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Death and Drugs in Colombia

Fernando Vergara/AP Images
Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, right, and President-Elect Juan Manuel Santos at a military ceremony in Bogotá the day before Santos took office, August 2010

Lopez’s findings, published online in September 2005, initially drew little attention. But as the country geared up for congressional elections the following March, her study was picked up in the media. By election day, “parapolitics” had become a household term. By summer, several Supreme Court justices felt they had to take a closer look at the allegations. In September, they opened a formal inquiry, following the leads provided by Petro and López.

The investigation would probably have gone nowhere had it not been for the country’s other top court—the Constitutional Court—which issued a ruling that overhauled Uribe’s Justice and Peace program. Paramilitaries would be required to give “full” and “truthful” confessions and serve their sentences in real prisons. These changes made the paramilitary commanders nervous, and they began disclosing bits of information regarding their dealings with Uribe’s political allies. The aim, it seemed, was to warn the politicians: if we go down, we’ll take you down with us.

The most dramatic revelation was a document reported in the press the following November, the 2001 Ralito Pact, in which politicians (including Sucre’s Governor Arana) and paramilitaries pledged to work together to “refound the nation.” It was the first incontrovertible proof of the collusion denounced by Díaz, Petro, and López. And as the Supreme Court expanded its investigation, evidence began to mount that the ties between the paramilitaries and members of Uribe’s coalition had been extensive.


Around that time, a political battle erupted in Washington over the US–Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Congressional Democrats were refusing to ratify the treaty until Colombia improved its human rights record by, among other things, reducing violence against trade unionists, who were being assassinated at a higher rate in Colombia than anywhere else in the world.

Republican (and some Democratic) policymakers and pundits bitterly criticized the Democratic leadership for this opposition. Their bitterness reflected concerns about geopolitics more than trade. Uribe had been the Bush administration’s most steadfast ally in Latin America, openly endorsing the US “war on terror,” while his Venezuelan neighbor, Hugo Chávez, was gleefully promoting anti-Washington sentiment in the region. Moreover, they argued, unlike the authoritarian Chávez, Uribe was a champion of democracy. They even seized upon the parapolitics revelations as proof of his credentials: in Uribe’s Colombia, they claimed, no one was above the law.

Within Colombia, however, Uribe was delivering a very different message. He denounced the Supreme Court’s investigations, likening them to a FARC abduction, and accused the justices of abetting terrorism. In Colombia, such incendiary accusations can be life-threatening. Several justices began receiving death threats. They were insulted by strangers in the street and shunned by friends. Some stopped going out in public.

But the court did not stop investigating parapolitics. If anything, Uribe’s attacks only strengthened its resolve. By April 2008, the court’s investigations had put dozens of elected officials behind bars—including Senator Mario Uribe, the President’s second cousin and one of his closest political allies.

Within weeks of his relative’s arrest, President Uribe surprised the court by rounding up fourteen top paramilitary leaders (including Mancuso) and flying them to the United States to face drug charges. For Uribe’s backers in Washington, the mass extradition was crowning proof of his commitment to bringing the paramilitaries to justice.

But for those who had been struggling against the paramilitaries in Colombia, it showed just the opposite. After years of shielding the AUC commanders from extradition, Uribe packed them off to the United States only after they began collaborating with local investigations.

This suspicion was reinforced in early 2009 when the Colombian news magazine Semana revealed that the country’s national intelligence agency (DAS), which answers directly to the president, had been carrying out extensive illegal surveillance against Supreme Court justices, including allegedly bugging their chambers and stealing case files, as well as against other public figures who had questioned Uribe’s policies. Leaked DAS files subsequently revealed that the agency had sought to smear Uribe’s critics by generating suspicions of guerrilla ties, corruption, or adultery. The files also showed that the DAS had been making death threats. Its instructions for dealing with the journalist Claudia Julieta Duque, for example, included this:

Make the call near the installations of police intelligence. Don’t stutter, or take longer than 49 seconds…. Greeting: Good morning (afternoon)…. Señora, are you the mother of María Alejandra (wait for answer). Well I have to tell you that you’ve left us no other option…. Now we have to go after what you love most, for being a bitch and for sticking your nose in what’s not your business….

Duque, who fled the country after receiving this threat, said the caller faithfully followed the script, and added that her ten-year-old daughter would be raped and burned alive, and the child’s fingers scattered around her home.


Why might Uribe have wanted to sabotage the parapolitics investigations?

The paramilitary commanders had begun confessing to increasingly sinister forms of collusion with his subordinates. Some dated back to the mid-1990s, when Uribe was the governor of the central northwestern state of Antioquia, at the height of paramilitary expansion in the area. According to paramilitary confessions, Uribe’s chief of staff met repeatedly with them to coordinate the creation of civilian militias, which served as paramilitary fronts and committed atrocities. The commanders had even informed the chief of staff of a major massacre beforehand, Mancuso said.

