Although the first round of leaked diplomatic cables, released late last year by Wikileaks, largely eluded the big controversies in Colombian politics, the whistle blowing organization redeemed itself last week by giving 16,000 communiqués dealing with Colombia to El Espectador, a Bogota newspaper. Fidel Cano, El Espectador’s director, initially said that the paper had yet to find anything “explosive” in the cables, but, before long, several of them had already shed new light on controversial events in Colombia’s recent past, as well as on the country’s current challenges.
One of the more interesting cables revealed that a FARC guerrilla had been in talks with the Uribe government to secure the release of key hostages including former politician Ingrid Betancourt, prior to the liberation of Betancourt and fifteen other high-profile hostages in 2008. This casts doubt on the official storyline the hostages were freed during highly sophisticated military and intelligence operation in which no shots were fired.
For the most part, the rest of the headline-grabbing cables that El Espectador received have focused on the shortcomings of the paramilitary peace process and the consequent emergence of neoparamilitary drug gangs. These groups, which have grown into Colombia’s foremost security problem since the cables were written, have become a controversial political issue. Staunch supporters of former president Alvaro Uribe, who oversaw the demobilization of the 30,000-strong paramilitary umbrella group AUC, have blamed both prior Colombian leaders and the current government of Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s chosen successor. Most if not all observers, however, argue that the rise of neoparamilitary gangs reflect the obvious shortcomings of Uribe’s security policy.
Indeed, as soon as the paramilitaries began to demobilize during URibe’s first term, critics began to warn that, without more robust measures to sever ties between the death squads and the authorities, reintegrate former fighters into civilian life and go after the groups’ drug business, the return of paramilitarism in some form or another was inevitable. The latest cables largely confirm this view. They show in detail how the demobilization process with the paramilitary umbrella group AUC began to break down when the government, under domestic and international pressure, belatedly began to treat the paramilitaries like true criminals, breaking initial promises of leniency.
It was not a mere coincidence, therefore, that new gangs began to make their presence felt, through increasingly audacious acts of violence, in 2007 and 2008, around the time that top commanders were extradited to the U.S. on drug trafficking charges, and other leaders were transferred to high-security prisons from local penitentiaries where they enjoyed privileges including mobile phones and up to fifty daily visitors.
But the cables also show that Uribe’s naysayers were not the only ones who predicted such problems when the negotiations between paramilitaries and the government began in 2003. One memo, from 2004, shows that the former president himself anticipated that some paramilitaries would regroup into new gangs. Two years later, an OAS Mission overseeing the process counted between fourteen and twenty-two neoparamilitary criminal gangs, made up of paramilitaries who refused to demobilize, already demobilized fighters and new recruits.
That Uribe knew about the drug gangs should hardly be surprising. As President, he had as good a sense as anyone else about security conditions along Colombia’s lawless drug routes and urban slums. What is interesting, however, is that well into 2008 and even 2009, the former president eagerly downplayed the gravity of the neoparamilitary threat and aggressively criticized anybody drawing attention to the issue. When Human Rights Watch, a respectable international NGO, published what is in retrospect a fairly mild and objective report on the abuses perpetrated by these gangs and their roots in the flawed demobilization process, Uribe went on a public relations crusade against the group, accusing it of political bias and of standing in the way of Colombia’s quest for peace.
This, along with the cable about the government’s secret talks with FARC members, is very revealing of the vast disconnect between the Uribe administration’s message and reality on the ground. Like any astute politician, Uribe tried hard to influence the public discourse on crime, war and security in a way that would boost his approval ratings. For the most part, he succeeded: even as neoparmailitary drug gangs, often in cooperation with the increasingly apolitical FARC, were ravaging the countryside, many Colombians believed their president’s message that leftist subsersives and the Venezuelan government were the main threats to their security. Inconvenient details, such as the many shortcomings of Uribe’s demobilization program or the government’s talks with guerrillas, were covered up or ignored.
The wildly exaggerated threats posed by the FARC and Hugo Chavez served Uribe quite well. On the domestic front, the conventional wisdom was that the president was winning virtually every battle agains thte guerrillas, but needed more support in order to win the war. The Chavez threat was even more politically convenient. Givne the Venezuelan autocrat’s strong grip on power, Uribe could count on him to always be there, ready for another exchange of insults and accusations that, invariably, boosted both leaders’ domestic popularity.
Today, with drug gangs posing a bigger threat than guerrillas, even to wealthy ranchers and landlords, and with Venezuela cooperating with Colombia on everything from trade to crime fighting, the fervor with which Colombians supported Uribe’s twin campaigns seems, at best, misguided. While we worried about Chavez and the FARC, the country neglected many more important issues – from new drug gangs to education to the fiscal deficit – and allowed Uribe to accumulate power and political capital at the expense of our democratic institutions. Most of the Santos government’s major campaigns – land reform, deficit reduction and political reconciliation – have been about cleaning up this mess.
It would be wrong to place all the blame on Uribe and his officials. The mainstream Colombian media did a simply awful job during this period of scrutinizing the government’s message. In between segments on exorcisms and celebrity gossip, the country’s most popular TV news shows aired mostly the administration’s remarks and thinly veiled attacks on domestic critics and naysayers. During the many fruitless spats with Chavez, RCN and Caracol helped stir up nationalist passions.
But if we should take any lesson from the Wikileaks, and from problems that Uribe handed over to Santos, it is to demand much more honesty and accountability from our political leaders. In this sense, the country is already facing its first test. Even in the immediate aftermath of the release of the new cables and of an eruption in neoparamilitary violence, Uribistas have continued to stretch the limits of truth and logic.
Armando Benedetti, President of the Senate and one of the leaders of the “U” party, has blamed the drug gang problem on current Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera. This is an insult to the country’s intelligence. Whereas Rivera has been in office for little more than six months the man who gave Benedetti’s party its name has known for six years that his demobilization scheme would give rise to new criminal gangs, but spent at least four of those years publicly denying the problem.
Just today, Uribe himself took to his Twitter account to say “Our government dismanteled paramilitarism, but we should have also imprisoned Perez Esquivel, FARC terrorist sponsor.” Adolfo Perez Esquivel, an Argentine architect, Christian peace activist and recipient of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize, has been a frequent critic of Uribe.
Today, nobody needs Wikileaks to see that the country is paying a high cost for believing the Uribe administration’s myths and half-truths. Many others have paid an even higher cost for such nonsense, having lost their careers and even their lives after being labeled terrorists or terrorist sympathizers by Colombia’s highly popular former president. Now, as the country begins to open its eyes to the shortcomings of the Uribe presidency, let us hope that it also begins to reject his self-serving, often dishonest and downright irresponsible rhetorical style.