Authors Jorge Rojas and IvÃ¡n Cepeda. (Picture from the website of Semana magazine.)
At UbÃ©rrimo’s Gates is the name of a book released this week in Colombia, jointly written by two of the country’s most prominent human rights defenders: IvÃ¡n Cepeda of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes and Jorge Rojas, the director of the Consultancy for Human Rights and Internal Displacement (CODHES.)
The book’s title cites the name of the extensive ranch outside MonterÃa, a small city that serves as capital of the northwestern Colombian department of CÃ³rdoba, that is the property of Colombian President Ãlvaro Uribe. Though he is from the neighboring department of Antioquia, where he served as governor from 1995 to 1997, Uribe owns significant amounts of land in CÃ³rdoba as well, and frequently receives visitors at El UbÃ©rrimo.
The authors make note of this because MonterÃa, and the department of CÃ³rdoba in general, are practically synonymous with the rise of paramilitarism in Colombia since the 1980s. By the 1990s much of the department was firmly under the control of the founding group of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the United Self-Defense Forces of CÃ³rdoba and UrabÃ¡ (ACCU), led by Carlos CastaÃ±o and Salvatore Mancuso. The AUC/ACCU was headquartered in CÃ³rdoba’s Nudo de Paramillo region, it received generous and open support from MonterÃa’s landowning elite and politicians, and its leaders were frequently seen in the city.
Cepeda’s and Rojas’s book is not principally about Ãlvaro Uribe. It contains no juicy “smoking gun” evidence that Colombia’s president has ties to paramilitaries and narcotraffickers. The authors’ focus is on the growth and pervasiveness of paramilitarism in a city and province that became a chief AUC stronghold, with local elites’ acquiescence and support.
The book goes on to ask how Ãlvaro Uribe could have spent years as a prominent public figure and landholder in MonterÃa without showing any signs that he was uncomfortable with, or even aware of, the paramilitaries’ strong dominion over the zone. It also notes Uribe’s close relationships with CÃ³rdoba business and political leaders who have since become embroiled in scandal over their ties to paramilitary groups, among other corruption.
Here is an excerpt from the opening chapter of At UbÃ©rrimo’s Gates, published Sunday by the Colombian daily El Espectador.
Excerpt from At UbÃ©rrimo’s Gates, by IvÃ¡n Cepeda and Jorge Rojas
Ãlvaro Uribe VÃ©lez’s successful political career was bearing fruit. His name began to be heard in political circles as a card in the deck of aspirants for the Presidency of the Republic. Followers and regional leaders launched his candidacy. Shortly before he finished his term as governor [in 1997], representatives of Antioquia’s commercial, industrial and cattle-raising sectors asked him to resign the governorship and begin his campaign. As a show of their support, the business associations organized a public demonstration that gathered more than 3,000 people in the Plaza Cisneros, across from La Alpujarra, where the governor’s office is located. The media highlighted that among those headlining the event was found the head of the Ochoa clan [associates of the MedellÃn cartel], the horse enthusiast Fabio Ochoa. The Uribes and the Ochoas never hid their friendly relationship. The event closed with the songs of DarÃo GÃ³mez, “the king of despecho music.”
In CÃ³rdoba, the cattlemen’s associations’ leaders saw in Uribe VÃ©lez a politician inextricably tied to the department, as the owner of “El UbÃ©rrimo” and other lands. His first public appearance in CÃ³rdoba as a presidential pre-candidate was to take place, with him as the central speaker, at an event in honor of Rodrigo GarcÃa Caicedo, considered one of the clearest exponents of the self-defense doctrine, a confessed admirer of the CastaÃ±o Gil brothers [founders of the AUC] and the victim of a dynamite attack.
Last-minute difficulties kept the governor of Antioquia from attending. Among those attending the event were Jorge Visbal Martelo, who convened it, and the ex-commander of the [MonterÃa-based] 11th Brigade, IvÃ¡n RamÃrez. A few months after the event, in May 1998, Gen. RamÃrez would see himself tied down by a complicated situation, when the U.S. embassy decided to revoke his visa to enter that country due to presumed human rights violations committed when he commanded the army brigade in MonterÃa. Upon learning of the decision, the general said that all he had done was fight terrorists for 36 years, and that it was an outrage that, near the end of his career, he would be treated like one of them.
It wasn’t until 1999 that the new candidate attended several public events in CÃ³rdoba that had an electoral connotation. He participated in the 39th Agricultural, Commercial, Microenterprise and Equine Fair and Exposition. The local media referred to him as “the owner of considerable extensions of land in CÃ³rdoba” and as one who “has been credited, during his occupation of the Antioquia governor’s office, with revitalizing the controversial Convivir [state-sanctioned self-defense militias], many of which later turned into paramilitary groups.” On the night of June 18, the ex-governor of Antioquia was at a cocktail party at this event. In the photos published in the social pages of CÃ³rdoba’s El Meridiano newspaper, Uribe VÃ©lez appeared with Johanna Mancuso, the newspaper’s sales executive and the cousin of Salvatore Mancuso, who at the time was one of the AUC’s commanders. At the same event was Giuliana Mancuso, the national “cattle queen” and cousin of the paramilitary chief. The presidential candidate, who had known Mancuso years earlier, knew to whom the El Meridiano executive and the queen were related.
