Why is Colombia’s Ex-President on Trial? – The Uribe Case Explained

This past Sunday, supporters of former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe took to the streets to protest his ongoing court case in front of the country’s Supreme Court.  The case has been at trial for a couple weeks, and is the culmination of several years of investigation.  However, the case is a bit confusing and has received remarkably little media attention despite Uribe being the first former president to ever be charged with criminal activity.  Read on to learn exactly why Alvaro Uribe is on trial.

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Photo of Alvaro Uribe walking with others in suits.
Read on to learn why Alvaro Uribe is facing criminal charges in front of Colombia’s Supreme Court.  Image Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Who is Alvaro Uribe?

Uribe is best known for serving as Colombia’s president 2002 to 2010.  Before that he had served in several local offices in his home city of Medellín including as mayor, then served in the national senate, before serving as governor of Antioquía.

As president, Uribe led a large scale effort to root out and destroy left-wing guerilla groups, most notably the FARC and ELN.  He also got many of the right wing paramilitary fighters under the umbrella AUC (Autodefensas de Colombia) to demobilize.

He successfully got the constitution changed to allow for reelection.  Upon the end of his 2nd term, his handpicked successor and former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos was elected president.  Uribe was known as the “Gran Colombiano” and was largely lauded by the international community.

Since leaving the presidency, Uribe has served as a senator.  After Santos began peace negotiations with the FARC, he publicly broke with his former protege, forming his new right wing Centro Democrático political party.  Uribe spearheaded a successful campaign against the peace agreement referendum in 2016 and the successful election of his new protege, current president Ivan Duque, in 2018.

Gran Colombiano or Narco War Criminal?

Uribe’s presidency is looked on fondly by many Colombians.  His hard line approach to the guerillas did lead to battlefield victories.  These efforts did lead to a decrease in violence in many of the country’s urban areas.  The retreat of the guerillas to the jungle reduced the area under their control and reopened previously no go areas and roads.  This led to an increased security situation in much of the country, and opened up more foreign investment.

On the other hand, critics would say his policies promoted further escalation of the conflict, and that the focus on battlefield victories failed to address other causes of the conflict such as inequality and political exclusion.  Uribe’s past is also checkered at best.  He has alleged ties to the Medellín Cartel and paramilitary groups in Antioquía.  Uribe was the head of Medellín’s Civil Aviation Authority from 1980-82 around the time that Pablo Escobar begin running large amounts of cocaine from Medellín to the US.  A 1991 US Defense Intelligence Agency brief reported Uribe was a close friend of Escobar and connected to the drug trade.

Scandal also followed his presidency.  Battlefield victories by Colombia’s armed forces came at a high cost to rural populations in conflict zones.  Most notable is the falso positivos scandal where the Colombian army soldiers killed civilians and dressed them as guerillas to meet kill quotas from Uribe and the high command.

Additionally, large numbers of politicians, including Uribe’s cousin were tried and convicted of ties to the paramilitary groups.  His brother is currently facing charges for paramilitary connections.  Uribe has also been accused of bribing senators for votes to amend the constitution for his reelection as president, and the security agency DAS was dismantled after he left office for spying on the Supreme Court while it was investigating the connections between the paramilitaries and politicians.

You can learn more about Alvaro Uribe’s biography on his wikipedia page.

Photo of Uribe with reporters asking him questions.
The former president will be answering questions from the Supreme Court this week in the Uribe trial.  Image Source:  Wikimedia Commons

So Why is Uribe on Trial in 2019?

None of the aforementioned allegations have been formally tried in a court of law.  However, Uribe currently faces witness tampering charges.  He is the first former president to face formal criminal charges, and he is the subject of several other ongoing investigations.

In 2014, Uribe filed witness tampering charges against fellow senator Ivan Cepeda, who had been interviewing former paramilitary members who claimed they had close ties to Uribe.  According to Cepeda, these witnesses claimed Uribe was responsible for the formation of the Medellín based Bloque Metro.  According to Uribe, Cepeda was running a smear campaign and bribing the witnesses to implicate him.  The Supreme Court then opened an investigation into Cepeda for supposedly manipulating witnesses based on Uribe’s allegations.

Then the case took an interesting turn.  In February 2018, the court concluded that Cepeda was innocent, and in fact he was the victim.  They concluded that it was Uribe who appeared to be manipulating witnesses and launched an investigation of him.  Several witnesses against Cepeda have since flipped and claim that Uribe’s lawyers coerced them or offered to bribe them to testify against Cepeda.  In effect, Uribe’s plan to end Cepeda’s criticism backfired dramatically.

Uribe’s trial started on September 3.  There are a total of 48 witnesses, most of which have already testified.  You can see a full list of the witnesses from Colombia Reports here.  Colombia Reports has also been doing daily write ups on the trial.

Uribe is set to testify this Tuesday October 8.

What Happens Next?

It’s hard to say, as we are largely in uncharted waters.

The trial will not conclude Tuesday, and it is unclear if the court would actually convict Uribe.  The proceedings are not open to the public, and little has been reported of what witnesses have said so far.  Therefore, it would be surprising if there are any revelations Tuesday, and the investigation will likely go on for some time more.

If Uribe is convicted, he could face jail time.  This case could also open up access to evidence to move forward any number of other investigations into Uribe (276 in total according to this report).

Meanwhile Uribe’s supporters have another march planned for Tuesday.  His popularity has dropped in recent polls, but his most devoted supporters are extremely loyal.  In Colombia’s extremely polarized political climate, it is unclear what the prospects of jail time for arguably its most influential single politician might mean.

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