- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 6, 2002

BOGOTA, Colombia An effort by some U.S. congressmen to promote their favorite as Colombian President-elect Alvaro Uribe's national security chief is angering some of Mr. Uribe's closest supporters.

One of the expected first tasks of Mr. Uribe, who is to be sworn in tomorrow, is to name a national security adviser who will oversee the nation's U.S.-funded war against drugs, as well as the war against Marxist guerrillas and outlawed rightist "paramilitaries." The guerrillas and some paramilitary factions finance their private armies with drug money.

A group of some 20 Republican lawmakers met Mr. Uribe in a closed-door session in Washington prior to a July congressional vote on an omnibus spending bill that included new funding for Colombia in addition to the more than $1.7 billion already approved over the past three years.

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At the meeting, Republican Reps. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House International Relations Committee; Benjamin A. Gilman of New York; Dan Burton of Indiana; Bob Barr of Georgia; and others lawmakers reportedly endorsed retired Colombian National Police Director-General Rosso Jose Serrano for the national security adviser post.

Quiet objections, meanwhile, have been voiced in the United States against 59-year-old Pedro Juan Moreno, who is considered the front-runner for the position. Mr. Moreno, a longtime confidant of Mr. Uribe, served as the incoming president's chief of staff when he was governor of Antioquia province in northwestern Colombia.

"It is offensive that foreign congressmen try to force Alvaro Uribe to put their man in his Cabinet and keep his choice out," said Miguel Posada, a prominent businessman who sits on a security-affairs advisory panel for Mr. Uribe.

Gen. Serrano is a familiar figure in the U.S.-led war on drugs. An affable, grandfatherly man with gray hair, he served as Colombian national police director from 1994 to 2000. He received accolades from the Clinton administration, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the FBI and enjoyed bipartisan congressional support for his anti-drug achievements. He won praise for arresting leaders of the nation's then-No. 1 cocaine cartel based in the city of Cali. He also purged a police force long seen as corrupt.

These days, however, Gen. Serrano has an increasing number of critics, who claim his efforts were simply cosmetic.

Making it difficult to dismiss the criticism as just sour grapes from the general's detractors is a string of high-level corruption scandals in the very agency that Gen. Serrano was supposed to have cleaned up.

The United States in May froze payments to a program for the drug police after discovering that $2 million had disappeared from the account, reportedly diverted for personal use by dozens of Colombian police officers and personnel through the use of falsified receipts and overbilling.

Former anti-narcotics section chief Gen. Gustavo Soacha was forced to resign over the scandal, and dozens of police officers some who have been suspended are being investigated by Colombian prosecutors.

Among them are Lt. Col. Edgar Bejarano a former personal aide to current Police Director Gen. Ernesto Gilibert and police Col. Royne Chavez, who was head of the security detail for President Andres Pastrana until just after the scandal broke.

This has tarnished the image of Gen. Gilibert. Gen. Serrano had been among those backing Gen. Gilibert as his successor.

Neither Gen. Gilibert nor Gen. Serrano has formally been accused of wrongdoing. However, a prosecutor opened a preliminary investigation against Gen. Serrano last week before the Supreme Court, according to Judge Diego Coley of the 147th Military Penal Instruction Court.

Judge Coley said the probe, designated Case 6504, is looking into whether Gen. Serrano illegally diverted U.S. anti-narcotics funds or interfered with justice in an old corruption case against one of Gen. Serrano's top aides in the days when he ran the national police.

Gen. Serrano has repeatedly defended his department and his former aide, Maj. Oscar Pimienta, who was then a captain.

Judge Coley came to attention in May 1999. At that time, while investigating Capt. Pimienta, he surreptitiously taped a private conversation he had with Gen. Serrano. According to a transcript, Gen. Serrano says: "When [U.S. Rep.] Gilman finds out that my aide is [possibly headed for] jail for [supposedly being] a thief, then how do I stay? You have to respect me, brother. I am the director of the police."

Because of the unfolding police scandals, close Uribe supporters don't want Gen. Serrano to be considered for the national security post, even though he remains the favorite of many in Washington.

An account of the June meeting between Mr. Uribe and the U.S. congressmen, all members of a House task force on drugs, was published by syndicated columnist Robert Novak shortly afterward.

