Sunday, June 4, 2023

US indicts former security chief to Colombia’s ex-President Uribe on drug charges

BOGOTA, Colombia — A retired Colombian police general who was security chief for former President Alvaro Uribe from 2002 to 2005 betrayed international counternarcotics operations for nearly a decade while on the payroll of major drug traffickers, according to a newly unsealed U.S. indictment.

Ex-Gen. Mauricio Santoyo Velasco is charged with conspiracy to export cocaine to the United States in collusion with far-right paramilitary bosses and with a collection agency of sorts run by drug traffickers that hired assassins and kidnapped and extorted, chiefly to collect debts.

Santoyo’s alleged crimes were committed from about 2000 to November 2008, according to the indictment, which details an alleged wholesale betrayal of counterdrug operations by Colombian, U.S. and British law enforcement.

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Santoyo’s whereabouts could not immediately be determined. A senior official in Colombia’s chief prosecutor’s office said no arrest warrant has been issued for Santoyo. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Uribe said in a statement posted on his website Monday evening that he “rejects, with pain and indignation, whatever illegal activity” Santoyo might have engaged in.

He said the police and Defense Ministry had put Santoyo in charge of his security “without any intervention on my part.”

Uribe, who left office in 2010, was immensely popular for security gains during his government, but has been plagued by corruption and domestic spying scandals involving close associates.

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The May 24 indictment handed up by an eastern Virginia grand jury and unsealed last week alleges that Santoyo received “substantial bribes” in exchange for:

—Tipping off the traffickers to ongoing drug-trafficking investigations as well as wiretaps targeting them.

—Promising to “facilitate the transfer of corrupt police officers, who would further assist these drug-traffickers in their business.”

—Notifying traffickers of upcoming arrest operations, including joint Colombian investigations with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

—Conducting unauthorized wiretaps on behalf of the traffickers.

—Provide intelligence collected by Colombian law enforcement to drug traffickers, including on people later targeted to be murdered by the traffickers.

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A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride declined to comment on the indictment Monday.

Santoyo was chief of anti-kidnapping police in Medellin from 1996-1999. Uribe was governor from 1995-1997 of Antioquia, of which the city, Colombia’s second-largest, is state capital.

From 2000-2002, Santoyo commanded an elite anti-terrorism task force. In 2008-2009 he was police attache to Italy.

Santoyo’s alleged betrayal coincided with a huge influx of U.S. aid under Plan Colombia to fight drug traffickers and leftist rebels and included Uribe’s decision to make peace with the far-right paramilitaries represented by the United Self-Defense Forces, known by its Spanish initials AUC.

The AUC was classified as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States in September 2001. Colombian authorities blame it for thousands of killings.

Most of the AUC’s top leaders were extradited to the United States by Uribe in 2008 and a number of them have recently been cooperating with U.S. prosecutors in hopes of obtaining sentence reductions.

A former close adviser to Uribe, Jose Obdulio Gaviria, said the allegations against Santoyo could be revenge against Uribe from paramilitary warlords for having them extradited.

But Uribe’s critics say the former president owes Colombians an explanation for why he stood by Santoyo when the police officer came under question a decade ago as a scandal broke over illegal wiretapping of human rights activists by members of the Medellin anti-kidnapping unit he had led. Two activists had disappeared and were feared killed.

Then-Col. Santoyo was never accused of involvement in the disappearances but the public prosecutor later deemed him responsible for the illegal wiretapping and ordered him fired.

Santoyo appealed to a high court and had the order overturned.

His promotion to general was recommended by then-police director Gen. Teodoro Campo, the defense minister at the time, Marta Lucia Ramirez, tweeted on Saturday.

“His superiors in the police guaranteed to me that (Santoyo) was an upright and ethical person,” she said.

In 2008, four former members of the Medellin anti-kidnapping unit were sentenced to 11 years in prison each for hundreds of illegal wiretaps from late 1997 until early 2001.


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