Posted by Julián Esteban Torres López on Apr 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Uribe’s broken promises, Part 1

Colombia news - uribe 2002

Former President Alvaro Uribe is on a Twitter tirade claiming his successor Juan Manuel Santos has not lived up to 2010 campaign pledges. Not only is this false, but the former President is conveniently forgetting a large number of promises he broke himself.

In fact, his failures to observe and fulfill his own proposed objectives are too numerous and remarkable to forget. They are so numerous that they wouldn’t fit in one op-ed.

This is Part One of a series of five that compares (a) the promises Uribe made before the 2002 elections and the discourse held during his presidency and (b) what actually transpired.

This series specifically focuses on the following five broken promises:

  • “Increasing judicial action against crimes of high social impact”
  • “Strengthening public institutions”
  • “Preventing forced displacement”
  • “Facilitating the return of forcefully displaced people”
  • “Safeguarding civilians from violations of civil liberties and human rights”

Broken Promise #1:  Increasing judicial action against crimes of high social impact

Paramilitary demobilization

The justice and peace process, long cheered by the U.S. and Uribe for the demobilization of 31,000 paramilitaries, fell quite short from what was originally promised by the Uribe government when it instated the Justice and Peace Law 975 (2005). It was this law that allowed Uribe’s administration to state that in Colombia paramilitarism was extinct and identified those who argued otherwise as trying to undermine the successes of Uribe’s Democratic Security and Defense Policy (DSDP).  This is exactly what Defense Minister Gabriel Silva claimed in February 2010 after Human Rights Watch came out with a 122-page report, entitled “Paramilitaries’ Heirs: The New Face of Violence in Colombia,” whose findings concluded that Uribe had “failed to treat the rise of successor groups with the seriousness the problem requires.” The report documented the “widespread and serious abuses” of the neo-paramilitaries.

The successes of the Justice and Peace Law were overstated during Uribe’s tenure. The government claimed that 35,000 of total terrorists who had demobilized could be found working and studying.  Yet, non-governmental studies kept contradicting government figures. For example, Amnesty International’s 2010 annual report on Colombia concluded that

“[o]nly around 3,700 of the 31,000 paramilitaries who had allegedly demobilized since 2003 had participated in the Justice and Peace process by the end of 2009.  However, the whereabouts of many of these were unknown. […]  Some 90 per cent of those who were demobilized continued to escape effective investigation as a result of Decree 128 and Law 782, which grant de facto amnesties to those not under investigation for human rights violations.  In June, congress approved a law to regularize the legal status of 19,000 supposedly demobilized paramilitaries after the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that they could not benefit from amnesties.  The law authorized the Attorney General to suspend, interrupt or abandon investigations against them, thus enabling them to evade justice.  […] By the end of the year, no paramilitary had been sentenced under the Justice Peace process.”

Such findings suggested that the promises of the Law had not materialized during the time of Uribe.

Balancing the scales of justice

The purpose of the Justice and Peace Law, however, was not only to demobilize terrorists for the sake of peace, but also to balance the scale of justice.  Repairing victims supposed to be one of the main aspects of the process, but was also a failure.  For starters, the first ever hearing held between both victims and paramilitaries occurred in April of 2010, a whole seven years after demobilization commenced and five years after Congress approved the law.  In June of 2010, the National Reparation and Reconciliation Commission (NRRC) even declared that reparations to victims had been “absolutely insufficient.”  The Commission’s head, Eduardo Pizarro, was very critical of the process and said that the problem with the Justice and Peace Law was that

“[i]t doesn’t say when they [paramilitaries] should deliver the reparations, and the Supreme Court hasn’t said either.  If you ask me what is the main reason for this, it is because of legal loopholes.  They left open the possibility for them to give reparations after their sentences…[allowing them to] take advantage of five years of making the resources disappear, to sell everything and hide their tracks. […] Also, they are selling their resources to honest buyers, and to take away [from those honest buyers] what they bought is something virtually legally impossible.  We gave them [the paramilitaries] a gift: five years to make their resources disappear.”

Land grab violence

Pizarro elaborated on the fact that there was new violence against the victims who were trying to reclaim the lands they lost through forced displacement.  On a different level, after the main paramilitary leaders were jailed and later extradited to the US, Pizarro added that “their deputies, front men, and mid-level leaders [were forced] to wage war against each other and those threatening their ownership to the land deeds.”

