SCANDAL | 10/28/2009 12:00:00 AM
Vice-president Francisco Santos may sometimes go out of line, but to categorize him as a paramilitary-politician, like Salvatore Mancuso pretends, is somewhat absurd.
The legal process was closed but it has been reopened by a new team from the Prosecutor’s Office. The case must begin from scratch and until a final verdict is issued, Francisco Santos will be in the public eye. This issue will be a hot topic, and this is why it is important to briefly summarize all the facts that have put Alvaro Uribe’s second man against the ropes.
Santos met with Salvatore Mancuso on four occasions between 1996 and 1997. At the time, he was Newsroom Chief of El Tiempo newspaper and Mancuso was a low profile paramilitary chief, unknown to the country. In archives of El Tiempo the first mention of his name occurs in 2000.
When Santos met with members of the AUC paramilitary organization, the big national issue was the Proceso 8.000, and not the paramilitary phenomenon. However, the AUC under Carlos Castaño were starting to expand throughout the national territory, especially in the north western province of Antioquia where they were responsible for many massacres. Santos was the first to realize the vertiginous growth of this organization and he took it upon himself to understand what was truly happening. “I remember thinking: here comes a big one We must understand this or it will swallow us alive” recalls Santos.
After discussing the issue with analysts and journalists, he decided to understand the true scope of the problem. He was able to contact Carlos Castaño, who met with him in Cordoba in 1996. Santos traveled to Montería, the capital of the northern province of Córdoba, “I was picked up by a cattle rancher in Monteria, and he told me the guerrilla had tried to kidnap him. He turned out to be Mancuso.”
The conversation with Castaño lasted an entire day, because it was necessary to delve deep and understand the true nature of the paramilitary phenomenon. Castaño even explained his expansion strategy in a very detailed way. The Vice president admits he was terrified when he left the meeting. He later suggested Mancuso visit Bogotá and meet journalists at El Tiempo.
And that became meeting number two. A week later, in the El Tiempo club, Mancuso met with journalists like Edgar Torres, Orlando Restrepo and Alirio Bustos. Santos introduced them and left.
A third meeting occurred in December 1996 in Valledupar. He was at a gathering and asked the locals about the counter-insurgency armed phenomenon that was heating up in that area. “Somebody told me: the one that knows about that is that small guy over there with a mustache, Rodrigo Tovar. He turned out to be ‘Jorge 40’. He told me that I had to go with him if I wanted to understand the reality of Cesar. I followed him, got in his car and three minutes later we were face to face with six other members of the organization, including Mancuso. That was when I realized he was important.“
According to Santos, that meeting did not last more than 15 minutes and in it he asked Mancuso what had happened to the three missing persons of Codazzi. He told me they were dead. The journalist was shocked by the blunt answer and even though he tried to get the bodies back, his request was denied.
Santos also speaks about the fourth meeting. It happened in 1997 when he was the leader of Mandato Ciudadano por la Paz, a peace-seeking activist organization. A “black list” that included people that worked with him like Ana Teresa Bernal and Hollman Morris was brought to his attention. “I looked for Mancuso to tell him he could not kill them. I was picked up by another person in Monteria and we went to a farm located two hours away from the city. When I met Mancuso, I asked him: ¿Where is this paramilitary thing going to? And he responded: This is getting messy, it is growing excessively, the drug dealers are meddling and I am loosing control.” Mancuso says a fifth meeting took place between Jorge 40 and Santos in a famous restaurant in Bogotá, but the Vice-president denies such allegations.
A Matter of interpretation
There is little discussion about the facts presented above. All the persons involved have their own interpretation about what happened in the meetings and about the meaning of their conversations.
Regardless of the exact phrases used by one or the other, it is evident the paramilitary chief Salvatore Mancuso is interested in exaggerating the participation of Santos to create the impression that there is a double standard in the judicial treatment of the para-politics scandal. In other words, that a young man from the capital’s elite fares better than a peasant from Córdoba.
The message is clear: we must all get the same treatment. This strategy appears in a recording found in Mancuso’s Ipod, in which he speaks to ex congress women Eleonora Pineda. In it, it is clear the paramilitary chief thought the best way to defend himself is by including people from different sectors in the para-politics scandal.
Mancuso is not totally wrong about the double standard. At one time businessmen, important farmers, military members, political leaders, and a significant portion of the Colombian elite though that the paramilitaries were a lesser evil compared to the guerilla and its plans to take over the country.
When the country met Carlos Castaño, through a television interview conducted by journalist Dario Arizmendi, he received many positive comments on the counter insurgency crusade he apparently led. Today, all these concepts have been re-examined and the consensus is that the lesser evil turned into the biggest evil. The cure was worse than the disease.
This does not automatically imply that Santos was a champion of the cause. But is does clarify that within that context he met, as a journalist, with some of the faces of the new phenomenon of Colombian violence, and that he was shocked by what he heard.
He put it in writing in a column that started: "I know some people will say I am a paramilitary, human rights violator, and a right-winger for writing this column. But because fear prevails in our country, and people are careful with their words—because these can cost them their lives—many realities of our country are left unsaid". He goes on to state that the marriage between drug dealing and politics had created a powerful army of counter insurgents that had grown due to state absence in many parts of Colombia. He concludes that this new power would have to been taken into consideration in any negotiation or peace talks with Farc, ELN and EPL, the guerrilla organizations.
Everything that Santos foreshadowed in his column became true 10 years later. Mancuso believes the column and others by Santos prove he is an ally to the cause. By being the first journalist that had the courage to speak about state absence and the regional support the paramilitaries held in many parts of the country, Mancuso believes Santos turned them into a political factor worth listening to.
The problem with Mancuso’s argument is the following: if having that perception was the same as being their ally, most Colombians at the time would be so too, because in those years everyone was worried about the guerrilla’s advance.
Santos says Mancuso has retracted and adds that his meetings with paramilitary personnel are to be understood as part of a journalistic exercise. He denies any identification with the paramilitary organization. Having an opinion is not a crime in Colombia, it is part of the freedom of expression that exists in a democratic and free country. The entire case against Colombia’s vice president is based upon a few phrases in which he supposedly suggested to the ‘paras’ the creation of a Capital Front to defend Bogotá in a moment where the guerrillas were close to the country’s capital.
The phrases could be lies, exaggerations, or truths. Many close to Santos know he can cross the line sometimes with his comments, and think it is possible he might have slipped and, half jokingly, made controversial comments. His imprudence may be close to illegality. Yet, a penal case requires much more than loose phrases. There must be collaboration or coordination of some kind with the protagonists of the armed organization. Now, it is up to the judicial system to investigate that matter.
But the weakest part of Mancuso’s argument against Santos is saying he was a “para-político” in a time where that did not even exist. Other people have been accused of having links to the paramilitaries because they received political, economic or electoral benefits from their alliance. Castaño even went as far as to say that 30 per cent of the Colombian congress belonged to them,
Francisco Santos was not a politician or a candidate. He was Newsroom Chief of El Tiempo and founder of Pais Libre, an organization dedicated to fight against kidnappings. His meetings with Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso did not give him anything in return, not one vote or one penny. This is the main argument in his defense.
The process was reopened because it lacked rigor. The Prosecutor’s Office even stated this did not imply any culpability, it was only due to procedural doubts. We must now wait and see what conclusions arise from this new investigation.
Aside from the legal process, if Pacho Santos made an untimely joke, he will definitely pay his dues.