BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Farmer and landowner Santiago Uribe, brother of former president (2002-2010) and current senator Álvaro Uribe, who himself has been accused many times in the past of having links with death squads and drug lords, has been arrested by the Attorney General’s Office on suspicion of involvement in aggravated homicides committed by a right-wing paramilitary group.
The crimes, which include conspiracy along with the murders, were allegedly committed by The 12 Apostles, a paramilitary group with whom Uribe had deep links that killed dozens of people in 1993 and 1994 under a mission of “social cleansing” in the northwestern Department of Antioquia (of which Álvaro Uribe was Senator from 1986 to 1994 and Governor from 1995 to 1998).
Over the last two decades, Uribe has been repeatedly questioned over his involvement in the crimes given that he was included and named in the testimonies of former paramilitary members and police officials.
In fact, he had a case opened against him in 1997 but it was closed a year later due to a lack of evidence only to be re-opened soon after Juan Carlos Meneses, a former high-ranking police official, came forth with new information that said Uribe asked Meneses (then-Lieutenant) to cover up the actions of The 12 Apostles with police help, and Meneses obliged.
One of the crimes that was allegedly covered up, and a crime for which Menseses stood trial due to his role in the cover-up, was the murder of bus driver Camilo Barrientos in 1994. The 12 Apostles, thought to have been composed of farmers, traders and even a priest, allegedly targeted and killed Barrientos because they thought that he belonged to a left-wing guerrilla group, and two of the accused murderers have said that Uribe himself ordered the hit.
Given his involvement, which also included financing The 12 Apostles, Uribe repeatedly filed appeals to delay or have the case thrown out, and claimed that he was denied his basic legal rights as the case developed. The Supreme Court of Justice threw out those appeals several months ago and he was finally arrested in Medellín, the capital of Antioquia, where he has remained since in a holding cell in the Attorney General’s regional office. Now, the Attorney General has 120 days to decide whether to bring the case to trial or put it in the archives.
Of course, this is not the first time the Uribe clan has been effected due to their alleged links with paramilitary groups. Mario Uribe, Álvaro’s cousin, who served in Colombian politics for over two decades (which included a stint as President of the Senate), was arrested in 2007 in the “parapolitics” scandal in which politicians were revealed to have had links with paramilitaries.
Mario Uribe was sentenced to over 7 years in prison in 2011 for his involvement (conspiracy and promotion of armed groups) but was given conditional release in November of 2012 after completing 54 months including time served of his 90-month sentence.
Álvaro Uribe and his right-wing Democratic Center, the party he founded in 2013, denounced the arrest and the party turned their backs to the Congress chamber as a whole in “rebellion.”
The action taken by the Attorney General’s Office, according to the political party, “serves as an example of the strategy of this ruling government to judicially persecute Uribism as a mechanism for the people to accept the impunity shown toward the narcoterrorists of the FARC.”
It makes sense that Uribe would mention the FARC given that he has been the most outspoken opponent of the peace talks being held in Havana, Cuba between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Latin America’s oldest insurgency group, and the Colombian government, currently led by Juan Manuel Santos. By using baseless evidence, hearsay and his own theories, Uribe has sought to undermine the talks and has continued with the same rhetoric since returning to politics as a Senator with his right-wing Democratic Center party in July of 2014.
Prior to forming the Democratic Center in 2013, Uribe belonged to the Social Party of National Unity (La U), a party founded in 2005 by a group of right-leaning dissidents (led by Uribe) of the centrist Colombian Liberal Party and to which Santos still belongs. Santos, Uribe’s understudy and Defense Minister, then succeeded Uribe as President but after a clash over ideology, Uribe has repeatedly criticized Santos and formed the said Democratic Center which has become the biggest opposition party in the Senate.
The peace process, meanwhile, which began in October of 2012 with the hopes of ending a conflict that has lasted over half a century, has continued.
In reaction to a ultraviolent crackdown on peasant organizations, the FARC militarized in 1964. As the primary guerrilla force, the FARC rebels have been engaged in war with the Colombian government since then, a war that has claimed more than 220,000 lives and displaced several million more.
