The Case Against Former President Uribe

Head of Office, Colombia

8/31/2020

On August 4th, former President Alvaro Uribe surprised the country with a tweet announcing that he would be placed under house arrest for suspected witness tampering and obstruction of justice by the Special Instruction Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice as part of an investigation that has been underway since 2018. According to the court, this decision was made out of a concern for possible obstruction of justice, which appears to be consistent with the ongoing investigation into these same charges.

This is undoubtedly an unprecedented situation. It is the first time that a former president has been detained—even though the detention is at his 3,700-acre estate in a largely cattle farming region in northern Colombia. It is paradoxical that Uribe is being brought to justice for these crimes and not more serious ones related to his alleged involvement with paramilitary groups and complicity in the massacres committed by them in the 1990s. These latter accusations have thus far not been proven, not necessarily due any concerns about evidence but rather to the lack of investigation.

The debate is on the table. On the one hand, Uribe’s opponents believe “the time has come for justice” and strongly support the Supreme Court’s decision. They also expect him to be convicted and anticipate an investigation into the other crimes of which he is accused. On the other hand, his supporters believe that the decision is unfounded and is the manifestation of a politicized court that favors the extreme left that wants to “put the man who saved Colombia from terrorism” behind bars.

Polarization in Colombia has intensified since the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC–EP) signed the 2016 peace agreement ending the country’s 50-year internal conflict. Political parties and politicians on both sides have made emotional appeals, often stoking anger and resentment, to win over voters ahead of the 2022 presidential elections. It is in this context that Uribe’s arrest is playing out. The extreme right believes that the best strategy to stay in power is to present Uribe as a victim, unjustly deprived of liberty, while former FARC commanders who have not yet spent a single day in jail have a seat in Congress. One has nothing to do with the other, of course, but it is an effective message that strikes a chord in a society that is looking for someone to blame for their misfortunes: the economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, the increased violence in the regions, and so on.

This thorny situation and uncertainty about the future should give us pause for deep reflection. There is nothing more opportune for the country’s elite than to have a scapegoat for all past and present misdeeds. For many Colombians, Uribe is the devil incarnate, while for others he is the savior. Will it one day be possible to escape the tragic victim-persecutor-redeemer triangle? Will we be able to analyze our complex reality, with all its nuances, and acknowledge responsibility for multiple wrongdoings in order to bring about meaningful change?


Photo: A screen capture of Uribe's tweet. It translates to, "Today I have become prisoner #1087985 for confronting bought testimonies that Farc, their new generations and their allies brought against me.  No proof, only inferences. I was illegally intercepted, and [our] lawyers were not allowed to cross examine their main witness. I ask for transparency."