Under house arrest in a case linking him to a feared paramilitary bloc, former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, perhaps the most important political figure in Colombian history, finds his legacy hanging in the balance. Declassified documents published Monday reveal new details about his suspected links to narcotraffickers and the paramilitary groups who called him “El Viejo.”
One memo from 2004 shows that a top Pentagon deputy told Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that “Uribe almost certainly had dealings with the paramilitaries” during the period at issue in the current case. The document is the first declassified evidence available that concerns about Uribe’s presumed paramilitary ties reached the highest levels of the Defense Department.
Another highlight is a cable from 1997 describing a Colombian congressman’s view of the paramilitary situation in eastern Antioquia and “the web of relationships” between then-governor Uribe, “landowners, paramilitaries, and guerrillas.” The congressman said Uribe, himself a rancher, had ties to other landowners in the area who “pay paramilitaries to go after guerrillas.”
The records published Monday include Donald Rumsfeld “snowflakes,” Defense Intelligence Agency reports, U.S. Embassy Bogota cables, a presidential decision directive, a CIA report on the Colombian Army’s links to paramilitary forces and other materials. The National Security Archive obtained them under the Freedom of Information Act and the Mandatory Declassification Review process.
Pentagon and U.S. Embassy officers describe various accounts of Uribe’s alleged ties to paramilitaries going back to his time as a governor in the 1990s. They also show that American officials were positively disposed to him because they viewed him as uniquely qualified to deal with Colombia’s multiple security crises. For example, a 2003 Pentagon memo reported that Uribe’s “aggressive leadership” and “recent military successes” provided “a window of opportunity to deal a crippling blow to the narcoterrorists.”
US Defense Intelligence Agency: “Uribe was dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín Cartel”
On August 5, 2004, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld received an alarming memo from a top deputy about Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the first-term Colombian president who the U.S. saw as a key strategic partner in Latin America.
A “recently declassified 1991 U.S. military intelligence report” cited that week in the New York Times, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times, “linked Colombian President Uribe to narcotraffickers, specifically Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin Cartel.”
The 1991 report cited in the memo placed Uribe, then a senator, among Colombia’s top narcotrafficking figures. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) list, which included information on more than 100 individuals linked to the narcotics business, said Uribe was “dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin Cartel at high government levels” and was “a close personal friend of Pablo Escobar” who had “worked for the Medellin Cartel.”
The National Security Archive uncovered the intelligence report on Uribe’s narco ties via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), part of an effort to pry open secret U.S. files on the Colombian conflict. Sixteen years after that FOIA release, with Uribe now under house arrest in a case linking him to drug-trafficking paramilitary groups, another access to information request reveals how top officials at the Pentagon reacted after learning from one of their own declassified intelligence reports that a trusted U.S. partner was a member of Colombia’s narcotics underworld.
The 2004 memo on the Uribe revelations is part of a new Electronic Briefing Book of declassified records published Monday at the US National Security Archive spanning some 25 years of rumors, allegations and evidence of Uribe’s ties to paramilitaries and narcotraffickers.
“Uribe almost certainly had dealings with the paramilitaries (AUC) while governor of Antioquia—it goes with the job,” according to the 2004 memo from Peter Rodman, who was assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs from 2002-2007. Rodman’s memo to Rumsfeld included a copy of the declassified DIA report, published earlier that week on the National Security Archive’s website, along with a pair of articles from Newsweek describing the revelations.
While Rodman did not doubt Uribe’s links to paramilitaries, he told Rumsfeld he had seen “no reports to suggest that drugs were part of the picture.” But a collection of declassified State Department documents published by the National Security Archive in 2018 (and also featured in the New York Times) show that for years U.S. diplomats harbored serious concerns about Uribe’s links to the narcos—listing him, for example, on a cable identifying suspected Colombian “Narcopols.” In another case, an Uribe ally told the Embassy that the notorious Ochoa Vásquez brothers, co-founders of the Medellín Cartel, had “financed” Uribe’s Senate campaign. In another cable, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Morris Busby, who coordinated U.S. efforts to help Colombia take down Pablo Escobar, said he believed there was “substance to the rumors” that Uribe and other politicians had ties to narcotics interests.
But even if Rodman remained skeptical of Uribe’s ties to the narcos, by 2004 there was no longer any doubt that the paramilitary militia groups he presumed Uribe dealt with as governor were deeply rooted in the drug trade, in addition to being responsible for some of the most heinous acts of violence during the conflict.
In 2001, the George W. Bush administration added the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country’s preeminent paramilitary organization, to the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, alongside the FARC and ELN rebel groups, citing “at least 75 massacres that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians.” In 2002, the Justice Department indicted top AUC leaders for trafficking more than 17 tons of cocaine to the U.S. A month later, a Bush administration policy directive (National Security Presidential Directive 18) freed up U.S. counterdrug-related security assistance to Colombia for use in counterterrorism operations, finding that both the “FARC and AUC derive between 30 and 60 percent of their revenue from the drug trade.”
