SEMANA/Justice | 9/29/2008 12:00:00 AM
The minister’s agony
After the arrest of his brother for links with drug traffickers, Minister of Interior and Justice Fabio Valencia Cossio faces the worst crisis of his political life. In the picture Guillermo León Valencia minutes after he was captured
Although rumors and speculations were rampant, nobody knew for sure what the Fiscalía´s investigation of one of its own members had found. With a measured but firm voice, the prosecutor in charge of the case, Ángela Buitrago, enumerated the five crimes in which it is presumed that Valencia was involved: criminal conspiracy ; destruction, suppression and hiding of a public document; revelations of secrets, illegal enrichment, and use of confidential information.
Buitrago, a highly respected prosecutor, stated without hesitation: “Mr. Guillermo León Valencia Cossio is a member of an illegal organization.”
According to Buitrago, Valencia not only erased the name of the second in command of a criminal organization from the organizational structure of the Fiscalía, but also regularly informed that criminal organizarion about operations which were being undertaken by the prosecutor general’s office.
“It is clear that Mr. Valencia Cossio received gifts from Mr. Felipe Sierra. He received money. He received a four-wheel motorbike that is valued at 40 million COP (19000 USD),” Buitrago said to the criminal municipal judge. Speaking directly to Valencia she added, “You participated actively in an investigation of a relative of the famous “Cebollero,” changed investigators according to evidence in order to solve a problem for the for ”Cebollero.” And the “Cebollero” is the head of the (criminal organization) Envigado (Antioquia) office and has relations with criminal gangs.”
Those were not the only revelations. With the objective of persuading the judge about the necessity to confirm the detention order against Valencia, recordings were presented of three intercepted calls from September 6-7. In these, Valencia had asked for the destruction and hiding of evidence.
Even though the judge accepted the five charges, she opted to authorize home confinement rather than prison for Valencia. She defended her decision by saying, “By calling for the punishment of confinement rather than prison I am in no way ignoring the severity of the crimes. At this time he remains a citizen who also has a right to defend himself and that at this time still has a right to presumption of innocence.” Immediately afterwards, the Fiscalía as well as the Procuraduría General, the head prosecutor for government officials, appealed that ruling.
When conversations between Guillermo León Valencia and presumed drug traffickers were made public a month ago, although they were indeed scandalous, the Fiscalía still had not begun an investigation. On Thursday, the same entity where Valencia worked, ruled that it did not believe his declarations of innocence and turned in its verdict: the former investigator was at the service of criminals.
That the Fiscalía considers Valencia as a member of the “Don Mario” organization, one of the gangs most sought after by Colombian and foreign authorities for drug trafficking activities, is not insignificant. Valencia is not just any official. For five years he was director of the Medellín office of the Fiscalía. He was in charge of imposing justice in Medellín and of leading the fight against criminal organizations. Valencia is no ordinary citizen either. His brother Fabio Valencia Cossio is the minister of the Interior and Justice.
In the last few days comparisons have been made between Valencia’s case and that of the former minister of foreign affairs, María Consuelo Araújo, who resigned after the detention of her brother Colombian senator Álvaro Araújo, or the case of General Óscar Naranjo, whose brother was arrested in Germany for drug trafficking but that did not result in the resignation of the official, who has been internationally recognized for his fight against drug cartels. For the political parties that support President Álvaro Uribe, Valencia’s legal woes resemble more the Naranjo case. They insist that judicial responsibilities are individual and the minister should not have to sacrifice his decades of public service and political life because of the problems of a family member.
But Fabio Valencia Cossio is not the minister of the environment or of culture. He is responsible for directing the State’s fight against criminal organizations. His ministry interacts on a daily basis with the justice apparatus and in particular with the Fiscalía. Even if Valencia insists that he will respect judicial independence, it will not be easy being neutral given his high position. The Minister also appoints the director of the Instituto Nacional Penitenciario y Carcelario (Inpec), the agency which operates the prison system, which would be the entity in charge of overseeing the confinement of his brother if he is sent to prison, rather than be allowed to stay home.
Although the judge insists that she was right to grant that privilege to Guillermo León Valencia Cossio, her generosity was surprising given the grave accusations the hel faces. For some sectors, they believe that the brother of the accused used his position to influence the judge. They could be wrong, but that sensation will persist during the different procedural phases. Everything that the Minister does will be looked at with suspicion and will affect his ability to work effectively.
Behind all the sensationalism of seeing the minister of the interior and justice distressed, beaten and on the ropes, there is a big family tragedy. The Valencia Cossio family has been in Antioquia’s politics for decades and many of their members have stood out in both public and private life. They are an essential part of the Antioquia establishment. Today they are suffering for the crimes of a black sheep.