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Colombian Opposition Leader Gustavo Petro Defies Threats to Challenge Ties Between Death Squads and U.S.-Allied Colombian Government

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Colombian President Alvaro Uribe — the closest U.S. ally in Latin America — has been mired in scandal. Eight lawmakers from Uribe’s party and his former domestic intelligence chief have recently been jailed for having ties to right-wing paramilitary death squads. We speak with Gustavo Petro, the leader of Colombia’s main opposition party, the Democratic Pole. He is a Senator in Colombia and has been leading efforts to investigate ties between paramilitary death squads and top politicians. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the situation in Colombia. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, well, the closest U.S. ally in Latin America. President Bush arrives in Colombia on Sunday. He’s making the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to Bogota since Ronald Reagan in 1982. Ahead of his trip, President Bush praised Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I think that a war against terror can be won by firm resolve plus a alternative to repression, kidnapping, murder and drugs. And one thing that President Uribe has done is laid out a vision. A lot of people have come in from the jungles, as you know, because they realize there is a better way of life. We all have a lot of work to do in our respective countries to make sure every person has a good education and good decent healthcare. But when people realize there is a better tomorrow, it’s much easier for a man of peace like Uribe to deal with a difficult problem that he inherited.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush’s visit comes at a time that Colombia’s government is in a state of turmoil. Eight lawmakers from Alvaro Uribe’s party and his the former domestic intelligence chief have recently been jailed for having ties to right-wing paramilitary death squads. Uribe’s foreign minister also resigned last month.

Gustavo Petro is a leader of Colombia’s main opposition party, the Democratic Pole. He is a senator in Colombia and has been leading efforts to investigate ties between paramilitary death squads and top politicians. Gustavo Petro is also a former member of the M-19 guerrilla movement. He joins us now from Washington, D.C., and he’s being translated by Charlie Roberts. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

Can you talk about the significance of President Bush’s trip to Colombia and the protests that he is already facing there?

GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] No doubt the message that the president of the United States is conveying to Colombian society through his visit on Sunday is backing for president in Colombia, Alvaro Uribe Velez, who has not been capable of explaining clearly why it is that hundreds of his high-level officials in the government, such as the head of the political intelligence body, who he appointed and who for four years passed on intelligence information, state secrets on opposition leaders, on trade unionists, to one of the worst criminals in the history of the country, the paramilitary chief “Jorge 40” — why it is that hundreds of these public officials and their top political leaders in the regions are now facing criminal charges. Many of them have been arrested for ties to drug trafficking, genocide and paramilitarism in Colombia. That support that President Bush is giving to a president who doesn’t provide explanation sends a bad message at this time, given the current political situation in Colombia.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Gustavo Petro, I’d like to ask you, these allegations of ties between the Uribe government and the paramilitaries have dogged President Uribe’s administration for years, but they haven’t gotten much attention here in the United States, and obviously the Colombian people have re-elected him to the presidency. Could you give a few more specifics about these ties and what have been uncovered in recent months?

GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] No doubt these ties go back more than two decades in Colombia’s recent history. And perhaps this experiment was born in the Department of Antioquia, where President Uribe was also governor from 1995 to 1997.

Basically, paramilitarism is a very savage version of drug trafficking. It is a network of drug traffickers who enjoy political power and ties with sections of the state that serve their fundamental purpose of exporting more cocaine to the United States. Colombia exports more than 90 percent of the cocaine that is consumed here in the United States.

And that malevolent alliance between drug traffickers and political power — the Colombian state — has, over these two decades, resulted in widespread crimes against humanity, genocide against specific populations, particularly trade unionists, political parties, social movements, that have been exterminated across Colombian territory. Today in Colombia, there are more than 4,000 mass graves that have been discovered, most recently 33 corpses, and among those corpses, well, they included babies, elderly persons. There’s been genocide across Colombia, turning us into a mortal statistic in the corner of the Americas where the largest number of crimes against humanity have been committed in the Americas over the last two decades.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, President Uribe labels you a terrorist in a business suit, as a former guerrilla and a member of M-19. But your group obviously went into the opposition, the peaceful opposition, some years ago, when you negotiated an agreement with the government. What’s your response to the charges of President Uribe?

GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] The M-19 was a belligerent force in Colombia against the state of siege, against the dictatorial forms that Colombia had two decades ago. And it stopped, it ceased being a belligerent force, in terms of an armed movement, when it negotiated agreements that made it possible to hold a national constitutional assembly, which was held in 1991, and in which we won the elections by popular vote, and it transformed, at least in terms of the constitution — it transformed the country from a civilian dictatorship into a democracy with problems.

Unfortunately, as of 1991, the constitution of Colombia, which calls for rule of law with significant social policies with a view towards reducing inequality, while we must keep in mind that Colombia is, socially speaking, one of the most unequal countries in the world, it hasn’t been implemented. Instead, at the local level and in an increasingly widespread fashion, we have seen the rise of what I call the Mafioso dictatorships. These are coercive paramilitary apparatuses that assassinate the population with a single objective, which is to accumulate and concentrate wealth in the most savage form possible, one of which is exporting cocaine to the United States.

