August 27, 2008 / 12:40 PM / 11 years ago

Oh Brother! Colombian gov't hit by family scandals

BOGOTA, Aug 27 (Reuters) - Colombia’s justice minister is resisting pressure to resign over charges that his brother colluded with drug smugglers in the latest family scandal to rock the government of the world’s top cocaine producing country.

The case of Fabio Valencia and his brother, who is accused of doing illegal favors for a crime boss while working as a prosecutor, illustrates an increasingly frequent problem for top officials of the U.S.-backed government.

Colombia’s thriving cocaine business provides lucrative opportunities that tempt poor and rich alike, often bruising relatives who hold public office.

The brother of the country’s respected police chief, Oscar Naranjo, is in a German prison on drug charges.

Naranjo has kept his job but Maria Consuelo Araujo quit as Colombia’s foreign minister last year after her congressman brother was jailed on suspicion of using right-wing paramilitary thugs to intimidate voters. Her father is wanted by police for kidnapping a political rival of the family.

Even Colombia’s hugely popular president, Alvaro Uribe, has not escaped the wave of family disgraces.

His cousin and close political ally Mario Uribe is being investigated along with about 60 other lawmakers for their dealings with drug-smuggling paramilitary militias organized in the 1980s to help rich Colombians fight Marxist guerrillas.

“We know that other countries like Venezuela and Mexico also have problems with drug-trafficking and kidnapping,” said Bogota-based political analyst Mauricio Romero.

“What’s becoming clear is the depth to which this activity has penetrated Colombia’s institutions and the families who run them,” Romero said. “That’s what sets Colombia apart.”

Valencia’s brother, Guillermo, was a prosecutor in the city of Medellin when he was recorded on a wiretap making statements suggesting that he colluded with wanted drug lord Daniel “Don Mario” Rendon. Guillermo Valencia denies any wrongdoing.

MY BROTHER’S KEEPER?

Opposition lawmakers want Fabio Valencia to step down and are refusing to discuss legislation with him, stalling key political and judicial reform bills.

Members of the government’s congressional coalition have joined calls for the minister to resign. He has declined, saying he is not responsible for the behavior of his family.

“I am not my brother’s keeper,” a recent newspaper cartoon showed a politician saying. “Yeah, that’s what jails are for,” replied another character.

Uribe’s security policies have made Colombian cities and highways safer, attracted record foreign investment and bolstered the economy.

But rural areas are still a haven for a mosaic of armed groups involved in the cocaine trade and with deep connections in Colombia’s political and business elite.

This worries U.S. lawmakers who are blocking a free trade deal with Colombia until the government steps up prosecutions of paramilitaries who have murdered labor leaders and other suspected leftists, sometimes with help from the army.

Uribe is lobbying hard for the deal, but it is not an easy sell.

“These scandals, showing ties between crime groups and the state, solidify opposition to the trade pact in Washington,” said U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Thousands of paramilitaries have turned over their guns in exchange for reduced jail terms for crimes that included cocaine smuggling, rape and massacre.

Many of the demobilized fighters have formed new drug and extortion gangs. Colombia continues exporting about 600 tonnes of cocaine annually, despite more than $5.5 billion in U.S. aid over the last eight years meant to combat the trade. (Editing by Kieran Murray)

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