Colombian President Ãlvaro Uribe has a famous tendency to fly into a rage when people ask too many probing questions about his past.
Perhaps the best-known example occurred during the 2002 presidential campaign, when Uribe stormed out of an interview with Newsweek reporter Joe Contreras.
Let’s not talk further. I see that you have come here to smear my political career. … I refuse to accept that you foreign correspondents come here to ask me these kinds of questions and repeat slanders made against me.
Or this 1994 interview with Simon Strong, author of Whitewash: Pablo Escobar and the Cocaine Wars, recounted by Gerardo Reyes of El Nuevo Herald.
Uribe reacted with visible anger to the reporterâ€™s questions about his tenure as director of Colombiaâ€™s Civil Aeronautics agency [Colombiaâ€™s version of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, during the early 1980s] and his political support for Senator William VÃ©lez, one of Escobarâ€™s allies.
â€œThis short-statured man jumped from his chair, furious, crossed the room between the waiters who were preparing for lunch, climbed the stairs, and did not stop until he was amid his bodyguardsâ€¦â€ the reporter writes.
From there, wrote Strong, Uribe yelled several times, with rage, â€œI am honest.â€
â€œI had not made any suggestion to the contrary,â€ Strong explained.
Following some other questions, the author adds, Uribe became even angrier, and with his hands jabbing at the reporterâ€™s face demanded that he take back what he was saying.
At that point, Strong decided to suspend the interview.
Earlier this year, when Colombian opposition Senator Gustavo Petro announced his intention to investigate alleged links between President Uribe’s associates and paramilitary groups, Uribe called Sen. Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla, a terrorist in a business suit. Then during his early May visit to Washington, Uribe went after Human Rights Watch Americas Director JosÃ© Miguel Vivanco at a dinner attended by several U.S. senators and congresspeople. “‘You’re biased to the guerrillas and everyone in Colombia thinks that,’ Mr. Uribe lectured, according to a number of people at the session,” the Wall Street Journal reported at the time.
In the past week or so, however, we have witnessed at least three new presidential outbursts.
- Last week, Colombia’s media published excerpts from a book by Virginia Vallejo, a former newscaster who was drug lord Pablo Escobar’s girlfriend. The book indicated that Escobar knew the young Uribe. Bizarrely, the president chose to defend himself by lashing out at Gonzalo GuillÃ©n, a Colombian citizen who is a longtime correspondent for El Nuevo Herald, the sister newspaper of The Miami Herald. GuillÃ©n published an unflattering biography of Uribe earlier this year. “Behind this woman is Gonzalo GuillÃ©n, who has dedicated his journalistic career to slander and lies,” Uribe told a BogotÃ¡ radio program.GuillÃ©n, who said he had not even read Vallejo’s book, was forced to leave Colombia Saturday after receiving about two dozen threats.
- Early this week, Uribe revealed that he had received a letter from an imprisoned mid-level paramilitary leader. The letter named one of the Supreme Court’s most effective investigators of the “para-politics” scandal. The paramilitary leader alleged that this investigator tried to induce him to testify that President Uribe had ordered him to kill another paramilitary leader in 2003. Though the charge sounded ridiculous on its face, President Uribe called the investigator directly, and made public calls for an investigation into the Supreme Court’s actions. The resulting war of words between the President and the Supreme Court has escalated all week.
- Then on a radio call-in show on Tuesday, Uribe demanded that the hosts locate and contact Daniel Coronell, a columnist for Semana magazine and director of the Noticias Uno cable television program. Coronell, who has spent most of the past two years outside of Colombia because of threats, was just awarded the country’s SimÃ³n BolÃvar journalism prize (Colombia’s version of a Pulitzer). In a column on Sunday, Coronell explored some of the alleged links between Uribe and Pablo Escobar mentioned in Vallejo’s book.Uribe shocked listeners of “La FM” radio on Tuesday, as he and Coronell engaged in a ferocious live verbal battle. “The only thing you do is shield yourself in your rights as a journalist,” Uribe told Coronell, “so that in my case you can wound me with lies. Enough of this cynicism behind your quote-unquote ‘journalistic ethics.’”
One wouldn’t expect going berserk to be a good strategy for deflecting allegations that, if proven, would shake the Uribe presidency to its foundations. For the most part, though, this strategy has worked. Though they fail to dispel all questions and allegations, Uribe’s fits have at least sent the message that “if you’re likely to send the president into public paroxysms of rage, you’d better have your evidence well in order.”
In fact, there isn’t enough evidence to prove conclusively that Ãlvaro Uribe spent at least some of his political career as an associate of narcotraffickers and paramilitaries. It’s all circumstantial, hearsay, or similarly flimsy.
But these allegations are a frequent topic of conversation all over Colombia, and throughout Colombia policy-making circles in the United States.
What exactly are Uribe’s detractors claiming? Here are some of the principal allegations. All of these remain unproven in any court of law, and denied – often quite passionately denied – by President Uribe himself.
