Under significant pressure from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and other prominent U.S. Republicans, a Colombian court last month ordered the release of former hardline Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez from three months of house arrest during an investigation into allegations of witness tampering. Uribe stands accused of trying to silence witnesses and bribe others to testify in his favor regarding allegations that he was linked to the creation of the “Metro Bloc” of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), paramilitaries who fought leftist guerrillas during the country’s armed conflict.
Rather than letting the case continue pursuant to normal procedures, Uribe loyalists in the Colombian Congress had lashed out at the judiciary after the August decision to confine him to house arrest. His supporters called for sweeping changes aimed at replacing independent judges. At the same time, Pence and Representative Francis Rooney (R-FL), among others, called for Uribe’s release. And when he was freed, no less than President Donald Trump congratulated him, along with Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. It’s unlikely to be coincidental that the U.S. support for Uribe unfolded in the runup to the U.S. presidential election and emerged almost entirely from that key electoral state.
Such attempts to thwart transitional justice will only prolong the already long road to peace for Colombia.
Historic Peace Accords Faltering
In 2016, after 50 years of conflict, Uribe’s successor, Juan Manuel Santos Calderon, signed a peace agreement with the main insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), despite virulent opposition to the accord by Uribe, who had taken a hard line against the guerrillas during his time in office between August 2002 and August 2010. Four years after the signing, though, implementation remains stalled. Across the country, community leaders are being killed in alarming numbers, and the transitional courts system set up under the peace agreement has yet to issue any sentences for the rampant war crimes during the conflict. Only 25 percent of the many technical provisions of the accords have been implemented in the last three years, according to one analysis.
One of the biggest impediments to implementation of the peace agreement comes from the government itself. Hard-line President Ivan Duque, Uribe’s protégé, campaigned for the presidency by promising to “modify” the peace agreement in ways that risk undermining key provisions and reigniting violence. During his two years in office, Duque also repeatedly has taken action to stymie war crimes cases. The criminal justice system now faces its biggest challenge to date — to determine whether Uribe, the former commander in chief, bears criminal responsibility for the misconduct of security forces under his command.
Grave Human Rights Abuses during Uribe’s Governorship and Presidency
Before winning the presidency, Uribe’s tenure as governor of Antioquia from January 1995 to December 1997 coincided with the rise of illegal right-wing paramilitary groups in the region. Reports from news media and human rights monitors and declassified U.S. government documents describe a rapidly deteriorating human rights situation as paramilitary groups, led by the AUC, engaged in a series of brutal attacks against individuals and communities they claimed were linked to the insurgency. According to the National Center for Historic Memory (Centro Nacional de Memoria Historica), paramilitaries massacred civilians in order to wrest control of territory from the FARC. The paramilitaries used tactics including trapping civilians in communities during violence by blocking roads so they couldn’t flee.
On Oct. 22, 1997, a group of paramilitaries raided the rural town of El Aro in Antioquia and occupied the town for more than 10 days. During that period, the Colombian government provided military support to the paramilitaries, which a court in the case Ituango Massacres v. Colombia later determined had murdered 19 people in the districts of El Aro and La Granja, destroyed houses, stole livestock, and forcibly displaced approximately 300 inhabitants of the region. Just days before the El Aro massacre occurred, local civil society organizations sent numerous communications to state authorities requesting protection for the civilian population from paramilitary groups. These requests for protection were ignored.
Among those who made such a request was lawyer and human rights defender Jesús María Valle Jaramillo. Concerned about the paramilitary presence around El Aro, he sent communications to the authorities in Antioquia informing them of the paramilitary presence in the region. It was not the first time. On Nov. 20, 1996, almost a year before the massacre, he had appealed to then-Governor Uribe for protection for the community.
Instead of heeding Jaramillo’s warnings, Uribe denounced him as an “enemy of the army,” and the commander of the Fourth Brigade of the Army accused the lawyer of defamation. Jaramillo was killed in 1998 by two shots to the head in Medellin, believed by human rights groups to have been murdered in retaliation for criticizing the paramilitaries.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights on July 2006 determined in the Ituango Massacres case that the El Aro attack had never been effectively investigated by the Colombian government. Later, in 2015, a Colombian court held that the El Aro massacre case “confirms and suggests the participation of others, since it does not seem credible that this operation, which lasted 10 days and involved the mobilization of a large number of troops and the abduction and mobilization, was executed only by a lieutenant and a noncommissioned officer.” The court ordered the government to conduct a thorough investigation of whether the authorities, including Uribe, supported the El Aro massacre.
