BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian President Alvaro Uribe enjoys high popularity ratings, but a widening scandal over lawmaker ties to paramilitaries has the Washington ally on the defensive as he seeks to salvage a U.S. free trade deal.
Prosecutors on Tuesday arrested Mario Uribe, the president’s cousin and political confidant, the latest capture in the scandal which has investigators probing more than 60 lawmakers for suspected links to paramilitary death squads.
His arrest draws the scandal closer to the presidency, fuels doubts over the parliament’s credibility and has sparked a debate about reforms in a country where armed gangs and drug lords have long sought to influence politics.
The growing scandal could also quash hopes among his supporters that Uribe, first elected in 2002, will attempt to change the constitution again to allow him to run for a second re-election when his current term ends in two years.
Popular for his U.S.-backed security drive to control Colombia’s conflict, Uribe on Wednesday dismissed concerns over instability and reiterated that the paramilitary probes showed the country’s institutions worked better than ever.
“You can’t confuse the illness with the medicine. Medicines often produce irritations which need other treatments. But what we have had here is the strong medicine for the illness Colombia had,” Uribe told local Caracol radio.
Violence from Colombia’s four-decade-long conflict has eased under Uribe, whose troops have retaken areas under rebel control. He negotiated the surrender of paramilitary commanders who committed massacres in their counter-insurgency campaign.
While experts believe Uribe should weather the storm, his cousin’s arrest could not have come at a worse time as he seeks a trade deal with U.S. Democrats skeptical over violence against Colombian union leaders and lingering paramilitary influence.
“So far, the Uribe presidency has been shielded from the scandal, but Mario Uribe’s arrest is too close for comfort,” said Michael Shifter at Washington’s InterAmerican Dialogue.
“The prospects for the free-trade agreement with the U.S. were already dim, but in view of the spreading scandal they are bleaker still,” he said.
The “para-political” scandal erupted in 2006 as militia commanders began testifying as part of their peace deal with Uribe. A group of lawmakers acknowledged they had signed a deal to back the warlords, who were formed initially to counter guerrillas in areas with scarce state presence.
Paramilitary commanders carried out massacres, cocaine trafficking and land grabs as they came to dominate large swaths of Colombia. Thousands of victims are still seeking compensation for paramilitary crimes.
Mario Uribe was arrested after Costa Rica rejected his bid for asylum. He is accused of hammering out deals with militia bosses to back his senate campaign and help him control cheap farmland. He denies any wrongdoing.
With the scandal enmeshing so many lawmakers, some Uribe critics are questioning the legitimacy of the Congress and a few are even calling for early elections or constitutional reforms to undercut paramilitary influence. Around half of the 60 lawmakers under investigation are behind bars waiting trial on charges they collaborated with militias.
“Colombia is one surprise after another. Just when we thought the para-political scandal had hit rock bottom, we fall even further,” said Carlos Gaviria, leader of the main opposition Democratic Pole party.
Lawmakers are currently debating a political reform to curb the influence of the country’s armed gangs and punish lawmakers and parties who are probed for illegal associations. Opposition parties want tough reforms, but Uribe says he wants to avoid any major upheaval which he says would foster instability.
But analysts said the jockeying over how to manage the scandal could force Uribe to reject openly a second re-election bid, which would require a constitutional reform and support from Congress. Uribe has so far refused to directly dismiss or accept his supporters’ call for a run.
“Finding a consensus will not be easy, and could ultimately force Uribe to abandon his re-election ambitions,” said Patrick Esteruelas, an analyst at Eurasia Group. “The possibility of a third term for Uribe could hang in the balance.”
Reporting by Patrick Markey in Bogota; Editing by Cynthia Osterman