Álvaro Uribe’s Detention Deepens Colombia’s Divisions
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Former president Álvaro Uribe has dominated Colombia’s political landscape for decades as the country’s most beloved — and most hated — politician.
To some Colombians, he is a savior, the only leader who was willing to take the tough measures necessary to restore security in a nation battered by a long, cruel civil war.
To others, he is a criminal whose no-holds-barred fight against insurgents showed little regard for human rights and left thousands dead, many of them civilians.
His house arrest, ordered by the Supreme Court this week in connection with a case that harkens to some of the grimmest aspects of the war, has intensified the country’s deep left-right rift, drawing Colombians back into the pitched political battle the country has been trying to overcome for years.
“The country has so many wounds,” said Paloma Valencia, a senator and supporter of Mr. Uribe who began following him as a college student, “this makes any kind of reconciliation many times more difficult.”
Just hours after the announcement of Mr. Uribe’s detention, his supporters on the right and his detractors on the left poured into the streets around the country, honking their horns or banging pots in outrage or celebration. Political commentators said the move threatened the country’s fragile reconciliation following a 2016 peace deal that ended the conflict, which had been the longest running war in the Americas.
By the next morning, Mr. Uribe’s party had revived a call to overhaul the justice system — an apparent move to stop future detentions they viewed as unfair — and the current president, Iván Duque, a staunch Uribe ally, assailed the court’s decision to detain his mentor.
Soon, the office of the inspector general, which oversees the conduct of public employees, was issuing an urgent call for public servants to “respect and not attack the justice system.”
Colombians, the office said, must “stop the aggression and the extreme polarization that could bring new scenes of violence. To the crisis created by the pandemic of Covid-19, we cannot add a pandemic of hate that clouds the future, threatens democracy and submerges us in a new night of pain.”
At a crowded pro-Uribe gathering in Medellín following the decision, a throng of cars cloaked in Colombian flags lined a major downtown avenue. And protesters said they were outraged that their hero had been detained while, under the terms of the 2016 peace deal, thousands of former guerrilla fighters have gone free.
Santiago Vásquez, 23, called Mr. Uribe “the best president Colombia has ever had,” describing him as the man who crippled the country’s largest rebel group, known as the FARC. He feared the former president’s detention would strengthen the left, ushering in the old days of violence.
“Uribe! Amigo! Colombia is with you!” Mr. Uribe’s allies shouted.
Hundreds of miles away, in the capital of Bogotá, Colombians leaned out of homes across the city, banging pots in frenzied celebration. Families of those who had died in the war had thought Mr. Uribe would never be called before a court to answer for his role and found themselves barely able to believe the news.
“I pray that he pays for all the pain,” said Lucero Carmona Martínez, 61, who said her son Omar, 26, was killed by security forces at a time when Mr. Uribe was president and the military, under pressure to increase the body count in combat, was killing civilians along with rebel fighters.
Mr. Uribe, over the last 40 years, rose from being a relatively small-time bureaucrat to the most powerful politician in the country, wielding his charisma to create an entire political movement — Uribismo — in his name.
He has long said that his father was killed by the FARC, something the group has denied.
When he became president in 2002, a decades-long insurgency that had begun as a fight over inequality had grown devastatingly violent. Highway blockades, kidnappings and city bombings were regular occurrences, and much of the nation was desperate for someone to restore order and to defeat the FARC.
Mr. Uribe made combating the insurgents his government’s top priority. Many people credit him for significantly weakening the FARC and putting an end to much of that terror.
“Without President Uribe, Colombia would not be a democracy,” said Ms. Valencia, the senator. “It would be a failed state like Venezuela.”
But as Mr. Uribe fought leftist guerrillas, his critics accused him of overseeing a period of horrific abuses committed not just by the army, but also by paramilitary groups allegedly doing the dirty work of the government.
“He believed the ends justified the means,” said Iván Cepeda, a political opponent.