- Family ties: According to Time magazine, President Uribe’s father, Alberto Uribe, “was a friend of Fabio Ochoa, the late patriarch of the city’s notorious drug cartel (the two shared a love of horses).” (Ochoa and Uribe’s mother were cousins.) In a much-circulated 1985 photograph, President Uribe’s brother Santiago can be seen partying with Ochoa’s son.
- Aerocivil: In 1980, a 27-year-old Ãlvaro Uribe was named to head the Colombian government agency in charge of civilian aviation, the analogue to the FAA in the United States. The agency director who preceded Uribe, who had sought to close airstrips used by narcotraffickers, was killed after twenty days in office. During Uribe’s tenure, according to Newsweek reporter Joe Contreras, “Well-informed sources say that a record number of pilot’s licenses and airstrip construction permits were issued by the civil-aviation authority, … a period when drug trafficking was on the rise.”A 2002 book that Contreras co-authored with Colombian journalist Fernando Garavito notes: “One year after Uribe VÃ©lez left his post, the National Drugs Council [Colombian 'drug czar' office], presided by the justice minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, ordered Aerocivil ‘to suspend narcotraffickers’ flights’ and indicated that in the past this agency had suffered from a passive and negligent attitude.”
- Cesar Villegas: Uribe’s deputy at Aerocivil, CÃ©sar Villegas, was later jailed for five years due to his ties to the Cali cartel. In his on-air fight with Daniel Coronell this week, Uribe vigorously denied having visited Villegas in prison. Villegas was murdered in early 2002.
- Mayor of MedellÃn: Just as he turned 30 in 1982, Uribe became mayor of MedellÃn, which was then an appointed post. He served for five months at a time when the city was solidly under the sway of Pablo Escobar’s narcotrafficking organization. That year, Escobar was elected to Colombia’s Congress as a legislative alternate from the same party (Liberal) as Uribe.
- Virginia Vallejo’s allegations: Escobar’s ex-girlfriend has just released a book with passages that President Uribe says are total fabrications.
Page 48: “I asked him how Pablo manages to have his own runway and fleet of aircraft, to get tons of coca out of the country, and to bring giraffes and elephants from Africa, and to smuggle in Rolligons [all-terrain vehicles] and six-meter boats. … Pablito is a ‘big guy’: he has the key guy at the Civilian Aviation Agency, a young kid who is the son of one of the first narcos… a guy named Uribes [sic], a cousin of the Ochoas… Ãlvaro Uribe.”
Page 111: “One night, after inaugurating one of his sports projects, Pablo introduces me to the former mayor of MedellÃn, whose mother is cousin of the Ochoas’ father; he calls him ‘Doptor Varito’ [Little Doctor Ãlvaro] and he immediately leaves a good impression on me because I think that he is one of Pablo’s few friends with the face of a decent person and, as I recall, the only one who wore glasses like a student. [President Uribe says he did not wear glasses until 1990.] … He is named Ãlvaro Uribe VÃ©lez and Pablo idolizes him. … Pablo later explains to me … that this blessed kid, with the help of sub-director CÃ©sar Villegas, gave us dozens of licenses for planes and helicopters. … Thanks to him I know everything that happens in Civil Aviation and in the MedellÃn airport, because his successor was trained to give us what we needed. … If one day something should stop me and Santofimio [Alberto Santofimio, a Colombian senator sentenced to jail today for the 1989 murder of presidential candidate Luis Carlos GalÃ¡n] in our path to the presidency, this kid would be my candidate. You see him with his glasses and his seminarian’s face, but he is a nasty fighter.”
- The helicopter: On the June 1983 day that the FARC killed his father and wounded his brother in eastern Antioquia, Ãlvaro Uribe tried to reach the site by taking one of Pablo Escobar’s helicopters from MedellÃn. Uribe says he did not know the helicopter belonged to Escobar. Daniel Coronell’s Sunday Semana column includes scanned images (PDF and PDF) of 24-year-old news coverage of Uribe’s “frustrated rescue.”
- Pedro Juan Moreno and the precursor chemicals: This from Joe Contreras’ ill-starred Newsweek interview with Uribe:
Contreras: In 1997 and 1998, agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA] seized 50,000 kilos of a chemical precursor used in the processing of cocaine. Those chemicals had been allegedly purchased by a company belonging to Pedro Juan Moreno, who served as your cabinet chief when you were governor of Antioquia.
Uribe: I became aware of that only after my term as governor ended. If the charges are true, he should go to jail. If they are groundless, the DEA should rectify that error. I believe that an error was made in his case.
Pedro Juan Moreno died in a helicopter crash in February 2006.
- Death squad meetings on Uribe’s ranch: During his April 2007 congressional hearing on paramilitarism in Uribe’s home state of Antioquia, opposition Senator Gustavo Petro brought out testimony from an investigation, closed many years ago, claiming that the president may have fostered paramilitary activity during the late 1980s. The Washington Post reported:
Sen. Gustavo Petro said the militiamen met at Uribe’s Guacharacas farm as well as ranches owned by his brother, Santiago Uribe, and a close associate, Luis Alberto Villegas.
