BOGOTA, Colombia — A retired police major said Monday that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's younger brother commanded a right-wing death squad in the early 1990s from the family's cattle ranch. He estimated the militia killed at least 50 people.
The former policeman said Santiago Uribe also claimed his older brother, who was a senator at the time, was fully aware of the death squad. But former Maj. Juan Carlos Meneses, 42, said he had no evidence Alvaro Uribe had any knowledge of the illegal militia and did not meet the man until nearly a decade later.
"I've got nothing against Alvaro Uribe, absolutely nothing," Meneses told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location. He said he sought exile in Venezuela last year because he feared for his life.
Santiago Uribe, 53, did not respond to repeated attempts to reach him by telephone and through relatives and friends. However, he denied the allegations in an interview with The Washington Post, which first reported Meneses' story Sunday along with the Argentine magazine Pagina 12.
Alvaro Uribe was asked about the case at a news conference Monday and replied, "I don't read international newspapers."
His interior minister, Fabio Valencia, suggested Meneses' accusations were politically motivated and timed to influence the May 30 presidential election, in which former Uribe defense minister Juan Manuel Santos and Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus are in a tight race.
Meneses retired from Colombia's national police in 2004. Senior police officials reached by the AP would not comment on his record. Meneses told the AP that Santiago Uribe paid him about $700 monthly for four months in 1994 to let the death squad operate when he was police commander in Yarumal, the Antioquia state municipality where the Uribe cattle ranch is located.
He said Santiago ran the death squad from the Uribe ranch, La Carolina, using short-wave radios. He said he once saw 15 uniformed paramilitaries with R-15 and AK-47 rifles at the ranch doing physical training on an obstacle course.
Meneses said he didn't know how many people were in the illegal militia, which he said became known as "The 12 Apostles" in later news media reports.
"Nearly all the people who committed the murders were also murdered," he said. "All the assassins who worked under Santiago Uribe, all were killed, all were disappeared."
Meneses said he sought asylum in Venezuela through the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees office after receiving written and telephoned death threats. He said he left Colombia with his wife and four sons in October. Asked why he was going public with his story even though, if true, it would incriminate him as a possible accessory to murder, Meneses said it was the best way he know of protecting himself.
"This is preferable to being assassinated by the Uribe family," he told the AP.
It was also revealed Sunday that Meneses provided videotaped testimony last month in Argentina to a human rights group led by Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Esquivel's group is among a number of human rights organizations investigating Alvaro Uribe to determine whether he might be guilty of international law violations.
He was elected Colombia's president in 2002 and with some $700 million in annual aid from Washington made it a priority to defeat leftist rebels, who killed his father in a botched 1983 kidnapping attempt. During his tenure, Colombian soldiers have been accused of murdering more than 1,000 civilians and claiming they were rebels.
An investigation by Colombian prosecutors into Santiago Uribe and allegations of his ties to death squad activities was shelved in 1995 on the grounds of insufficient evidence.
That same year, Alvaro Uribe became governor of Antioquia state, where he promoted citizen self-defense bands called Convivir.
Last year, at the request of a leftist presidential candidate, Sen. Gustavo Petro, prosecutors re-evaluated the Santiago Uribe case but found no grounds to reopen it. That could change, however, given the appearance of Meneses' testimony.
Associated Press Writer Libardo Cardona contributed to this report.