Former President Alvaro Uribe has been called to trial for procedural fraud and witness bribery in Colombia, after an investigation that took years to complete. What began with allegations by left-wing Senator Ivan Cepeda against the former president concludes today, five years later, with the announcement of criminal proceedings against the man who held power in the country between 2002 and 2010.
Senator Cepeda’s allegations date back to 2012 when, during a parliamentary debate, he accused the then-president of crimes against humanity in municipalities in the Antioquia region, where Álvaro Uribe hails from.
In those allegations, Ivan Cepeda mentioned Juan Guillermo Monsalve, a former manager of Alvaro Uribe’s estate, who later explained to the justice system that the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), an illegal paramilitary armed group, had been founded on the estate between 1996 and 1997.
Monsalve stated that, in addition to Alvaro Uribe, his brother Santiago, and the brothers Luis Alberto Villegas and Juan Guillermo Villegas, well-known ranchers in the region, had participated in this foundation.
Nearly 300 investigations make up the “Uribe Case”
From that moment, various investigations were opened against the former president of Colombia, which have led to today. Eleven years of investigations that, by 2023, add up to nearly 300 cases.
The crimes investigated range from procedural fraud and bribery to extrajudicial killings, such as the massacres of Aro and La Granja, the murder of human rights lawyer Jesus Maria Valle Jaramillo, and even the murder of Juan Guillermo Cano, the former director of the newspaper El Espectador.
Today, however, the Colombian justice system initiates criminal proceedings against Alvaro Uribe for alleged witness tampering and procedural fraud. Certainly, none of the other cases, some of which are very serious, have been able to find a legal path to end up with the former Colombian president in the dock and before a judge.
Uribism, a Way of Understanding Politics
Alvaro Uribe, 73, is a veteran politician with a unique history. From his beginnings in local politics in his native Medellin in the early 1980s, he has had to endure constant allegations linking him to the powerful Medellin Cartel of Pablo Escobar, which wreaked havoc in the city and the entire country at the time.
In fact, some sectors relate his resignation as mayor of Medellin in 1982 to his alleged ties to the Colombian drug trafficker. Nevertheless, Alvaro Uribe has managed to create a term that defines a way of understanding public life: “Uribism.” Long before Bukele became the Latin American representative of the “ends justify the means,” Uribe had already made his fight against longstanding insecurity and violence in Colombia the banner of his public cause.
Alvaro Uribe’s political philosophy is summed up in his concept of “Democratic Security,” a government policy that proposed a more active role for Colombian society, as well as its security agencies, in the face of the threat from insurgent groups within the context of the internal armed conflict.
2002: The Failure of Peace with the FARC
After a political career primarily in Antioquia, former Senator Alvaro Uribe achieved what no one else in the country’s history had managed to do: winning the presidency and unseating the two traditional parties, Liberal and Conservative, which had shared the presidency since the time of Simón Bolívar.
Uribe’s ability lay in being able to harness the enormous frustration that the Colombian public felt due to the failure of the peace process led by President Pastrana with the FARC (1998-2002). Just a few months earlier, polls gave no chance of victory to the independent candidate, and all sources stated that Horacio Serpa, the Liberal candidate, would win the presidency.
Not only did this not happen, but Uribe managed to win in the first round with more than 50% of the votes. An overwhelming and unprecedented victory in Colombia.
Controversies and Growing Popular Support
Alvaro Uribe’s presidency was surrounded by controversies and disputes. However, the president’s popularity continued to grow. Neither the initial reports of false positives, nor the murky maneuvers to change the law that prohibited presidential reelection in Colombia, through alleged vote-buying in Congress, did anything to diminish the increasing popularity of the president.
To such an extent that he managed to be reelected in 2006, something previously constitutionally prohibited, with more support than he had received in 2002. In Uribe’s eight years in office, military successes and blows against insurgents coexisted with constant scandals: “parapolitics” (links of many parliamentarians to extreme right-wing paramilitary groups), and “yidispolitics” (vote-buying from parliamentarians to change the Constitution and allow presidential reelection).
Neither the conviction of over 60 congressmen in “parapolitics” cases nor the estrangement from the United States due to constant allegations of human rights abuses managed to tarnish a political figure who finished his term in 2010 with very high popularity ratings and the assurance of supposed continuity, thanks to the electoral victory of Juan Manuel Santos, who had been Uribe’s Defense Minister.
President Santos and the Breakup of Uribism
However, Juan Manuel Santos quickly showed that he would not be a puppet in Uribe’s hands. His proposal for dialogue with the FARC and the start of the peace process that concluded in 2016 with the Peace Agreements of Havana meant a rupture with his political mentor and the beginning of the decline of Uribism.
Nevertheless, the former president continued to be an important figure in national politics. From his position as senator, he survived as a political reference in Colombia. Not only to defend his legacy but also to promote a like-minded candidate, Ivan Duque, who managed to regain power for his political doctrine, now constituted as the Democratic Center party, in 2018.
Duque managed to thwart the presidential aspirations of Gustavo Petro, who achieved the best results for a left-wing candidacy in Colombia to date but fell far short of winning the presidency in a runoff election that returned power to Uribism.
First Judicial Blow
The popularity of former President Uribe, though on the decline, survived numerous setbacks and numerous accusations against him, which, in the eyes of many, gave him an aura of impunity. He emerged unscathed from all the allegations and trials faced by people very close to him, including his cousin, who was convicted in the “parapolitics” case, and his brother Santiago.
Until, in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown in August 2020, the country woke up to the news of the former president’s house arrest due to Senator Ivan Cepeda’s allegations of witness tampering.
Although the former president regained his freedom after 67 days in detention, today’s news has stirred up Colombian politics. The political father of current Colombian conservatism, Alvaro Uribe, must answer to the justice system. This marks the first time this has happened with a former head of state in Colombia, but more importantly, it means subjecting the legacy of Uribism to historical scrutiny.
The Future of a Legacy
Until today, nothing has managed to taint the man who, with an iron fist and the support of his fellow citizens, directed the fate of a country bleeding from the violence of an endless internal armed conflict. What is at stake from today onward is not only the legal situation of an important former head of state and political leader. Colombia is beginning the trial of a way of understanding the country, politics, and social relations.
Because depending on what happens and emerges from the courts, Colombia will have to construct a shared narrative that it can pass on to its children and grandchildren in the context of reconciliation and the acceptance of truth. On this path, the roles of leaders, illegal armed groups, and society as a whole will shape the true essence of the history of a country still grappling to agree on a history and a reality that can be embraced by the majority.
What occurs in the immediate future will set the stage for what Colombia’s history will become. On October 6, 2023, the first lines are being written.