President Uribe’s Hidden Past
Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe is, by his own admission, a man of the right. Unlike most recent Colombian presidents, Uribe is from the land-owning class. He inherited huge swathes of cattle ranching land from his father Alberto Uribe, who was subject to an extradition warrant to face drug trafficking charges in the United States until he was killed in 1983, allegedly by leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. Alvaro Uribe grew up with the children of Fabio Ochoa, three of who became leading players in Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cocaine cartel.
President Uribe’s credentials are impeccable. He was educated at Harvard and Oxford, is as sharp as a tack, and a very able bureaucrat. At the tender age of 26 he was elected mayor of Medellín, the second-largest city of Colombia. The city’s elite in the 1980s was rich, corrupt and nepotistic, and they loved the young Uribe. But the new mayor was removed from office after only three months by a central government embarrassed by his public ties to the drug mafia. Uribe was then made Director of Civil Aviation, where he used his mandate to issue pilots’ licenses to Pablo Escobar’s fleet of light aircraft, which routinely flew cocaine to the United States.
In 1995, Uribe became governor of the Antioquia department, of which Medellín is the capital. The region became the testing ground for the institutionalization of paramilitary forces that he has now made a key plank of his presidency. Government-sponsored peasant associations called Convivir’s were “special private security and vigilance services, designed to group the civilian population alongside the Armed Forces.”
Security forces and paramilitary groups enjoyed immunity from prosecution under Governor Uribe, and they used this immunity to launch a campaign of terror in Antioquia. Thousands of people were murdered, “disappeared,” detained and driven out of the region. In the town of San Jose de Apartadó for example, three of the Convivir leaders were well-known paramilitaries and had been trained by the Colombian Army’s 17th Brigade. In 1998, representatives of more than 200 Convivir associations announced that they would unite with the paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), under its murderous leader Carlos Castaño.
When Uribe launched his campaign for president, the candidate’s paramilitary connections appeared to deter many journalists from examining the ties between drug gangs and the Uribe family. An exception was Noticias Uno, a current affairs program on the TV station Canal Uno. In April 2002, the program ran a series on alleged links between Uribe and the Medellín drug cartel. After the reports aired, unidentified men began calling the news station, threatening to kill the show’s producer Ignacio Gómez, director Daniel Coronell, and Coronell’s 3-year-old daughter, who was flown out of the country soon thereafter. Gómez was also forced to flee Colombia and is currently living in exile.
Noticias Uno told the story of how in 1997, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized 50,000 kilos of potassium permanganate from a ship docked in San Francisco. Potassium permanganate is a chemical used in the production of cocaine. The cargo was on its way to Colombia to be delivered to a company called GMP Chemical Products. The owner of GMP was Pedro Moreno Villa GMP, Uribe’s presidential campaign manager. The chemicals seized were sufficient to produce $15 billion worth of cocaine. The DEA confirmed that GMP was Colombia’s biggest importer of potassium permanganate between 1994 and 1998, when Uribe was governor of Medellin and Moreno Villa was his chief of staff.
As the Presidential race intensified, journalists became increasingly concerned that media bosses were threatening their editorial independence. Two powerful business groups with ties to the political establishment own RCN and Caracol, the biggest television and radio networks in Colombia. Journalists’ concerns were further heightened when Uribe picked a member of the Santos family, which owns the country’s most influential daily newspaper, to be his vice-president.
Despite his links to paramilitaries and drug cartels, Uribe won the presidency. But to call Uribe’s victory a landslide—as many in and outside Colombia did—is a gross distortion of the facts. Uribe received 53 percent of the official vote, but only 25 percent of the electorate voted. Many urban and middle class Colombians, who have been largely sheltered from the civil war, were thoroughly disillusioned by the peace process of outgoing-President Andrés Pastrana, and backed hardliner Uribe. But the election was hardly a fair one.
Mapiripán is the site of one of the worst paramilitary massacres to date, yet many of the town’s residents voted for the “paramilitary” candidate, Uribe. Father Javier Giraldo of the Colombian human rights group Justicia y Paz was in Mapiripán on election day: “There was a great deal of fraud. There were paramilitaries in the voting booths. They destroyed a lot of ballots. This was denounced to the Ombudsman, but nothing happened.” Electoral fraud, widespread paramilitary threats—denounced by virtually all the other candidates during the election campaign—and the almost total decimation of the electoral left in the preceding decade all contributed to Uribe’s election victory.
Though Uribe has vowed that his “democratic security” platform will bring peace and security to all Colombians, statistics from the Trade Union School in Medellín show continued threats to trade unionists and human rights activists. The number of trade unionists killed in 2003 declined to a “mere” 90, suggesting that the paramilitaries were being reigned in a little. But the number of death threats issued were 20 percent higher, and death threats to trade unionists’ families were up by 30 percent. Police raids, mass detentions and forced “disappearances” are also all higher than the previous year.
Uribe is clamping down on the opposition, while sidling yet closer to the Republican White House in Washington. Uribe was the only South American leader to back President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. At the time, he even went so far as to invite the United States to invade Colombia. Uribe hopes to double the size of the Colombian Armed Forces, and has asked the United States for more helicopters and greater involvement in areas such as intelligence gathering. Many in the Bush administration are keen to see the United States expand its multi-billion dollar military investment in “Plan Colombia.” U.S. Army Lt. Gen. James T. Hill, for example, recently told a Senate committee, “It would be a terrible loss if democracy failed in Colombia. You need to let me get on the ground.”
But before that happens, the United States is pushing for Uribe to reign in his illegal paramilitary allies. The peasant militias and million-strong informers’ network that Uribe has launched are evidence of the way in which the paramilitary strategy is being institutionalized. Under the “state of unrest” that Uribe decreed upon assuming the presidency, the police and army were granted the right to detain citizens on the slightest suspicion of supporting the guerrillas, without evidence or legal counsel, and to enter people’s homes without a warrant.
As Bush and Uribe have both said time and again, in the “war on terror” there can be no neutrals. President Uribe has branded those NGOs that do claim to occupy a non-partisan position on the armed conflict “political agitators in the service of terrorism, cowards who wrap themselves in the banner of human rights.” Only pro-government, anti-guerrilla NGOs are being left untouched.
Uribe’s strategy is to bring the war out into the open, to declare social organizations illegal, and to use the army and police against them directly, while holding “negotiations” with the paramilitaries. Given the murderous tactics that Uribe is prepared to resort to, it is easy to understand why trade unionists and human rights defenders are inclined to feel despondent. It also makes the unquestioning support being offered Uribe by the U.S. and British governments all the more immoral.