Rep. Meeks’ Ties To Colombian Paramilitaries Exposed

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Above photo: U.S. Congressman Gregory Meeks pictured in Berlin on November 25, 2013. John MacDougal/AFP via Getty Images.

Ties To Right-Wing Groups in Colombia Could Haunt Democrat Vying for a Powerful Foreign Affairs Role.

Rep. Gregory Meeks worked with Colombian politicians tied to right-wing paramilitaries to help push for a corporate-friendly “free trade” deal.

Rep. Gre­go­ry Meeks (D‑N.Y.), the estab­lish­ment favorite to replace out­go­ing Rep. Eliot Engel (D‑N.Y.) as chair of the pow­er­ful House For­eign Affairs Com­mit­tee, is known for his fierce sup­port of free trade” deals around the world. He didn’t just vote in favor of agree­ments like the Cen­tral Amer­i­ca Free Trade Agree­ment or the pro­posed Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship, but active­ly lob­bied for them, and has spo­ken repeat­ed­ly and con­sis­tent­ly about the mer­its of such deals, even when it involved sid­ing with Repub­li­cans against the major­i­ty of Democrats.

This track record has earned Meeks the ire of labor and envi­ron­men­tal groups, which oppose such agree­ments on the grounds that they wors­en cor­po­rate exploita­tion and strength­en the pow­er of multi­na­tion­als to under­mine domes­tic pro­tec­tions, from union rights to pol­lu­tion reg­u­la­tions. Meeks is the worst on trade issues and has vot­ed for cor­po­rate pow­er and against the Demo­c­ra­t­ic major­i­ty, against labor, against con­sumer and envi­ron­men­tal groups’ posi­tions, etc. on every trade vote since he has been in Con­gress,” Lori Wal­lach, the direc­tor of Pub­lic Citizen’s Glob­al Trade Watch, which mon­i­tors cor­po­rate abuse, tells In These Times. Crit­ics wor­ry that as head of the House For­eign Affairs Com­mit­tee, which has broad juris­dic­tion over bills and over­sight relat­ed to for­eign pol­i­cy and secu­ri­ty assis­tance, Meeks would be posi­tioned to fur­ther entrench this trade agenda.

With Democ­rats main­tain­ing their major­i­ty in the House on Novem­ber 3 (although los­ing some seats), these ten­sions could erupt into an intra-par­ty bat­tle over the Demo­c­ra­t­ic posi­tion on issues of free trade.”

But it is activists work­ing with mar­gin­al­ized groups in Colom­bia, many of them Afro-Colom­bians them­selves, who hold a spe­cial resent­ment toward Meeks — and fear of the Colom­bian fig­ures he col­lab­o­rat­ed with to push through the Colom­bia Free Trade Agree­ment (FTA), a free trade” law passed in 2011, after years of ten­sion between big busi­ness and a bloc of labor, envi­ron­men­tal and rights orga­ni­za­tions. Meeks dis­tin­guished him­self not only by being one of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s most gung-ho sup­port­ers of this deal, but by col­lab­o­rat­ing close­ly with con­ser­v­a­tive then-Pres­i­dent of Colom­bia Álvaro Uribe, who over­saw sur­veil­lance, sab­o­tage and extra­ju­di­cial exe­cu­tions of jour­nal­ists, union lead­ers and Afro-Colom­bian rights defend­ers. Through his work with the Uribe gov­ern­ment to pass the Colom­bia FTA, Meeks formed a rela­tion­ship with politi­cian Edgar Ulis­es Tor­res, who was lat­er jailed for receiv­ing mon­ey from Fred­dy Rendón (known as el Alemán”) — the bru­tal leader of the Elmer Cár­de­nas Bloc of the far-right para­mil­i­tary group, Unit­ed Self-Defens­es of Colom­bia (AUC).

Some activists who work with social move­ments in Colom­bia and have direct knowl­edge of these Colom­bian para-politi­cians were reluc­tant to speak freely over con­cerns that they would endan­ger their own lives or the lives of their associates.