For many years, the U.S. government evaluated rumors and evidence suggesting that Uribe had ties to narcotraffickers and, later, to paramilitary groups. A declassified U.S. military report from 1991 listed Uribe among Colombia’s top narcotrafficking figures. A senator from Uribe’s Liberal Party told a U.S. Embassy official that the Ochoa Vásquez brothers, founders, along with Pablo Escobar, of the notorious Medellin Cartel, “financed” Uribe’s senate campaign, according to a declassified diplomatic cable from February 1993. Another senator quoted in the cable told the embassy that Uribe “feared for his life” for not having delivered for the Medellin Cartel. The following month, U.S. Ambassador Morris Busby said in a now-declassified cable that he believed there was “substance to the rumors” that Uribe and others had ties to Colombia’s narcotics underworld. The cable cited among other evidence that the country’s Civil Aviation Administration had issued licenses for known narcotraffickers while Uribe was its director.
As governor, Uribe was one of the most vocal supporters of Convivir, civilian informant militia groups that often acted in concert with the AUC. Uribe authorized the creation of dozens of Convivir groups in Antioquia, including several that were created to launder illegal payments to paramilitary groups from multinational companies like Chiquita Brands International.
One U.S. Embassy source, a Colombian congressman from eastern Antioquia, said Governor Uribe was among a group of cattle ranchers who paid paramilitaries “to go after guerrillas.” According to the documents, the congressman said:
Uribe has ties to local cattle ranchers and other landowners and was himself a cattle rancher. These landowners in turn pay paramilitaries to go after guerrillas.
Governor Uribe also allegedly worked in close coordination with a pair of Colombian Army generals said to have coordinated their operations with paramilitary groups and later gave them key positions in his presidential administration. General Carlos Ospina Ovalle, who commanded the Army brigade based in Medellín in 1997, stands accused by former paramilitaries of helping them carry out the El Aro massacre. A 2002 U.S. Embassy cable, issued after by then-President Uribe named Ovalle as commander of the Colombian Army, reported that Ospina “worked closely with Uribe from 1997 to 1999 when Ospina was commander of the Army’s Fourth Brigade and Uribe was governor of Antioquia.”
Another of Uribe’s top military advisers, General Rito Alejo Del Río Rojas, was sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in prison for the 1997 killing of a peasant leader. A 2006 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report said that Del Río, as commander of the Army’s 17th Brigade during Uribe’s governorship, “made an alliance with the paramilitaries to fight jointly against the FARC in a series of offensive combat operations to push the FARC out of Uraba.”
In a 2004 memo, a top assistant to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told him that President Uribe “almost certainly had dealings with the paramilitaries” while serving as governor of Antioquia, adding that, “It goes with the job.”
During Uribe’s presidency (2002-2010), the Colombian military intensified operations against FARC rebels and adopted a number of policies that have been blamed for a spike in extrajudicial killings – the now-infamous “false positives.” The term describes instances in which soldiers allegedly killed civilians and then placed weapons on them to make them look like combatants so that the troops could collect military rewards for “combat” kills.
As then-commander in chief, Uribe would bear criminal responsibility for the misconduct of those under his command if it can be proven that he knew or should have known what was happening and failed to take reasonable steps to prevent further crimes. The findings in the 2015 Colombian court case that the community had alerted state authorities is prima facie evidence that Uribe did, in fact, know and failed to take reasonable steps to prevent further misconduct.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Colombia repeatedly warned the government and military authorities about the false positives cases starting at least in 2003. Further, the OHCHR told President Uribe directly about its concerns regarding extrajudicial killings in 2003 and 2004. While many low-ranking soldiers were subsequently convicted for the extrajudicial killings committed between 2002 and 2008, “[n]ot a single officer who was commanding a brigade or holding a position higher up the chain of command at the time of the crime” was prosecuted, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Current Case Against Uribe
The current case against Uribe concerns allegations that he participated in bribery, fraud, and witness tampering to influence the testimony of an alleged paramilitary member, Juan Guillermo Monsalve. Uribe is suspected of pressuring Monsalve to change a statement in which he linked Uribe to the creation of the Metro Bloc of the AUC, which allegedly perpetrated massacres similar to the one at El Aro.
