Saturday, April 21, 2007

Sen. Patrick Leahy last week put a hold on $55.2 million in military aid to Colombia, citing the increasing number of reports of collaboration between Colombian officials and right-wing paramilitaries. The scandal, widely called “para-politics,” has rattled Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s government, hurting the president both in Colombia and in the United States.

Nine Colombian legislators and a governor have been arrested, and the former foreign minister and head of the national police have also been implicated. The revelation most devastating for Mr. Uribe’s reputation in the United States came last month, when a CIA report that alleged collaboration between Colombian army chief Gen. Mario Montoya and paramilitary groups was leaked to the Los Angeles Times. That revelation prompted particularly strong criticism because of the high level of military aid sent to Colombia.

The fact that these collaborations are now being exposed and investigated is a result of Mr. Uribe’s success, not his failure. The Colombian president successfully negotiated an agreement that disarmed around 31,000 paramilitary fighters, making substantial progress toward breaking up Colombia’s paramilitary network. The first “para-politics” revelations came after police raided the home of one paramilitary leader, seizing his computer and his files. Although the deal caused some controversy by offering reduced sentences for those who turn themselves in and confess, Colombian officials have pointed out that it is far improved from an amnesty agreement.

The incidents of collaboration with paramilitaries, including the one involving Gen. Montoya, took place in 2002, the year Mr. Uribe was elected. (Several of the legislators at the time were not even Uribe supporters.) And although “para-politics” may taint Mr. Uribe’s government, it doesn’t change the fact that Colombia is safer, more peaceful and on a better path since 2002. Murders have been on a substantial and fairly steady decline. Mr. Uribe quickly made good on his promises to go after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), guerrillas that at one point had amassed some 20,000 soldiers. By increasing the size of Colombia’s security forces, Mr. Uribe was able to weaken FARC, particularly in central Colombia, and was also able to negotiate the deal with the paramilitaries.

“Para-politics” shows a startling picture of just how connected the paramilitary network was to politicians and other officials. The fact that officials connected to paramilitary forces, like many of the paramilitary leaders themselves, are under investigation and facing justice should not go overlooked. Nor should it be overlooked that Mr. Uribe is making sure the investigations go forward.

Democrats, Mr. Leahy included, have in the past been critical of U.S. aid to Colombia, so it’s a little surprising that he now would put a hold on military assistance. This is clearly a mistake. U.S. aid is essential for Colombia to secure the progress that has been made — progress that represents a small success story in Latin America. Democrats would be wrong to undermine U.S. support now.

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