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7 Oct 2019 | Commentary

What’s at Stake When Uribe Testifies in Historic Colombia Case

by Elyssa Pachico, Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Adam Isacson


In a landmark case that has deeply polarized Colombia, former president Álvaro Uribe will testify before the Supreme Court on October 8, marking the first time that a former president will appear before the court in an investigation that could eventually result in him facing criminal charges. The investigation has serious implications for the independence of Colombia’s justice institutions, as well as the ongoing efforts to uncover the full truth about the powerful political networks that backed paramilitary death squads during Colombia’s decades-long conflict. 

The case is poised to further exacerbate bitter political divisions in Colombia. In this context, it is crucial that the powerful parties involved respect the independence of Colombia’s justice institutions and refrain from baseless attacks seeking to delegitimize the Supreme Court and its magistrates. It is also essential that the court conduct the investigation and issue its decisions independently, free from political pressure—including any pressure that may result from disinformation campaigns aimed at shaping public opinion around the case. The high-profile nature of the investigation also makes it essential that key witnesses receive adequate protection measures, given the number of threats and attacks reported against them so far. 

Albeit indirectly, the ongoing probe is confronting a question that has cast a shadow over Colombian politics for years: what is the full truth of the Uribe family’s role in supporting paramilitarism during the country’s conflict, and will that question ever be taken up and clarified in a Colombian court? The larger question at hand is what would it take for Colombian prosecutors and others in the justice system to unequivocally enter a new era of independence, and begin to enforce previously unheard-of levels of accountability for operators in both the business and political world, accused of perpetrating major human rights abuses during the conflict, but who have long been perceived as above the law. Will those who silence witnesses and reformers with threats and acts of violence continue to come out ahead?

In the coming weeks, it is possible that the case could set an important precedent, and send a powerful message that no one is immune from accountability and no one is above the law. 

Background: Uribe’s political legacy

As president from 2002 to 2010, Álvaro Uribe oversaw a military buildup that greatly weakened the now-demobilized FARC guerrilla group. His “democratic security” policy won him massive support in some sectors of Colombian society, as kidnappings and homicides decreased sharply under his administration. The popular ex-president mobilized that support towards winning a seat in the Senate, stridently opposing the historic 2016 peace accords with the FARC, and propelling current President Iván Duque to victory in the 2018 elections.  

However, Uribe is also a deeply controversial figure. The successes of “democratic security” came with huge costs, including an estimated 14,000 non-combatant civilians killed, an accelerated rate of violence against Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, the undermining of human rights and democratic institutions, the widespread, illegal wiretapping of Uribe’s critics, and the rise of “parapolítica”—the infiltration of right-wing death squads (many of them involved in drug trafficking) into the country’s political system. 

The truth of Uribe’s alleged involvement in co-founding a brutal paramilitary group is not the core question in this case. But it is a question with important ramifications for the ongoing truth, reconciliation, and reparation processes in Colombia.

Uribe and his family have long faced accusations of ties to drug trafficking organizations and paramilitaries, the illegal armed groups responsible for the vast majority of deaths registered during the conflict. As of 2013, the ex-president reportedly had 276 investigations opened against him, many of which are stalled before a congressional commission; he currently has multiple other cases involving his alleged role in human rights atrocities pending before Colombia’s highest civil court. However, none of these accusations have yet resulted in Uribe facing criminal charges before a judge, which is one reason why the ongoing Supreme Court investigation—which could eventually result in a trial—is attracting significant attention and controversy.  

The Supreme Court investigation

The ongoing probe is the result of accusations dating back to 2011, when human rights advocate and Member of Congress Iván Cepeda—as part of his work with the congressional human rights committee—began interviewing former paramilitaries in prison. He recorded video testimony by two demobilized members of Medellín-based paramilitary faction the Metro Bloc (Bloque Metro), asserting that Uribe and his brother Santiago helped establish the Bloc—one of Colombia’s most brutal paramilitary groups—in 1995. 

When Cepeda went public with these accusations in 2012,  Uribe filed criminal charges against him, asserting that Cepeda was bribing ex-paramilitaries into spreading lies. However, in 2018 the Supreme Court threw out the charges against Cepeda and said it would instead investigate Uribe for bribing and threatening ex-paramilitaries into making false accusations about Cepeda. 