Paramilitaries also confessed to judicial investigators that they had collaborated extensively with military officers, both before and during Uribe’s presidency, including two generals Uribe chose to lead branches of the armed forces. Perhaps most damning was evidence of collaboration with top DAS officials—including the President’s intelligence chief, who allegedly supplied the AUC with names of trade unionists who were then assassinated. Other troubling allegations involved Uribe’s younger brother—who has been accused of running a paramilitary group in Antioquia—and the use of his own cattle ranch as a meeting place for paramilitaries.

To date, only one former paramilitary has implicated Uribe himself directly in paramilitary activity—yet his testimony was full of inconsistencies. He was assassinated in 2009.

Uribe and his top officials have denied all those allegations. The people who would know the full extent of whatever collaboration took place on Uribe’s watch are the ones he extradited to the US. Since the extradition, however, they have essentially stopped cooperating with Colombian investigators. Several—including Mancuso—have explained that if they revealed all they know, they would be unable to protect their families from reprisals in Colombia.


The judicial investigations in Colombia have already yielded much valuable and disturbing information, however. And They Refounded the Nation, a collection of essays by Claudia López and a team of Colombian scholars, is the first comprehensive effort to make sense of it all. The most basic conclusion of their book is that Colombia’s paramilitary problem was far worse than even they had imagined.

As recently as 2007, analysts estimated that the paramilitaries had killed 50,000 people. Colombia’s attorney general’s office now estimates that this number is more than 140,000.

Then there is the scope of collusion. A third of the 2002 Congress—and half of Uribe’s coalition in the Senate—has come under criminal investigation for alleged paramilitary ties. More than two dozen legislators have been convicted. Hundreds of local officials—including governors and mayors—have also been implicated.

Finally, there is the scope of the paramilitaries’ ambitions. López’s book shows that the Ralito Pact’s reference to “refounding the nation”—from which the book takes its title—was not merely pompous rhetoric. Rather, it reflected a broader objective shared by the AUC commanders and local politicians and landholders: to legalize the enormous wealth and power they had amassed during years of paramilitary expansion.

The paramilitaries had driven more than one million poor farmers off their lands, preparing the way for what the authors refer to as a “counter-agrarian reform.” Large landholders and investors—including paramilitaries and other traffickers—acquired the land, and corrupt officials helped them obtain title. As one former paramilitary put it: “We went in killing, others followed buying, and the third group legalized.”

The extradition of AUC commanders did not end this project. On the contrary, López writes, “the land, wealth and political capital amassed through violence by narco paramilitarism remained in the hands of an emergent and hybrid elite” made up of large landholders, local politicians, drug traffickers, and former AUC members who had avoided extradition.

With the help of the paramilitary collaborators in Congress, Uribe passed laws allowing him to run for reelection in 2006, and again in 2010. This upset the country’s system of checks and balances, of which the one-term presidency was an essential feature. If Uribe served a third term, his ability to control the justice system—and derail the investigations—would only increase.

By 2009, that outcome seemed almost certain, with Uribe’s popularity as high as ever, thanks largely to his success against the FARC. And yet, for much of the Colombian political establishment, the President’s stock had fallen. The increasing concentration of power in his hands had begun to worry the traditional political elites, who prided themselves in having steered the country clear of authoritarian rule for decades.

What also tipped the scales against Uribe was the US Congress’s refusal to ratify the free trade agreement—a position that had been reinforced by the revelations about the paramilitaries and their political allies. This was a major political setback for Uribe, and it helped convince many within the establishment that their president had become a liability.

In February 2010, the Constitutional Court ruled that Uribe could not seek a third term. Uribe accepted the ruling, perhaps because he realized that the establishment would no longer back him in a confrontation with the judiciary. Yet it was widely assumed that he would continue to wield considerable power even out of office—especially after his former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos won the presidency in a landslide, promising to continue his predecessor’s security policies.


Santos surprised many when, as his first official act as president, he met with the Supreme Court and promised a new era of respect for the judiciary. This rapprochement could have merely reflected the fact that Santos, who came from the old Bogotá establishment, brought a far less confrontational approach to politics than the cattle rancher from Antioquia.

But soon he went further in marking his distance from Uribe. He announced that his top legislative priority would be a sweeping “Victims Law” that would, among other things, help displaced people reclaim their stolen lands. Uribe had vehemently opposed similar legislation.

By the end of the year, some of Uribe’s most outspoken critics—including López and Petro—had become cautiously hopeful. Santos, they believed, understood that rolling back the parapolitical project was key to repairing the country’s image abroad and restoring the dominance of the political establishment in Bogotá. By returning stolen lands and allowing parapolitics investigations to advance unhindered, Santos could undercut the power of the new “hybrid elite,” who remained far more loyal to Uribe than to him. And progress on both would put him in a much better position to win the prize that had eluded his predecessor: ratification of the FTA.

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