Because of denouncing these facts; because of having spent five years of my work as a legislator to showing, with pointing out the first names and last names, how certain Colombian legislators in certain regions of the country would draft laws in the morning and at night they would order massacres; because I have been helping to reveal this intricate network of relationships between persons carrying out genocide, drug traffickers, politicians and public officials, I have received this insult from the president of Colombia, who said that I was a terrorist in civilian clothes. I was accused of being a terrorist, because I was telling the truth, because I was helping to unveil one of the darkest stories in Colombian history, the relationship between the country’s rulers and drug trafficking.

AMY GOODMAN: Gustavo Petro, you take great risks in speaking out right now. You’re here in Washington, D.C., usually in Colombia, though you’ve gone into exile a few times. Are you concerned about being assassinated yourself, with your charges against the president, against the president’s brother being involved with paramilitary death squads — the president of Colombia?

GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] Fear obviously exists in all human beings, and I am no exception. But I’m more concerned about the imminent danger facing thousands of activists in the opposition political parties in Colombia, the social indigenous organizations, organizations of Afro-descendants, since in October of this year, there will be local elections. The National Registrar of Civil Status has said that in the last two such elections there was fraud. This is what he has said, because basically practically two million votes — well, there were practically two million votes that represented the paramilitaries, instead of the voters, stuffing ballot boxes, assassinating candidates in many regions of the country. Indeed, they forced citizens to parade on to the polls with guns to their heads. This is how they have been able, not only to have a whole slate in the legislature, many of whom today are going off to jail, but they’ve also been able to “elect,” quote/unquote, hundreds of mayors and governors.

This situation of imminent danger, well, I reported it to the secretary general of the OAS, Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, and I called on him to invoke Article 18 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, asking that he set an observation, an electoral observation mission at the highest level, in the largest — at the most massive possible such mission, to be able to have hundreds of electoral monitors two months before the elections in those parts of the country where these practices of usurpation and armed coercion against voters has been a common practice.

The immediate response that I had from the Colombian government — well, Juan Manuel Santos, the defense minister, accused me of going against the homeland, because of trying to construct this mechanism for effective defense of the Colombian electorate and of those candidates who seek to be elected in the local governments by the transparent vote of citizens.

I must say that for the paramilitary groups, it’s fundamental to capture mayoral offices to take over local and regional governments in several areas of the country, because this is how they have been able to dominate specific societies with a view to constructing and maintaining routes for exporting cocaine to the United States.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Gustavo Petro, I’d like to ask you about the whole issue of the FARC, the leftist guerrillas that are still engaged in battles against the government. What is your position and that of the Democratic Pole, in terms of how the continuing civil war, the more than 30-year-old civil war, in Colombia can be resolved and peace can return to your country?

GUSTAVO PETRO: [translated] The Polo Democratico, Democratic Pole, party has defined in its statutes in clear-cut terms that it rejects armed struggle in Colombia. It rejects violent forms of resolving social and political conflicts in our society. It seems to us that the use of arms to eliminate one’s social and political opponent has degenerated to grave extremes in Colombian society, to the point that I wouldn’t call the FARC a leftist movement, even though the basis of their struggle continues to be — the objective basis of their struggle continues to be massive social inequality in Colombia. But after 40 years of using instruments of death, coercing Colombian citizens has brought about a degradation of the mentality of this kind of a movement, which is deepened or furthered when drug trafficking has also become one of its sources of financing.

The FARC today don’t represent any possibility of democratic transformation. To the contrary, it’s yet one more element in the Colombian landscape that is encouraging violent fragmentation and destruction, anti-democratic destruction, of society and the state.

So, no doubt, we must get past that armed confrontation. And our position is that it cannot be resolved by spreading the war as Alvaro Uribe has proposed with the support of President Bush — that’s why he’s going to Bogota next Sunday — but neither through endless or permanent negotiations that haven’t gone anywhere in terms of diminishing the conflict, kidnapping and violence. We believe more in the thesis of democratic asphyxiation of the conflict. That is to say, if violence in Colombia in all of its forms has as its ultimate source social inequality, then we need a government that would take specific measures on a day-to-day basis to resolve those grave levels of social inequality in the country, a government that would bring about the democratic forms that are essential.

One fundamental one would be to democratize property in the land, which has been concentrated by the drug traffickers by bringing together cocaine and blood at the same time —- violence and high levels of money. That democratization of landed property, democratization of credit, profound democratization of the country, could be precisely the instrument that would make it possible for violence to significantly be diminished and for the armed conflict to be resolved. We believe -—

AMY GOODMAN: Gustavo Petro, I want to thank you very much for being with us, leader of Colombia’s main opposition party. He has led efforts in Colombia’s congress to investigate revelations of ties between paramilitary death squads and top politicians. And thank you also to Charlie Roberts, the translator.

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