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Death and Drugs in Colombia

Y refundaron la patria…: De cómo mafiosos y políticos reconfiguraron el Estado colombiano [And They Refounded the Nation…: How Mafiosi and Politicians Reconfigured the Colombian State]

edited by Claudia López Hernández
Bogotá: Random House Mondadori, 524 pp., COL $49,000.00
Stephen Ferry
Downtown Medellín viewed through bullet-punctured glass, with a billboard reproduction of a painting by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero at lower left, February 2004


In February 2003, the mayor of a small town on Colombia’s Caribbean coast stood up at a nationally televised meeting with then President Álvaro Uribe and announced his own murder. “Señor Presidente, I am the mayor of El Roble,” Tito Díaz said as he walked toward the stage where Uribe sat with several cabinet ministers and officials from the state of Sucre, where the meeting was held. Pacing back and forth before the President, Díaz delivered what was probably the first public denunciation of a web of violence and corruption involving politicians and paramilitary groups—what he called a “macabre alliance”—that would eventually become an explosive national scandal. Singling out several local officials, including the governor, Salvador Arana, seated at the President’s side, Díaz declared: “And now they’re going to kill me.”

President Uribe listened impassively for several minutes, then cut the mayor off midsentence: “Mr. Mayor, we have allowed this disorder because of the gravity of the matter, but we also ask that you be considerate of our time.” Uribe is a small, tidy man, with a bland face that is boyish yet stern. When he addresses the public, it is with the commanding tone of the wealthy cattle rancher and the intensity of a man on a mission. “With utmost pleasure,” Uribe then assured Díaz that he would order an investigation, “for transparency cannot have exceptions, and security is for all Colombians.”

Within weeks, the national police stripped Díaz of his bodyguards. On April 5, 2003, he disappeared. On April 10 his corpse appeared on the edge of Sucre’s main highway. He had been tortured, shot, and left in a crucifix position—feet crossed, arms extended, palms upturned—with his mayoral certification card perched on his forehead. A note, found later at his house, told his family he was setting out for a “dangerous meeting” with Arana. “If anything happens to me,” it said, they should flee.

The mayor’s then-twenty-three-year-old son, Juan David Díaz, left Sucre. But he did not abandon his father’s case. Instead he joined a small, disparate group of Colombians—mostly journalists, justice officials, and other victims’ families—who were seeking accountability for paramilitary crimes. Until then, attempts to investigate such cases had rarely produced results, other than the death of those who pursued them. Yet remarkably, over the next several years, their efforts would bring about what few had imagined possible in 2003: investigations—like the one Uribe had promised Tito Díaz—that would uncover a “macabre alliance” far more extensive and sinister than what the murdered mayor had denounced on TV.


Uribe, who was succeeded last summer by his former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, may have been the most popular president Colombia has ever had. He took office in 2002 with a 69 percent approval rating; when he stepped down last August it was at 75 percent. He was also a favorite of George W. Bush—who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom—and received high praise from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Administration officials have held up his policies as models for Afghanistan and Mexico, both struggling with a similar confluence of drug trafficking, corruption, and terror. Uribe’s presidency has provided Washington what it needs to counter the pessimism those other situations inspire: a success story.

The story goes like this. When Uribe took office, Colombia was on the verge of becoming a failed state. Two illegal armed groups financed through drug trafficking—the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the United Self-Defense Forces (AUC)—were terrorizing civilians. The larger was the FARC, a leftist guerrilla army founded in the 1960s that had grown in the late 1990s to 20,000 combatants and by 2002 was encroaching upon Bogotá, the capital. It dominated vast regions of the countryside.

The AUC was a network of right-wing paramilitary groups that had wrested control of large stretches of the country from the guerrillas using a simple but effective strategy: causing communities to fear them more than they already feared the FARC. They massacred civilians by the dozen in town squares. They quartered people with chainsaws, cut off tongues and testicles. They often made sport of the slaughter—sometimes literally, as when they played soccer with the decapitated heads of their victims.

Uribe campaigned for president promising to provide “security for all Colombians.” Once in office, he imposed a “security tax” on the wealthy and used the revenue—along with billions in US aid—to expand counterinsurgency operations, driving the guerrillas from the cities, highways, and towns. This campaign gradually deprived the FARC of its strategic initiative, while causing it to lose half its combatants, most to desertion.

According to the success story, Uribe’s achievements in dealing with the paramilitaries were even more dramatic: peace talks with AUC commanders led to the dismantling of their organization, the voluntary demobilization of more than 30,000 combatants, and an end to all paramilitary activity in Colombia. What’s more, AUC commanders agreed to prosecution for their many crimes in exchange for reduced prison sentences. The deal was unprecedented for Latin America, whose governments have a long history of granting blanket amnesties to end armed conflicts. Rather than sacrifice justice for peace, Uribe found a way to have both: the program was named “Justice and Peace.”

