Alvaro Uribe is a controversial figure in Colombian politics and history. The former president, who ruled Colombia from 2002 to 2010, has won awards for his time is office and been hailed as a beacon of peace by some, particularly the United States. However, at the same time, Uribe has been accused of major human rights violations and is blamed for aiding and abetting the violence of right-wing paramilitaries in the country during the early 2000's.
So, who is Alvaro Uribe, really?
Uribe was born into an upper class family in 1952, with his father, Alberto Uribe Sierra, being a wealthy landowner in the country's second largest city, Medellin. Here, the future president studied law at the University of Antioquia before going on to study management and administration at Harvard University in the United States.
Uribe spent his life climbing the political ladder in Colombia, starting in his home state of Antioquia, where he became mayor of the city of Medellin (1982-1984). He then served numerous terms as national senator between 1986 and 1994, and was elected governor of Antioquia for the Liberal Party from 1995-1997.
During this time, Colombia was also immersed in a civil war rooted in an agrarian movement dating back to the early 20th century. In the 1920's, peasant farmers fought over ownership of land – of which the few wealthy landowners held a monopoly – as well as economic freedom and political recognition. By the 1950's, political violence swelled and peasants formed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to continue the fight for farmers' rights
When Uribe was mayor of Medellin, his father was killed by the FARC in what has been described as a botched kidnapping attempt. The event affected Uribe deeply, and the politician is known to have a developed a grudge against the guerrilla group that has lasted to this day. This event would also become the driver for some of Uribe's more extreme politics while seving as governor and president.
As governor, Uribe began a controversial program to create armed, citizen policing groups. Through the ‘Convivir’ program, Uribe recruited hundreds of civilians to work as spies and extra-fighters in army-led operations. According to Human Rights Watch, these groups were “poorly supervised and regulated, and several were formed by known paramilitaries leaders or became criminal gangs.”
‘Convivirs’ were also implicated in several killings in 1996 and 1997, with links to the state government. It was during his tenure at the head of one of Colobia’s most violent states that Uribe allegedly formed strong ties with paramilitary groups.
Photo Left: Uribe (R) and Enilse Lopez (L). Photo Right: Uribe (R) and Jose Luis Alfonso Lopez (R). Lopez, who donated US$90,000 to Uribe’s campaign, is currently serving a sentence for paramilitary ties. Her son Jose Luis is wanted for murder. Source: Notimundo.
When he finally ran for president in 2002, he adopted the campaign slogan “Firm Hand, Big Heart,” and promised to take a tougher stance against guerrilla fighters as well as drug traffickers.
He also vowed to takle paramilitary groups, who had become violent and lawless, despite having played a dominant role in their development.
Running as an independent candidate, he won 53 percent of the vote, as Colombians wanted to see solutions to the growing violence in the country.
From the late-1990's to the mid-2000's, Colombia saw some of its bloodiest years. Thousands of people were killed every year, resulting in massive internal displacement with people fleeing the country in droves. Much of the violence and human rights abuses – as much as 80 percent according to human rights groups – was carried out by paramilitary groups.
The United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which grew to become Colombia’s largest paramilitary groups, systematically massacred entire villages under the guise of eliminating guerrilla fighters. The group even made it onto the list of foreign terrorists in the United States, Canada and the European Union.
Though Uribe has been hailed as leading the negotiation process with the AUC that lead to their disarmament in 2006, evidence has since surfaced alleging Uribe had direct ties with the AUC both before and during his presidency.
In 2009, Salvatore Mancuso, former commander of the AUC, testified that his fighters systematically burned hundreds of bodies of their massacred victims, in order to diminish the number of killings that could be associated with the group. This decision, according to Mancuso, was made between top AUC commanders and high-ranking military officials during Uribe's rule. Mancuso also said he had met directly with Uribe while he was Antioquia governor – a claim Uribe emphatically denied.
Other AUC officials have since stated that the AUC directly funded Uribe's 2002 election campaign, a financial favor the former president then returned when he was in office.
As president, Uribe also began an incentives program for soldiers in the fight against the country’s guerrilla groups, offering promotions and up to US$1,900 for killing enemy combatants. Thousands of military officials benefitted from the initiative, which has since gained notoriety as a massive human rights scandal called the “false positives”.
The International Federation for Human Rights alleges that over 3,000 civilians were killed by soldiers, who would dress the corpses up in camouflaged fatigues to pass them off as guerrillas killed in combat in order to reap the rewards. More than 800 soldiers have been found guilty in connection with the atrocities so far.
A report released by the United Nations in 2009 found that the practice of “false positives” was conducted all over the country, as investigators uncovered continuous evidence of “victims dressed in camouflage outfits which are neatly pressed, or wearing clean jungle boots which are four sizes too big for them, or lefthanders holding guns in their right hand, or men with a single shot through the back of their necks,” all of which “undermine the suggestion that these were guerillas killed in combat,” says the report.
U.N. investigators also found systemic harassment of survivors by the military, most of whom were trying to inquire into the disappearances of loved ones who later turned up dead.
Uribe has since been accused of various human rights violations by several international and national human rights groups because of his contribution to the civil war – even though the former president has maintained his innocence over the years, saying the crimes were carried out by a few bad apples in the military.
But far from bringing peace to the country, Uribe’s presidency saw a record number of human rights violations as well as people fleeing the country as refugees. Since 2000, some 300,000 people are thought to have be displaced each year, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.
This has drastically contributed to the total number of Colombians who have been displaced – over 6 million people who have become refugees in their own country, or fled to seek asylum in neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador.
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Despite the evidence implicating Uribe with these unsavoury groups and heinous acts, Uribe was lauded by many foreign leaders. Former U.S. President George Bush awarded Uribe with the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States.
Uribe has maintained a surprisingly high popularity within the country as well, as his role in the country’s civil war has remained largely hidden to the public. He was elected into office for a second time in 2006 with some 63 percent of the vote.
Nonetheless, his past is catching up with him, with over 70 Colombian Senators and congress people from his party found guilty of direct connections to the paramilitaries. Some Senators have also called for Uribe himself to be investigated, though he has aptly avoided official hearings.
Uribe has maintained a high profile in Colombian politics, serving as Senator since 2014 and also squaring off with current Colombia President, Juan Manuel Santos, over the peace negotiations between the FARC and the Santos government.
Beyond local politics, Uribe has been an active player in the region, frequently intervening in neighboring Venezuela, where he has maintained a close relationship with opposition leaders such as Leopoldo Lopez and Henrique Capriles Radonski.
Photo Left: Uribe (L) and Henrique Capriles Radonski (R). Photo Right: Uribe (L) and Lorent Saleh (R). Source: Archive
Uribe has also been connected to violent opposition groups in Venezuela including Lorent Saleh, a student opposition leader who was recorded on video calls speaking openly about training, obtaining arms and rifles and engaging in violence. Saleh was arrested in Colombia on a false passport before being deported to Venezuela.
Since Saleh’s arrest, there has been growing concern about the growth of Colombian paramilitaries infiltrating Venezuela, with paramilitaries implicated in the assassination of Socialist lawmaker Robert Serra as well as the recent shooting of three Venezuelan soldiers in Tachira state, to name but a few incidents. In the investigations around the recent brutal murder of a woman by people connected to opposition parties, Uribe’s name has also resurfaced as a funder of violent groups and destabilization efforts in the country.