Colombian President's Cousin Arrested in Costa Rica Over Militia Ties

A close political ally of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe wanted for allegedly backing illegal militias surrendered to police Tuesday night after Costa Rica denied him political asylum.

Colombia's chief prosecutor had ordered the arrest of former Sen. Mario Uribe, President Uribe's second cousin, earlier Tuesday on charges of criminal conspiracy for "agreements to promote illegal armed groups."

The former senator had immediately entered the Costa Rican embassy in Bogota to seek asylum but was denied.

Amid protesters' shouts of "murderer," Mario Uribe left the small, one-story embassy and departed in a black SUV escorted by four motorcycle police, who cut a path through reporters and some 50 protesters, the chief prosecutor's office said.

Reporters saw two people in the vehicle's back seat whose heads were covered with jackets.
The arrest ended a long, tense day that brought a scandal linking politicians and right-wing paramilitaries deeper into the president's inner circle.

It also comes after the Democratic leadership of the U.S. Congress spurned a bid by the Bush administration this month to force a ratification vote on a free-trade agreement with Colombia. Some Democrats have cited the scandal as a reason.

Mario Uribe, 58, who resigned from the Senate in October when he came under formal investigation began, is one of the most powerful officials to be enmeshed in the scandal.

He has long been close to President Uribe, and in 1985 the two founded a political party together.

In a statement read by his spokesman Tuesday evening, the president said the arrest warrant "hurts me. I assume this pain with patriotism and without diminishing the fulfillment of my duties, with the sole aim of protecting institutions."

The reference was to the chief prosecutor's office, which said earlier in a brief statement that it was investigating an alleged meeting between Mario Uribe and former paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso prior to the 2002 congressional elections. It was also looking into a 1998 meeting with Jairo Castillo Peralta, a former paramilitary chauffeur.

Mancuso has alleged that Mario Uribe sought his support in the 2002 Senate race. Castillo Peralta, who lives in exile, has said Mario Uribe met with paramilitary warlords in 1998 seeking cheap land near the Caribbean coast.

Mario Uribe has denied those allegations. In an April 2007 interview with The Associated Press, he called Castillo Peralta "a liar, an extortionist, a killer and a bandit."

More than 30 current or former members of the 266-member Congress, the vast majority allies of the president, have been arrested for allegedly backing and benefiting from the right-wing paramilitaries. Several dozen more are under investigation.

Among those in jail is Uribe's former chief of domestic intelligence, Jorge Noguera, who allegedly gave the paramilitaries a "hit list" of labor and opposition leaders.

President Uribe has nevertheless remained highly popular due to his get-tough approach to leftist rebels, which has made road travel safer and helped spur foreign investment.

His political opponents said they found it difficult to believe he didn't know about Mario Uribe's alleged contacts with paramilitaries.

"More than the president's cousin, we're talking about a person who from early in the president's youth built with him the same political project," opposition Sen. Gustavo Petro said.

All five congressmen from Mario Uribe's party, Colombia Democratica, are now either in jail or under investigation for allegedly benefiting from paramilitary ties.

Claudia Lopez, an independent investigator whose research helped precipitate the scandal, said that Mario Uribe, in seeking asylum, was in effect saying "there are no guarantees he'll be judged fairly in the country governed by his cousin."

The paramilitaries initially formed in the 1980s to protect wealthy landowners from guerrilla kidnapping and extortion and seized control of nearly the entire Caribbean region in the late 1990s.

Like their guerrilla foes, they funded themselves chiefly via drug trafficking and are listed by the U.S. and the European Union as terrorist organizations.

President Uribe made peace with the paramilitaries in a demobilization that jailed their top leaders, who confessed in exchange for reduced jail terms and protection from extradition.