Recent attention in Colombia has focused on alleged longstanding relations between the government and paramilitary organizations. Thirteen directors of the multinational corporation Chiquita Brands have been charged with financing the illegal armed groups. The Attorney General’s Office has turned its focus towards the relationship between Convivir, a neighborhood watch association, and the governors of Colombia’s northwestern Antioquia state, between 1997 and 2004.
The debate has focused on the role played by the former president and today senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez when he served as governor of Antioquia between 1995 and 1997. During those years, he played important roles in developing community councils, expansion of the education system, providing public services, and building roads.
However, the ex-governor is haunted by a ghost called Convivir. In order to create a new instrument of community participation focused on the achievement of peace and security in the countryside, the Community Associations of Rural Vigilance (Convivir) were created, based on Article 42 of Law 356 of 1994. The government of former president Ernesto Samper spearheaded the creation of these organizations that were promoted by his predecessor, César Gaviria.
The accusation against Uribe basically lies in contention that he approved the “existence and expansion of paramilitary groups throughout the department of Antioquia.” Uribe, in his defense, has published a press release detailing the role that he played as governor.
In the text the he explains that during his administration, he supported and promoted this type of organizations because he always believed in citizen collaboration with state security in order to promote “efficiency and transparency in matters of security.”
“Colombia had about 700 Convivir organizations, since 1994, long after the birth of paramilitarism. Approximately 67 were approved in Antioquia. The government of Antioquia recognized their legal status, but the operational license and supervision corresponded to the Superintendence of Surveillance of the national government” he contends.
He adds that in his capacity as governor, he did not have the competence to monitor them. For that reason, he participated in three cases to cancel their legal status, and in one case sough a suspension, due to proven irregularities.
Security and defense analyst, Jhon Marulanda, in an interview with the PanAm Post suggested that there is a widespread belief that Uribe oversaw Convivir during his term as governor.
“This group was instituted by the administration of Cesar Gaviria to support the state security agencies in providing information on the presence and activity of groups and/or persons involved in terrorist activities.”
He added that they were unarmed, and only with means of communication provided to them by the army or police.
“They received advice, training on what information to report, how to find it, and use of communication radios which they purchased themselves.”
Uribe’s communiqué also argues that as president of the republic, he fought all types of criminal organizations, dismantled paramilitary groups through the Justice and Peace Law, brought paramilitaries to justice, ensured reparation of victims, jailed the majority of their leaders, and extradited their top leaders.
“Honor and good name can not be tainted by fake news and permanent infamies, which are not based on truth, and which are not part of the freedom of the press,” the statement concluded.
The Prosecutor’s thesis is that an attempt was made to render ineffective the judgment of the Constitutional Court that ordered the disarmament of the special services of surveillance and private security, which had been operating under the auspices of Convivir, which “were not neither cooperatives nor special surveillance services.” The ruling warned of the legal irregularity that occurred with the hybrid that was deemed Convivir, the prosecution said.
“The circumstances of the moment brought some Convivir groups to the interests of the extreme right, and from there they became involved in drug trafficking, due to actions on the extreme left, and the incompetence of the current governments to guarantee a minimum of citizen security”, concluded Marulanda .
Petro and the accusations
Leftist opposition leader Gustavo Petro has taken advantage of the controversy over the judicial investigation of Chiquita to join in the accusations against Uribe. During his time in Congress as Senator in the period 2006-2010, Petro was a leading force in investigating the relationship between politicians and paramilitaries.
His work uncovered the scandal of the so-called “parapolitica”, which showed links betwen politicians and paramilitary groups, a fact that led him to be chosen as the person of the year by various media groups. Petro alleged that Uribe was one of the politicians involved in the scandal.
Uribe responded to Petro’s accusations on Twitter retorting that Petro “yes, is a liar.”
Dr Petro si que es mentiroso, pocos de los desmovilizados paramilitares habían estado en Convivir(S) de Antioquia, estimuladas para evitar guerrillas y paramilitares.
Faltó colaboración ciudadana que hubiera evitado que el dr Petro y sus secuaces asesinaran a los magistrados
— Álvaro Uribe Vélez (@AlvaroUribeVel) September 4, 2018
“Doctor Petro is a liar, few of the demobilized paramilitaries had been in Convivir of Antioquia, [they were] encouraged to avoid guerrillas and paramilitaries. Citizen collaboration was lacking, which would have prevented Dr. Petro and his henchmen from assassinating judges,” Uribe tweeted.
Petro responded that “he formally requested Senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez to hand over the evidence on which he bases his public accusation that accuses me of having murdered judges. If he does not have it, he formally requested that Uribe correct his statement.”
The role of Chiquita Brands
The Prosecutor General’s Office accuses thirteen directors at Chiquita of financing paramilitaries in Urabá, potentially in conjunction with mayors and governors between 1997 and 2004. Among the payments, which the directors themselves have admitted in court, the Office of the Prosecutor highlights numerous cash disbursements that went directly to paramilitary groups, as well as the exchange of information.
The file shows that some members of the Convivir groups were also members of the illegal armed groups, and a few of these paramilitaries went to the banana companies and farms, where they provided with goods and services, including fuel.
Similarly, the investigation indicates that from 1989 to 1997 the multinational financed guerrilla groups that operated in the Urabá region of Antioquia and Cordoba states. Among these were the FARC, the ELN and the EPL, which received more than USD $800,000.