- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia — As Colombian President Alvaro Uribe prepares for another visit to the United States in June, a mushrooming scandal over wiretapping and accusations that some government, military and police members back paramilitary vigilantes is undermining his support in the U.S. Congress.

“We ask the Congress of the United States to respect the valiant struggle of the Colombian people against the expressions of terrorism,” Mr. Uribe said last week in a plea to continue funding the anti-drug Plan Colombia and to pass a free-trade agreement.

He visited Washington earlier this month seeking support for both initiatives but encountered strong opposition from Democrats in Congress. His vice president, Francisco Santos, is in Washington this week for additional meetings.

Shortly after Mr. Uribe returned to Colombia, his government disclosed that a police intelligence division had been conducting illegal wiretaps on journalists, opposition politicians and government officials.

Also, Colombia’s courts ordered the arrest of six legislators and several former politicians — most of them allies of Mr. Uribe — who are accused of having links to paramilitary groups.

Eight pro-Uribe lawmakers already were in jail for ties to the since-demobilized United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the main paramilitary group, which is considered a terrorist outfit by the United States.

So far, the scandal hasn’t hurt Mr. Uribe’s domestic approval ratings, which remain close to 70 percent largely because of his perceived successes against terrorists and urban crime. But the scandal is killing his support in the U.S. Congress.

In April, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Appropriations state, foreign operations and related programs subcommittee, put a hold on $55.2 million in aid to the Colombian military because of his concerns that Colombian generals were collaborating with paramilitaries.

Paramilitaries were responsible for cocaine trafficking and the deaths of an estimated 10,000 Colombians during the civil war with Marxist guerrillas.

“I have withheld the release of those funds because I — and other members of Congress — are concerned about reports of paramilitary infiltration of the Colombian government and military,” Mr. Leahy said at the time.

The AUC was created by Colombian landowners and peasants in the late 1990s to defend against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other guerrillas. But some of the paramilitaries became major drug traffickers and vigilante killers.

Much of Mr. Uribe’s continued popularity is credited to his negotiating the surrender and disarmament of the paramilitaries in exchange for confessions and reduced jail sentences.

Salvatore Mancuso, a top AUC commander, sent shock waves through the Uribe administration when he testified recently that Mr. Santos, the vice president, and Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos had met with paramilitary leaders in the 1990s.

Juan Manuel Santos subsequently admitted meeting with paramilitaries as a private citizen on a peace mission. The vice president, who arrived in Washington on Tuesday, has not denied meeting paramilitary members when he was a journalist for the El Tiempo newspaper.

Both officials deny that they did anything illegal.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have indicated that consideration of the free-trade agreement and future funding for Plan Colombia are on hold until investigations into the paramilitary scandal are complete.

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