The column quoted Mr. Barr as asking the Colombian president-elect: "What position in your administration do you have for Gen. Serrano after he gave you an important endorsement that put you over the top when you needed it?"

Aides close to Mr. Uribe bristle at the question and its implications. Far from helping Mr. Uribe win the election, they say, Gen. Serrano waited until the last minute before throwing in his lot with the winning side. In the May 26 election, Mr. Uribe won 53 percent of the popular vote on a campaign to get tough against corruption, drug traffickers, and guerrillas and paramilitaries that feed on drug money.

In addition to lobbying on behalf of Gen. Serrano, the American lawmakers also spoke out against Mr. Moreno.

"We are concerned to hear that you are considering appointing Pedro Juan Moreno to be your national security adviser when he had his visa pulled," Mr. Novak's column quoted Mr. Barr as saying. The comment refers back to an investigation by the Colombian police and the DEA in the 1990s of a chemical-import company owned by Mr. Moreno's family, and to rumors heard by congressional aides that the United States had revoked Mr. Moreno's visa as a result.

The congressmen were concerned, Mr. Novak wrote, that Mr. Uribe would "appoint to high office Pedro Juan Moreno, a shadowy figure who had run-ins with U.S. and Colombian authorities over importing precursor chemicals of a kind that produce illegal narcotics."

Mr. Moreno, denying his visa had been pulled, showed his Colombian passport to a visiting reporter. It showed that he has a valid R B1/B2 U.S. visa that expires in June 2004, and that he entered Miami on July 9 and returned to Colombia on July 19.

Both Colombian and American court documents have long since cleared Mr. Moreno and his family import business, named GMP, of any involvement in importing chemicals for illegal drug manufacturing. The primary chemical questioned by the DEA was potassium permanganate, which has dozens of legal uses, including brewing beer and manufacturing textile dyes.

In 1997, the DEA started impounding GMP's chemicals in U.S. warehouses, preventing Mr. Moreno's company from shipping them to Colombia.

"I was the victim of an enormous screw-up by the Colombian police and the American DEA," Mr. Moreno said in an interview.

The DEA investigation targeted Mr. Moreno's father, the firm's original owner who had died more than 30 years earlier. In a Miami courtroom in 1999, Administration Law Judge Gail Randall threw out the DEA's case against the company and ordered that the impounded chemicals be released.

"The evidence shows that the suspended chemicals will not likely be used for illicit purposes. GMP is a reputable company in business in Colombia for over 60 years. Further, [Mr. Moreno] is knowledgeable of the country's drug-producing and trafficking problems from his past governmental service. He credibly testified about the anti-drug efforts taken by his government office, and his commitment to these actions. I conclude that the weight of the evidence favors releasing the detained shipment to GMP," Judge Randall wrote.

Another 15 months of bureaucratic wrangling passed, after which the DEA sought to collect $65,000 in storage fees, plus another $12,000 for further charges during the six additional months Mr. Moreno says it took him to receive notification. The chemicals themselves were worth just $76,250, so Mr. Moreno decided to cut his losses and walk away.

Mr. Moreno has kept stacks of receipts and identification documents for the sales of GMP's chemicals to its customers in Colombia. Some of the documents became evidence in a Colombian judicial review decided in 2001, in which Colombia's anti-narcotics police were accused of a misrepresenting the facts against Mr. Moreno.

"The penal responsibility derived from the commission of the conduct of falsehood falls on the members of the anti-narcotics police," prosecutor Ana Rosa Suarez de Abuchar said then, deciding to open a criminal investigation against the cited police.

The chief of the anti-narcotics section at that time was Col. Leonardo Gallego, who today is a brigadier general and police chief of Medellin. Gen. Gallego has since tried to approach Mr. Moreno to make peace, said Mr. Moreno.

Mr. Moreno refused and vowed he will continue his lawsuits against Gen. Serrano, Gen. Gallego and others because of monetary losses and harm to his family's and GMP's reputation.

Gen. Serrano declined to comment for this article. But his spokesman, Carlos Perdomo, said that Gen. Serrano had never asked the congressmen to lobby on his behalf. Mr. Perdomo said the support stemmed from "the congressmen's own spontaneous affection" for Gen. Serrano.

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