So far, an agreement on land reform has been achieved during the peace talks, along with the group’s future political participation and the topic of the illicit drug trade. The last point that was agreed upon, which was transitional justice, carried with it the sub-point of suspect and victim recognition and reparation, the most sensitive subject given that it concerned all those affected by the conflict.
This peace process is quite different from those attempted in the past as it has significantly lasted longer and achieved much more progress and agreements than previous attempts. In fact, it was announced in late 2015 that the sides had reached an agreement that would see an eventual peace plan signed on March 23, 2016 and the subsequent ceasefire overseen by the United Nations.
Despite that progress, Uribe has remained firmly against the process and is now using the arrest of his brother as “proof” that the government is attempting to pressure him and his party into supporting the peace process.
His party presented a statement in the Senate, read by Senator Paloma Valencia, which said that “this infamous arrest darkens the atmosphere, limits civil liberties and takes away the rights of the democratic opposition.” The party even went as far as to say that they are declaring themselves “in opposition to the dictatorship.”
As for Álvaro Uribe himself, he has been no stranger to accusations of having links to paramilitary death squads and drug lords.
Uribe led the nation with a strong grip during his terms after being chosen by an electorate that was seeking a safer country. Years of insecurity and instability brought on by warring drug factions and rebel groups caused a spike in Uribe’s popularity and his ‘mano dura’ (firm hand) style of dealing with anyone he deemed a liability to the nation and his rule.
He was supposed to serve a single four-year term, but Uribe pushed through an amendment to the Colombian Constitution of 1991 via congressional ruling in 2005. Uribe was accused by the opposition and other political factions of bribing congressmen and judges in order to have the bill pass Congress and gain the approval of the Constitutional Court in spite of the 18 challenges that were raised against the bill. Uribe was also accused of indirectly ordering the kidnapping and killing of certain rebel and political figures, even during times of peace or ceasefire.
In 2014, Andrés Sepúlveda, the Colombian hacker at the center of a notorious spying scandal that targeted peace negotiators on behalf of the government of Santos and the FARC rebels, said that he was hired by Uribe’s campaign group that was run by the party he founded.
Uribe and the Democratic Center candidate for the 2014 presidential election, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, were both linked to Sepúlveda as soon as the scandal broke. Both the former President and his protégé always denied any connection but the case likely played a large role in Zuluaga’s eventual loss to incumbent Santos.
Thus, Sepúlveda’s eventual confession that detailed his ties to the two politicos over three months after the second round run-off vote between Santos and Zuluaga took place, came as no surprise to most in the South American country. ‘Chuzadas,’ as wire-tappings are known in Colombia, are not new, and were seen during Uribe’s administration when the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), the now-dissolved secret service agency, spied on and wiretapped opposition politicians, judges and journalists.
Additionally, Sepúlveda said that he was hired not only to spy on the peace talks but also in order to gather information about other Colombian politicians so that this data could be used to launch a ‘dirty war’ against political opponents as part of a process called Operation Andrómeda, which operated out of a restaurant in western Bogotá. According to city records, the ‘business’ was opened in September of 2012, meaning it was established almost a month before the FARC-Colombian Government peace talks began.
The list of those spied on was revealed and it was expansive, reaching even Santos whose email was hacked. One of the other notable politicians targeted was Iván Cepeda, a lawmaker of the center-left Alternate Democratic Pole (PDA) and one of the most prominent left-leaning politicians in the country.
Following the damning revelations by the hacker, who said the information gained through hacking would be eventually given to Uribe and used to “promote his Democratic Center party and discredit all political opposition,” Cepeda called for a debate about illicit political links in the Colombian Senate.
The two men share a tragic event: Cepeda’s father, Manuel, was killed in 1994 by right-wing paramilitaries working in conjunction with the government for his involvement in the Colombian Communist Party and the leftist Patriotic Union while Uribe’s father, a wealthy landowner named Alberto, was killed in a botched kidnapping attempt by the FARC.
