Alvaro Uribe's procession to a second term as Colombia's President hit a stumbling block yesterday as he responded wildly to allegations that his government colluded with paramilitaries to kill civilians.
Mr Uribe, the last man standing among Washington's right-wing allies in South America, is riding high in the polls ahead of the presidential election on 28 May. His success is crucial to the White House, which has seen a succession of sympathetic governments defeated in the so-called "pink wave" of left-wing leaders who have swept to power in Latin America.
But allegations that have haunted the short-tempered politician since he won the presidency in 2002 have resurfaced. They involve an alleged conspiracy to assassinate leftists and union leaders, and leaking sensitive information to drug traffickers and right-wing paramilitary groups.
President Uribe's tough stance on security has helped to lift him to 64 per cent in the opinion polls. The government's offensive against left-wing rebels, blamed for the cocaine trade, has won him strong backing and huge military aid from the US.
But that has not helped him to escape allegations from Colombia's respected news magazine Semana, which includes evidence of a plot by the state security agency to destabilise Colombia's left-wing neighbour, Venezuela.
The fresh round of reports prompted Mr Uribe to launch a diatribe against the publication's editor, Alejandro Santos. "I'm not going to allow accusations to stand that the government assassinated labour leaders or was implicated in a conspiracy against Venezuela or somehow allowed me to steal the 2002 elections," he told a local radio station.
The response of the President, who is notoriously bad tempered with journalists' questions, drew criticism from rights groups who have questioned links between his government and far-right paramilitaries. "Instead of attacking the news media for reporting allegations of criminal activity, President Uribe should ensure a full investigation of the charges," New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Mr Uribe named journalists and commentators, including Ramiro Bejarano, a lawyer who served on a commission appointed last year to investigate the state security agency (DAS). "Our investigation showed the paramilitaries had deeply infiltrated the DAS," Mr Bejarano told a news agency. "This is as serious as if, in the United States, the FBI had been infiltrated by the Mafia ... Uribe's reaction has been not to clean up the agency but to attack journalists covering the story." The President's critics point to his refusal to launch an investigation into the head of the DAS, Jorge Noguera, instead posting him out of sight in Milan after he resigned when the scandal broke last year.
Semana interviewed a former DAS official, now in jail on related charges, who confirmed there had been collusion between the security service and paramilitaries. He also alleged Colombian government involvement in a plan to "destabilise Venezuela".
The chief prosecutor in Bogota, Colombia's capital, has named a special team of investigators to examine the claims but will not report any findings until after the elections.
Mr Uribe won support in Colombia's cities during his first term for his efforts to make the notoriously violent country safer. He is credited with opening up much of the country's road network after years of kidnappings and guerrilla attacks.
Easter week in staunchly Catholic Colombia began with the "caravans" - armoured convoys that allow civilians to travel between towns and cities in safety. These eye-catching security measures, along with a dip in kidnapping and murder rates, have enabled Mr Uribe to brand himself the law-and-order president. But his uneven treatment of the armed groups, which has seen him lead an all-out attack on the Farc while negotiating a demobilisation of right-wing paramilitaries, has exposed the government to accusations of collusion in human rights abuses.
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited