BOGOTA – Hero or villain? In Colombia, former President Álvaro Uribe is both.
The rift over Uribe, and the broader rift in Colombian society, born of generations of violence that diminished with a 2016 peace accord with rebels, flared after the ex-leader was placed under house arrest in an alleged witness tampering case.
Adding to the drama, a spokesperson for Uribe's Democratic Center party said Wednesday that Uribe had tested positive for the new coronavirus. The representative gave the information on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. A medical team had visited Uribe for 20 minutes earlier in the day. Colombian media reported he was in good health.
The court ruling to detain 68-year-old Uribe, still a political force even though he left the presidency a decade ago, exposed the strain in a Latin American democracy divided over who should be held to account for alleged crimes tied to Colombia’s brutal history. It comes at a difficult moment for Colombia as it tries to contain the coronavirus while enduring the harsh economic fallout of its monthslong lockdown.
“Now we're going to add greater political polarization," said Juan Manuel Charry, a Colombian lawyer and constitutional analyst. He said the court ruling “breaks a long historical tradition in which, even if ex-presidents of the republic were put on trial, none was detained preventively."
His detractors said the court's decision Tuesday should be respected pending the investigation of Uribe, a senator who denies any wrongdoing.
“Nobody is above the law,” tweeted Bogotá Mayor Claudia López, a critic of Uribe who as a researcher had previously investigated collusion between politicians and paramilitary groups.
As president, Uribe was known as an austere hardliner whose U.S.-backed military successes against rebels catapulted him to huge popularity during his 2002-2010 tenure. His detention stemmed from his alleged links to paramilitary groups, which were organized by landowners, sometimes with the complicity of the state, to fight guerrillas who espoused a leftist ideology while often resorting to kidnapping and extortion.
The result was a vicious bloodletting in which civilians were usually the victims of human rights violations, carried out in murky circumstances by any number of armed groups.
The ruling Tuesday infuriated Uribe supporters who wondered why he was being targeted while former leaders of the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC, remain free and even enjoy representation in the congress under an amnesty deal.
Those supporters include President Iván Duque, a man groomed for leadership by Uribe and whose denunciations of the court ruling put public pressure on an ostensibly independent judicial system that has struggled with internal corruption over the years.
“There's a trial that will have to take place, but the minimum that a society can expect in a situation like this, with someone who has served Colombia, is that he can defend himself as a free man," Duque said Wednesday in an interview with Colombia's RCN radio.
Duque, who had described terms of the 2016 peace deal with the FARC as too lenient, compared Uribe's predicament to that of an ex-rebel leader known as Jesús Santrich, who apparently fled last year after Colombia's Supreme Court ordered his release from prison on the basis that he had limited immunity as a lawmaker. Santrich was wanted in the U.S. on charges of conspiring to traffic cocaine, a crime he allegedly committed after the peace deal.
Santrich is simply a “criminal,” while Uribe is not a flight risk who has collaborated with the judicial process against him, Duque said.
Uribe is being investigated for allegedly bribing a former paramilitary member to retract damaging allegations against him. The case stems from accusations by Sen. Iván Cepeda, who contends that Uribe was a founding member of a paramilitary group in his home province during the decades-long civil conflict involving government forces, rebels and paramilitary bands that left hundreds of thousands dead, displaced or missing.
Now Uribe is battling in the courts. His lawyer, Jaime Granados, said he is innocent.
Torchia reported from Mexico City.