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In Colombia, Álvaro Uribe’s Immunity Is Finally Coming to an End

Colombia’s Supreme Court has placed former right-wing president Álvaro Uribe under house arrest on charges of manipulating witness testimony. Whatever happens to Uribe next, this will be a watershed moment for Colombian politics.

Álvaro Uribe, former president of Colombia, at the 2019 Concordia Americas Summit in Bogotá on May 13, 2019. Gabriel Aponte / Getty

Colombians everywhere were shocked by the decision of their country’s Supreme Court to place former president Álvaro Uribe Velez under house arrest. The order came as part of an ongoing investigation into charges of criminal fraud against the two-term president, who held office from 2002 to 2010 and still casts a long shadow over Colombian political life.

For more than a decade, Uribe has evaded calls from human rights organizations for him to be prosecuted on charges of colluding with right-wing paramilitary groups and even directly ordering atrocities against civilians, such as the 1997 El Aro Massacre. Now, Uribe is finally in the dock for allegedly bribing former paramilitaries who were set to be key witnesses in a lawsuit against one of his political adversaries.

The process that led to Uribe’s detention dates back to 2014 and the aftermath of a heated debate in Colombia’s national congress. Ex-paramilitaries testified that Uribe and his brother Santiago, also a right-wing politician, were directly involved in the formation of paramilitary groups in Antioquia, where Uribe had been governor before he became the country’s president. Uribe’s lawyers filed a case against Senator Iván Cepeda of the left-wing Alternative Democratic Pole, who had compiled these testimonies, accusing him of witness manipulation.

However, this prompted the Colombian judiciary to take action when Uribe’s case against Cepeda failed in 2018. Uribe himself faced the same accusation that he had leveled against Cepeda. Having examined more than 1,500 pages of evidence, including phone conversations, videos, and text messages, the Supreme Court has now decided to place Uribe in custody awaiting trial. He could receive a sentence of up to eight years in prison if convicted.

The surprising move set off a firestorm of commentary on social media, with messages of support for the court’s decision set against expressions of outrage that evoked an alleged communist conspiracy to down Uribe. One thing was clear: Uribe’s apparent untouchability had come to an end.

Al Capone in Antioquia

Rather like Al Capone, who was eventually jailed for tax evasion, Uribe is not being investigated for the most egregious offenses attributed to his time in office at local and national levels: the increase in paramilitary violence, and the extrajudicial killings of more than ten thousand innocent civilians by the Colombian army (known in Colombia as the “false positives” scandal). To make sense of the current situation, we need to look at Uribe’s career in its wider context.

Uribe has been able to dodge all the previous investigations that threatened to overtake him. Key witnesses have disappeared or died in mysterious circumstances. The former president even shrugged off the so-called yidispolitica scandal, after ex-congresswoman Yidis Medina admitted receiving bribes to vote for a constitutional reform that allowed Uribe to stand for reelection in 2006.

When it looked as if a group of paramilitary commanders would testify against him in 2008, Uribe ordered their overnight extradition to the United States on drug trafficking charges. A New York Times investigation subsequently found that they had been given remarkably light sentences by the US legal system; judges and prosecutors explicitly cited the fact that the defendants had been involved in a campaign of political violence against the Colombian left as a mitigating factor.

Uribe’s supporters admire his image as a tough but caring paternalistic figure. They shed tears at the news of his detention, demanding that the law be suspended so their leader could be released. Uribe embodies the arbitrary rule of the patria potestas, the ultimate power exercised by the father in his household. He stands above the law, because he is the law.

Unsurprisingly, most of Uribe’s admirers defend traditional structures of kinship and sexuality, continually evoking the specter of threats to an imagined natural order. While this fatherly performance has been Uribe’s strength, it is also a critical weakness of Colombia’s neoconservative project.

Call to Arms

The alleged fraud for which Uribe has been detained in his Montería ranch puts this polarizing character in a different context. Uribe’s lawsuit against Iván Cepeda came after the latter had presented witness statements from ex-paramilitaries attesting that one of the right-wing militias, the Bloque Metro, had been founded at the hacienda Guacharacas, a property belonging to Uribe’s family.

