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Colombia’s strong man, from hero to criminal

Thursday, 01 October 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

The most influential political figure of the last two decades in Colombia has by far been Alvaro Uribe Velez, president during two periods, 2002–2010, and Senator since 2014.

His contribution to bring the monopoly of violence under “state control”, at a time when communist guerrillas were at the peak of their power and controlled large swathes of the country, was enough for most to see him as a positive reformer.

Colombia, is the third most populated country in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico, and has the region’s 4th largest economy. At the time Uribe reached power, it was impossible to commute safely between the country’s two largest cities, kidnapping was rife and international tourism was at an all time low.

Reasonably by then, international observers regarded it as a failed state. During his first term in office, Uribe’s policy of “democratic security” backed by the US military, achieved a significant reduction in the areas controlled by the guerrillas. Thanks to this, the country managed to grow like its peers during the commodities boom of the beginning of the century.

Against this backdrop, Uribe won his re-election bid in 2006 (for which congress had to amend the constitution) by a landslide. At the time, few voices dared criticising the man who had rescued the country from chaos. But during his second period, more and more scandals started to surface.

By the end of 2006 more than 30 congressmen and women who backed Uribe were being investigated by the supreme court for supporting paramilitary groups (one of them being his first cousin). In 2008, a congresswoman, who supported Uribe’s reelection bill, confessed having been offered a bribe for it.

In 2009, the Department of Administrative Security was probed for wiretrapping judges, opposition politicians and journalists as a paid favor to drug traffickers. That same year, congress was debating the fact Uribe’s sons turned a $15,000 business deal into $1,4 M in two years, after having bought land in the outskirts of Bogota that local legislators soon declared a duty free zone. And the list goes on.

Although his coalition in congress approved a new amendment to the constitution to permit a second re-election, the constitutional court blocked it. However, granted Uribe’s support, his previous minister of defence, Juan Manuel Santos, won the 2010 election.

Santos, a member of the capital’s elite (Uribe is from Medellin and more affiliated to large landowner’s interests), quickly set off his own agenda focused on reaching a peace agreement with the guerrillas. That decision turned his mentor into his most fierce opponent.

Why did Uribe oppose the peace talks since their inception? Did he foresee that the outcome would be a special jurisdiction in which all actors of the conflict could confess their crimes to get reduced sentences? This appears like the only plausible answer.

Uribe’s Obscure Past

In 1980 a young Uribe obtained his first relevant post as public servant, heading the national airspace agency. His predecesor had been assassinated by the mafia for not authorising the registration of new aircrafts, routes or private airstrips. During Uribe’s time in office plenty of licences were conceded to drug lords for airplanes and helicopters and most notably, the airstrip in Pablo Escobar’s hallmark estate was approved.

After decades of investigations, in Nov 2019, the prosecutor and attorney general condemned Uribe’s older brother, Santiago, for the formation of paramilitary groups in the 90’s in the state of Antioquia. Uribe was governor of this state from 1995–1997.

Uribe is currently in home detention after an order by the supreme court that accuses him of committing acts of fraud, bribery and witness tampering and is also allegedly guilty for turning a blind eye on two massacres perpetrated by paramilitaries during his tenure as Governor.

A recently declassified memo of the US Department of Defense of 2004 shows a high-level official strongly suspected Uribe had a history of dealings with paramilitaries.

Like most Latin American elites, Colombia’s has historically exhibited high levels of corruption. A phenomenon that spreads from the upper levels of public administration to the lower ones. What sets Colombia apart, and has made it one of the most violent countries in the world, is the fact that since the late 50’s it had communist guerrilla groups operating, and since the early 80’s an extremely powerful drug mafia.

The mafia, with its infinite cash in hand, integrated quickly with the country’s traditional elites, giving birth to some of the most brutal armies in modern history, paramilitary groups that defended their common interests against the guerrillas or any other political actor who defied them.

Aside from the countless deaths of combatants, and civilians caught between the fire, this arrangement is also responsible for the assassination in the 80s–90s of over 3000 leaders and members of the leftist party Union Patriotica, as well as the homicide of notorious political figures and journalists such as Rodrigo Lara, minister of justice in 1984, Guillermo Cano, director of the second biggest daily in 1986, Luis Carlos Galan, presidential candidate for the 1990 elections (and sure winner) in 1989, Alvaro Gomez, three times presidential candidate in 1995, or Jaime Garzon, journalist and comedian in 1999.

Peace Agreement and Current State of Affairs

Having distanced himself from Uribe, Juan Manuel Santos managed to get re-elected for the 2014–2018 period on the promise of signing a peace deal with FARC EP that would put an end to more than six decades of conflict. He succeeded in this objective by mid 2016. By the end of that same year Colombia had achieved its lowest homicide rate in 42 years, Santos earned the Nobel Peace Prize, and The Economist named Colombia “Country of the Year”.

Despite such a promising outlook, support for Uribe had not withered, and he was kingmaker again in the 2018 election. Being “the one Uribe said” was enough for a young senator from his party to get elected president in 2018, once again campaigning against the peace treaty. Unlike Santos, Ivan Duque guaranteed obedience to his mentor, due to his very low public recognition and non-existent chances of becoming president otherwise.

Today, violence in Colombia is once again spiralling out of control, with more than 60 massacres registered this year. In addition to the non stop assassination of social leaders, typically civilians who claim land or truth (as agreed in the peace treaty), or who want to participate in politics, oppose illegal economies or defend environmental causes.

Who are Uribe’s followers and why do they support him?

“Uribistas”, as they are known in Colombia, have several things in common with followers of other right wing populist movements, such as Brexit or Trump. Older age groups have a higher representation in this constituency. Baby boomers who lived through decades of the Cold War are eternally grateful to the man who “liberated” Colombia from the grip of communists guerrillas. Uribe has also cunningly managed to convince conservative types of all ages that the opposition’s intention, regardless if their political hue, is to turn the country into a new Venezuela.

Religious groups, mainly evangelicals in Colombia’s case, are one of his strongholds. Uribe’s aides shrewdly wooed this constituency highlighting as an attack to traditional family values the fact the peace agreement stated that the entire of society should benefit equally of the implementation of the treaty, including women and members of the LGBT community.

And finally, against all evidence, the core of his base will deny any wrongdoing by their leader, while the less extremists will argue “what he did had to be done” and/or “which politician in Colombia’s recent history has not been associated to the mafia?”

Not the most fierce of his opponents expect Uribe to end up in jail while Ex FARC leaders are in congress. But as all other major actors of Colombia’s internal conflict, he should submit himself to the special jurisdiction created by the peace treaty and confess his wrongdoings. Doing this would be an unparalleled contribution to help the country turn the page on some of its darkest chapters in history.

David Abuchar Luna