While former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has faced mounting allegations of drug trafficking and paramilitary ties, he has proved to be surprisingly immune from criminal charges.
On June 9, Colombian think tank Corporacion Nuevo Arco Iris published an investigation which revealed that the United States has requested the extradition of a niece of ex-President Alvaro Uribe and her mother on drug trafficking and money laundering charges. Dolly Cifuentes Villa and her daughter, Ana Maria Uribe Cifuentes, were arrested in 2011 and accused of helping Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa Cartel traffic cocaine into the US and laundering illicit profits. The two are members of the notorious Cifuentes Villa family, which allegedly smuggled more than 30 tons of cocaine into the US from 2009 to 2011.
The news sparked controversy in Colombia, as it exposed Uribe Cifuentes as the daughter of the former president’s brother Jaime Uribe, who died of throat cancer in 2001. The revelation raised suspicions that Jaime may have had links to organized crime, which would have troublesome implications for his brother, who earned a reputation for his security gains as president. These suspicions were fueled when Nuevo Arco Iris also found that Jaime had been detained in 1986 after authorities discovered phone calls made from his car phone to infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. The ex-president dismissed this as well, noting that Jaime had been freed and investigators determined that his phone “had been cloned by criminals.”
One day after the report’s publication, Alvaro Uribe sought to downplay his brother’s relationship with Cifuentes. He claimed to have no knowledge of the extramarital affair, in spite of Ana Maria’s birth certificate listing Jaime as her biological father and the fact that Cifuentes gave birth to another of Jaime’s children ten years later.
While the investigation has brought his deceased brother’s past into the spotlight, it looks as though Uribe himself has been untouched by the scandal. But this is hardly the first or most prominent instance in which criminal allegations have seemingly threatened the former president’s political profile, only for him to deflect them with ease.
Just two years into his first term as president, a declassified report written in 1991 by US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analysts in Colombia surfaced which directly linked the then-senator to Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel. The report’s authors referred to him as “a Colombian politician and senator dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin cartel at high government levels,” and went on to claim that Uribe was “a close personal friend” of Escobar’s.
This was corroborated by a onetime love interest of Escobar, Virginia Vallejo, who claimed in a 2007 book about her affair with the kingpin that he saw Uribe as an ally. Vallejo alleged that Uribe used his position as director of the country’s civil aviation authority in the early 1980s to help Escobar's cartel obtain permits for landing strips used in drug flights.
Uribe vehemently denied the allegations, and held up his administration’s record number of drug kingpin extraditions as proof of his commitment to fighting drug trafficking. The US government stood by Uribe, acknowledging the authenticity of the report while maintaining that its content was unproven and not backed by any investigation.
In 2007, however, another US intelligence report was leaked to the Los Angeles Times, this time by a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official described as “unhappy that Uribe's government had not been held more to account by the Bush administration.” According to the report, a separate unnamed Western intelligence agency found that in 2002 Uribe tasked his defense minister, General Mario Montoya, with leading a controversial counterinsurgency push in the city of Medellin. Montoya’s campaign, known as “Operation Orion,” apparently relied heavily on support from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary coalition with known ties to the drug trade. The CIA report said Montoya planned the operation with AUC commander Fabio Jaramillo, a confidante of paramilitary leader Diego Murillo, alias "Don Berna."
Montoya, the local police chief, and Jaramillo all allegedly signed documents laying out the blueprints for the security strategy. While the operation successfully cracked down on guerrilla activity in the area, at least 14 people were killed and dozens were reportedly “disappeared.”
Following his reelection in 2006, allegations of paramilitary links in the Uribe administration began to snowball, and by the time he left office in 2010, numerous top officials in his government had been implicated in the growing “parapolitics scandal.”
Even though several figures close to him -- like intelligence chief Jorge Noguera and Congressman Mario Uribe (a cousin of the ex-president) -- have been arrested for conspiring with the AUC, Uribe has maintained that he has never had any ties to paramilitary organizations.
This has been increasingly difficult for him, however, in light of recent allegations made by imprisoned AUC commanders. In January “Don Berna” testified that he met directly with Uribe aides, who asked him to clandestinely monitor members of the Colombian Supreme Court. In May another jailed AUC head, Salvatore Mancuso, claimed to have had a hand in Uribe’s 2006 reelection, providing logistical and financial support to his campaign. He also said that he had met with Uribe in person, although he did not provide any further details.
While a good many allegations have been leveled against the ex-president, it remains to be seen whether any of them will stick. The accusations have led to a congressional investigation into Uribe’s role in the wiretapping scandal, although it has made very little progress so far. Ultimately, Uribe has a made a convincing case for his innocence: he insists the paramilitaries’ claims are simply part of a political agenda, and that their testimony cannot be trusted. Considering that the jailed warlords have so far been the only witnesses against him, he will likely emerge from this scandal unscathed once again.