Unwa­ver­ing sup­port for the Colom­bia FTA

The Colom­bia FTA was signed in 2006 under the admin­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent George W. Bush, but wasn’t for­mal­ly approved by Con­gress until 2011 — at the urg­ing of then-Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma. The delay was due to con­cerns about the dis­mal treat­ment of labor activists in Colom­bia, includ­ing the mur­der of 528 union­ists dur­ing the eight years of Uribe’s two-term pres­i­den­cy, mak­ing Colom­bia one of the most dan­ger­ous coun­tries in the world for union activists. The agree­ment passed over the broad oppo­si­tion of Afro-Colom­bian social move­ment orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing Process of Black Com­mu­ni­ties in Colom­bia (PCN), which warned at the time that the deal would enable preda­to­ry devel­op­ment projects that lead to fur­ther dis­place­ment, expro­pri­a­tion and food inse­cu­ri­ty for Afro-Colom­bian communities.

Since it was imple­ment­ed in May 2012, the FTA — which will phase out all con­sumer and indus­tri­al tar­iffs by 2021 — has failed to stop assas­si­na­tions of labor lead­ers, despite the Colom­bian government’s stat­ed com­mit­ment to improv­ing work­ers’ rights. Between Jan­u­ary of 2016 and April of 2019, 681 social activists and rights defend­ers were mur­dered, and between 2016 and 2018, at least 70 union­ists exe­cut­ed. As mega-devel­op­ment and port expan­sion projects have surged, Afro-Colom­bian com­mu­ni­ties have remained mired in extreme pover­ty, hyper-exploita­tion and dis­place­ment — con­di­tions that prompt­ed a gen­er­al strike in the Colom­bian city of Bue­naven­tu­ra in 2017.

Meeks was a cru­cial sup­port­er of the Colom­bia FTA. In 2009, he co-found­ed the Colom­bia Cau­cus, which aimed to strength­en polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and secu­ri­ty ties” between the Unit­ed States and Colom­bia. In 2011, ahead of the con­gres­sion­al vote, that cau­cus urged swift pas­sage of the deal. The longer we wait to pass the FTA, the more mar­ket share U.S. busi­ness­es lose to for­eign com­peti­tors and the few­er jobs we cre­ate at home,” read a Colom­bia Cau­cus state­ment released from Meeks’ office at the time. But that wasn’t Meeks’ only insti­tu­tion­al role in push­ing the Colom­bia FTA. He was also involved in the work of the Inter­na­tion­al Repub­li­can Insti­tute (IRI), most­ly a Repub­li­can Par­ty-affil­i­at­ed body, to pro­mote the trade deal to the Con­gres­sion­al Black Cau­cus. And he would emerge as a key point of con­tact between U.S. Con­gress and mem­bers and allies of the Uribe government.

For­mer Pres­i­dent Álvaro Uribe

Meeks did not hide his loy­al­ties. As ear­ly as 2005, adver­tis­ing his own vis­it to Colom­bia, Meeks laud­ed Uribe for sup­port­ing phase II of Plan Paci­fi­co, which con­cen­trates invest­ment on Colom­bi­a’s Pacif­ic Coast, an area that is heav­i­ly inhab­it­ed by African-Colom­bian com­mu­ni­ties.” (This plan was opposed by social move­ments because it allowed transna­tion­al com­pa­nies to ben­e­fit from envi­ron­men­tal­ly destruc­tive, large-scale infra­struc­ture projects on Afro-Colom­bian and Indige­nous lands.)

At a 2007 hear­ing before the the House Com­mit­tee on For­eign Affairs, Meeks sought to down­play wor­ries about human rights abus­es under Uribe, includ­ing con­cerns that the Colom­bian president’s for­mer intel­li­gence chief was being pros­e­cut­ed at the time for hand­ing over the names of union lead­ers to para­mil­i­tary groups (those union lead­ers were lat­er killed). Meeks insist­ed, You can­not wipe it out in just a mat­ter of a few years, but if you also ask is there a Pres­i­dent who is intent on mak­ing sure that the lives of his peo­ple are bet­ter? The answer has to be yes.”