Uribe’s alleged ties to the AUC are of heightened interest now in Colombia, where the former president finds himself under house arrest for alleged witness tampering in a case tying him and his brother Santiago to the creation of the notorious Metro Bloc paramilitary group. The former president has since resigned from the Senate seat he regained in 2014. More recently, the Supreme Court has called on Uribe to testify in paramilitary massacre cases that the Court has deemed crimes against humanity.
The documents published here Monday reinforce the idea that Uribe’s links to the illegal militias have always been something of an open secret, part of a wider acceptance of paramilitaries among certain Colombian elites. Information tying Uribe to paramilitaries, seen by some as a more effective force against the guerrillas, was something that many in both Colombia and the U.S. were willing to overlook if he delivered on issues of higher priority.
Donald Rumsfeld’s Man
In fact, there is no indication that Uribe’s suspected paramilitary ties had any impact on U.S. assistance to the Colombian government, which, quite the contrary, reached new heights during Uribe’s presidency. Uribe’s presumed links to a U.S.-designated terrorist organization were far less important than his performance as president, which the U.S. viewed favorably.
Uribe took office in 2002 after the previous president, Andrés Pastrana, tried but failed to secure a peace pact with FARC, the country’s largest rebel group, finally ending negotiations during the 2002 presidential campaign. At the Pentagon, top officials were pleased with Uribe’s promises to intensify the military campaign against the insurgents and especially his willingness to expand the role of the U.S. in the country’s civil war.
The Pentagon had big plans for Colombia. A series of declassified “snowflake” memos from January 2002 show that Rumsfeld was focused on removing restrictions on U.S. aid to Colombia (put in place by Congress and the Clinton administration) and widening the role of the U.S. in Colombia’s war. In one, Rumsfeld suggested that Pastrana’s possible cancelation of the FARC talks “might give us an opportunity,” asking the NSC staff to look into it. A few days later, Rumsfeld asked his senior deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, to propose legislative and other solutions “so that we can deal with terrorism in Colombia using the capabilities that were authorized for drug funds,” adding, “It seems to me that the problems are intermixed.”
Rumsfeld articulated a vision for expanded counterinsurgency operations in Colombia, forbidden under the existing U.S. policy guidelines, in a March 20, 2002, memo. The defense secretary suggested the establishment of “a joint working group” at U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) “to think through what we might do in Colombia if we were asked.” Rumsfeld said the group “would have to decide what victory would be, and then think through a plan to achieve what we decide to characterize as victory.”
There is a lot of history in defeating insurgencies—in the Philippines from 1898-1902, in Nicaragua with the Marines in the 1920s, during the Greek civil war in the 1940s, in Malaysia in the 1950s and even in some pacification efforts in South Vietnam that worked during the 1960s and 1970s.
Rumsfeld said the new Colombia strategy “would fit into the nation-building category” and suggested that the group “might be in contact with folks at CIA, DEA, Treasury and State, and also probably coordinate with Wayne Downing,” the counterterrorism coordinator at the National Security Council (NSC). He said the group should also consult with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—the military agency that famously invented the Internet—“to see what programs are being developed for surveillance, intelligence, etc. that might be useful” in Colombia. He further suggested the working group talk to Arthur Cebrowski, head of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation, about “network-centric warfare as applied to jungles, urban areas and insurgencies.”
But the Pentagon would need a willing partner, and Uribe was the kind of leader they wanted. In one memo Rodman said the National Security Council deputies were optimistic that Uribe, then the incoming president, would further U.S. interests by helping to convince the U.S. Congress and others in the administration to deepen U.S. involvement.
Deputies agreed that Colombia’s choice of a new President should reinforce the course on which U.S. policy has already embarked. Much of our (and Congress’s) inhibition had been rooted in concern that Colombians, under Pastrana, were not doing enough. Uribe promises to furnish the political will.
One answer to Rumsfeld’s question of how to measure success in Colombia was body counts. The use of guerrilla dead as a marker for progress in the war was an issue that would later come to dominate the news in Colombia in connection to the “False Positives,” a scandal in which Colombian Army officials conspired in the murder of thousands of civilians who were falsely counted among insurgent casualties to artificially inflate body counts. The case is one of several major human rights scandals that engulfed the Uribe presidency.
A 2003 memo to Rumsfeld from Marshall Billingslea, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for special operations, likewise touted the number of FARC soldiers killed by special U.S.-trained “commando units” under Uribe, saying the enhanced counterinsurgency strategy “was beginning to yield dividends.” Billingslea also highlighted the large number of “senior FARC leadership” members killed and captured in High-Value Target (HVT) missions during that time.
The Pentagon saw Uribe as uniquely qualified to deal with Colombia’s multiple security crises, saying that his “aggressive leadership” and “recent military successes” provided “a window of opportunity to deal a crippling blow to the narcoterrorists,” adding that, “President Uribe only has a few years left to complete this task.” Just few months later, Rodman told Rumsfeld that “a key element of our success has been Uribe himself.”