Along with the young Mancusos, the cattlemen’s fair’s social event counted with the presence of RÃ³ger Taboada, who at the time was the vice president of the Banco Ganadero. Months later, Taboada became treasurer of Ãlvaro Uribe VÃ©lez’s presidential campaign. His friendship with Uribe led him to be Colombia’s consul-general in San Francisco, California. After his tenure as a diplomat, his legal problems began: the Prosecutor-General’s Office [FiscalÃa] ordered his arrest for his alleged participation in a series of illegal operations that made up part of the multi-million-dollar theft from the Fond for the Financing of the Agrarian Sector, Finagro, of which he was president, which benefited the narcotrafficker Luis Enrique Micky RamÃrez, a former partner of Pablo Escobar. The investigations indicated that Taboada may have given out 855 credits of 29 million pesos each [about US$14,000], supposedly loaned to cattlemen. The former official faced an arrest warrant for conspiracy, money-laundering, document falsification and procedural fraud. After being a fugitive, he was captured in June 2008.
Accompanied by two of the main signers of the Santa Fe de Ralito Pact [a 2001 mutual-support document signed by politicians and paramilitary leaders], Miguel Alfonso de la Espriella and Eleonora Pineda, candidate Ãlvaro Uribe traveled throughout CÃ³rdoba, held public events, spoke at conferences and spoke with the people. In ads and photos published in El Meridiano de CÃ³rdoba he appeared in a red shirt, hand on his heart, behind him the national flag and beside him the smiling faces of Miguel Alfonso and Eleonora. With them he went to MonterÃa’s neighborhoods and spoke of defeating violence and corruption; he attended the demonstrations carried out in the zones of Bajo and Alto SinÃº, San Jorge, SahagÃºn and CeretÃ©. He met with young CÃ³rdoba university students, to whom he spoke of the need to “rebuild the Fatherland.”
Finally, in January 2002, they visited Eleonora Pineda’s region, the municipality [county] of Tierralta, the same in which the alliance between regional politicians and the AUC had been sealed. In the photo from that visit, the candidate sits in the front of an open red jeep, while Pineda and De la Espriella sit behind with the bodyguards. The caravan’s reception resembled an apotheosis. A week later, Tierralta saw the eruption of a debate about paramilitary interference and pressure on the presidential and congressional election campaigns. Conservative Party candidate Juan Camilo Restrepo denounced that in CÃ³rdoba, and particularly in the municipalities of Tierralta and Valencia, there existed congressional candidates of paramilitary origin with paramilitary support, who impeded the other candidates’ access to the zone and distribution of campaign materials.
Among the final acts he carried out in MonterÃa before election day, candidate Uribe VÃ©lez met with CÃ³rdoba’s main business leaders. Pedro Ghisays, one of the region’s main owners of legal gambling enterprises, attended that meeting. Years later, Ghisays appeared in the documents that were recovered from a cache that Salvatore Mancuso had hidden in one of his apartments, which provided an accounting of the networks of testaferros [figureheads who hold a criminal's property in their own name to avoid confiscation] with which the paramilitary chief managed the illegal goods at his disposal.
In the 2002 presidential elections, candidate Ãlvaro Uribe won a clear victory. Having begun the campaign twenty points behind his main opponent in the polls, Liberal Party candidate Horacio Serpa, on election day he beat him with 53.04% of all votes. He could not win in CÃ³rdoba [where the Liberal Party's electoral machine at the time was still strong]. But his political allies and signers of the Santa Fe de Ralito Pact, Miguel Alfonso de la Espriella and Eleonora Pineda, obtained resounding victories in zones like Valencia and Tierralta.
To celebrate his election, the new president of the republic visited El UbÃ©rrimo with his family and received at his hacienda the leaders of CÃ³rdoba’s society, who wished to congratulate him. Both on their vacations and on special occasions, JerÃ³nimo y TomÃ¡s Uribe [the president's sons] visited CÃ³rdoba. They frequently visited friends and held meetings with his father’s political allies. On that occasion they were in the municipality of San Antero, where they were attended by the mayor, WÃlmer PÃ©rez Padilla. He offered a lunch in honor of the president-elect’s sons. In a declaration to the press, JerÃ³nimo said that they would ask their father to support the mayor’s proposal regarding the construction of a tourism corridor.
Mayor PÃ©rez had been one of the signers of the Santa Fe de Ralito Pact, and some accused him of being an ally of narcotraffickers. For this reason he decided to plead guilty to the crime of aggravated conspiracy, and recognized his ties to the AUC. In addition, the Comptroller found him to be fiscally responsible for the signing of a contract with a BogotÃ¡ firm and ordered him to reimburse more than 235 million pesos (over US$100,000). For its part, the Inspector-General (ProcuradurÃa) declared him ineligible for public office for twelve years for having misused the municipality’s revenues.
It was the period of the beginning of the dialogues with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the beginning of the scandals about the elections of many congresspeople accused of alliances with paramilitary groups, the beginning of the attempt to develop the pact to “re-found the fatherland.” It was the time when the owner of El UbÃ©rrimo began to govern the country.