When General Mauricio Santoyo stood up in a Virginia court room to plead guilty to charges of working with Colombia’s narco-terrorist paramilitaries on Monday, he showed the world that Pablo Escobar’s legacy lives on.
Santoyo’s guilt links him to the Office of Envigado, the criminal organisation of hired guns Escobar established in the 1980s. Although ‘El Patron del Mal’ may have died before his wealth was able to buy him the power he sought, his Medellin Cartel has since transformed into a successful and ruthless political machine.
Inspired by the spirit of Escobar, the paramilitaries that grew out of the Capo’s self-defence militias instinctively understand the message that money buys power; an absolute power that hamstrings the state’s efforts to police their illegal activities.
It is for this reason that the paramilitaries fund political campaigns – the quid pro quo is that once the ‘para-politician’ is in power he will be in the pocket of his generous donors, ready to pass or object to a law as his paymaster wishes. Indeed these forces were alleged to be behind the last minute amendments to the Justice Reform bill that plunged the country into institutional chaos earlier this summer.
In 2006 investigations into state functionaries accused of links with the ‘paracos’ began. Around 40 congressmen and half a dozen governors have been convicted, while cases remain open for over 140 more former congressmen. Had the Justice Reform bill been passed into law the majority would have walked free.
The fear is that General Santoyo is the tip of a new iceberg that reaches deep into the police and security services, and extends through the upper corridors of power. Colombia’s foreign minister spoke of the alarm bell that the Santoyo case sounds, while others like the commentator Leon Valencia have alluded to a ‘profound impact’ on Colombia’s politics. The US government is unlikely to stop at Santoyo; future cases against government officials are inevitable. And what of those within the police or the army intelligence that might have worked alongside Santoyo? Did he work alone? Many suggest that it seems unlikely.
Who is Santoyo?
Extradited to the US earlier this year to face charges of narco-trafficking and paramilitary activity, Santoyo was ex-president Álvaro Uribe’s personal security chief between 2002 and 2006. His guilty plea relates to the charges that he accepted bribes from the AUC (the now partially demobilised paramilitary group) in exchange for tip offs about planned US and Colombian government actions against the group. By ‘buying’ Santoyo, the AUC had direct access to the decision-makers, they were able to avoid capture by the authorities and to reduce the effectiveness of the campaigns against them.
The parallels with Escobar’s modus operandi are alarming clear, reminding us of the police chief of Antioquia who he controlled through death threats and bribery.
Santoyo is the highest ranking official to have admitted to working with Colombia’s ‘paras’, and brings shame on the country’s governing class. Senate President Roy Barreras, called it a national disgrace, views that were repeated by his congress colleagues who reacted with indignation. Some have called for Uribe to face the authorities, implying that the ex-president had questions to answer about what he knew Santoyo was up to. For Polo Democrat representative and arch-anti-Uribista, Iván Cepeda, Uribe must respond to accusations about his own links to the ‘paras’. Cepeda claimed that Uribe’s biological as well as his political family ‘is totally permeated by the paramilitaries’.
The ex-president has denied cognisanse of Santoyo’s actions. The defence is that he was not in charge of the selection process for his security attachment; he accepted the recommendations put to him. Uribe took to the airwaves throughout Tuesday to express his hurt at the deception and treachery of a man who he trusted implicitly. The ex-head of state repeated the assertion that his inner circle was built on trust; as he would not conduct clandestine investigations into those who were charged with protecting him, there had been no reason to suspect Santoyo.
If there are questions to answer, then the congress must examine its own record. Santoyo’s ascension to the rank of general was approved by this body despite its being aware of the disciplinary trial opened by the nation’s chief prosecutor in 2003 to investigate an alleged 1,499 incidents of wire tapping . The eight senators that formed the group which gave Santoyo’s promotion the green light should expected to face the heat.
Santoyo is part of the rotten core within Colombia’s politics. Since the time of Escobar, blood money has bought political influence at the highest level. The parapolitics scandal of 2006 was merely the start, with every passing day it becomes clearer just how far the tentacles have reached.
Santoyo might be the highest ranking official to have been caught, but there is little to provide us with comfort that he will hold onto this honour. All eyes are on the court rooms in Viriginia. We do not know what will come out and who next will be forced to fall on his sword.
The sad truth is that while the state eventually won its battle against Escobar, killing him in the early 90s, he has spawned a criminality that continues to flood Colombia’s streets with blood. Escobar’s heirs relentlessly pursue power, and continue to corrupt the nation’s political class.