'91 U.S. Report Calls Colombian Leader Ally of Drug Lords
By JUAN FORERO
BOGOTÁ, Colombia, Aug. 1 - A recently declassified American intelligence report from 1991 says that President Álvaro Uribe, now a staunch ally in Washington's war against drug trafficking, was at that time a close associate of Colombia's most powerful drug lord and an ardent ally of the cocaine traffickers then engulfing this country.
A spokesman for Mr. Uribe denounced the findings in the 13-year-old report, by the Defense Intelligence Agency, on Colombia's biggest drug traffickers as "the same information" presented in a smear campaign by political opponents in the 2002 presidential election. Senior American intelligence officials and diplomats cautioned that such reports might not be accurate. However, the statement issued by the spokesman for the president did not directly address the report's most damaging assertion: that Mr. Uribe was linked to the top drug kingpin of the era, Pablo Escobar.
The report, dated Sept. 23, 1991, and obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the National Security Archives, a private, nonpartisan research group based in Washington, says Mr. Uribe, then a senator from the northern state of Antioquia, was "dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín cartel at high government levels."
The report, which the archives is making public on Monday, calls Mr. Uribe a "close personal friend" of the cartel's leader, Mr. Escobar, and says Mr. Uribe took part in the drug lord's successful efforts to secure a seat as an auxiliary congressman. It said Mr. Uribe was linked to an unidentified business involved in narcotics in the United States, that as a senator he opposed extraditing traffickers to the United States and that his father, Alberto Uribe, was killed because of his drug ties.
In response to inquiries by The New York Times, Ricardo Galán, a spokesman for Mr. Uribe, issued an eight-point response on Friday that said the Defense Intelligence Agency report was of a preliminary nature. The statement said that in 1991 Mr. Uribe was studying at Harvard and that he had never had business dealings in the United States.
The statement also said Mr. Uribe's father was killed resisting Marxist rebels who were trying to kidnap him. It affirmed Mr. Uribe's commitment to extradition, though it only loosely explained then-Senator Uribe's opposition to a proposed referendum on extradition. It did not address the report's allegation that Mr. Uribe took part in the campaign that propelled Mr. Escobar to Congress.
Robert Zimmerman, a State Department spokesman, was more emphatic in denying the report's findings. "We completely disavow these allegations about President Uribe," he said, adding, "We have no credible information that substantiates or corroborates the allegations in an unevaluated 1991 report."
Still, the report is sure to raise new questions about allegations made in 2001 and 2002, when Mr. Uribe was campaigning for the presidency, about possible ties to drug dealers, including the powerful Ochoa clan in Medellín, Colombia's drug-trafficking center. Solid evidence was never presented, though, and Mr. Uribe won in a landslide based on his pledge that he would fight Marxist rebels and drug traffickers.
The United States has strongly supported Mr. Uribe since then, and he is considered among the Bush administration's closest allies in its effort to curb drug trafficking.
During his two years in office, much of Colombia's vast drug fields have been eradicated in defoliation efforts financed by Washington. About 150 Colombians accused of drug trafficking have been extradited to the United States, more than double the number extradited by Mr. Uribe's predecessor during his four-year term.
Senior diplomats and intelligence officials involved in the drug war in Colombia at the time cautioned against drawing conclusions from the report, noting that such documents were routinely produced with little vetting or oversight.
But Michael L. Evans, the director of the Colombia documentation project of the National Security Archive, said the report provided strong evidence of Mr. Uribe's involvement in the drug trade. "We now know that the D.I.A., either through its own reporting or through liaison with another investigative agency, had information indicating that Álvaro Uribe was one of Colombia's top drug-trafficking figures," he said, though it was unclear what other agency might be involved.
He said the document's summary categorically stated that the report provided "information on the more important Colombian narco-traffickers."
The report says information on some of the people cited in it has been crosschecked with other agencies, though it is not clear if Mr. Uribe was among those whose alleged involvement was carefully traced by another agency. It was sent to Washington with a corresponding list of photographs, indicating its possible use for investigative purposes.
"All indications are this is not your run-of-the-mill field report," Mr. Evans said. "I don't think it's a smoking gun. It's a document that the Defense Intelligence Agency had, and they took it seriously enough to forward to Washington with minimal, if any, caveats at the time."
The intelligence document lists 104 drug traffickers and associates, including lawyers, right-wing paramilitary fighters, a Peruvian rebel commander and a Colombian singer. A summary detailing each subject's ties to the drug trade follows.
Among those on the list are Mr. Escobar; Manuel Noriega, the former president of Panama now jailed in Miami on drug-trafficking charges; Adnan Khashoggi, an arms dealer; and Pedro Juan Moreno, a Colombian businessman and former friend of Mr. Uribe who has been dogged by accusations that he was involved in drug trafficking but has never been formally charged.
Past questions raised about Mr. Uribe included allegations that he was friendly with the Ochoa family, which had been involved in trafficking cocaine with Mr. Escobar before he was killed by the Colombian police in 1993. Mr. Uribe was also accused of having granted, when he was head of the civil aviation authority, permits to pilots who were accused of transporting cocaine. From 1995 to 1997, when he was governor of Antioquia, drug-running paramilitary groups multiplied in that state.
Mr. Uribe has steadfastly denied the accusations. Furthermore, it is not unusual for politicians, celebrities or industrialists in Colombia, long plagued by drugs, to be acquainted with drug dealers. Mr. Uribe, for instance, says he knew the Ochoas only because of their common interest in Colombia's paso fino horses. Ernesto Samper, Colombia's president from 1994 to 1998, was accused of taking money from traffickers and subsequently was denied a visa to travel to the United States.
"It's not implausible, because the milieu in the 1980's was very much dominated by the drug trade and Pablo Escobar was such a dominant figure," said Michael Shifter, a senior analyst at Washington's Inter-American Dialogue, a policy group that closely tracks Colombia. "Regrettably, it wouldn't be so surprising for there to be some contacts between anyone who was an aspiring political figure and Pablo Escobar."
Morris Busby, who became the American ambassador shortly after the report was written and said he did not remember it, cautioned that some of the reports collected by intelligence agencies came to questionable conclusions.
He and other diplomats and intelligence officers, told about the report, noted that its labeling as "not finally evaluated" and indicated that its author relied on raw information that had not been confirmed.
Bernard Aronson, a former assistant secretary of state for Latin America who closely supervised the American war on drugs in Colombia in the 1990's, said intelligence reports on drug trafficking were sometimes influenced by rivalries for financing and prestige among the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration and others heavily involved in Colombia.
"These people tend to be brave people, but they're a special breed," Mr. Aronson said of those who work for such agencies. "They are sometimes cowboys and they are not always known for their analytical prowess."
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