Few of those in Colombia’s political and business sector have been brought to justice for their role in the conflict...

Dozens of witnesses, including ex-paramilitaries, police officers, lawyers, and political officials, have testified since the closed-door proceedings started on September 3. One of the primary witnesses was killed earlier this year; another has survived two assasination attempts. Evidence presented before the Supreme Court does not only consist of witness testimony: there are also thousands of recorded phone calls between Uribe and his inner circle. While these wiretaps were accidentally recorded in connection to another case, the Supreme Court has repeatedly denied requests by Uribe’s defense team to block the recordings from being admitted as evidence, a development that has fueled arguments by Uribe and his supporters that that the investigation amounts to “judicial persecution.” 

While Uribe’s approval ratings are at a record low, the day of his testimony is expected to see marches organized by his political party across Colombia and abroad, as well as a social media campaign in show of support with hashtags such as #EstamosConUribe. 

After hearing the testimonies, the Supreme Court could go several ways: it could call for more witnesses, issue a detention order against Uribe if the court rules he represents a flight risk, move to shut the probe, or initiate a trial, La Silla Vacia reports

What’s at stake

The truth of Uribe’s alleged involvement in co-founding a brutal paramilitary group is not the core question in this case. But it is a question with important ramifications for the ongoing truth, reconciliation, and reparation processes in Colombia. The 8 million victims of displacement and other conflict-related abuses will not see their rights to truth and justice fulfilled until the truth about paramilitary crimes—and the political and business elites who abetted them—is uncovered, prosecuted, and sanctioned to the fullest extent of the law. 

Few of those in Colombia’s political and business sector have been brought to justice for their role in the conflict—indeed, while paramilitary testimonies have revealed the names of some 13,000 members of the business sector who supported massacres and displacements, criminal prosecutors have largely failed to act on that information. Meanwhile, of the paramilitaries who’ve confessed to crimes under the 2005 Justice and Peace Law, the number of those who’ve actually been convicted for conflict-related abuses is miniscule. The transitional justice system mandated by the 2016 peace accords—strongly opposed by Uribe and his supporters—is a new opportunity for Colombia to hold some of the worst human rights offenders of the conflict accountable, but only 609 “third parties”—outside supporters of armed groups—have agreed to participate in the system, and it is currently not receiving the support it needs from the Duque administration to be fully effective. 

It is crucial that the U.S. government communicate to the Colombian government that it is prioritizing and monitoring issues in connection to the case—including the independence of the courts...

Questions about the efficacy of Colombia’s truth and justice processes cast a shadow over the Uribe case, given Uribe’s status as one of the chief obstacles to securing a lasting negotiated peace in the country and guaranteeing truth and justice to victims. The former president has said he believes the new transitional justice system, known as JEP, by its Spanish initials, should be abolished altogether. In Congress and through influence over the Duque administration, the “Uribista” bloc has remained intently focused on hampering rather than facilitating a successful implementation of the 2016 accords, particularly the components concerned with the JEP.  

Moving forward, it is essential that the Duque administration uphold the independence of Colombia’s highest courts, and reject any efforts—including those originating in Congress—that seek to undermine the judiciary. One such initiative was seen in late September, when an Uribe ally proposed a bill that would submit Constitutional Court rulings to public referendums

The Duque administration should also condemn attempts to attack the reputations of, and spread false information about, the individual magistrates on the Supreme Court, as happened in the case of José Luis Barceló Camacho, a magistrate who stepped down earlier this year after Uribe attacked him on Twitter. Other Supreme Court judges have faced similar attacks.

Finally, it is crucial that the U.S. government communicate to the Colombian government that it is prioritizing and monitoring issues in connection to the case—including the independence of the courts, protection of witnesses, and the capacity of Colombian institutions to guarantee that sensitive investigations uncovering the truth of the conflict are both independent and fair. 

Throughout Latin America, efforts to change a wildly unfair status quo are often frustrated by violence, threats, and illegality, like the sponsorship of paramilitary groups in Colombia. For too long, those responsible have had nothing to fear from justice systems. That is why the Álvaro Uribe case is so important. The rule of law means that all who commit wrongdoing, no matter how powerful, must be held accountable.