Twenty-one years ago, the Liberal favorite for the Colombian presidency, Luis Carlos Galan, who’d gained a miraculous, last-minute lead in the polls thanks to rising support from students and intellectuals, was assassinated at a campaign rally outside Bogota. That same year, the governor of Antioquia was killed in a car bomb, the Antioquian chief of police was killed by hired sicarios, and rival presidential candidate Ernesto Samper almost died after getting hit by eleven bullets in an airport.
During the presidential campaign of 2002, Uribe was almost killed by a FARC bomb that hit his motorcade in Barranquilla. On the day he was sworn in as president, the FARC piled mortar bombs on the Casa de Nariño, killing nineteen people in a nearby residence.
So far, the presidential campaigns of 2010 have seen no car bombs, no fired shells, and no broken glass. It’s not too late for things to turn ugly, but so far this is a year in which many voters seem engaged and hopeful, not just shell-shocked and terrified about how and when the cartels/rebels/paras will next strike. These undeniable security gains remain Uribe’s greatest achievement. I am happy to see him go, but I remain somewhat fond of him, probably because more than any other Colombian public figure in history, he was the FARC’s worst enemy. And it was probably inevitable that, after eight years in power, his conflicted legacy has become his own worst enemy.
This legacy is based, I believe, on two central pillars – first, his hatred of the FARC, which he was able to channel into probably the most results-oriented presidency in Colombia’s history, and second, the accusations about his ties to paramilitaries.
Uribe’s campaign in 2002 was successful for many of the same reasons as Mockus’ current surge in the polls. Both presented themselves as anti-candidates, as an alternative to Bogota’s political elite. But one of the ways that Uribe presented himself as an alternative candidate was his approach to security issues. This approach remains one of the main tenets of his legacy: he argued vehemently that the FARC is no more than a terrorist group.
Up until the late 1990s, the FARC insurgents were often treated as though they stood for a political ideology, as though they were actually interested in having some stake in governing the country. Uribe did away with this notion completely. The conflict was no longer framed as a civil war between competing political groups, but as a war against terrorists with no ideology and no popular support. There could be no negotiating, then, with so illegitimate a faction – the only option was to destroy them completely. This view has become so central to Colombian politics that nowadays even to suggest the possibility of negotiating with the FARC would lead to a ten-point drop in the polls.
Another main tenet of Uribe’s legacy has been his support from paramilitary militias, whether he deliberately invited it or not. Warlords like Salvatore Mancuso, Freddy Rendon Herrera, and Miguel Angel Mejia Munera have all suggested that paramilitary blocs openly supported Uribe’s 2002 campaign. Obviously, the testimonies of right-wing death squad leaders can’t be taken as unshakable evidence. These are men who encouraged soldiers to behead peasants with machetes and toss the bodies into a river, after all.
But there are other uncomfortable examples. While governor of Antioquia, Uribe endorsed the CONVIVIR program, a network of rural security collectives that worked alongside police and military intelligence. But most of these “neighborhood watch” groups ended up allying with drug-trafficking paramilitaries, before the program was axed around 1997. Then the first year of his presidency, Uribe backed Operation Orion, a military assault intended to drive FARC operatives out of Medellin’s most violent slum, Comuna 13. The guerrillas were successfully driven away, but the army received large scale support from paramilitary fighters, who provided intelligence and troops.
There are more examples of scandals that have tainted Uribe’s legacy, some associated with the paramilitaries, some not, but I won’t list them all here. Instead, I will say that Uribe probably tolerated the paramilitaries for much of his political career, prior to the demobilization process in 2005 and 2006. Doing so was distasteful and wrong. But as my father used to helpfully proclaim at the dinner table, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” I would assume that pre-2006, Uribe’s attitude toward the paramilitaries was better summed up by George Orwell’s words: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
I hardly think this is a humanitarian or a useful way of looking at the world. But it also true that pre-Uribe, the Colombian army was an incompetent disaster. Before Uribe used U.S. dollars to upgrade and professionalize the military, my understanding is that the paras were viewed as more efficient and better trained than the state’s security forces. In many senses, this was true. In the late 1990s, the FARC numbered about 17,000, and regularly raided and destroyed military bases. The army had 146,000, but many of the troops were badly trained, badly fed and badly paid. I quote from a particularly entertaining passage from Jon Otis’ “Law of the Jungle:” “Lacking bulletproof vehicles, [soldiers] once built their own armored car following the advice of a tinsmith and instructions from a magazine. Even uniforms and footwear were scarce. Some soldiers went to tire repair shops and asked for discarded pieces of rubber to fix their boots” (17).
If Uribe viewed the paramilitaries as a necessary evil, one that could do what the legitimate, yet slightly pathetic government forces could not, he was not alone. It is all somewhat horrible, immoral and depressing, but that’s Colombia for you.
And now here we are, living with the results of eight years of Uribism. We are able to witness a presidential campaign without suffering through weekend bombs, or terrorist strikes in movies and discos. We probably don’t have to worry about political candidates being targeted for assassination, although it’s worth worrying all the same. We are safer, but we don’t fully understand the costs we paid to enjoy our safety. And now, exit Uribe.