Displaying a reckless confidence in a political system he no longer fully controlled, Uribe tried to retaliate against Cepeda, only for his plan to backfire. Videos, audio recordings, and WhatsApp conversations came to light, implicating Uribe’s former lawyer Diego Cadena and his congressional ally Álvaro Hernán Prada in a scheme to doctor evidence. They offered various incentives, both legal and financial, to a key witness, Juan Guillermo Monsalve, if he would retract his original statement and point the finger at Cepeda for conspiring against Uribe instead.

With the hashtag #DespideUnMamerto, Uribe’s disgruntled followers have been calling upon their like-minded peers to fire employees suspected of left-wing sympathies, in retaliation for what they consider an attack on the man who saved the country from international communism. More than a few self-proclaimed law-abiding citizens — people who have, in the past, fiercely defended the integrity of the country’s institutional framework — quickly disregarded that framework when it turned its attention to their father figure.

In an official broadcast, the current Colombian president, Iván Duque, Uribe’s political protégé, expressed open support for his mentor and questioned the Supreme Court’s decision. Other members of Uribe’s party, the Centro Demócratico (CD), spoke in a similar vein. CD hard-liners who normally denounce political mobilizations, such as the anti-government protests that rolled on for several months in Colombia’s main cities last year, took to the streets in high-end SUVs, violating the lockdown protocols imposed by the government in response to COVID-19.

Senator Paola Holguín issued a call to arms directed at military veterans, urging them to defend Uribe. Another right-wing senator, Paloma Valencia, suggested that it was time for a constitutional reform to reshape the judiciary for Uribe’s benefit; President Duque himself echoed that call.

Beating the War Drums

This kind of rhetoric could appeal to some reserve officers, products of the Cold War anti-communist crusade — especially those facing investigation for extrajudicial killings, corruption scandals, or collusion with paramilitary organizations. They might well accept the idea that Uribe’s arrest is the result of an international conspiracy.

I conducted many interviews as part of my ethnographic fieldwork on the Colombian National Army, exploring the sociopolitical effects of legal frameworks that defined the military as victims while denying the guerrillas the same status. Officers told me about their profound distrust for the judiciary, which they believed to have been hijacked by the guerrillas and their supporters.

Although this narrative was the dominant view among my interview subjects, who were mainly senior officers, it did not go entirely unchallenged. Some officers, whether retired or still on active duty, remember Uribe for introducing legal reforms that affected their social security benefits, or allowing them to be used as scapegoats for human rights violations to protect the state officials who had been calling the shots. They also recall the occasions when Uribe disregarded the military chain of command, speaking directly with junior officers.

If the Colombian armed forces were to heed the war drums now being pounded by Uribe’s political allies, it could only do them harm in the long run. The influence of right-wing civilian elites over a culturally conservative military has already been damaging for the latter. In order to deny belligerent status to the guerrillas, Uribe’s administration refused to acknowledge the existence of an armed political conflict in Colombia.

This made it impossible to use international humanitarian law standards in the legal defense of military personnel being investigated for actions performed while on active duty. While it is important that there should be military accountability for human rights violations, a focus on junior officers and enlisted personnel without real institutional power simply conceals the influence of civilian elites pulling the strings.

Soldiers have also been affected by reforms to their disability pensions, showing the failure of the state to recognize the costs — physical, psychological, and financial — of a conflict that was prolonged by right-wing opposition to a negotiated resolution. Thanks to decrees enacted under Uribe’s presidency, professional soldiers from the lowest ranks now receive a pension of approximately $300 USD. Many of these veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, mutilated limbs, and the aftereffects of tropical diseases. The Defense Ministry considers them to be an economic burden.

The Colombian government has gone to great lengths to shield itself from lawsuits demanding better welfare for soldiers and their families. The state sent poorly trained conscript troops into dangerous locations, and then neglected those who survived guerrilla attacks. For much of the Colombian public, soldiers perform a dual role: as scapegoats who can easily be blamed for “excesses” in defense of the status quo, and as sacrificial victims to be exhibited as ideological props in strident performances of patriotic identity.

Scapegoats and Whistleblowers

From Congress, Uribe and his allies implicated the Colombian army in grave incidents such as illegal wiretapping of journalists and government officials. In 2019, a magazine exposed the existence of a secretive military network charged with building intelligence profiles on behalf of an influential member of Uribe’s party. The network’s targets were political opponents of Duque’s government.