Ultimately, Uribe extradited record numbers of drug trafficking suspects to the U.S., negotiated the demobilization of thousands of paramilitary fighters, and, through an aggressive military campaign, reduced by more than half the number of armed guerrilla insurgents in the country. He also secured billions in U.S. aid, most of it security assistance along the lines envisioned by Rumsfeld. In 2009, George W. Bush awarded Uribe the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Even now, a decade since Uribe left office, U.S. officials continue to defend Uribe’s record, with Vice President Mike Pence labeling him a “Hero” in a recent tweet where, in a very unusual step for a U.S. vice president, he also called on Colombians to allow the former president to “defend himself as a free man.”
But, as Former President @AlvaroUribeVel is under house arrest, we join all freedom loving voices around the world in calling on Colombian officials to let this Hero, who is a recipient of the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, defend himself as a free man.
— Mike Pence (@Mike_Pence) August 14, 2020
But in Colombia, evidence of Uribe’s supposed ties to paramilitaries has been mounting for years, and the former president’s popularity has been steadily falling. The recent decision by the Court to detain Uribe means that his formidable political legacy—already tarnished by lingering suspicions about his long-suspected ties to drug traffickers and various human rights abuses associated with his presidency—has met its toughest challenge yet. If convicted, he risks up to eight years in prison and is almost certain to face further legal challenges from victims of the groups he and his brother Santiago are said to have promoted.
“El Viejo” (The Old Man)
Uribe’s current legal troubles date back to the 1990s, when paramilitary power was rapidly expanding in Antioquia, the Colombian department he governed from 1995-1998. Declassified documents from this critical period 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 believed to be linked to the insurgency.
One of these tells the story of Jorge Valencia Cardona, a dentist, rancher, and congressional alternate who represented a rural district in eastern Antioquia that was home to the AUC’s Metro Bloc and the Uribe family’s “Guacharacas” ranch.
The temporary congressman knew a great deal about how the illegal militia groups operated in Uribe’s home state. In a private meeting with U.S. Embassy officials in April 1997, Valencia described a harrowing episode that graphically illustrates the extent to which then-governor Uribe influenced paramilitary groups in the region.
With rifles held to his head and his hands tied behind his back, Valencia was seemingly out of options. Hooded paramilitaries threatened to kill him if he did not admit to collaborating with leftist insurgents. One accused him of hiding a cache of guerrilla weapons on his property.
But Valencia insisted that he had done nothing wrong and did not support the rebels.
“Terrified for his life, he offered his captors money,” according to the story he told Embassy officials, later relayed in a cable to the State Department. “They laughed and said they had plenty of money and weapons; what they wanted was information.” But Valencia maintained that he had nothing useful to share.
“What saved him,” according to the cable, “were some documents in his briefcase that showed he knew Antioquia Governor Alvaro Uribe Velez.”
“Saying, ‘Oh, you know El Viejo,’ his captors released him and have not bothered him since,” according to Valencia’s account, using a nickname for Uribe that means “the old man.”
Interestingly, it is the same moniker used by Uribe confidant Carlos Eduardo López to refer to the former president in a recently-surfaced intercepted communication with jailed paramilitary Juan Guillermo Monsalve. Colombian authorities are looking at whether that conversation was part of an effort to illegally pressure Monsalve to recant a statement linking Uribe and his brother Santiago to the formation of the paramilitary front known as the Metro Bloc in San Roque, Antioquia.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that the Embassy sounded out the views of the itinerant congressman just a few days after the AUC announced its formation as a national coordinating group for the country’s paramilitary groups. The announcement signaled a new era of larger, more aggressive, and more tightly coordinated paramilitary strikes against communities and individuals with perceived ties to the guerrillas.
Paramilitary power and influence had been increasing steadily for some time. Carlos Castaño, the AUC spokesman, had been on the radar of U.S. officials since his days with the Medellín Cartel, when he and his brother Fidel coordinated security for the world’s most notorious drug traffickers. Trained by foreign mercenaries and fueled by profits from the drug trade, by the mid-1990s Castaño was the face of Colombian paramilitarism with growing influence in Colombian politics and among state security forces.
The Embassy said that Valencia was having a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington reaction” to his unexpected involvement in Colombian politics. But if indeed he was a political neophyte, Valencia knew firsthand the horrors of the conflict in his home state, where the FARC, ELN and EPL had for years battled paramilitaries, the Colombian military, and the National Police for control of strategic areas. In a 90-minute conversation, Valencia “described a dire security situation in rural eastern Antioquia,” noting that he had been kidnapped and threatened by armed actors on all sides of the conflict. Valencia asked “several times” that the Embassy officials not “reveal what he was saying, since his candor was ‘risky.’”
Just as Rodman would later characterize Uribe’s paramilitary dealings as part of “the job,” Valencia saw such ties as a natural and inevitable outgrowth of Uribe’s duties as governor. He said “that most people want to see the guerrillas’ defeated and do not care if this is accomplished by the armed forces, paramilitaries, ‘or an atomic bomb.’”
Valencia’s view was typical of many from that part of the country, who saw the AUC as the vanguard of a popular anti-insurgency movement led by wealthy elites, responding to a security vacuum that allowed insurgents to flourish. Asked “if narcotraffickers in the region finance the paramilitaries, Valencia “replied that they probably did, adding that most people with property to defend, no matter what the source of their wealth, tended to support paramilitaries.”
