(IPS) – Former Colombian paramilitary chief and drug lord Diego Murillo, alias "Don Berna", testified in a U.S. court that he helped finance President Álvaro Uribe’s first election campaign, in 2002.
The president’s campaign chief denied the allegation.
"Don Berna" was sentenced Wednesday to 31 years in prison and fined four million dollars for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States.
Murillo, 48, was extradited in a surprise move by Uribe on May 13, 2008, along with 13 other heads of the far-right paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), which formally disbanded in 2007 after engaging in demobilisation negotiations with the government from 2003 to 2006.
They were wanted by the U.S. justice system on drug trafficking charges.
During the trial in a New York courtroom, one of Murillo’s lawyers, Margaret Shalley, read out a statement depicting her client as a victim of Communist violence, a patriot who was left disabled – he has a prosthetic leg – and nevertheless continued generating money to help his people.
The lawyer asked federal U.S. District Judge Richard Berman to take into account, before sentencing her client, that he and the AUC backed Uribe’s presidential campaign in 2002, to which he contributed "large sums of money."
When she was finished reading the declaration, the judge asked Murillo if he had any objection to what his lawyer had read out, and he said no.
Murillo said that using the money that he derived from drug trafficking was the only way to block the advance of the Communist guerrillas in Colombia.
This South American country has been in the grip of a civil war since 1964, when the leftwing guerrillas took up arms.
Murillo was sentenced to 375 months in prison on drug trafficking charges.
After the trial, Murillo’s Colombian defence attorneys approached Iván Cepeda, spokesman for the Movement of Victims of Crimes of the State (MOVICE), and told him that their client had asked that his support for Uribe be explicitly included in the statement read out by Shalley.
They also told Cepeda that Murillo was prepared to elaborate, before the Colombian justice system, on his allegations that incriminated Uribe, and to present proof, and said they hoped that this could be done as soon as possible.
The manager of Uribe’s 2002 and 2006 campaigns, Fabio Echeverri, said in Bogota that Murillo’s declaration was "false."
Echeverri, who has been the spokesman for the National Association of Industrialists for 18 years, said the campaigns were financed by donations from companies and individuals, whose checks were deposited in a bank account after the origin of the funds was checked, a process that took between 15 and 20 days.
The Colombian government has not responded to Murillo’s statement.
The U.S. court did not agree to hear the testimony of any of Murillo’s victims.
At the time, the Colombian government promised that the extraditions would not interfere with the legal proceedings carried out under the so-called Justice and Peace Law, which was approved by Congress to facilitate the demobilisation of the far-right militias.
To that end, under an agreement with the U.S. authorities, Colombia’s attorney-general’s office and ministry of the interior and justice were to arrange for judicial cooperation with the U.S. courts.
Under the Justice and Peace Law, which laid out the rules for the demobilisation process, the maximum sentence was eight years for those who gave a full confession of their crimes.
The extradition agreement states that the sentences handed down to Colombians in U.S. courts could be no longer than the maximum penalties they would have faced in Colombia.
The opposition Liberal Party expressed strong concern over Murillo’s declaration. "At this point we cannot make a judgment, but we need to know the whole truth," said its spokeswoman, Senator Cecilia López, who aspires to become her party’s presidential candidate.
The declaration implicating Uribe "in a U.S. court is extremely serious, and cannot be ignored," Gloria Flórez, the head of the Minga Association, told IPS.
"The Colombian state has the obligation to open an investigation into the declaration made by Don Berna, in which he openly refers to financing the president’s campaign," she said.
The constitution establishes that any investigation of the president has to be carried out by the lower house of Congress, and then the Senate. In case the charges involve criminal wrongdoing, the process is to be referred to the Supreme Court.
But Uribe’s supporters have a majority in both houses of Congress.
In any case, said Flórez, "the justice system has to move on this issue."
"If it is true, he (Murillo) has to show the evidence. If it’s not true, it has to be clarified before society that the presidential campaign was clean and that there was no involvement by drug traffickers," the human rights defender said. And in order to do that, she added, "legal proceedings must be initiated, to show society the truth."
Flórez expressed "concern because there are no guarantees in the United States that action will be taken to find out the truth. Failing to listen to the victims of human rights violations in Colombia is part of that lack of guarantees."
"All the United States is interested in is the drug trafficking issue. So where does that leave the question of reparations for the victims?"
During the demobilisation negotiations with the government, Murillo went by the name "Adolfo Paz", portrayed himself as an AUC inspector, and wrote to journalists criticising their reports.
Before he became a leader of the AUC, which is accused of committing tens of thousands of human rights crimes, "Don Berna" was a leftist guerrilla in the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), which broke off from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – the main rebel group – in the 1960s and barely exists today.
In the 1980s he became involved in the Medellín drug cartel, headed by the late notorious kingpin Pablo Escobar. But he then turned on his boss.
"Don Berna" was active in and around the city of Medellín where, according to Verdad Abierta, the biggest Colombian on-line archive on the paramilitaries, "he brought in votes for the candidates he backed."
His henchmen in the area, who belonged to the Cacique Nutibara Bloc of the AUC, were the first to demobilise, in November 2003, when the government was still doubting whether to recognise "Don Berna" as a paramilitary leader, instead of just a drug lord.
A year earlier, in October 2002, in Operation Orión, troops allegedly acting in collusion with "Don Berna’s" men seized control of a poor Medellín district known as Comuna 13 to "cleanse" the area of FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas.
After the paramilitary demobilisation, some of the members of the Cacique Nutibara Bloc managed to get elected to Juntas de Acción Comunal, neighborhood councils that play the role of interlocutor with the state.
Verdad Abierta cites the case of William López, alias "Memín", who was elected in October 2007 as a representative of Comuna 8, another Medellín neighbourhood, but was later arrested and sentenced for forced displacement and aggravated intimidation of voters.