In 2007, Meeks appeared at an event with the Colom­bian dias­po­ra in New York along­side Uribe, who intro­duced Meeks by say­ing that he goes into the poor­est regions and stays in the com­mu­ni­ty.” Meeks pro­claimed in response, Pres­i­dent Uribe is one of the best allies we’ve ever had. He’s coop­er­at­ed with the Unit­ed States gov­ern­ment with ref­er­ence to the ille­gal drug trade, he’s coop­er­at­ed with the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca par­tic­u­lar­ly after 911, and now it is time for us as the Unit­ed States to coop­er­ate with him with this free trade agreement.”

For many Colom­bians, Uribe was not an ally. His intel­li­gence agency spied on, sab­o­taged, and threat­ened the lives of jour­nal­ists, human rights defend­ers, polit­i­cal can­di­dates and judges, accord­ing to a report released by the Wash­ing­ton Office on Latin Amer­i­ca and oth­er research and advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. In a para­pol­i­tics” scan­dal that start­ed in 2006, more than 60 politi­cians and law­mak­ers, a num­ber of whom were asso­ci­at­ed with Uribe, were indict­ed for ties to right-wing para­mil­i­tary death squads, includ­ing even­tu­al­ly Uribe’s own cousin and close asso­ciate, Mario Uribe. Álvaro Uribe was in pow­er dur­ing the false pos­i­tives” scan­dal, in which the Colom­bian mil­i­tary killed thou­sands of civil­ians, claimed they were armed guer­ril­las, and count­ed them as com­bat fatal­i­ties. Dur­ing his pres­i­den­cy, Uribe was already marked by alle­ga­tions of ties with the AUC, the right-wing para­mil­i­tary coali­tion respon­si­ble for the largest num­ber of human rights abus­es in the con­flict, includ­ing kid­nap­ping, extor­tion, mur­der, and rape,” accord­ing to a report from the the Coun­cil on Hemi­spher­ic Affairs, a non­prof­it research orga­ni­za­tion. Even a high-lev­el Pen­ta­gon offi­cial acknowl­edged Uribe’s like­ly para­mil­i­tary ties, a U.S. cable shows.

Father Ster­lin Lon­doño is a human rights defend­er who works as a Catholic priest in the depart­ment of Chocó, an area pop­u­lat­ed heav­i­ly by Afro-descen­dants and Indige­nous peo­ple. He also serves as polit­i­cal advi­sor to the Greater Com­mu­ni­ty Coun­cil of the Pop­u­lar Peas­ant Orga­ni­za­tion of Alto Atra­to, which is made up of 45 Afro-Colom­bian com­mu­ni­ties. Lon­doño tells In These Times that dur­ing Uribe’s pres­i­den­cy, the cul­ti­va­tion of the African palm was con­sol­i­dat­ed as a nation­al indus­try with the help of the para­mil­i­tary squads in the Chocó, in charge of dis­plac­ing peo­ple from their ter­ri­to­ries. At that time we saw the most sig­nif­i­cant forced dis­place­ments in the eth­nic ter­ri­to­ries,” he says.

In late 2007, con­cerned about Afro-Colom­bian oppo­si­tion to the FTA, Uribe estab­lished the Com­mis­sion for the Advance­ment of Afro-Colom­bian Peo­ple.” Accord­ing to the U.S.-based advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion Pub­lic Cit­i­zen, The Com­mis­sion was stacked with Uribe sup­port­ers and indi­vid­u­als known to sup­port the FTA.” Uribe then used that Com­mis­sion to make the case that the FTA had Afro-Colom­bian sup­port, a tac­tic also used by Pres­i­dent George W. Bush and Meeks. This was one of many efforts to under­mine Afro-Colom­bians’ hard-won civ­il rights and our con­trol of our ter­ri­to­ries,” wrote Mari­no Cor­do­ba, founder of the Asso­ci­a­tion for Afro-Colom­bian Inter­nal­ly Dis­placed Per­sons — a non­prof­it advo­cat­ing for inter­nal­ly dis­placed Afro-Colom­bians — in a 2008 op-ed, not­ing that local grass­roots lead­ers firm­ly opposed the Commission.

