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

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

Sarah Lazare and Maurizio Guerrero

U.S. Congressman Gregory Meeks pictured in Berlin on November 25, 2013. Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images

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.

“Meeks’ work has sadly been stained by his relationships with politicians linked to paramilitaries, like Edgar Ulises and Odín Sánchez, who were associated with the growth of paramilitaries in the department of Chocó.” —Danilo Rueda, Colombian rights defender

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.

A protest during the sixth day of a general strike in Buenaventura, Colombia on May 21, 2017. (CHRISTIAN ESCOBAR MORA/AFP via Getty Images)

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.

“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.” —Charo Mina-Rojas, member of Process of Black Communities in Colombia

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 Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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