The brother of former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe – whose strident opposition helped kill the peace deal negotiated between the government and FARC rebels – will stand trial on charges that he bankrolled a paramilitary organization that is responsible for scores of murders since it was founded in the early 1990s.
Who is Alvaro Uribe?
Santiago Uribe Velez has been accused of creating and bankrolling the paramilitary group known as the 12 Apostles when his brother, Alvaro, was a senator representing the northwestern department of Antioquia. Investigations have implicated the 12 Apostles in at least 164 murders – including FARC rebels, drug users, and criminals – with police complicity.
Witnesses testimonies have described the paramilitary’s activities as a “social cleansing” campaign.
Uribe Velez, an Antioquia rancher, was arrested in February for his death squad ties. A federal prosecutor has now called him to respond to charges that he is the alleged mastermind behind crimes of aggravated homicide and conspiracy through the 12 Apostles.
Colombia's attorney general’s office asserts that 99 percent of the paramilitary group’s crimes – which constitute crimes against humanity – have gone unpunished more than 20 years after the fact.
Criminal attorney Daniel Prado Albarracin, representing victims in the case, told Colombia’s RCN that although the announcement comes many years later than hoped, it opens a possibility for justice to vindicate the victims of paramilitary violence. “In one way or another,” he said, “we ask that the state assumes the investigation and take the victims into account.”
Uribe’s political allies in Congress claim that Uribe Velez is innocent and have said the trial offers a chance to prove he is not guilty once and for all.
Federal prosecutors have investigated the case for more than a decade, according to local media, and several former police officers and paramilitary leaders have implicated Uribe Velez in the group’s formation and development. A key witness and retired police chief, Juan Carlos Meneses, testified in 2010 about Uribe Velez’s role in the 12 Apostles in 2010, reviving long-rumored allegations. Among other revelations, Meneses reported that during a visit to Uribe Velez’ farm, the rancher had shown him a hit list of people to be assassinated by his operatives.
Alvaro Uribe’s political influence, particularly as president from 2002 to 2010, is widely credited with helping to shield his brother from prosecution. The former president has also come under harsh fire for suspected paramilitary ties, most famously exposed in the “para-politics” scandal that broke in 2006 revealing alleged collusion between members of Uribe’s Congress and the notorious paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, better known as the AUC.
Uribe, now a senator and the chief campaigner for a “No” vote in the plebiscite earlier this month in which voters narrowly rejected the pact negotiated by the government and the FARC, presided over a period of grave human rights abuses and mass displacement while in office. He also oversaw the military strategy, revealed in the “false positives scandal” in 2008, of murdering civilians and dressing them in guerrilla fatigues to boost the body count in the government’s counterinsurgency war. More than 3,000 people were killed and subsequently registered as false positives during Uribe’s two terms in office.
The call for Uribe Velez to face charges comes at a complicated political moment in Colombia in the wake of a vote rejecting the peace deal in the Oct. 2 plebiscite by a razor-thin margin. Senator Uribe has called for the government to overhaul the deal with the FARC, arguing that former guerrillas should go to jail for their crimes and not be allowed to participate in politics. The landmark peace deal has prioritized truth over criminal prosecutions with transitional justice measures and truth commissions that set up a system of reduced sentencing and amnesty for political crimes, a focus Uribe rejects.
The Colombian government has received a total of 445 proposals of how to change the peace deal. Both sides of the conflict have returned to the negotiating table in Havana, Cuba, where the historic accords were forged over nearly four years of talks.