Though they represented rival political parties, Valencia said he admired the governor for his hardline position on the guerrillas and his endorsement of the government-backed “Convivir” militias. Valencia also implied that Uribe was among a group of cattle ranchers who paid paramilitaries “to go after guerrillas.”
According to Valencia, Uribe strongly supports the Convivirs and hates the guerrillas, in part because the latter murdered his father. 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.
The congressman told the Embassy that some of the local Convivirs backed by Uribe “probably cooperate actively with paramilitaries” and were passing information to them instead of the Colombian Army. Valencia “drew a diagram to show the web of relationships between the governor, Convivirs, landowners, paramilitaries, and guerrillas.”
A DIA intelligence report issued just a couple weeks before the Valencia meeting said the former head of the Convivir program had family ties to paramilitaries and “used his position” to issue operating licenses and “heavy-weapon permits” to “individuals with known drug trafficking links.” The DIA said the Colombian government had “failed to act” on a previous “pledge to take action against paramilitaries, and thus the resolve to clean up the legal Convivirs is doubtful.”
At least one of the Convivirs active in Urabá, a strategic rural area along the Caribbean coast, was created to collect and launder money to finance paramilitary groups. Colombia’s attorney general indicted the group’s leader, Raúl Emilio Hasbún Mendoza (“Pedro Bonito”), and 30 of its members in February 2017 for a systematic campaign of violence against the civilian population, including acts he deemed crimes against humanity. Hasbún has also confessed to countless human rights violations, including the infamous 1997 massacre at Mapiripán. In 2018, a Colombian prosecutor indicted 13 officials from Chiquita Brands International for $1.7 million in payments to paramilitary groups in Urabá and the surrounding region, some of which were channeled through Convivirs.
Valencia denied that Uribe had “clandestine links” to paramilitaries but said the groups “respect him for his anti-guerrilla stance and believe they share a common enemy.” Local landowners were likewise “disgusted with guerrillas’ constant shakedowns, threats, and kidnapping attempts and frustrated by the military’s seeming paralysis” and saw “no alternative but to hire paramilitaries to protect them.”
“Everyone pays,” he said.
Asked about paramilitary atrocities, Valencia said, “That’s the one bad thing about paramilitaries. They are very cruel and often go after people who don’t deserve it.” Valencia estimated that of the 100 people murdered in his district in the previous year, “about ten were guerrillas, ten were active guerrilla supporters, and the rest were unlucky victims of unfair reprisals.”
The Embassy said Valencia’s account had “the ring of truth, echoing similar accounts we have heard from other interlocutors.” Valencia, like other Embassy sources, “seemed to accept paramilitarism as an inevitable, although terrible, consequence of the Armed Forces’ unwillingness or inability to wage a vigorous campaign against the guerrillas.”
Other declassified records from the period reveal some of what the Embassy had been hearing from those other interlocutors, and growing U.S. concern about the extent of paramilitary links to security forces, politicians, landowners and narcotraffickers.
In 1996, the U.S. defense attaché in Colombia said in a cable, that “local commanders often find it foolhardy not to maintain a dialogue” with paramilitaries, entering into “discreet marriages of convenience with these groups.”
Distinctions between self-defense groups (considered “good”—usually controlled by wealthy landowners) and paramilitary groups (considered “bad”—usually associated with narcotrafficking or other illegal activity) is often blurred. [sic] Although both groups are illegal, they often operate quietly and effectively to “eliminate” guerrilla activity in their areas.
Colombian Army commanders “usually meet discreetly with members of these groups,” the DIA said, so that “[b]oth parties can claim ignorance of any official association.”
In a comment attached to the report, the Embassy’s diplomatic staff, in a tone that very much reminds one of then-ambassador Myles Frechette, went straight to the point:
Professional military doctrine may be to keep the paramilitaries at arms length, but the reality is overwhelmingly otherwise—and everybody including the top brass knows it. The claimed deniability attained by this hollow charade is not worth a tin nickel, and we should give it scant credence.
Most paramilitaries were “either part-time narcotraffickers” or “bankrolled by rich landowners who include narcotraffickers,” the comment from Frechette’s Embassy explained. They were “an unsavory lot,” but were nevertheless “etching out a growing niche in the food chain of violence for one reason – from the point of view of those who finance them and many of those who live where they operate. Paramilitaries fill a vicious vacuum. They work.”
The Embassy said the phenomenon was one that arose in the absence of an assertive counterinsurgency strategy by the country’s armed forces.
They have community connections; they can spot (likely) guerrilla supporters and take ruthless action (to the despair of the innocent along with the guilty) instead of hunkering down to serve out their tour and go home; they are too well paid and too locally invested to cut and run when things get hot.
Asked years later about Uribe’s alleged connections to paramilitaries and narcotraffickers, Frechette said he had asked Uribe about some of the rumors but was never satisfied with his explanation.
As president, Uribe employed one of the Colombian Army commanders most associated with paramilitary collaboration, Gen. Rito Alejo Del Río Rojas—who in 2012 was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the 1997 killing of a peasant leader—as one of his top military advisors. A 2006 DIA 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.”