Lon­doño agrees with Cor­do­ba. There’s peo­ple that are not the spokesper­sons of the Afro-Colom­bian com­mu­ni­ty,” he says. The spokesper­sons of these com­mu­ni­ties are the eth­nic lead­ers on the ground, but Meeks does not acknowl­edge this reality.”

Rela­tion­ships with para-politicians

But Uribe was not Meeks’ only polit­i­cal rela­tion­ship in Colom­bia. In 2005, Meeks’ office adver­tised a meet­ing with Afro-Colom­bian lead­er­ship,” includ­ing the sec­ond Vice Pres­i­dent of Colom­bi­a’s House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, Edgar Ulis­es Tor­res, a Con­gress­man for the Chocó depart­ment since 1994. This is the same Tor­res who was con­vict­ed in July 2011 of aggra­vat­ed con­spir­a­cy, after a rough­ly two-year inves­ti­ga­tion into para­mil­i­tary leader Fred­dy Rendón deter­mined the Con­gress­man was a mem­ber of his group of polit­i­cal asso­ciates. Rendón claimed that Tor­res accept­ed sig­nif­i­cant cam­paign funds in 2001 and 2002. Accord­ing to the inves­tiga­tive news out­let Ver​dad​Abier​ta​.com, Rendón’s men killed and dis­placed hun­dreds of indige­nous peo­ple and Afro-Colom­bians who refused to sell their lands for palm cultivation.”

Tor­res was so close to Meeks — who by 2007 had trav­eled on sev­er­al occa­sions to Colom­bia, accord­ing to Pres­i­dent Uribe — that the U.S. con­gress­man invit­ed Tor­res to Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s inau­gu­ra­tion in Jan­u­ary 2009, accord­ing to at least two media reports. The trip was appar­ent­ly financed by the para­mil­i­tary leader Rendón, who tes­ti­fied that he gave Tor­res $10,000 for a trip to the Unit­ed States that inves­ti­ga­tors believe was used to attend Obama’s inau­gu­ra­tion. El Econ­o­mista report­ed in 2009 that Tor­res did in fact attend the inauguration.

By then, Meeks had become the key con­tact point for Colombia’s Afro-Colom­bian Con­gres­sion­al Cau­cus, which began receiv­ing finan­cial sup­port from USAID in 2006, dis­trib­uted by IRI and the Nation­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Insti­tute. By 2009, at least five of the 10 leg­is­la­tors that received this U.S. sup­port were either inves­ti­gat­ed or in jail for ties to para­mil­i­tary orga­ni­za­tions and/​or drug traf­fick­ers. A State Depart­ment cable pub­lished by Wik­ileaks indi­cates that the mem­bers of this cau­cus viewed Meeks as a close ally. The cable states that mem­bers of the cau­cus had expressed con­cern that, in the wake of inves­ti­ga­tions for wrong­do­ing, USAID’s pub­lic sup­port was wan­ing (although finan­cial aid had con­tin­ued). In the last meet­ing between USAID Mis­sion Direc­tor and three of the Cau­cus mem­bers on May 27, the mem­bers com­plained about the lack of sup­port and threat­ened to com­plain to Con­gress­man Gre­go­ry Meeks,” the cable says.

