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Monday, November 20, 2006

Political-paramilitary links threaten Colombian head of state

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP)– A widening scandal in which three federal lawmakers have been jailed for allegedly organizing and benefiting from murderous right-wing militias is now implicating one of President Alvaro Uribe's closest political allies.

Sen. Alvaro Araujo, brother of Uribe's foreign minister, acknowledged in a radio interview Friday that he attended a 2004 party at which one of the country's most feared paramilitary leaders was present.

Araujo denied that his "marginal contact" with Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, better known as Jorge 40, implied he had any political dealings with the paramilitary commander, who is wanted in the United States for being among Colombia's biggest drug traffickers.

Uribe sought Friday to defuse what many Colombians think could become more damaging than the scandal involving drug cartel-financing of politicians in the mid-1990s that nearly toppled then-President Ernesto Samper.

He said that any member of Congress found to be conspiring with illegal armed groups should be jailed and "punished with extra severity."

Uribe called upon "all congressmen to tell the country the truth and reveal whatever contacts they had with the paramilitaries."

Evidence is mounting that politicians across Colombia's Caribbean coast funneled public funds to the paramilitaries in exchange for election wins aided by paramilitary intimidation.

Despite having disarmed as part of a 2004 peace deal, paramilitaries are still believed to hold sway over huge parts of the country after killing hundreds and forcibly displacing tens of thousands of mostly poor Colombians in a nearly dec- ade-long reign of terror.

Evidence of a long-running paramilitary-political mafia appeared to be confirmed last week when the Supreme Court ordered the arrest of four former and current members of Congress.

All four are all solid supporters of Uribe from the Caribbean state of Sucre and have either been arrested or turned themselves in.

Sen. Jairo Merlano surrendered to police in Zipaquira, a town just north of Bogotá, on Friday evening.

A U.S.$30,000 (euro 23,500) reward had been issued for information leading to his capture.

Araujo, whose powerful political family hails from the Caribbean state of César, said he had spoken with Tovar on at least two occasions since 2002, including at the birthday party for an ex-congresswoman long suspected of paramilitary ties. But he denied any improper dealings.

"I've never made any political agreement with the paramilitaries," said Araujo, who vowed to cooperate fully with the Supreme Court investigation.

Although no charges have been filed against Araujo, opposition politicians have long tried to dig up evidence linking his fledgling Alas Equipo Colombia movement to the paramilitary groups.
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