Colombian ex-president, current senator, and head of the Centro Democratico party has been ordered detained under house arrest by a surprising unanimous decision from the country’s supreme court, to face charges of witness tampering. This is the first time in the modern history of Colombia that a former president has been detained to face criminal charges.
The charges stem from a two year-old investigation of evidence that Uribe had been trying to convince witnesses to retract statements they had made tying him to paramilitary groups.
Current President Ivan Duque, who owes his political existence to Uribe, quickly came to Uribe’s defense:
“It hurts as a Colombian that many of those who have lacerated the country defend themselves in freedom or, even, are guaranteed never to go to prison, and that an exemplary public servant, who has held the highest dignity of the State, is not allowed defend themselves in freedom, with the presumption of innocence.”
Other “Uribistas” as his defenders and (Uribe’s political party) Centro Democratico partisans are called were organizing this afternoon to take to the streets, despite Coronavirus COVID-19 curfew restrictions. Uribe’s base of supporters is not large nationally, but it is fervent, especially in his home turf of Medellín and the rural areas to the east of the city. The mayors of Bogotá and Medellín have within the last two hours warned that such protests are prohibited due to the Pandemic.
La privación de mi libertad me causa profunda tristeza por mi señora, por mi familia y por los colombianos que todavía creen que algo bueno he hecho por la Patria
— Álvaro Uribe Vélez (@AlvaroUribeVel) August 4, 2020
Above: Uribe announces his detention via Twitter, saying “The privation of my liberty causes me profound sadness for my wife, for my family, and for the Colombians who still believe that I have done something good for the country.”
Colombian analyst Sergio Guzmán of Colombia Risk Analysis says this is really big: “I mean Uribe is Colombia’s most powerful person, his arrest is likely to suggest that political polarization in Colombia is going to increase substantially during the following two years. Whereas President Duque had a very significant legislative agenda to include issues like pension reform, labor reform, potentially tax reform and healthcare reform, all of it is now likely to take a back seat to a potential reform to the judicial system brought by the ruling party.”
It is certain that the judicial branch will be under intense political pressure, especially with an Uribista, President Ivan Duque occupying Casa de Nariño, Colombia’s presidential palace. “Obviously this also puts the independence of the court’s legitimacy into question, because of the political contours of the case. However, I think it is important to remember that this case and this arrest is not something that puts into question Uribe’s role in the past 20 years in Colombia. Rather of specific events dealing with a judicial case where there is allegedly substantial evidence to back up the court’s decision, adds Guzmán.
Uribe’s father was killed in 1983 by communist FARC guerrillas near Yarumál, Colombia. Uribe as president was widely hailed domestically and internationally for breaking the back of the FARC militarily, but also entering into a peace accord with anti-FARC paramilitaries. Both the FARC and the paramilitaries, or “paracos” have been responsible for a large portion of Colombia’s narcotics industry. After the paramilitaries signed their peace agreement, many simply continued as apolitical (but generally pro-Uribe) mafias to this day.
Uribe’s popularity began to decline after the candidate he supported as his successor, Juan Manuel Santos refused to act as his puppet after gaining the presidency and went his own way. Santos, who as Uribe’s defense minister was famed for directing some of the most successful actions against the FARC signed a peace agreement with the FARC, which infuriated Uribe and his Centro Democratico militants. Santos eventually received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
The witness tampering charges stem from a 2018 investigation into allegations that Uribe through his lawyers were pressuring witnesses that had testified under oath that while governor of Antioquia, Uribe was one of the founders of the AUC’s (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or Colombian Self-Defense Force—the paramilitaries) Bloque Metro. Uribe resigned his post as senator, then immediately retracted his resignation. Uribe’s brother Santiago Uribe is awaiting judgement for forming the “12 Apostles” death squad, and for the 1994 murder of Camilo Barrientos. His trial concluded in January of this year, but the judge has yet to hand down a sentence or exoneration.
The witness tampering charges have roots that date back eight years ago, when Uribe accused a Colombian senator, Ivan Cepeda, of bribing witnesses and generally concocting a conspiracy to tie the ex-president to paramilitary-related crimes. The Supreme Court eventually dismissed Uribe’s accusations against his colleague and later began probing into whether it was in fact Uribe who has been illicitly tampering with justice through witness manipulation.
Juan Guillermo Monsalve is a former paramilitary who grew up on the Uribe family’s “Guacharacas” estate near Yarumal, Antioquia; 3 hours northeast of Medellín. He testified that Uribe’s family was allied with the paramilitaries, but now claims Uribe lawyer Diego Cadena pressured him to change his story, and make up the accusation that Uribe nemesis, Senator Iván Cepeda told him to lie. Uribe denounced Cepeda, but the court became suspicious of the story and it both absolved Cepeda and began to investigate Uribe and his lawyer Diego Cadena.
Another witness, originally called by Uribe as a defense witness, Carlos Enrique Velez Ramirez also testifies that Diego Cadena made various payments to him in exchange for testimony.
Diego Cadenas, Uribe’s attorney admits to giving the money to Vélez “as a humanitarian act.” Cadena now faces his own charges, indicted last week for offering 200 million pesos (just over $53,000 USD) and legal representation to both Vélez and Monsalve if only they would change their testimonies to Uribe’s favor. Cadenas is also under house arrest.
There is a rouge’s gallery of other witnesses and relevant figures, many of them already serving prison time. The defense strategy of Uribe and Cadenas so far seems to be that the key witnesses are conspiring with Ivan Cépeda, though they can’t seem to explain their own payments, or why right-wing paramilitaries would want to conspire with Cepeda of the far-left Polo Democratico party (not to be confused with the right wing Centro Democratico). Just as problematic is that the whole scandal originated with Uribe’s allegations against Cépeda.
With the country polarized and politically divided, one thing can be certain: Uribe’s core of Uribista supporters will stand by him no matter what he is convicted of or how conclusive the evidence is against him. This case will grip the country and either outcome: guilty or not, will shock some portion of the population. Observers will be watching how President Duque handles having his patron & political godfather on trial during his presidency.