This fight for the land grab had further impact in damaging the progress of the Justice and Peace Law.  Many victims who can apply for reparations do not because, as Corporación Arco Iris (Colombian think-tank) has explained, they either do not know they can or “the presence of armed groups impedes their mobility.”  Many have been assassinated or had their lives threatened, which keeps them from registering as victims or making claims.  By April 2010, the Ministry of Interior had received almost 1,500 requests for protection, of which only 214 were granted.  According to Corporación Arco Iris, of victims eligible to file a claim, around 60 percent had not.


This is a staggering figure since according to a report by the Justice and Peace unit of the Prosecutor General’s Office, as of April 2010, 305,957 victims had registered and sought reparations.  From these claims, over 200,000 sought reparations for assassinations, about 30,000 for forced disappearances, and some 10,000 for being kidnapped.  Since demobilization began, only 10,500 claims for reparations (through April 2010) had been approved.  Sadly, because the government denied the existence of paramilitary groups, victims of the conflict ran out of time in April of 2010 to submit a claim for reparations under Uribe’s presidency.  Thus, most of the victims of the recent armed conflict had not only not been repaired, but would not be able to while Uribe was in power.  Yet, extra-judicial executions, forced displacement, torture, kidnapping, disappearances, etc., continued at the hands of neo-paramilitaries, guerrillas, narco-traffickers, and, even more unfortunately, the Colombian armed forces.  As Pizarro suggested during Uribe’s period in office, the deadline for filing claims should be lifted indefinitely until the cycle of violence was over.

Accommodating the paramilitaries

In addition, most of the paramilitary warlords, responsible for tens of thousands of assassinations, would not be tried for crimes against humanity, but, instead, were extradited to the U.S. to be tried for narco-trafficking and, in accordance with a deal made with the Uribe administration, would receive up to eight years in prison if found guilty.  As Jasmin Hristov, in her book Blood and Capital: The Paramilitarization of Colombia, claimed, Uribe’s negotiation with the paramilitaries looked more and more like a legalization of the paramilitaries and not a sincere demobilization effort.

Neglecting the concerns of the real victims

Further, civil society—the real victim of the conflict—was excluded from negotiations with the paramilitaries.  In fact, though on paper and abroad Uribe publicly recognized the paramilitaries as terrorists, his administration time and again tried to justify their crimes, accommodate them, and even did its best to pardon all paramilitary crimes—such as through Decree 128 of 2003.  Hristov was correct to point out that one major flaw of the Justice and Peace Law was the “failure to consider the rights of victims to truth, justice, and reparation.”  She further recognized, like many others, that a roadblock for the country’s reconciliation process—along with establishing justice and truth gathering—was Uribe’s decision not to set a date, or goal, for establishing some form of history that chronicled the nation’s violence  (at the hands of the state, paramilitaries, guerrillas, etc.).

Hristov’s concern is a key element for the country to be able to move forward with the reconciliation process, which is so important for individuals in order to start the healing process.  Fortunately, at the hands of the judiciary—one of the few institutions Uribe was not able to fully control—some of the focus has been redirected from ‘punishing’ victimizers to dealing with the concerns of the victims.  In June of 2010, the Ministry of Justice, after many complaints of Uribe’s extradition practices and the court’s denying the extradition of other paramilitary bosses, the law was amended through decree 2288 of June 25, 2010.  Now, a demobilized paramilitary must meet with the process of national reparation before being extradited.  This means crimes against humanity would finally start taking a priority over drug trafficking.  Though Uribe claimed his government did the best it could to ensure the participation of the paramilitaries in the justice and peace process, those very same paramilitaries often complained that their extradition actually impeded their participation.  Uribe’s policies failed millions by persecuting the victims and rewarding the victimizers.


Such level of leniency and impunity for paramilitaries was not surprising.  Before negotiations, and even during, the paramilitaries never hid the fact they were working with the government’s traditional parties since they had a common goal: eradicate the guerrilla and hold on to wealth and dominance.  As the paramilitaries claimed in January of 1997 in a letter directed to the Ombudsman and published in El Tiempo, “We don’t pretend to replace the State in its functions, but complement its action in those areas and circumstances in which its presence is insufficient or nonexistent.”  In fact, the paramilitaries considered themselves the saviors of democracy and the republic.  They believed Colombians were indebted to them for their “patriotic sacrifice,” as they understood it, and such patriotism should not be repaid with prison.

