BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s foreign minister resigned on Monday after her senator brother was arrested on charges he conspired with illegal paramilitary groups in a political scandal hurting U.S. ally President Alvaro Uribe.
Maria Consuelo Araujo was the first senior official to fall in the widening scandal that links pro-Uribe lawmakers with the right-wing militias, and her resignation came just three weeks before President Bush visits Colombia.
“I am leaving,” Araujo said at a news conference. “I see clearly that the judicial process must be free of any interference.”
Her brother, Sen. Alvaro Araujo, was arrested along with four other pro-Uribe lawmakers last week on charges of colluding with paramilitary leaders who are accused of killing thousands during a dirty war to counter Latin America’s long-running rebel insurgency.
Prosecutors believe Araujo helped finance the paramilitaries and was possibly involved in the kidnapping of a political rival. Colombia’s Supreme Court has recommended that prosecutors also investigate his father.
Eight pro-Uribe lawmakers have been jailed since the scandal broke in November, another is on the run and an active army colonel has been suspended.
Uribe was re-elected to a second term as president last year and, despite the scandal, remains popular for reducing rebel violence and crime. He says he welcomes the investigation to purge his government of paramilitary influence.
Uribe named former development minister Fernando Araujo Perdomo as his new foreign minister. Araujo, who is not related to his predecessor, escaped six weeks ago from leftist rebels who kidnapped him in 2000.
Uribe has received millions in U.S. aid to fight drug traffickers and rebels, and is Washington’s closest ally in a region where leftist leaders like Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez have won influence with a hardline anti-U.S. message.
But political analysts said the paramilitary probe could damage Uribe’s efforts to secure a U.S. free trade deal and more funds as Democrats controlling the U.S. Congress demand a better record from Colombia on human rights and labor.
“Uribe had a clean slate in his first term. He seems to be moving into a more problematic second term,” said Riordan Roett, director of Latin America studies at Johns Hopkins University. “This comes at a difficult time as the Democrats consider how they want to more forward on trade.”
Since 2000, Colombia has received more than $4 billion in mostly military funding to fight the cocaine trade and rebels who use drug trafficking to finance a four-decade conflict.
The Bush administration plans to ask Congress to approve another $3.9 billion aid package and Bogota says it will seek more assistance for social programs to consolidate security gains made under the Uribe government.
Colombia’s paramilitary groups were set up in the 1980s by rich landowners looking for protection from rebels. But as they pushed back insurgents, the militias often killed or massacred people just on suspicion they had colluded with guerrillas.
For years, the paramilitaries have boasted about their ties to the political class and business leaders. Local army commanders sometimes helped them carry out attacks.
More than 31,000 militia fighters have demobilized under a peace deal with Uribe’s government. But human rights groups say powerful paramilitary bosses have been allowed to keep their criminal and drug-smuggling operations intact.