When it came to embracing paramilitaries, Urabá stood apart. In Carepa, home to Del Río’s 17th Brigade, the locals “openly support the paramilitaries,” according to an unnamed prosecutor cited in a U.S. military intelligence report from December 1996. He said that “the illegal paramilitary groups in the Uraba region of Antioquia have become a law unto themselves” and are “a potentially bigger threat to the government” than the guerrillas. The conflict in Urabá was “basically a turf war to determine which group,” the AUC or the FARC, “will control the rich banana-growing region (and the lucrative illicit narcotics operations within it),” the source said, adding that he had “grave doubts that government security forces have the means to control either the guerrillas or the paramilitaries.”
In January 1997, Del Río’s former deputy, Col. Carlos Alfonso Velásquez, publicly criticized Del Río for turning a blind eye to paramilitary forces in Urabá. In a cable from January 10, the Embassy characterized Velásquez as a man of “unquestionable integrity” that some correctly predicted “would be cashiered because of the damaging report on the 17th Brigade’s tolerance of paramilitary activity in Uraba.”
Subsequent cables appear to indicate that the Embassy continued to sound out Col. Velásquez and other former military officials for information on Del Río and his links to paramilitarism in Antioquia. In December 1997, a recently retired 17th Brigade official told the U.S that “military cooperation with the paramilitaries had been occurring for a number of years” in Urabá but “had gotten much worse under Del Rio.” A 1998 Embassy cable likewise said that Del Río’s “systematic arming and equipping of aggressive regional paramilitaries” was “pivotal” to his military success in Antioquia. Earlier that year, a recently retired Colombian Army officer told the U.S. that Del Río was one of “the two most corrupt army officers in Colombia.”
AUC paramilitaries used the region controlled by the 17th Brigade in Urabá as the launching point for the July 1997 Mapiripán massacre, the notorious mass killing that signaled a new, more sophisticated phase of military-paramilitary coordination and provoked more intense scrutiny of Colombia’s human rights record. A CIA report from later that year said “that [AUC leader Carlos] Castano would not have flown forces and weapons into a civilian airport known to have a large police presence if he had not received prior assurances that they would be allowed to pass through.”
The report said that the 1997 paramilitary expansion from Urabá into territory traditionally controlled by the guerrillas was “the most significant change we have seen in recent months and one which has further degraded Colombia’s already poor security and human rights situation.” The Agency added that “prospects for a concerted effort by the military high command to crack down on paramilitaries—and the officers that cooperate with them—appear dim.” Tacit acceptance of paramilitary operations by some officers, the CIA found, were “longstanding and will not be easily reversed.”
But if Valencia’s account echoed many of the things the U.S. was hearing through military, diplomatic and intelligence channels, his conversation with Embassy officials is of particular interest now, reflecting a unique perspective on the paramilitary situation at a time and place directly relevant to the current charges against Uribe.
Perhaps even more notable than Valencia’s reference to Uribe’s nom de guerre (“El Viejo”) and his vivid description of the way the governor’s shadow loomed over paramilitary operations in his district, are references to specific acts of paramilitary violence in San Roque, home to Uribe’s “Guacharacas” ranch, and the operational center of the AUC’s Metro Bloc, the group that Uribe and his brother are said to have created.
Valencia said, “he personally knows of at least one incident in which the military in his district (Maceo and San Roque in eastern Antioquia) collaborated by abandoning checkpoints to allow carloads of armed paramilitaries to pass by unhindered.”
“They look the other way,” Valencia said.
Valencia also shared a story about a recent paramilitary “punishment killing” of an elderly campesino in San Roque, site of a 1996 Metro Bloc massacre in which Uribe has been implicated. “They held the funeral for his body on Monday and for his head on Tuesday,” said Valencia, adding that “paramilitaries use barbaric techniques like hacking their victims with machetes to reinforce their message that cooperating with guerrillas is unacceptable and dangerous.”
The current case against Uribe
The current case against Uribe ultimately comes down to the relatively narrow question of whether he pressured a witness to recant testimony implicating him—a damning allegation and a serious crime—but it seems unlikely to definitively resolve long-simmering questions about the precise nature of Uribe’s relationship to drug cartels and paramilitary groups.
For some, Uribe’s alleged relations with Colombia’s narco-paramilitary underworld and the systematic human rights abuses that occurred during his presidency will forever be overshadowed by achievements on the battlefield, the overall weakening of the FARC, the eventual demobilization of AUC forces, and his enthusiastic extradition of drug trafficking suspects to the U.S.
But the mounting legal and declassified evidence of his narcotics and paramilitary ties suggests that the former president faces a future dodging criminal and civil investigations on behalf of his many alleged victims. The battle over the legacy of “El Viejo” will surely continue, but for now it has suffered a heavy blow.
U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Intelligence Information Report, Confidential, 14 pp.
This DIA list of “the more important Colombian narco-traffickers” includes an entry for Álvaro Uribe Vélez, then a senator, who is said to be “dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin Cartel at high government levels.” The document, which was featured in a number of major media articles in August 2004, says “Uribe has worked for the Medellin Cartel and is a close personal friend of Pablo Escobar Gaviria,” the notorious drug kingpin.
U.S. Embassy Colombia, cable, Secret, 18 pp.