In 2004, the leader of the paramilitaries, Salvatore Mancuso, claimed that 35 percent of the Congress was on his payroll.  A high state functionary, that same year, expressed concern when stating, “The political project of the paramilitaries is more dangerous than its military project.”  Uribe himself, on 23 September 2003, regarded the paramilitaries as “groups of private justice,” not hiding his support for the government labelled terrorist group.  Six years later, the Colombia’s Prosecutor General, Mario Iguaran, after conducting investigations into massacres long ignored, came to the conclusion that, unlike previously understood, “The paramilitaries did not seek politicians but the politicians sought [the help of] paramilitaries.”  It was also discovered that Mancuso’s 35 percent statistic was a low estimate, and most of the political representatives who were under investigation for paramilitary ties were Uribistas.

Avoidance of International Criminal Court

Uribe also did not help increase judicial action against crimes of high social impact when it came to the International Criminal Court (ICC).  In a 19 October 2009 report by the Peace and Justice Office, over 27,000 of almost 50,000 missing persons were known to have occurred at the hands of illegally armed groups, of which the paramilitaries were responsible for 75 percent and the guerrillas for 25 percent.  Most of these reports came from disappearance cases that occurred from 1988 to 2002.  Though these cases are considered crimes against humanity and could be investigated by the ICC, Colombia’s decision on the Rome Statute only allowed the ICC to investigate cases that occurred after November of 2002, ultimately providing the perpetrators of these crimes impunity.  In the end, what can be said about Uribe’s DSDP, like the Justice and Peace Law, is that it did not live up to its name.

For example, in October of 2008 reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International (annual report) concluded that the Colombian government under Uribe’s leadership was not making progress investigating paramilitary crimes and diminishing paramilitary influence over Colombian governmental institutions.  The Human Rights Watch report even claimed that the government was taking action to sabotage investigations.  The Amnesty International Report concluded that the Uribe administration was in denial regarding the armed conflict and the situation of human rights abuses in Colombia. Instead of challenging or directly addressing the human rights and judicial concerns provided by the reports, Uribe was quick to identify the organizations publishing the reports as terrorist sympathizers.

Above the rule of law

Uribe’s actions and rhetoric made it clear he only wanted punishment for the guerrillas and opposition, not for crimes enacted by paramilitaries, his administration, Uribistas, and his military.  For example, when, in June of 2010, Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega was found guilty of forced civilian disappearances during the 1985 army siege of the Palace of Justice, Uribe’s response demonstrated that he would support his military even if its members too committed the same terrorist acts as the guerrillas.  Uribe and the Ministry of Defense expressed their “deep sorrow for the consequences of the court ruling that sentenced a soldier of the homeland. This painful and sad feeling is shared at all levels amongst ground, air, and sea soldiers, and their families. [The Ministry] manifests in these difficult times its solidarity with the Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega and his respected family.”  Uribe publicly addressed the Colonel’s ruling, criticized the court, and sided with the Colonel, claiming that the way to support the victims of the Palace of Justice was not by making victims of the armed forces.  As a result of this case, Uribe pushed for the military to only be tried by a military tribunal when it came to crimes against humanity.

What kind of justice was Uribe promoting when a victimizer is recognized as the victim?  What kind of commitment to defending democracy is there with policies that reject democratic principles?  What exactly was the democracy Uribe spoke so eloquently about when his words and actions dictated that he, his allies, and his military apparatus were above the law?  It would take either someone who is delusional or clouded by some hidden passion to not see that Uribe’s so-called ‘success’ in increasing judicial action against crimes of high social impact has been highly overstated.

Julián Esteban Torres López has a BA in Philosophy, BA in Communication, and MA in Justice Studies from the University of New Hampshire.  He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia Okanagan concentrating on Political Science and Latin American Studies.  A Medellín native, he is presently working on his dissertation, which focuses on trying to find feasible paths for political conflict resolution in Colombia.  You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.