“From there, at night, they would go out and kill people,” Petro said, referring to the sprawling ranch owned by Ãlvaro Uribe, who served as a senator from 1986 to 1994.
- 1991 DIA document: A September 1991 document from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, declassified in 2004, includes Uribe on a list of “the more important Colombian narco-traffickers contracted by the Colombian narcotic cartels for security, transportation, distribution, collection and enforcement of narcotics operations.” The document lists Uribe as:
A Colombian politician and senator dedicated to collaboration with the MedellÃn cartel at high government levels. Uribe was linked to a business involved in narcotics activities in the US. His father was murdered in Colombia for his connection with the narcotraffickers. Uribe has worked for the MedellÃn cartel and is a close personal friend of Pablo Escobar Gaviria. He has participated in Escobar’s political campaign to win the position of assistant parliamentarian to Jorge Ortega. Uribe has been one of the politicians, form the Senate, hwo has attacked all forms of the extradition treaty.
The DIA has backed away from this intelligence report – a very strange document that also lists Colombian pop star Carlos Vives (then a soap-opera actor) as a narcotics figure. The document is considered to be “not finally evaluated” intelligence: only as reliable as its anonymous source.
- Governor of Antioquia: Uribe’s tenure as governor of Antioquia department spanned 1995 to 1997. This was a period of very rapid paramilitary expansion in Antioquia, with near-daily massacres, particularly in the northwestern region of UrabÃ¡. Uribe’s active sponsorship of “Convivir” – government-sponsored citizen self-defense militias, many of which came under paramilitary control – contributed to this phenomenon. Gen. Rito Alejo, who headed the army’s 17th Brigade at the time in the UrabÃ¡ region, stands widely accused of sponsoring the paramilitaries’ growth. After Alejo and another general were forced out of office in 1999 – many claim under U.S. pressure – Uribe was the keynote speaker at a BogotÃ¡ dinner in their honor.
- Carlos NÃ¡der: Some of the threats that forced journalist Daniel Coronell to leave Colombia in 2005 came via e-mail. These e-mail threats were traced to the computer of Carlos NÃ¡der Simmonds, a former member of the Colombian Congress who spent three years in a U.S. jail for narcotrafficking. The subsequent investigation revealed that among the several dozen people who may have used NÃ¡der’s home computer were Uribe’s two sons, who frequented the disgraced politician’s house. As we noted in a 2005 blog entry:
NÃ¡der has a shady past. In 1983, while a member of Congress from CÃ³rdoba, he was arrested and later found guilty by a New York court of trying to sell cocaine to a DEA agent. He spent at least three years in a U.S. prison. He was close enough to MedellÃn Cartel chief Pablo Escobar that, in 1990, recordings of phone conversations surfaced in which NÃ¡der calls Escobar â€œbrotherâ€ and â€œcompadre,â€ they discuss threats against CÃ©sar Gaviria (then a presidential candidate) and the daily newspaper El Tiempo, and NÃ¡der expresses support for the 1989 assassination of popular presidential candidate Luis Carlos GalÃ¡n (â€œbetter dead than a son of a b***hâ€).
According to NÃ¡der himself, President Uribe even celebrated the 2004 New Year together with the convicted former narco-trafficker in the town of RÃonegro, just outside MedellÃn. â€œIt is difficult to understand why the President shares his family with someone who served a prison term in the United
States for cocaine trafficking, without this being seen as a moral impediment,â€ notes El Espectador columnist [and former presidential intelligence (DAS) chief] Ramiro Bejarano.
- Fabio Ochoa’s allegations: In a June 2007 interview with Semana magazine, Fabio Ochoa – a member of the MedellÃn cartel family who is currently a fugitive in Mexico – alleged that he had helped paramilitaries gather money to contribute to Uribe’s 2002 presidential campaign. Most observers dismissed these allegations as the words of a hardened criminal with no credibility.
- The campaign video: A video made public in June 2007 shows Uribe in a late 2001 campaign meeting in the paramilitary-dominated town of Puerto BerrÃo, Antioquia. Seated near the candidate is a local paramilitary leader known as “Comandante Esteban.” Uribe says that neither he, nor most of those at the meeting, had any idea that a paramilitary member was present; the meeting was intended to be a visit with local campaign supporters.
- Para-Politics: The list of Uribe’s political supporters currently under investigation for paramilitary links continues to grow. The scandal has not touched the president himself, but has claimed members of his inner circle, including his presidential intelligence chief and his cousin Mario Uribe. (Don’t miss Semana magazine’s “Gallery of Para-Politics,” with photos and profiles of the 40 legislators currently embroiled in the scandal.)
Taken together, this is a long and troubling list. Some of these allegations can be dismissed out of hand – but certainly not all of them. If only to ease concerns about with whom the United States is working so closely, we need more than vague denials and episodic temper tantrums. We need facts.