While Mr. Uribe was president, Colombian soldiers killed thousands of innocent people, many of them peasants, according to years of investigation by prosecutors and human rights groups. Soldiers often tried to pass the dead off as guerrilla fighters to show they were winning the war.
José Miguel Vivanco, who leads the Americas division for Human Rights Watch, said he raised the problem many times with Mr. Uribe over the years, but found the former president dismissive, quick to anger and unwilling to tackle the issue.
“His human rights record is deplorable,” said Mr. Vivanco.
Mr. Uribe has long denied a connection to paramilitary groups, instead saying he fought against them.
In an unexpected twist, the investigation that has led to Mr. Uribe’s house arrest examines relatively small-time crimes — at least when compared to the crimes at the core of other investigations involving him.
In the current case, the Supreme Court is examining whether Mr. Uribe participated in bribery, fraud and witness tampering in an effort to influence the testimony of an alleged paramilitary member, Juan Guillermo Monsalve. He is suspected of pushing Mr. Monsalve to retract a statement in which he linked Mr. Uribe to the creation of paramilitary groups.
Among the other inquiries into Mr. Uribe’s conduct are several that examine possible connection to paramilitary massacres. His brother Santiago has been charged for alleged involvement with a paramilitary group.
The former president, who is now a senator, but is likely to be suspended from that post, has not been formally charged in the case in question. But the Colombia justice system allows for him to be held as the investigation continues if judges believe witness tampering could take place.
If found guilty, the former president could spend approximately six to eight years in prison, according to the law professor Francisco Bernate.
Mr. Uribe’s lawyer, Jaime Granados, denied the charges Wednesday, saying that “President Uribe did not ask anyone to bribe any witnesses.”
His supporters, including Mr. Duque, have denounced the detention as unjust.
“It hurts, as a Colombian,” Mr. Duque said, that “an exemplary public servant, who has occupied the highest post in the state, is not allowed to defend himself in liberty, with the presumption of innocence.”
Mr. Uribe is now ensconced in a countryside home called El Ubérrimo in Colombia’s north. On Wednesday, people close to him announced that he had tested positive for Covid-19, adding that he was not in serious condition.
The home, set on expansive terrain, has a horse track, a swimming pool and a stable. At the moment his house arrest does not require guards or police, said the court, but simply requires that he sign a contract and pay a bond.
Mr. Uribe served as president until 2010, leaving after a court decision prevented him from running for a third term. But he retains significant power. Mr. Uribe’s support was essential to the victory of Mr. Duque, who swore to uphold his mentor’s legacy.
When the government reached an agreement with the FARC, ending more than five decades of bloody conflict, many hoped the historic treaty would help heal deep wounds. But the country’s divisions remained strong in the years that followed.
The deal’s opponents argued it was too lenient on rebel fighters — and were angered that it was passed despite a national vote against it. And its supporters accuse Mr. Duque of lacking the will to fully implement it. Hundreds of former fighters and community leaders have been killed since it was passed, leading critics to accuse Mr. Duque of failing to protect them. And many rural communities are still awaiting the roads, schools and electricity that had been promised.
Among the chief opponents to the terms of the deal was Mr. Uribe, who thought the accord was too easy on rebel fighters.
His detention, many said this week, reinforced those rifts, fostering resentment on the right and strengthening the idea on the left that the former president is a criminal.
“This is an important advance in terms of justice,” said Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín, a Colombian political scientist, highlighting the fact that many of the country’s powerful figures have not had to answer to the justice system. “But on the other hand it radicalizes and makes Uribismo more extreme.”
In Medellín this week, Nora Villa, 58, an Uribe loyalist at the support march, vowed to fight the left. “We are going to see more division,” she said.
While in Bogotá, Luz Marina Bernal, 60, an activist whose son, Fair, 26, was killed by security forces during Mr. Uribe’s mandate, said something about Mr. Uribe that she could not have imagined saying just a few days ago: “I think there is a possibility that he will be convicted of all he has done.”
Julie Turkewitz is the Andes bureau chief, covering Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Suriname and Guyana. Before moving to South America, she was a national correspondent covering the American West.