In January 1992, seven months after the surrender of Medellin cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar, the U.S. Embassy Bogota compiled a list of Colombian politicians “suspected of having ties to drug trafficking.”
In all, the list included “21 of 100 senators, 13 of 161 representatives and five of 27 departmental governors.” The evidence varied, according to the cable, and included “the acceptance of soiled campaign contributions,” which the Embassy characterized as “a near universal practice in Colombian politics.”
The list is divided into two sections: “Narcopols,” who are “politicians with solid histories of involvement in the drug trade or in support of it;” and “Possible Narcopols,” including “those whose entries [in U.S. government databases] contain contradictory statements, a broad indictment with no specific follow-up information or no pattern of activity.”
Then-senator Alvaro Uribe appears in the latter category. Redactions to key sections of the document leave some questions about what information the U.S. had on Uribe’s alleged drug ties. What is clear is that the suspected connections were related to his family’s business dealings, and the Embassy did not consider the ties significant enough to warrant his inclusion on a list of “narcopols.”
As of May 1989, [Uribe] has allegedly been involved in drug trafficking. [Deleted] records state less conclusively that Uribe’s ‘family has extensive land and business holdings in Antioquia and does legitimate business, such as cattle ranching, [deleted].’
If, as we suspect, Uribe’s only transgression is to belong to a family that has done legitimate business with narcos, his inclusion in this list is not warranted.
U.S. Embassy Colombia, cable, Confidential, 7 pp.
The U.S. Embassy believed that Uribe and two others who met with the wife of narcotrafficker Pablo Escobar in December 1992 “were acting purely out of self interest” and that the administration of President Cesar Gaviria “had nothing to do with these contacts.”
The cable says that Uribe “called on [the U.S. Embassy Political Officer] at the Embassy January 26 to explain his version of events and clarify his role” in the episode, which was reported at the time.
The Embassy political officer said that another Liberal senator from Medellin, Luis Guillermo Velez, had told him that “he believes it was Uribe who initiated contact with Escobar’s mother,” and reminded him “that Uribe is a cousin of the Ochoas [sic] Vasquez narco trafficking family… who have financed his political campaign.” Velez said that “Escobar, through the Ochoas, is now demanding Uribe return the favors by trying to open a communication channel to Gaviria.”
In a separate meeting, a former senator from Antioquia, Alejandro Gonzalez, “reiterated Velez’s charges that Uribe fears for his life because he was unable to deliver for his Medellin cartel mentors.”
U.S. Embassy Colombia, cable, Confidential, 5 pp.
In a cable detailing Embassy contact with “wealthy businessman” Cesar Villegas Arciniegas, an aide to Liberal presidential candidate (and future president) Ernesto Samper, the Embassy comments on allegations that Samper, Villegas and Senator Alvaro Uribe (“also a key Samper supporter”) have links to narcotrafficking.
Rumors of the involvement of these three with narcotics traffickers abound, and although hard evidence is lacking in all cases, we believe there is substance to the rumors. It is not clear how close the direct link between Samper and the traffickers is (or was), but we have serious doubts that, if elected, he would pursue counternarcotics with the same energy and vigor that [President] Gaviria has.
Several sections of the cable were redacted in a version of the document previously released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Archive re-requested the information withheld in that release under Mandatory Declassification Review, gaining access to the documents in this briefing book and many others.
U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Intelligence Information Report, Secret, 3 pp.
This “Secret” report from the U.S. Defense Attache’s Office (DAO) in Bogota “reviews the controversial subject of Army relations with paramilitary organizations,” concluding that “local commanders often find it foolhardy not to maintain a dialogue with these groups.”
The report is similar to other reports from the DAO and the Embassy’s Military Group (Milgp) during this period, which tended to acknowledge that such links occurred but minimize the extent of the problem.
At the local level, COLAR [Colombian Army] commanders often enter into discreet marriages of convenience with these groups in order to obtain important information regarding ongoing guerrilla activity occurring in their area of responsibility.
Paramilitaries “are often more effective in eliminating guerrilla activity than the COLAR because of their knowledge of who the “bad guys” are.
Local COLAR commanders usually meet discreetly with members of these groups. Because of these discreet, local meetings, there is little fear by either side of the association becoming known publicly… Both parties can claim ignorance of any official association. All parties involved are aware that due to the illegal nature of these groups the military cannot openly associate with them.
The government-sponsored Convivir are “less successful” in their counter-guerrilla activities, according to the DAO’s report, because the “stigma associated with Convivir’s direct association with the MOD [Ministry of Defense] detracts from its effectiveness in combating guerrillas.” The groups “are under greater public scrutiny” due to the government affiliation.
The Embassy’s diplomatic staff is far more critical in comments appended to the DAO report.
Professional military doctrine may be to keep the paramilitaries at arms [sic] length, but the reality is overwhelmingly otherwise – and everybody including the top brass know it. The claimed deniability attained by this hollow charade is not worth a tin nickel, and we should give it scant credence.
U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Intelligence Information Report, Secret, 6 pp.
