Twitter, Uribe-era abuses and WikiLeaks. Today’s biggest story has all the elements of a juicy 21st-century Colombian political scandal. But what will be the impact of the latest accusations of top-level involvement in illegal wiretapping?
Until recently, the latest WikiLeaks saga seemed to have neglected Colombia altogether. Because the leaked documents this time were American diplomatic cables, it makes sense that the major revelations would concern areas of major strategic importance to the United States, such as Iran and North Korea. Latin America was conspicuously absent from the big WikiLeaks-related headlines because it is nowadays little more than a blip on Washington’s radar screen. If the confidential cables revealed anything consequential about Colombia and its neighbors, it was that an overstretched U.S. government was steadily and willingly ceding regional leadership to Brazil.
However, latest round of leaked documents, published over the past day or so, included some explosive allegations about the Colombian government. In a November 2009 cable, then-U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield reported that an unnamed but reliable source within the Colombian government suspected Bernardo Moreno and Jose Obdulio Gaviria, both top aides to former President Alvaro Uribe, of ordering the illegal wiretapping of opposition figures.
That source, it turns out, was national police commander Oscar Naranjo, an accomplished official with a reputation for professional and personal integrity. Naranjo had no conclusive evidence to back up his suspicions, but Brownfield seemed to trust him. In the ambassador’s words, the police chief was “perhaps the smartest, best informed” Colombian government official and a man whose speculation has “a pretty good track record of success.”
Indeed. With respect to Moreno, Naranjo turned out to be right. The government found Uribe’s former chief of staff guilty of participating in the wiretapping and handed him an 18-year public office ban. Moreno was also one of at least two former members of the government under investigation who recently fled abroad. In a recent interview with his former vice president, Uribe admitted that he had personally advised several of his top officials to take refuge in foreign countries.
Gaviria, for his part, has not yet been convicted of any crime and, in a practice that has become customary in Colombian politics, took to his Twitter account to vent his anger. Over one four-hour period, he “Tweeted” about twenty times, calling Naranjo a traitor and demanding that he back up his allegations with proof. Gaviria also added Naranjo to a list of people who he claims are out to get him, including members of the media, FARC guerrilla leaders and former judicial officials.
For the most part, these early Tweets were predictable. It is natural for Gaviria to lash out at Naranjo, although if I were a top “Uribista” I would feel more “betrayed” by the Americans. Uribe spent eight years strengthening ties with the U.S., but it now seems that Washington was justifiably suspicious of problems within the Colombian government, problems that went far beyond what Uribe’s loyal officials were willing to reveal.
Gaviria’s later Tweets were significantly more alarming. In one post, he went beyond simply criticizing Naranjo and called for an uprising of “Uribista fervor” against cowards and traitors. He appeared to defend his loyalty almost as much as his innocence, emphasizing his role in protecting armed forces from supposed slander. This is not exactly a good public relations strategy. Inciting a backlash against whistleblowers is exactly the kind of undemocratic political maneuvering of which he is accused. Nor should he take pride in his unconditional defense of the Colombian military. Although it is generally a professional force, the army certainly deserved some harsh criticism over its role in hundreds of extrajudicial executions. Gaviria would also do well to remember that accusing Naranjo of lying or otherwise engaging in criminal activity is plainly silly. The former national police chief is easily one of the most widely respected and accomplished members of the armed forces.
Gaviria’s somewhat peculiar response is part of a telling pattern of behavior among disgraced former Uribe officials. They tend to defend their own loyalty even before claiming innocence. They call their accusers “traitors” and seem to believe that their allegiance to Uribe’s cause should protect them from criminal investigation. For example, in interviews with journalist Daniel Coronell, former DAS director Maria del Pilar Hurtado expressed her dismay at being betrayed by her subordinates and abandoned by her superiors. As judicial investigators inched closer and closer to arresting her, she complained to Uribe that he had looked after everybody but her, to which he responded by encouraging her to seek asylum abroad.
This is the ugly side of the Colombian government under Uribe. In the political culture of the time, allegiance often mattered more than the law. Snitching on a fellow member of the government was almost more reprehensible than the actual wrongdoing of which officials are now accused. Indeed, with all this talk of undying loyalty and punishing traitors, one could be forgiven for mistaking the unraveling drama of the Uribe administration with a classic mafia film or, more appropriately, the popular Colombian soap opera “El cartel de los sapos” (The Cartel of Snitches).
The key difference, of course, is that the government’s business was not drug trafficking or racketeering but the complete domination of Colombian politics. But, with or without the former president’s knowledge, the Uribista political machine’s ruthlessness and success depended partly on a code of unconditional loyalty and silence. Like the organization of classic mafias, this code was not only unethical but also remarkably fragile. Indeed, just months after Uribe left office, many of his top officials have publicly and privately accused one another of criminal activities, and a fair number of high-ranking members of government one have already been convicted or crimes or have fled abroad to avoid their imminent arrest.
The leak has obviously shaken up the political scandal surrounding the wiretapping, but it is unlikely to have much of an impact beyond simply accelerating the judiciary’s ongoing investigations. Naranjo may ultimately be called as a key witness in the DAS case. There is also a small chance that Washington’s now public reservations about the integrity of the Uribe government will affect Bogota’s recent request that the U.S. government grant the former president legal immunity. Uribe, who has a teaching gig at an American university, has been subpoenaed in a U.S. civil case against coal mining giant Drummond, whom prosecutors accuse of collaborating with the paramilitary group AUC. Some victims’ groups allege that the former president was aware of Drummond’s links to the death squads.
Still, more generally, the DAS investigations have already had a much deeper impact. Just months after the end of Uribe’s second term, they have fundamentally changed the heated debate about his presidency. Years ago, anybody accusing that the president or his top officials of wrongdoing was called a guerrilla sympathizer. Today, many Uribistas seem to have accepted the fact that the former president’s war on guerrillas was wrought with excesses that undermined both human rights Colombian democracy. The key point of contention now is whether the ends justified the means.
It seems like a large number of Colombians still believe they did, but that is likely to change for at least two reasons. One is rising rates of violence – 2010 was the most violent year in recent memory – that suggest that the accomplishments of Uribe’s highly flawed security policy were unsustainable. The second is that we cannot yet judge the full costs of these security gains. What we know about Uribe-era abuses is clearly just the tip of the iceberg. As Colombians begin to re-evaluate both the ends and the means of Uribe’s policies, many of them may ultimately change their mind about his legacy.