In addi­tion to Tor­res, anoth­er mem­ber of this U.S.-backed Afro-Colom­bian cau­cus was Odín Sánchez, who served as a mem­ber of the local Coun­cil of Quid­bó, in Chocó, start­ing in 1992 and then, in 1998, was elect­ed to the nation­al Con­gress. Sánchez formed part of the del­e­ga­tion that trav­eled with Uribe to Wash­ing­ton, D.C. in 2007 to, among oth­er activ­i­ties, meet with the Con­gres­sion­al Black Cau­cus. And in 2008, IRI adver­tised it had host­ed three mem­bers in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. for a series of train­ings and meet­ings with the U.S. Con­gres­sion­al Black Cau­cus” — Sánchez among them. In 2011, Sánchez was con­vict­ed along­side Tor­res of pro­mot­ing ille­gal armed groups” — name­ly, the AUC.

Dani­lo Rue­da, a Colom­bian human rights defend­er lead­ing the Comisión Intere­cle­sial de Jus­ti­cia y Paz, a non­prof­it advo­cat­ing for com­mu­ni­ty rights in Colom­bia, tells In These Times, Meeks’ work has sad­ly been stained by his rela­tion­ships with politi­cians linked to para­mil­i­taries, like Edgar Ulis­es Tor­res and Odín Sánchez, who were asso­ci­at­ed with the growth of para­mil­i­taries in the depart­ment of Chocó.”

It is impos­si­ble to know whether Meeks was aware of the deal­ings of Tor­res and Sánchez with right-wing para­mil­i­taries, and Meeks’ office did not return a request for com­ment. But it was well-known among Afro-Colom­bians that these politi­cians belonged to polit­i­cal clans” in a depart­ment where right-wing mili­tias’ activ­i­ties were ram­pant. Pol­i­tics in the depart­ment of Chocó has been marked by fire by the pres­ence of polit­i­cal clans,” accord­ing to a report by Fun­dación Paz y Rec­on­cil­iación, a think tank work­ing on post-con­flict issues in Colom­bia. Those clans are char­ac­ter­ized by their direct or indi­rect rela­tion­ship with armed groups and ille­gal economies.” Two of these polit­i­cal clans” were head­ed by Tor­res and Sánchez.

As leg­is­la­tors, Sánchez and Tor­res opposed the cod­i­fi­ca­tion of the Law 70 that rec­og­nizes the col­lec­tive own­er­ship of the land of Afro-Colom­bian com­mu­ni­ties that have his­tor­i­cal­ly inhab­it­ed a ter­ri­to­ry. They were open­ly opposed to the inter­ests of the Black com­mu­ni­ties despite call­ing them­selves part of the Afro-Colom­bian Con­gres­sion­al Cau­cus,” says Londoño.

Accord­ing to Rue­da, It was known that these clans were seri­ous­ly ques­tioned by the Black com­mu­ni­ties on the ground.” He adds that these clans pro­mot­ed their own polit­i­cal projects which were not launched for the com­mon good, but for their per­son­al interests.”

Crit­i­cism of Meeks

Antho­ny Dest worked for the Wash­ing­ton Office on Latin Amer­i­ca, a research and advo­ca­cy group, from 2010 to 2012, and is cur­rent­ly an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of anthro­pol­o­gy at Lehman Col­lege. He tells In These Times that Meeks blocked a lot of the momen­tum com­ing from Colom­bian social move­ments and sol­i­dar­i­ty groups in the Unit­ed States. He claimed to rep­re­sent the inter­ests of Afro-Colom­bians, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly shut­ting out Black social move­ments opposed to the FTA.”

Charo Mina-Rojas, a Colom­bia-based mem­ber of PCN, has a sim­i­lar rec­ol­lec­tion. She tells In These Times, It was very prob­lem­at­ic that he [Meeks] was bring­ing peo­ple to the Unit­ed States to pro­mote the FTA while we were at the same time try­ing to inform mem­bers of Con­gress that it was not a great idea.”

Mina-Rojas was involved in efforts in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. to lob­by against the FTA. When I went to con­gres­sion­al offices, the first ques­tion was, Where is Gre­go­ry Meeks on this?’ Peo­ple did­n’t want to step on his toes, because the Afro-Colom­bian issue was seen as his issue.”