The story is impressive. But it is largely untrue. Uribe’s success in diminishing the power of the FARC was real, albeit marred by egregious human rights violations, and contributed to a dramatic drop in the national homicide rate. But the account of his deal with the AUC was fundamentally false, especially the notion that it was a new, improved version of the settlements other governments had made with armed political groups. In fact, what the deal more closely resembled was the one Colombia had made a decade earlier with the man who was then its most powerful and feared crime boss: Pablo Escobar.


In the mid-1980s, Escobar negotiated with the Colombian authorities to protect himself and other drug traffickers from extradition to the United States. When the negotiations failed, Escobar embarked on a campaign of mass murder that eventually won him a constitutional ban on extradition and special permission to serve time for his crimes in a luxurious “prison” he had built for himself on a hillside overlooking Medellín. But when pressure mounted in both Washington and Bogotá to end this arrangement, he abandoned the house and was soon on the run, not only from the Colombian police, but also from the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the CIA, and Delta Force commandos. The hunt culminated in December 1993 when Escobar was gunned down on a Medellín rooftop.

The paramilitary bosses who founded the AUC just over three years later were mostly former associates of Escobar. They had gotten their start as leaders of vigilante groups set up in the 1980s to deter guerrillas from kidnapping drug traffickers. These groups had joined forces with large landholders and, with the military’s support, expanded their operations from targeted retaliations to more widespread violence against suspected guerrilla allies, including leftist politicians and trade unionists.

These paramilitary forces united to form the AUC in 1997, partly to coordinate their military activities, and partly because the Colombian Congress was on the verge of lifting the ban on extraditions. The commanders apparently realized that, to avoid prosecution in the US, they might eventually need to strike a deal with the government that was more durable than Escobar’s had been. They announced that their new organization would refrain from drug trafficking and pursue exclusively “anti-subversive” aims. And over the next five years, they carried out a PR campaign—involving prime-time TV interviews and a best-selling authorized biography of a top commander—to rebrand the paramilitaries as primarily a political group.

They did not abandon drug trafficking, however. In fact, by the time of Uribe’s election in 2002, the AUC had become the most powerful network of drug traffickers in the country’s history. Several weeks after his inauguration, the first US extradition request arrived, for two of its top commanders, on drug charges.

Uribe could have used the threat of extradition to press the paramilitary bosses to come clean. Instead, he established the Justice and Peace program, in which the “justice” component was largely a sham. The AUC commanders would be “incarcerated” for as few as three years on farms instead of in prisons, without turning over all their illicit wealth or naming their accomplices. They would emerge with their criminal networks intact, immune from further prosecution—and extradition—for the crimes to which they had “confessed.” It was essentially the same prize Escobar had fought for. But as the product of a “peace” deal, it had a veneer of the legitimacy that could make it last.

In July 2004, the Uribe government arranged for the AUC commanders to make their case for “peace” before Colombia’s Congress. Salvatore Mancuso, one of the commanders named in the 2002 extradition request, led the delegation. Mancuso had helped plan many of the AUC’s most horrific massacres, and had become one of Colombia’s most powerful drug bosses, a new Escobar.

Mancuso arrived in a Valentino suit, with a large security detail supplied by the government, and delivered a forty-five-minute speech—broadcast on national TV—in which he praised the AUC’s accomplishments against the FARC and declared triumphantly: “The judgment of History will recognize the goodness and greatness of our cause!”

He received a spirited ovation. Several months later, Uribe suspended his extradition order.


In her Bogotá home, the journalist Claudia López watched Mancuso’s speech in horror. How could it be that members of Congress were publicly applauding a mass-murdering drug trafficker? The question would haunt her in the coming months as she began traveling around the country and found, in many places, that people became visibly afraid when asked about local politicians.

She got the answer she feared the following May in another nationally televised broadcast from Congress. The speaker was Gustavo Petro, a congressman from a left-of-center political party—and the subject was Sucre. Petro had started investigating the region after a visit from Juan David Díaz, who came to Bogotá seeking help to bring his father’s killers to justice.

Petro began his televised presentation with footage of Tito Díaz denouncing the “macabre alliance” to President Uribe two years earlier. He then laid out evidence he had gathered supporting the murdered mayor’s allegations. And he warned that the collusion between politicians and paramilitaries—what he would later call “parapolitics”—was not limited to Sucre, but instead was the main threat to the rule of law facing the entire country.

Moved by Petro’s speech, the thirty-five-year-old Lopez spent months searching for government data that might corroborate his warning. Comparing election results with statistics on paramilitary violence, she discovered that the members of Congress she had seen applauding Mancuso had been elected with highly atypical majorities in districts controlled by the AUC. The paramilitaries, it seemed, had fixed the elections.

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