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.


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.

In April, in response to mounting pressure from FTA supporters, President Obama announced that he would send the treaty to Congress for ratification once Colombia begins implementing a mutually agreed “action plan” to improve workers’ rights. Thanks to Republicans’ gains in the midterm elections, ratification is almost certain. Still, House Democrats disappointed with Obama’s action plan—which falls far short of the human rights requirements they had sought—are expected to make one final effort to use the FTA debate to press for progress on the crucial issues omitted from the plan.

The plan’s most glaring omission is any mention of the powerful armed groups, led largely by former AUC members, that continue to kill trade unionists and, increasingly, leaders of displaced communities seeking to reclaim their lands. These groups no longer present themselves as a national counterinsurgency movement, but they do continue to traffic illegal drugs and terrorize civilians the way the AUC once did. They are the legacy of Uribe’s approach to “justice and peace.”

Former Governor Arana and another Sucre official denounced by Mayor Tito Díaz were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences in December 2009. It took years to bring them to trial, and nine potential witnesses were murdered along the way. The following April, shortly after the birth of his first child, Juan David Díaz received a note signed by one of the new armed groups:

You can’t imagine what pleasure it gives us to remember that around this date seven years ago we killed your father…but we see the work is still not complete…. We have not forgotten you, on the contrary we think your [death] should be slow and painful and even worse than Tito’s. Greetings to your wife and your son and your sisters and your mother.

Juan David is back in hiding, far from his family.

—May 24, 2011