On August 4, 2020, Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered former president and current senator Alvaro Uribe to be placed on house arrest as part of an ongoing investigation into allegations of bribery and fraud. It is the first time in Colombia’s history an ex-president has been detained. Read on for an explanation for why Alvaro Uribe was placed on house arrest.
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Background to Uribe’s House Arrest
Who is Alvaro Uribe?
He was Colombia’s president from 2002 to 2010, and has served as a senator since. During his presidency, he led a “law and order” style effort to significantly weaken Colombia’s guerrilla groups. Public security did improve and violence went down in many of Colombia’s cities as guerrilla groups like the FARC and ELN were driven to more isolated rural areas.
The increased security situation did lead to increased foreign investment, and Uribe’s approach to the conflict in the post 9/11 world led to a closer relationship with the US and general praise from the international community.
However, his detractors argue that he re-intensified the conflict, leading to unnecessary suffering in the rural parts of the country. Human rights violations, while nothing new in Colombia’s conflict, did go up during his presidency. The false positives scandal, where the military dressed civilians as guerrillas and passed them off as combat deaths to increase kill counts is the best known example.
Uribe and his family have been accused of having ties to Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, even being called a close friend of Esocabar’s in a 1991 US intelligence report.
A number of Colombian politicians, including several of Uribe’s own family members were also tied to the right wing paramilitary umbrella group AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) that were notorious for human rights abuses. Uribe oversaw most of the AUC’s demobilization and reintegration into society during a transitional justice process (some elements of the group continue to operate today).
If you’d like an interesting and enlightening read on Colombia’s conflict, the role of the AUC, and how Uribe extradited several of the former AUC members, I highly recommend this New York Times article from 2016.
More recently, Uribe was the central figure in the campaign against approval of Colombia’s peace deal in a public referendum in 2016. The no campaign narrowly won the referendum, although the peace deal would later be approved by Congress with some minor changes. The referendum led to extreme polarization in Colombia.
This polarization was only further aggravated during the 2018 election, where Uribe protege Ivan Duque won against leftist candidate Gustavo Petro. The campaign was in many ways a second referendum on the peace deal, and only added to polarization.
Why is Uribe being investigated by the Colombian Supreme Court?
The origin of the charges against Uribe stem from accusations that he himself was involved in the creation of a paramilitary group. Fellow senator Iván Cepeda called out Uribe on the Senate floor with alleged testimony from ex-paramilitaries.
Uribe, denying the claims, filed charges against Cepeda, claiming bribery, fraud, and witness tampering. Ironically, after 6 years of investigation, the Supreme Court (the entity responsible for investigating sitting politicians) ruled in February 2018 that it would launch a formal inquiry into Uribe for the same charges.
In September of 2019, the actual trial itself got underway, which has brought us to Uribe on house arrest. Read more about the background and start of the trial in this article.
What is the evidence against Uribe?
These allegations are connected mostly to former ex-paramilitary Juan Guillermo Monsalve. Monsalve grew up and worked on a finca (country estate) owned by the Uribe family and claims Uribe was personally involved with the creation and operation of the paramilitary group Bloque Metro.
Monsalve was Cepeda’s source, and the accusations against Uribe boil down to him attempting to bribe Monsalve to say Cepeda bribed him. A lawyer and a senator have both been accused of offering Monsalve, in prison, perks in exchange for reversing his testimony and implicating Cepeda.
The lawyer, Diego Cadena, allegedly offered help to have Monsalve’s case reviewed. Cadena claims he did this on his own initiative and was not ordered to do so by Uribe, and he just mentioned it as a possibility during a meeting. The meeting was recorded by a hidden watch Monsalve had.
Cadena is accused of contacting a handful of other former paramilitary members and offering them money and/or legal favors in exchange for making statements in favor of Uribe and his brother Santiago (who is actually on criminal trial for paramilitary connections) and discrediting Cepeda as well. In at least one case, $48 million pesos (over 10k USD) was in fact transferred to one of the ex-paramilitary’s families for what Cadena says are “humanitarian” reasons.
During the investigation, in September 2018, the Supreme Court also announced it had wiretapped Uribe’s cell phone by accident in 2017. This happened during an investigation of Nilton Córdoba Manyoma, a member of the House of Representatives who was under investigation for corruption himself and whose contact information was listed as Uribe’s cell number in several places. Seriously, you can’t make this up. Source here (in Spanish).
This is one of the controversial parts of the investigation. Uribe’s defense team has tried multiple times to have this evidence thrown out as obtained illegally, even arguing that it is grounds to dismiss the case entirely. However, the court has ruled multiple times that it is permissible since, of Uribe by accident or not, it was a logical and legitimate wiretap during an investigation.
The contents of the taps and/or phone records have not been made public, but they, along with Monsalve’s testimony, are considered key pieces of evidence against Uribe. The proceedings of the court are closed to the public and press, but it has reported that it has additional witness testimony, recordings, and even film that all indicate Uribe was involved in witness bribery and fraud.
Read more about the evidence against Uribe in this article (in Spanish).
Has Uribe Actually Been Convicted of a Crime?
No. He has not been convicted. In fact, he has not been formally charged or put on criminal trial yet. Basically, the arrest warrant for Uribe is a preventive measure to ensure he does not flee, interfere with, or impede the investigation while it proceeds.
The court’s press release stated that Uribe’s arrest order “was adopted based on a rigorous legal study about the procedural reality, which indicates possible risks of obstruction of justice,” according to this article from El Espectador (in Spanish).
In the case that the Supreme Court rules that Uribe should stand trial, he will do so in front of a court of 3 judges known as the Sala de Primera Instancia. This is a special court for government officials, who are exempt from normal criminal courts.
What Happens After Uribe’s House Arrest?
There’s no clear time frame or deadline for the investigation to conclude. Since Uribe’s full arrest order was not publicly released, it’s not clear if it is due to new evidence, an imminent filing of charges, or just part of the ongoing investigation.
Presumably, putting out an order to detain Uribe because they fear he may further tamper with the investigation is not a sign that the investigation is going to be thrown out, but it’s not a guarantee it will go to trial either.
Uribe tweeted that being deprived of his liberty makes him feel “profound sadness for my wife, my family and the Colombians that still believe that I have done something good for the nation.” President Duque also publicly declared in a video that he has always believed in Uribe’s innocence and honor, calling him a “genuine patriot.”
He also reiterated praise shared by many Colombian’s for Uribe’s presidency and that he and his family are victims of false accusations, or dare I say a political witch hunt. Meanwhile members of Uribe’s Centro Democratico political party in the Senate called for a Constituent Assembly to reform the justice system in an effort to have the investigation dismissed. On the other hand, opposition political figures praised the decision as showing no one is above the law.
Given how polarizing Uribe is as a political figure, reaction from the public varied as well. Social media, of course, had posts from pro and anti-Uribistas, praising or lamenting the decision. There were “cacerolazos” and even marches, in Bogotá in favor of the decision. Supporters of Uribe meanwhile flooded the streets with vehicular traffic.
All of this, of course, plays out against the background of an ongoing pandemic, continued stay at home orders, and a struggling economy. It seems inevitable that Alvaro Uribe’s house arrest will re-inflame polarization as well, but it remains to be seen if it will mean an actual conviction or prison time for Uribe.