WHY IS THIS MAN SMILING?
Despite a speckled past, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez sailed into a second term of office. Photo: AP
recent article by
Paul Richter and Greg Miller in the Los Angeles Times has again brought
international attention on Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez. At
the center of the LA Times article is a leaked report from the Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA), which claims that Colombian army chief
General Mario Montoya and a paramilitary group carried out an operation
against Marxist rebels in 2002, that left 14 people dead and 'dozens
more disappeared in its aftermath.'
Given the nature of the activities of paramilitary groups in Colombia
and Uribe's 'long and close association' with Montoya, the revelation
adds to a scandal which, Richter and Miller say, 'already has
implicated the country's former Foreign Minister, at least one State
Governor, legislators and the head of the national police.'
Bush considers Uribe a “personal friend” and one of his closest allies in Latin America. However, Uribe’s other relationships include Colombia's drug cartels and paramilitaries.
The Colombian President's papá,
Alberto Uribe Sierra, may not have set the best example. During the
1970s, Uribe Sierra lived in a middle-class neighborhood in the
Colombian city of Medellín and was heavily in debt. However, as Forrest
Hylton notes in his excellent history, Evil Hour in Colombia,
by a 'strange reversal of fortune' Uribe Sierra became a 'political
broker, real-estate intermediary, and recognized trafficker.'
Having also become a huge cattle rancher, Uribe Sierra was part of a
group of narco-speculators who purchased cheap land where Left-wing
guerrillas were active. In 1983, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia — the guerrilla group commonly known by their Spanish acronym FARC
— decided to pay Uribe Sierra a visit and he was killed after a failed
kidnapping attempt. When the younger Uribe became aware of his father's
death, according to Hylton, he flew to his father's ranch in the
private helicopter of Medellín's cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar.
Escobar and Uribe Sierra had become good friends after the latter had
been involved in 'fund raising' for a project known as 'Medellín
without slums' — most likely another one of Escobar's countless scams
to launder his huge empire's drug money.
Álvaro Uribe entered politics at the age of 26 when he was elected
mayor of Medellín in 1982 — a payback for his father helping finance
the campaign of Belisario Betancur, President of Colombia from 1982 to
1986. Sacked after three months for what Tom Feiling, writing in New
Internationalist, termed his 'ties to the drug Mafia,' Uribe then
became Director of Civil Aviation and 'issued pilots' licences to Pablo Escobar's fleet of light aircraft flying cocaine to Florida. ' Feiling goes on to report that:
1995 Uribe became Governor of his home province of Antioquia …
[P]rivate security services and paramilitary death squads enjoyed
immunity from prosecution under Governor Uribe and were free to launch
a campaign of terror. Thousands of trade unionists, students and human
rights workers were murdered, disappeared or driven out of the province.
During his run for President in 2002, Uribe's tough talk against FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN)
— Colombia's second largest Left-wing guerrilla army — was popular with
many middle- and upper-class Colombians. And his paramilitary friends
made sure the rest of the population made the right choice as well.
Even then, Uribe only managed 53 per cent of the votes, after just 25 per cent of the electorate bothered to vote.
According to Rafael García — a former high-level official in Colombia's
intelligence agency serving an 11-year jail sentence for
money-laundering (among other charges) — what happened in 2002 was a
'massive electoral fraud' as paramilitary groups personally selected candidates for Congress.
Since gaining power, these politicos and Uribe have persuaded up to
30,000 paramilitaries to demobilize or serve 'symbolic jail terms'
and/or continue in the drug trade — a case in point being the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country's most notorious paramilitary organisation with deep ties to narco-trafficking.
Colombian Senator Jorge Robledo — representing the Polo Democrático Alternativo (PDA), who with Gustavo Preto has been instrumental in pushing the Senate to discuss Uribe's past — has commented about the latest scandals:
director of the nation's secret service, DAS, Jorge Noguera, is in
prison for his participation in paramilitary crimes … All the
congresspeople who have gone to prison already are Uribistas
[supporters of Uribe]. Of the 19 in line for judgement, 17 are
Uribistas … The organization ARCOIRIS, with 83 congresspeople from
paramilitary-controlled zones — 90 per cent are Uribistas. This is not
to say that all Uribistas are [paramilitaries], but it does say the
phenomenon is that these are friends of the President. This is
understood in the exterior, and Democratic Senators in the US like
McGovern and Leahy have noticed as much. Leahy said in [the Colombian
newspaper] El Tiempo that the US Government must correct its support
for Uribe. Leahy said 'someone explain to me who we are working with in
in the PDA insist that these are political, not just penal,
responsibilities for Uribe. He has to explain why so many of his
friends are involved. And we also want to know how far is the US
involved? The US Embassy is full of CIA, DEA, FBI, and they don't have
any idea what is happening with paramilitarism? It is not credible.
an article published in the January edition of NACLA Report on the
Americas — a distinguished journal on Latin American studies —
Colombian economist and human rights worker, Héctor Mondragón, notes
that: 'Never before have drug traffickers had so much power in
Colombia.' Using the Government's own statistics, Mondragón argues
that in 2005 over $US3 billion entered the country with no record of
its origin, and this is 'just a portion of the billions of dollars and
euros that the paramilitaries have laundered.' In his view, the Bush
Administration is well aware of these actions, but prefers to turn a
blind eye as:
is becoming the eternal battleground, in order to secure the country as
a base of operations for controlling Ecuador, Venezuela and possibly
even Peru, Brazil and Bolivia. They say, 'Have patience with Colombia;
we're heading to Venezuela and Ecuador! Be patient with Iraq; we're on
our way to Iran.
BROTHERS IN ARMS
United States President George Bush and President Uribe in Washington in 2006. Photo: Paul Morse/ White House
one considers how Ronald Reagan and Bush senior's Administrations
supported the Contras — also deeply involved in the drug trade — to
overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua during the 1980s, then such
developments are not without precedent. And remember that Colombian
paramilitaries were used in 2004 to try to overthrow the Venezuelan
President Hugo Chávez.
The current involvement in the drug trade by the Colombian cartels,
paramilitaries and their political allies such as Uribe, of course,
overshadow the relationship FARC has with cocaine and their own human
rights abuses. Although FARC's involvement with drugs is 'hard to
measure' according to expert Mario Murillo in his book, Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization,
their involvement is 'still seen as a small percentage of the overall
amounts of money exchanged globally in the international drug market.
And anyway, since the 1980s according to numerous reports, between
75-85 per cent of all human rights violations have been carried out by
the Colombian military and their paramilitary allies, with the rest
attributed to the guerrillas. While FARC and ELN should certainly be
held accountable for violations against civilians, their record pales
in comparison to the brutal and systematic crimes of the Colombian
Since Uribe took power in 2002, over 500 trade unionists have been killed, often in the most brutal manner (PDF).
His utter contempt for human rights organizers was expressed openly in
2003 when he declared them to be 'spokesmen for terrorism' and
challenged them to 'take off their masks…and drop this cowardice of
hiding their ideas behind human rights.'
Whether the current crisis will see Uribe resign or call new elections
is unclear, but if Bush is remotely serious about the 'War on Terror'
and the 'War on Drugs,' then he could start by dealing with his amigo
is an independent journalist in Sydney, Australia who writes on Latin American affairs. He has published in New Matilda, On Line Opinion: Australia's e-journal social and political debate, El Español en Australia and Eureka Street among other publications. Originally published in New Matilda as "Colombia: A Narco-Terrorist State"