Colombia's Deep Divide
Established by presidential decree in 1965, Colombia's antileft paramilitaries were originally legal auxiliary militias that worked with the Colombian state. But the paras were never just passive tools, and they soon grew into autonomous drug-trafficking mafias that even started killing and expropriating land from members of the traditional ruling elite and were declared illegal in 1989. By the late 1990s the paramilitaries had come together in a united front called the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
In late 2002 Uribe started a peace process with the AUC but excluded the guerrillas. Human Rights Watch and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have blasted the process as little more than a blanket amnesty that has strengthened and legitimized the drug-trafficking paramilitaries and allowed thousands of "demobilized" paras to move into Colombia's major cities.
The amnesty also seems to have triggered an economic boom that will help Uribe at the polls. Colombian economist and author Hector Mondragón argues that Uribe's amnesty for the AUC--which was accompanied by a liberalization of investment laws--has allowed the paras and other drug barons to launder huge sums of illicit cash through Colombia's financial markets. In the past four years the country's stock exchange has ballooned a staggering sixfold. This bubble, along with rampant deficit spending by the government, has momentarily buoyed Colombia's economy.
For most of late May, Uribe had stopped giving interviews to the press and was refusing to debate his opponents. But I finally managed to corner him for a few quick questions as he was leaving an event. When I asked about the possibility of a drug-fueled boom, his answer was surprising.
"Yes, we had some years when the market was inflated by narco resources," said Uribe in English. Then he somewhat contradictorily added: "But in the last years, narco resources have actually decreased economic growth. I accept that we still have a big problem with narco-trafficking, and I pledge to fight that evil."
In fact, Uribe's connections with the rural narco-right run deep. As director of civil aviation from 1980 to 1982, Uribe was accused of handing out flying licenses to drug smugglers. The drug-trafficking AUC leader Carlos Castaño once described Uribe as "the man closest to our philosophy." As governor of Antioquia, Uribe set up a vigilante force called Convivir, parts of which eventually merged with the AUC.