The public backlash against the military is not the result of a left-wing plot, as Uribe’s most ardent supporters maintain. A careless, self-centered administration is to blame. But many of those involved would rather blame leaks exposing the wrongdoings of those on active duty than point the finger at the civilian elites who asked military personnel to break the law. Instead of simply dismissing the conspiratorial discourse of Uribe’s allies, we can learn something from it by taking it seriously, as a set of unconscious statements about the kind of social order they advocate.

General Mario Montoya was the commander of the Colombian army under Uribe’s rule, and he is accused of being the ringleader for the “false positives.” He testified before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, a transitional justice mechanism established in 2017 to address the crimes perpetrated over the course of the Colombian conflict. Montoya’s testimony blamed his subordinates for the extrajudicial killing of civilians, claiming that they were poor and ignorant peasants who did not know any better.

Montoya’s self-serving excuse at least gives an honest sense of his contempt for those he considers lesser men, even if they serve under his command. I heard similar opinions being voiced by senior officers in 2019, when a conscripted soldier, Juan Sebastián Mendieta Herrera, uploaded a YouTube video expressing his solidarity with the uprisings against Duque’s administration; or when Don Raúl Carvajal demanded to know the truth about what happened to his son, an army corporal who was allegedly murdered by his peers for refusing to participate in the “false positives.” For officers like Montoya, and many others I came to know, dissent in the Colombian armed forces could only be the result of communist subversion.

This is the line now being put forward by the retired colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega. Plazas Vega led the infamous military operation in 1985 to storm Bogotá’s Palace of Justice after left-wing guerrillas had seized it and taken hostages from the judiciary; the operation resulted in more than one hundred civilian casualties. From his current residence in Miami, having been acquitted on criminal charges arising from the Palace of Justice siege, Plazas Vega has claimed that Uribe’s arrest forms part of a communist conspiracy led by Cuba and Venezuela.

Cracks in the Ice

Even though Colombia is one of the few Latin American countries where the Left has never had significant representation in government, the Cold War mentality seems more powerfully entrenched than ever in the upper echelons of its military.

However, my own fieldwork with soldiers from different ranks brought into question the image of a homogenous army whose members all share the attitudes expressed by ultraconservative retired officers. Much of what we know about scandals involving the armed forces, including their role in extrajudicial killings under Uribe, came to light because of whistleblowers among the soldiers themselves.

Such whistleblowers had to run the gauntlet of harassment from senior officers, who organized illegal polygraph tests to try and discover who was informing the public about these abuses. These glimpses of critical thinking from within the ranks of the Colombian military offer some slight hope for the future, if Uribe’s allies now try to manipulate the country’s institutional framework for their own benefit.

Some left-wing analysts exaggerate the influence of Uribe and his supporters, without really knowing much about the nuts and bolts of Colombia’s military organizations today. The recent scandals involving the military have revealed an important strain of dissent among a new generation of officers and enlisted soldiers. This certainly will not take the form of open rebellion in the near future, but there is reason to think that far-right hegemony over the Colombian state is beginning to crack.

A Unique Opportunity

No matter what happens next, this is an unprecedented moment in Colombian history. It is also an opportunity to expose the political clans that have manipulated Colombian society under the pretense of resisting an international communist plot. Uribe’s current malaise is a drama of his own design.

The Court’s decision took everyone by surprise. This is not to say that it came completely out of the blue. Uribe’s political project was already in poor shape after years of backstabbing former allies, combined with a blind refusal to address the structural contradictions of a highly unequal country. The judicial apparatus had also been under close surveillance from Uribe’s allies in military intelligence and the former secret service, later disbanded because of its role in this scandal. Uribe had made many enemies among Colombia’s magistrates as a result.

Uribe’s arrest comes at a unique moment in time, during a global pandemic that is revealing the emptiness behind the rhetoric of languishing conservative regimes. It is no longer possible to blame shadowy left-wing conspirators for every problem without provoking extreme ridicule. Whatever happens to Uribe in the long run, the effects of the COVID-19 crisis and the political polarization it has engendered will be felt for many years to come — and not just in Colombia.