Colombia: Uribe associate facing arrest

2012-02-10 11:01
Bogota - The chief prosecutor's office obtained an arrest warrant on Thursday for ex-President Alvaro Uribe's longtime peace commissioner for allegedly choreographing the bogus surrender of a column of leftist guerrillas.

Luis Carlos Restrepo is the third former close associate of Uribe to face criminal charges. The other two, Uribe's former chief of staff and agriculture minister, are in prison in unrelated cases.

Restrepo departed Colombia on January 8 and his whereabouts are unknown, said a top prosecutor, Nestor Armando Novoa. He said the arrest was sought after Restrepo missed several court appearances.

The prosecutor in charge of the case, Martin Moreno, said late on Thursday that a Bogota court had issued an arrest warrant.

Restrepo was Uribe's peace commissioner between 2002-2009 and is best known for engineering a peace pact with far-right militias under which the Uribe government said 31 000 fighters gave up their weapons.

The case that led to Thursday's development is unrelated.

Thieves recruited

It stems from a March 2006 public ceremony, over which Restrepo presided, in which 63 members of the so-called "Cacica Gaitana" bloc of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) disarmed in the central state of Tolima.

Several of the men who posed as guerrillas later testified that they were not insurgents but rather thieves, indigents and unemployed who were recruited by a jailed former Farc fighter and paid at least $250 each for participating.

Restrepo faces criminal charges carrying a minimum prison sentence of six years including conspiracy and trafficking for private use of military weapons.

The demobilisation drew suspicion almost immediately because, while the desertion of Farc fighters was common at the time, such a co-ordinated surrender was considered highly improbable because rebel leaders regularly shoot deserters.

Restrepo has said that he never suspected there was anything unusual about the Tolima demobilisation.

The case had been under investigation since the end of 2010. Two of the men who participated have said the bogus surrender aimed to show the country that the Farc was broken. They alleged it was funded by a drug trafficker.

Criminal gangs

Drug trafficking was a key funding source for the right-wing militias known as "paramilitaries" over whose various demobilisations Restrepo presided from 2003-2006.

Created in the the 1980s by ranchers and drug traffickers to defend them from guerrilla kidnapping and extortion, the paramiltaries devolved into criminal gangs that, while rarely directly combating guerrillas, killed suspected rebel sympathisers and stole land from peasants.

Critics of Uribe, including international human rights groups, have long claimed the government's demobilisation failed to dismantle the militias and that their criminal structures are now resurgent.

Uribe extradited more than a dozen demobilised top paramilitary warlords to the United States in 2008 to stand trial for drug trafficking after accusing them of continuing to run criminal organisations from prison.

The conservative Uribe was highly popular during his 2002-2010 presidency for striking major blows against the Farc, improving citizen security, drastically reducing reported kidnappings and as a result attracting foreign investment.

But his government was plagued by scandal, primarily over hundreds of extra-judicial killings by members of the armed forces and over criminal collusion by close political allies with paramilitary warlords.

The two former close associates of Uribe in jail awaiting trial are Andres Felipe Arias, who is accused of funnelling agricultural subsidies to well-heeled Uribe cronies, and Bernardo Moreno, who is accused of ordering illegal spying on Uribe's political opponents while serving as his chief of staff.

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