The nine-hour hearing in late September of 2014, televised over the congressional channel nationwide, was attended by both men but Uribe walked out abruptly before Cepeda took the podium. Uribe said he was going to the Supreme Court of Justice to present evidence that the whole thing was “a defamatory event” that “targeted” him and accused the media of being “subservient to terrorism” by showing the event, but any cases presented by Uribe were thrown out.
Cepeda presented evidence like various state and federal documents, audio clips, images and video footage that proved Uribe’s close and enduring ties with figures from the Colombian drug world, including Dolly Cifuentes Villa (the Colombian go-to for famed Mexican druglord Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán) and even the notorious Pablo Escobar and his Medellín cartel, a group responsible for several high-profile politician deaths.
Uribe served as Medellín’s Mayor (1982) in addition to his stint as the Governor of Antioquia. In between, he served as a Senator for the same state (1986-1994) and is alleged to have given favorable treatment to kingpins during these periods. Cepeda said Uribe, while serving as a director of Civil Aviation (1980-1982), allowed the Medellín cartel to freely come and go with their cargo at the city airport.
Cepeda even showed a photo license of Álvaro Suárez Granados, Escobar’s favorite pilot, that was granted by Uribe. Furthermore, the PDA man showed photos of Uribe and Granados together at a separate time. Luis Carlos Molina Yepes, Escobar’s banker that laundered billions of dollars for the kingpin, was also granted his banking license by Uribe.
Those drug groups and right-wing paramilitaries later repaid Uribe with political and financial support during his 2002 electoral campaign, said Cepeda during his 90-minute-long presentation before the Senate.
During the second session of the event, Uribe returned long enough to deny all of the allegations against him and again claim that it is a political witch hunt organized by the FARC and their “political allies” and that the event equated to a “moral lynching.” Once it was Cepeda’s turn to speak, Uribe left the building once more and his backers and detractors continued the debate.
Carlos Fernando Galán, of the centrist Radical Change Party that is in Santos’ coalition, was one of the other notable speakers. Galán is the son of Luis Carlos Galán, a former politician and candidate on behalf of the Liberal Party in the 1989 presidential election. The elder Galán, a journalist by trade who long disdained the power of drug cartels and promised to crack down on them harshly, was leading in the polls that year when he was assassinated in a western suburb of Bogotá as he walked onto a stage by gunmen.
The killing came after several previous assassination attempts and repeated threatening phone calls and letters targeting the candidate and his family. The presumed killers, thought to be a mix of mafia hitmen and corrupt security officials, were hired by Escobar’s forenamed Medellín cartel. Thus, for the younger Galán, the links between Uribe, the cartel and paramilitaries based in Medellín and Antioquia is something that needs to be exposed for all of Colombia to see.
Galán recalled that William Vélez Mesa, a longtime close ally of Uribe, was very close to Escobar, and even went as far as saying that “Escobar was the future of the Liberal Party and Colombia” in the 1980s. Escobar served as an alternate in the Chamber of Deputies from 1982 to 1984 on behalf of the party for the Antioquia Department. He climbed to the position after he founded several charities and donated money to public parks and children’s centers as a smokescreen to the drug activities taking place behind the scenes. He was eventually removed from the party and Congress after the daily El Espectador revealed what he was involved in back in Medellín.
Luis Fernando Velasco, a Deputy for the Liberal Party, remarked that he hoped the debate would transcend Congress and continue on to the Supreme Court and the Attorney General’s Office, and even to the general public so everyone could see “Uribe’s dirty laundry.”
Velasco was targeted by Uribe in 2008 when his factions attempted to link him with the FARC rebels. Uribe was not successful, but did manage to harass Velasco with arrest and a lengthy trial before the latter was fully acquitted of any wrongdoing in a move meant to discredit political opposition that, part of the pattern noted by the hacker.
Claudia López, a Green Alliance Senator and former journalist who helped shed light on Uribe’s past scandals, likened Uribe’s walkout during the debate to a “leech crawling through the sewer.”