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| 3/25/2009 12:00:00 AM

Para-politics on the Colombian plains

For their close relationships with a Colombian paramilitary, Guaviare province Governor Óscar López is on the verge of being sent to prison and the governor of the province of Vichada, also in Eastern Colombia, is facing difficulties.

The decision of the Fiscalía, the prosecutor general’s office, to order the capture of Governor Óscar López Cadavid of the Guaviare province, and to pursue investigations against other leaders opened a new front in the para-politics scandal, this time in the vast savannahs of Colombia’s eastern llanos, or plains.

López, as well as his political mentor the former Guaviare governor Nevio Echeverri and several officials, have been pointed out by former paramilitaries for being close to the AUC paramilitary group of Vicente Castaño and to the group of Pedro Olivero Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo,” or “the Knife.”

While Colombia has been concentrating its attention for years in Santa Fe of Ralito in Córdoba province in the torturous process of the handover of paramilitary leaders and the uncovering of the para-politics scandal, in the eastern provinces of Casanare, Arauca, Meta, Guaviare and Vichada, men such as Vicente Castaño, the “Loco” Barrera, “H.H.” and “Cuchillo” have not only expanded and consolidated their empire, but rather have in many parts been able to penetrate the political class and put the government to their service. Investigations have shown that López began to have relationships with the paramilitary heads who arrived in the area more than six years ago, an area once dominated by the FARC.

The head of the Fiscalía, Mario Iguarán, said this week that the governor “made use of his business activities and put them to the service of a project of the paramilitaries led by Vicente Castaño, given the friendship that he maintained with him.”
López, whose family dominates the retail sector of San José del Guaviare and who has benefited from power, used allies in order to acquire thousands of hectares at low cost in Casanare, according to investigators.

After serving three times as a representative in the House of Representatives, López was elected in 2007 as governor of Guaviare in the midst of a political scandal. Originally from the province of Antioquia, and having arrived 30 years ago in the region under the protection of his relative Nevio Echeverri, he won the elections under accusations of having received paramilitary support.

According to investigations by the Fiscalía, several gubernatorial candidates were intimidated by paramilitaries and even directly so by “Cuchillo,” so that they would drop their campaigns. “In order to pursue politics in the region, you needed their permission. And for them, the ideal candidate for governor was Óscar López,” a former candidate told investigators.

Several investigators who traveled to the area collected important testimonies and evidence that the paramilitaries ordered fishermen, rural people and residents of the province to vote for López.

“In addition to this pressure, it was common in political rallies made by López and his followers to raffle off motorcycles, fans, groceries, tiles and bricks among the crowd,” said a recognized leader from the region who asked that his name not be published out of security reasons.

On October 28, 2007, election day, the highest turnout ever was recorded in Guaviare as many sought change in Guaviare. At night, during the vote count, Dagoberto Suárez, the Convergencia Ciudadana party candidate, was leading López by about 250 votes. All of a sudden, the lights went out in San José. When the electricity came back on, López, the Conservative Party candidate, took the lead. At the end, López obtained 9,314 votes while the closest rival got 8,651 votes.

Behind this and other electoral victories were the paramilitaries, who tried to take total control of the area so that cocaine could be transported from southern Colombia to Vichada in order to later be sent to Venezuela. According to Police sources, 40% of the cocaine that leaves Colombia passes through Venezuela.

Despite this fact and the accusations that began to arise about the pressure that paramilitaries exercised in the elections, the legal problems only began for López at the end of last year.

On the one hand, the demobilized paramilitary head Éver Veloza García, alias “H.H.,” said that López had allied himself with Vicente Castaño in order to acquire large expanses of land in Casanare and grow African palms to produce palm oil. While the paramilitaries intimidated or displaced rural people, supposedly López and his frontmen would take over those lands, says the former paramilitary who was extradited to the United States last March 5th.

The purchases could exceed 40,000 hectares. The most compelling proof was given by the owner of the farm La Argentina in Casanare, who was forced to sell his land for just 350 million pesos ($150,000 USD). Jesús Pereira, alias “Alfonso,” a close friend of Castaño, told the Fiscalía that his boss ordered the assassination of the landowner, but he was able to intercede for him.

Behind the operation was “El Benedo” or “El Boyaco,” who, according to the Fiscalía is Benedictino Romero Barrera. According to the property deeds of La Argentina, he was a partner of the governor of Guaviare. López told the El Tiempo newspaper that he got the farm in good faith, through a third party, who told him that the owner would sell it at a good price because he had problems with the paramilitaries.

The other big problem for the governor began when it was learned that he had been a partner of “Cuchillo” and one of his commanders, Diego Fernando Rendón Laverde, alias “Pipe,” at the Exploración y Explotación Minera del Llano Ltda. mining company.

This company had been created by López, his friends and subordinates in 2005, among whom was Víctor Hugo Floriano Huertas. Floriano was sent to Vichada near the end of the campaign in order to finance and help the then gubernatorial candidate Blas Arvelio Ortiz. According to the documents of the mining company, the two paramilitaries became partners in 2006. López said that he accepted “Don Pedro” (“Cuchillo”) as a partner because, at that time, he was undergoing the demobilization process, that he later ceded his part to another person and that it was only a company on paper, as it had never finalized any project.

The truth is that until this year, the company had not been liquidated because it has a license from Ingeominas, the state mining agency, to exploit a quarry and López continues to be a partner in company documents issued by the chamber of commerce.
Days before abandoning the demobilization process, “Cuchillo” and “Pipe” ceded their shares to Albeiro Mejía, an advisor to the governor, and to Henry Rincón, government secretary for Guaviare. They also are being investigated.

In addition to responding to the Fiscalía for these matters, López also could be a key figure so that investigators will finish unraveling all that transpired in the gubernatorial campaign in Vichada.

According to the investigations that the Colombian Supreme Court of Justice and the Fiscalía are undertaking, “Cuchillo’s” paramilitaries apparently had an important role in the election of the former colonel Blas Arvelio Ortiz Rebolledo as governor. He had helped him with funding, pressuring people to vote for him and, in some cases, as apparently occurred in the town of Cumarivo and in the hamlet of Matavén, managing the elections and the results.

Currently, Ortiz, who ended his long military life as commander of Army brigade in Vichada, has several accusations of having promoted and benefited from a supposed electoral fraud that enabled him to win the elections by just nine votes over the Liberal Party candidate, who was expected to win.

According to the accusations that the Fiscalía is investigating, Colonel Ortiz would have benefited from the arrival and growth of paramilitary groups in that province when he was active military, charges that were immediately rejected by the Procuraduría, the solicitor general’s office. Ortiz allegedly made an alliance with them in order to gain power of a province five times larger than El Salvador in area, where national and multinational investors have their eyes set on making gigantic farms for bio-combustibles and food.

The capture of the governor of Guaviare, that will become effective once President Álvaro Uribe lifts his immunity and finalizes other legal requirements, revives, without a doubt, the para-politics scandal. This is only the beginning.

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