Paramilitaries had become “a law unto themselves” in Uraba, constituting “a potentially greater threat to the government than … the guerrillas,” according to this military intelligence report, based on comments from a Colombian prosecutor whose name has been redacted. The document describes the violence there as “basically a turf war to determine which group [paramilitaries or guerrillas] will control the rich banana-growing region (and the lucrative illicit narcotics operations within it).” The report adds that, “The military’s influence and control over paramilitaries that we so often logically assume to exist may, in fact, be tenuous at best and non-existent in some cases.”
U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Intelligence summary, Top Secret, 6 pp.
A DIA intelligence summary includes a “Secret” report finds that Herman Arias Gaviria, the former top official in charge of overseeing the Convivir program, had used his position to license and arm the militia groups of “individuals with known drug trafficking links.” The report also says that his “father was involved in forming paramilitary groups,” and that his “brother is a security company owner with probably drug ties.”
The report says that a Defense Ministry investigation had “revealed serious irregularities” in the Convivir program under Arias. Despite this, Arias was recently “promoted to Bogota’s national security adviser position,” according to the report.
The DIA concludes that, “Although not all Convivirs are engaged in illegal activities, revelations of irregularities will damage Convivir’s credibility and may confirm NGO fears that illegal paramilitaries will co-opt the Convivir.”
With respect to the possibility that the government will move to more strictly regulate the Convivir, the DIA notes: “Bogota failed to act on a similar pledge to take action against illegal paramilitaries, and thus the resolve to clean up the legal Convivirs is doubtful.”
U.S. Embassy Colombia, cable, Confidential, 1 p.
The U.S. Embassy reports the announcement that Colombian paramilitary groups had formed a coordinating body called the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) or United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. In a “Confidential” comment, the Embassy said:
These local caudillos represent regional power bases and share no common, overarching ideology other than a professed hatred of guerrillas. However, the fact that their decision to work together attracted national attention is a testament to the undeniable strength of paramilitarism in Colombia.
U.S. Embassy Colombia, cable, Confidential, 2 pp.
The Embassy summarizes a 90-minute meeting with Jorge Alveiro Valencia Cardona, a congressional alternate from eastern Antioquia, about the deteriorating security situation in eastern Antioquia, the paramilitary phenomenon, and what he characterized as “a web of relationships between the governor [Uribe], Convivirs, landowners, paramilitaries, and guerrillas.” Valencia shared stories about paramilitary depredations and military collusion in San Roque, home of the Metro Bloc paramilitary group, and told Embassy officials about the time that paramilitaries released him upon learning that he knew Governor Uribe, who they referred to as “El Viejo.”
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Intelligence Report, Secret, 8 pp.
The CIA reports that “prospects for a concerted effort by the military high command to crack down on paramilitaries-and the officers that cooperate with them-appear dim.” Both the current and former armed forces chiefs-Gens. Manuel Bonett and Harold Bedoya-had shown “little inclination to combat paramilitary groups.” Tacit acceptance of paramilitary operations by some officers “are longstanding and will not be easily reversed,” according to the report.
The CIA characterizes the recent paramilitary expansion into guerrilla-controlled territory as “the most significant change we have seen in recent months and one which has further degraded Colombia’s already poor security and human rights situation.” With respect to the July 1997 Mapiripan massacre, one intelligence source said “that [AUC chief Carlos] Castano would not have flown forces and weapons into a civilian airport known to have a large police presence if he had not received prior assurances that they would be allowed to pass through.”
U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Intelligence Information Report, Secret, 4 pp.
There is a “body count syndrome” in the Colombian Army’s counterinsurgency strategy that “tends to fuel human rights abuses by otherwise well-meaning soldiers trying to get their quota to impress superiors,” according to a recently-retired Colombian Army colonel whose comments form the basis of this intelligence report. According to the officer, the obsession with body counts is in part responsible for commanders “allowing the paramilitaries to serve as proxies for the [Colombian army] in contributing to the guerrilla body count.” The 17th Brigade in Uraba had been cooperating with paramilitaries “for a number of years,” he said, but it “had gotten much worse” under the command of Gen. Rito Alejo Del Rio. Gen. Del Rio was later indicted but ultimately acquitted of collusion with paramilitaries by the Prosecutor General’s office in May 2003.
The officer was critical of several other high-level military commanders, including Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora, who would later serve as armed forces commander. Mora had a clean public reputation, according to the officer, but was “probably was one of those who looked the other way” with respect to collaboration with paramilitaries. Former armed forces commander Gen. Harold Bedoya “fell into the same category,” in that both officers “never allowed themselves to become directly involved in encouraging or supporting paramilitary activities, but they turned their backs to what was happening and felt the [Colombian army] should in no way be blamed for any resulting human rights atrocities committed.”
U.S. Embassy Colombia, cable, Confidential, 14 pp.
Gen. Rito Alejo Del Rio Rojas, former commander of the Army’s 17th Brigade in Uraba, was one of “the two most corrupt Army officers in Colombia,” according to a “former Colombian Army officer” who spoke to a U.S. Embassy official on February 27, 1998.
U.S. Embassy Colombia, cable, Secret, 5 pp.
