Colombia's great debate: Cepeda vs. Uribe
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Colombia's great debate: Cepeda vs. Uribe

In a much anticipated event, two political archenemies on Wednesday debated one of the most controversial topics in Colombian politics: paramilitary activity.

And not just any kind of paramilitary activity, but the kind in which Colombia’s former president was — allegedly — involved.

At the center of the event were two politicians whose lives seem to, in many ways, mirror each other. Álvaro Uribe is from the far right of Colombia’s political spectrum, Iván Cepeda from the left. Uribe’s father was assassinated by left-wing guerrillas, while Cepeda’s leftist father was killed by the military and right-wing paramilitaries.

Uribe comes from a powerful landowning family from the northwest region of Antioquia and was mayor of the Antioquia capital of Medellín when the Medellín Cartel’s drug trade was taking off. During his years as a senator and governor of Antioquia, drug trafficking and paramilitary groups were rampant in the region. Uribe was president of Colombia during the height of the war on drugs when state violence, human rights abuses by state security forces and military collaboration with paramilitaries were the norm.

Accusations that Uribe had ties to violent paramilitary groups during all these years in power are not new. In fact, Cepeda himself has made these claims before, based on testimonies of former paramilitary leaders.

But this was the first time that, with ample documentation, the extent of those alleged ties were laid out in an official senate debate covered extensively by Colombian media, with Cepeda posting relevant documents to his website as soon as the debate began.

Uribe: head of the paramilitaries?

So what was this phenomenon of paramilitary activity being debated, and what, if any, was Uribe’s involvement?

While most people are familiar with the crimes of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), few outside of the Colombian countryside and NGO circles likely know that paramilitary groups were actually responsible for the majority of the country’s human rights abuses over the last two decades, even though the U.S. government — a major funder of the Colombian military — has openly acknowleged this fact. Paramilitaries are also responsible for a huge percentage of the millions of internally displaced persons who have been forced from their lands.

Uribe’s alleged connections to paramilitarism trace back to the ’90s, when he was governor of Antioquia. The national government had just approved a law creating community vigilante groups, known as CONVIVIR, which were supposed to protect local populations from guerrilla activity.

Many of these groups were responsible for killing civilians they considered sympathetic to guerrillas, and Human Rights Watch found that at least 13 had ties to paramilitaries.

When the groups were disbanded in 1997, many joined the newly formed AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), the vicious paramilitary group that often worked closely with the Colombian military.

Jailed AUC leaders have since claimed that Uribe was the “head’ of the paramilitaries, and that they even helped finance his presidential campaign.

While Uribe maintains that he has never had paramilitary ties, many of the people around him have been convicted of working with them. These individuals include close political allies, former members of his administration, family members (including his brother) — the connections are so extensive that it is all but impossible to imagine that his record is truly clean.

In keeping with his style, Uribe chose not to use his allotted time respond to any of Cepeda’s charges, but rather to go on the offensive. He attacked the current president Juan Manuel Santos and the Interior Minister, and even accused the senator presiding over the debate of having received money from drug trafficking (perhaps upset about that particular politician’s recent abandonment of Uribe’s party for the ruling coalition).

Nonetheless, the accusations, virtually all of them already known, are out there yet again, as are the documents. The fact that Uribe has been able to avoid prosecution after all these years demonstrates just how powerful he is within the world of Colombian politics, even after leaving the executive office. Still, there is hope in some circles that the debate could be the first step in ending that impunity.