Sunday, June 4, 2023

Decorated Colombia General Pleads Guilty to Corruption

A retired Colombian police general pleaded guilty to a U.S. court on charges he fed critical secret information to the country’s murderous right-wing paramilitary warlords and drug dealers even while acting as former President Álvaro Uribe’s security chief.

Mauricio Santoyo, who retired as a decorated brigadier general from Colombia’s National Police in 2009, pleaded guilty on Monday to one count of aiding the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, a group of paramilitary warlords the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization.

In exchange for his plea, which includes his cooperation, Mr. Santoyo will receive a prison sentence of no less than 10 years, said Neil McBride, U.S. attorney for Virginia’s eastern district. Mr. McBride called Mr. Santoyo a “rogue individual who abandoned his duty to protect the Colombian people to serve his own interests and those of drug traffickers and terrorists.”

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Mr. Santoyo was indicted in May and turned himself in to U.S. authorities in July.

The incident is a stark reminder of how deeply drug-related corruption can run even in countries that have made progress in fighting the cocaine trade, as has been the case in Colombia. Cultivation of coca—the raw material for cocaine—has plunged in Colombia over the past decade.

Colombian Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín said Mr. Santoyo’s guilty plea was a “wake-up call” for Colombia’s security forces. “It’s regrettable that generals of the republic are in a situation like this,” she said.

Mr. Santoyo’s plea, and the possibility he could implicate other high-level officials, could unnerve many in Colombia, said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. “There will be people in high places in Colombia who will be nervous about this,” he said.

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As part of his guilty plea, Mr. Santoyo promised to “cooperate fully” with U.S. authorities and to pay a $250,000 fine.

His plea said the former police commander received “substantial bribes” to help the AUC by providing information about continuing investigations by U.S., Colombian and British officials of AUC operations.

The AUC, created in 1997 ostensibly to fight left-wing guerrillas who had overrun much of rural Colombia, is accused of murdering and kidnapping thousands of Colombians and financing its operations by sending tons of cocaine to the U.S.

The guilty plea said Mr. Santoyo gave the AUC information about police wiretaps of its operations, transferred corrupt police officers to aid AUC activities and conducted illegal wiretaps to help the AUC operations, which included “the commission of terrorist acts and drug trafficking.”

The original indictment also accused Mr. Santoyo of helping the “Envigado Office,” an organization of assassins set up by the late drug lord Pablo Escobar that acted as enforcers and debt collectors for the AUC.

Mr. Santoyo rose through the ranks of the country’s police force, serving in several high-profile positions, including as head of the Colombian police’s elite antikidnapping and antiterrorism units. He served as Mr. Uribe’s head of security from 2002 to 2006, and was the Colombian police’s liaison with Italian police from 2008 to 2009. The original indictment charged Mr. Santoyo with helping the AUC from at least 2000 to November 2008.

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Mr. Santoyo is the first Colombian police general ever indicted in the U.S. The news of the indictment caused a scandal in Colombia when it was made public in June, and was widely seen as a black mark against Mr. Uribe, the U.S.’s closest ally in the region.

Mr. Uribe was highly praised for working closely with the U.S., which gave Colombia hundreds of millions of dollars to fight drug-trafficking organizations including communist guerrillas and the AUC. In 2006, Mr. Uribe reached a peace agreement with the AUC that led to the demobilization of most of its 31,000 fighters. Many of its top leaders were extradited to the U.S. two years later.

But many analysts have charged that Mr. Uribe’s government, as well as its military, enlisted the AUC and other paramilitary groups as allies in Colombia’s war against communist guerrillas. The AUC stands accused of many of the country’s worst massacres during years of civil war. Mr. Uribe has repeatedly denied the accusations of links with the AUC and other paramilitary groups.

In postings on his Twitter account, Mr. Uribe condemned Mr. Santoyo’s actions and again denied links with the AUC.

The Santoyo case, said Mr. Uribe, “betrays the confidence in the first and only government that dismantled paramilitaries, and efficiently weakened the guerrillas, and extradited them.” The former president said “our support of the armed forces was to strengthen the state, never to permit alliances with criminals.”

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