BOGOTA - A close ally of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe lost his bid for political asylum and surrendered to police last night to face charges linking him to illegal right-wing militias.
Colombia's chief prosecutor had ordered the arrest of former Senator Mario Uribe, President Uribe's second cousin, earlier yesterday on charges of criminal conspiracy for "agreements to promote illegal armed groups." The former senator had immediately entered the Costa Rican embassy in Bogota to seek asylum, but it was denied.
Amid protesters' shouts of "murderer," Mario Uribe left the embassy and departed in a black SUV escorted by four motorcycle police, who cut a path through reporters and about 50 protesters, the chief prosecutor's office said.
The arrest ended a long, tense day that dragged a scandal linking politicians and right-wing paramilitaries deeper into the president's inner circle.
It also comes after the Democratic leadership of the US Congress spurned a bid by the Bush administration this month to force a ratification vote on a free-trade agreement with Colombia. Some Democrats have cited the scandal as a reason.
Mario Uribe, 58, who resigned from the Senate in October when the formal investigation began, is one of the most powerful officials to be enmeshed in the scandal.
He has long been close to President Uribe, and in 1985 the two founded a political party together.
In a statement read by his spokesman last night, the president said the arrest warrant "hurts me. I assume this pain with patriotism and without diminishing the fulfillment of my duties, with the sole aim of protecting institutions."
The reference was to the chief prosecutor's office, which said earlier in a brief statement that it was investigating an alleged meeting between Mario Uribe and former paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso before the 2002 congressional elections. It was also looking into a 1998 meeting with Jairo Castillo Peralta, a former paramilitary chauffeur.
Mancuso has alleged that Mario Uribe sought his support in the 2002 Senate race. Castillo Peralta, who lives in exile, has said Mario Uribe met with paramilitary warlords in 1998 seeking cheap land near the Caribbean coast.
Mario Uribe has denied those allegations. In a 2007 interview, he called Castillo Peralta "a liar, an extortionist, a killer and a bandit."
More than 30 current or former members of the 266-member Congress, the vast majority allies of the president, have been arrested in the scandal. Several dozen more are under investigation.