To this day, Meeks con­tin­ues to high­light his con­nec­tion to Colom­bian pol­i­tics — and speak as an author­i­ty on Afro-Colom­bian issues, earn­ing him resent­ment from sol­i­dar­i­ty activists who remem­ber his actions in push­ing for the Colom­bia FTA. But, over­all, Meeks’ col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Uribe gov­ern­ment has brought few neg­a­tive polit­i­cal con­se­quences for him and, in fact, seems to have only boost­ed his pro­file. In ear­ly Sep­tem­ber he was a fea­tured speak­er at a Joe Biden-Kamala Har­ris event to share the vision of the Biden/​Harris Admin­is­tra­tion on the Afro-Colom­bian com­mu­ni­ty in the Unit­ed States and in Colombia.”

Meeks’ rep­u­ta­tion as the most busi­ness-friend­ly Con­gres­sion­al Demo­c­rat from New York, mean­while, does not go unno­ticed by the cor­po­rate PAC world. Of the 21 House Democ­rats rep­re­sent­ing New York State, Meeks draws the great­est per­cent­age of busi­ness PAC sup­port and the low­est per­cent­age of labor sup­port. In the 2020 elec­tion cycle, 88% of Meeks’ PAC mon­ey was cat­e­go­rized by Open Secrets as busi­ness PAC mon­ey, and only 8% was from labor PACs. By con­trast, the aver­age New York Con­gres­sion­al Demo­c­rat receives 24% labor sup­port, three times what Meeks hauls (Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez receives 67% labor PAC sup­port and 0% from busi­ness PACs). Meeks’ top five donors are from pri­vate equi­ty firm KKR & Co., hedge fund man­age­ment com­pa­ny Black­stone Group, New York Life Insur­ance, Nas­daq, Inc and Rock Hold­ings, par­ent com­pa­ny of mort­gage giant Quick­en Loans.

In sum­mer 2009, a busy time for those advo­cat­ing for the Colom­bia FTA, Meeks held a high-dol­lar fundrais­er at the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. office of Glover Park Group, a lob­by­ing firm hired at the time by the Colom­bia gov­ern­ment to win over skep­ti­cal Democ­rats in Con­gress. The For­eign Agents Reg­is­tra­tion Act form filed by Glover Park Group dis­closed that the firm was tasked with estab­lish­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions with pol­i­cy­mak­ers, as well as mon­i­tor­ing and report­ing on leg­is­la­tion and exec­u­tive branch activ­i­ties which may affect the devel­op­ment and pas­sage of the Trade Pro­mo­tion Agree­ment between the Unit­ed States and the Repub­lic of Colombia.”

Those trade deals, because of how exten­sive they are, cor­po­rate inter­ests real­ly, real­ly like them,” Dan Mauer, direc­tor of gov­ern­ment affairs for the labor union Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, tells In These Times. They can get a lot of things done they can’t through our domes­tic process­es. There is a lot to be gained from being a cheer­leader for those deals. You get a lot of cor­po­rate sup­port if you sup­port the cor­po­rate trade agen­da politically.”

These crit­i­cisms could be brought to the fore in the con­test to chair the House For­eign Affairs Com­mit­tee, with Brad Sher­man (D‑Calif.) and Joaquin Cas­tro (D‑Tex.) also in the run­ning. So far, Cas­tro has received the bulk of sup­port from pro­gres­sive groups, which view the rep­re­sen­ta­tive as the most dovish option on for­eign pol­i­cy. Those who remem­ber Meeks’ his­to­ry in Colom­bia wor­ry that, at the helm of the House For­eign Affairs Com­mit­tee, the New York rep­re­sen­ta­tive would be posi­tioned to pur­sue sim­i­lar right-wing polit­i­cal col­lab­o­ra­tions and free trade” poli­cies around the world.

He turned a blind eye to hor­ri­ble human rights vio­la­tions under Uribe,” says Mina-Rojas. I don’t see how that will be dif­fer­ent now.”

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­ceptThe Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.