuso also alleged that beverage companies Postobon and Bavaria also paid paramilitary bosses, but he didn't elaborate. Bavaria was purchased by the South African conglomerate SABMiller PLC last year.

A spokeswoman for Postobon refused to comment and a Bavaria official said the company was not yet prepared to comment.

Mancuso said Francisco Santos, who was a leading journalist in the late 1990s, had proposed creating a paramilitary bloc in the province surrounding Bogota, which was badly afflicted by rebel extortion and kidnapping. And he accused Juan Manuel Santos, the defense minister, of seeking paramilitary help in 1997 to overthrow then-President Ernesto Samper, who was embroiled in his own scandal at the time over support from drug traffickers.

The Santos cousins are members of one of Colombia's most powerful political families. Both have acknowledged meeting with paramilitary leaders in the 1990s, but say it was only to promote peace talks.

Meanwhile, leading Democrats are asking tough questions in Washington, where Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., expects Congress to review foreign aid to Colombia in June.

"What I'm hoping is that there will be less military aid and more aid for social and economic development," McGovern said. "To be blunt, I wouldn't trust this military to tell me the correct time given what's been revealed in the past few months."

Associated Press writers Darcy Crowe, Sergio DeLeon and Cesar Garcia contributed to this report.