Colombia deserves a full accounting of what Uribe knew and what he did – or did not do — to stop the killings, but it will be an uphill battle. Uribe’s popularity rating never dropped below 80 percent during his tenure as president, and many Colombians continue to see him as a national hero who saved Colombia from FARC guerrilla forces.
Nonetheless, it is imperative that the courts adjudicate the cases in a fair and comprehensive manner for the peace accords to hold. The transitional justice process outlined in the peace accords is intended to hold accountable perpetrators in the conflict, including those who were in a position of command and did nothing. Yet, while FARC leaders are already confessing to crimes as part of the commitments, they made in the peace agreements, the Colombian military and associated figures have thus far remained silent.
A judge released Uribe from pretrial detention on Oct. 10. The release came after Uribe resigned his seat in the senate, eliminating the source of the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction over the case under the country’s codes of criminal procedure. Now, the investigations into witness tampering and his alleged involvement in the El Aro, San Roque, and La Granja massacres, as well as the killing of Jaramillo, are in the hands of the prosecutor general.
Pretrial Judge Clara Salcedo granted Uribe’s defense motion to release him after Prosecutor Gabriel Ramon Jaimes Duran determined there had been ‘discrepancies’ in the criminal procedures concerning the investigation of Uribe by the Supreme Court and the current investigation led by Jaimes’ office. Further progress in the case relies on the ability of the prosecutor to bring an indictment against Uribe in his current status as a civilian. Investigative journalists have raised concerns over Jaimes’ appointment to lead the investigation because of his alleged ties to the Duque administration and its connections to Uribe.
International and domestic pressure is mounting on the court system to drop the prosecution of Uribe entirely in the witness tampering case (the courts would decide based on the prosecutor’s recommendation). Pence and a group of former heads of state from different countries, including former presidents Jose Maria Aznar of Spain and Vicente Fox of Mexico, called for the release of Uribe from pretrial detention.
Colombian political leaders from Uribe’s party have promoted a theory that the prosecution is a plan by the left aimed at harming his reputation, and have accused the court of engaging in “persecution” against Uribe. They have called for a constitutional change to “depoliticize the justice system and restore trust in the institutions of the republic.” The party proposed combining all the highest courts into one court.
Uribe hired a Washington D.C.-based public relations firm to build up the former Colombian leader’s image in the United States, and the campaign launched a twitter hashtag and a webpage that DeSantis included in his congratulatory tweet upon Uribe’s release.
Those who support Uribe, of course, have a right to express their opinion. They do not, however, have a right to implicitly threaten judges. Nor should government officials in Colombia or elsewhere make statements that would prejudice the process.
Given the substantial evidence against Uribe, the prosecutor clearly met the burden of justifying the decision to indict him. The decision to hold him before trial also was properly justified on the basis of credible allegations of past efforts to obstruct justice. In a country where human rights attorneys have been killed for investigating abuses by security forces and judges working on war crimes cases have been forced into exile, there are serious grounds for concern that such strong statements of support for Uribe, including from the United States, may unduly influence the judiciary to be more lenient towards him.
Uribe long served as a trusted ally of the United States in the war on drugs. In January 2009, President George W. Bush awarded Uribe the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying the Colombian leader had “pledged to his people greater security, a healthier democracy, and a better chance for prosperous lives.” The U.S. government provided billions of dollars of military aid to Colombia to defeat the FARC and slow the smuggling of narcotics to the United States. When the U.S. Congress imposed restrictions on this aid over concerns about the “false positives,” the government of Colombia begrudgingly responded by holding lower-level soldiers accountable.
The time has come to complete the work begun then and determine the nature and degree of responsibility for the massacres on the part of those at the top of the chain of command. While it may be tempting for American leaders to oppose these investigations as a reward for Uribe’s perceived loyalty to the United States – and perhaps as a cynical ploy for the votes of Colombian-Americans in Florida in this recent presidential election — the legitimate demands of the Colombian people for the truth should be respected. After all, any future cooperation between the United States and Colombia on matters of mutual concern will require the support of the Colombian people. That will not be forthcoming if the United States appears to be encouraging an end-run around justice.
IMAGE: A truck displays posters against the “False Positives in Colombia”, extrajudicial executions under the Alvaro Uribe government during a protest on Aug. 6, 2020 in Bogota, Colombia, two days after the Colombian Supreme Court ordered house arrest for Uribe amid an investigation of fraud, witness tampering and bribery. (Photo by Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images)