This U.S. Embassy cable from August 13, 1998, reports, among other things, that Gen. Del Rio was under investigation for links to illegal paramilitary groups. In a “Biographic Note,” the Embassy says that Del Rio’s “systematic arming and equipping of aggressive regional paramilitaries was pivotal to his military success at the time.”
Biographic Note: Although brigade commands are generally rotated every year, General Del Rio was allowed to remain in command of the 17th Brigade in highly-conflictive Uraba region for two years, apparently because he had been very successful in bloodying the FARC’s nose during the period of his command. His systematic arming and equipping of aggressive regional paramilitaries was pivotal to his military success at the time.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “Snowflake” memorandum, Non-Classified, 1 p.
In one of his famous “snowflake” memos, Rumsfeld asks a deputy, Doug Feith, to investigate whether Colombia’s possible cancelation of its negotiations with the FARC “gives us an opportunity.”
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “Snowflake” memorandum, Non-Classified, 3 pp.
In another “snowflake,” Rumsfeld asks Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to propose a “legislative change we may need or interpretation, so that we can deal with terrorism in Colombia using the capabilities that were authorized for drug funds.”
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “Snowflake” memorandum, Non-Classified, 2 pp.
In this “snowflake,” Rumsfeld articulates a vision for expanded counterinsurgency operations in Colombia, forbidden under the existing U.S. policy guidelines. He suggests the establishment of “a joint working group” at U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) “to think through what we might do in Colombia if we were asked.” Rumsfeld says the group “would have to decide what victory would be, and then think through a plan to achieve what we decide to characterize as victory.”
There is a lot of history in defeating insurgencies-in the Philippines from 1898-1902, in Nicaragua with the Marines in the 1920s, during the Greek civil war in the 1940s, in Malaysia in the 1950s and even in some pacification efforts in South Vietnam that worked during the 1960s and 1970s.
Rumsfeld says the strategy “would fit into the nation-building category” and suggests that the group “might be in contact with folks at CIA, DEA, Treasury and State, and also probably coordinate with Wayne Downing,” the counterterrorism coordinator at the National Security Council (NSC). He said the group should also consult with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-the military agency that famously invented the Internet-“to see what programs are being developed for surveillance, intelligence, etc. that might be useful” in Colombia. He further suggests that the working group talk to Arthur Cebrowski, head of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation, about “network-centric warfare as applied to jungles, urban areas and insurgencies.”
U.S. Department of Defense, Assistant Secretary for International Security Affairs to Donald Rumsfeld, Information Memorandum, Secret, 2 pp.
Peter Rodman reports back from a meeting of the NSC Deputies Committee, the members of which were optimistic that incoming president Uribe would help advance U.S. interests in Colombia.
Deputies agreed that Colombia’s choice of a new President should reinforce the course on which U.S. policy has already embarked. Much of our (and Congress’s) inhibition had been rooted in concern that Colombians, under Pastrana, were not doing enough. Uribe promises to furnish the political will.
President George W. Bush, National Security Presidential Directive, Confidential, 9 pp.
The Bush administration’s first major policy directive on Colombia, NSPD-18 formalized U.S. intentions to widen its involvement in Colombia’s conflict, freeing up U.S. counterdrug-related security assistance to Colombia for use in a “unified campaign against narcotics trafficking and terrorist activities:”
Our intention is to enhance support for a broad range of Colombian efforts to destroy or weaken significantly the ability of the designated terrorist organizations and other illegal armed groups and narcotics trafficking organizations to undermine Colombia’s democracy and national security.
U.S. Department of Defense, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict to Donald Rumsfeld, Information Memorandum, Secret, 1 p.
Marshall Billingslea, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for special operations, highlights the number of FARC soldiers killed by special U.S.-trained “commando units” under President Uribe, saying the enhanced counterinsurgency strategy “was beginning to yield dividends.” Billingslea also highlights the large number of “senior FARC leadership” members killed and captured in High-Value Target (HVT) missions during that time.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “Snowflake” memorandum, Non-Classified (Attached talking points For Official Use Only), 2 pp.
Among other things, a set of talking points attached to this Rumsfeld “snowflake” says that “President Uribe only has a few years left” to “deal a crippling blow to the narcoterrorists.”
U.S. Department of Defense, Assistant Secretary for International Security Affairs to Donald Rumsfeld, Information Memorandum, Non-Classified, 4 pp.
Highlighting favorable coverage for President Uribe in a recent edition of The Economist magazine, Rodman tells Rumsfeld that “a key element of our success has been Uribe himself.”
U.S. Department of Defense, Assistant Secretary for International Security Affairs to Donald Rumsfeld, Information Memorandum, Confidential, 22 pp.
Rodman alerts Rumsfeld to the revelation of a declassified intelligence report listing President Uribe among major Colombian narcotrafficking figures, writing that “Uribe almost certainly had dealings with paramilitaries (AUC) while governor of Antioquia-it goes with the job.”
U.S. Department of Defense, cable, Secret, 1 p.
A Pentagon report notes that Rito Alejo Del Rio, then President Uribe’s “personal advisor” on military issues, “was commander of the Colombian Army’s 17th Brigade from 1997-1998 and is known as the ‘El Pacificador del Uraba’ because he 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.” [sic]