The detention and investigation of former Colombia President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, a powerhouse in Colombian politics long alleged to have ties to paramilitary groups, leaves him to defend not only his legacy but also possible future charges.
Colombia's Supreme Court ordered Uribe, who was president from 2002 to 2010, to be placed under house arrest while it continues to investigate allegations he was involved in witness tampering, procedural fraud and bribery, according to a news release from the court on August 4.
The Supreme Court's investigation into Uribe, who is currently a senator, began in 2018 when it deemed credible evidence that he may have tampered with witnesses who accused him of creating paramilitary groups with his brother, Santiago Uribe.
While the Supreme Court has not brought formal criminal charges against Uribe, the Colombian justice system allows him to be detained as the investigation continues.
“The privation of my liberty causes me profound sadness for my wife, for my family, and for Colombians who still believe that I have done something good for the country,” Uribe wrote on Twitter before the court published its decision.
On August 6, one of Uribe’s lawyers, Diego Cadena, was also placed under house arrest amid allegations he personally tried to convince a witness to testify in the former president’s favor. In October 2019, the Supreme Court ordered Uribe to a hearing in which they interrogated him for hours.
The allegations against Uribe stem from his complaint that the Supreme Court investigate his main political adversary, Senator Iván Cepeda, for the same charge he now faces: witness tampering. Cepeda had addressed Colombia's Senate in September 2014 and accused the former president of having ties to paramilitary groups.
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After a lengthy investigation that reviewed witness testimony from both sides, video and recordings of intercepted phone calls, the Supreme Court determined that Uribe -- through the use of third parties -- had pressured paramilitary witnesses to withdraw or change their testimony.
This led the Court to drop the case against Cepeda and open its investigation into Uribe two years ago.
The announcement of Uribe’s detention has sent shockwaves through Colombia, with his supporters marching and lining up in caravans along main thoroughfares in the cities of Medellín and Barranquilla, Semana reported.
InSight Crime Analysis
While Uribe has managed to elude a formal criminal indictment for his alleged links to paramilitary groups -- even while close allies and family members have been convicted of similar crimes -- the Supreme Court’s investigation takes a different approach, in that it’s not so much about his past acts but current accusations of obstruction of justice.
The former president, his family members, and some of his closest associates have found themselves the subject of journalistic investigations and accusations that they aided and financed illegal right-wing paramilitaries in the 1990s.
The groups, which ultimately came under the banner of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC), served as the government’s proxies in a parallel war against the country’s leftist guerrillas and suspected collaborators. While maintaining ties to drug trafficking groups, the paramilitaries committed massacres and terrorized the civilian population, at times displacing entire villages.
Uribe has also come under scrutiny by Colombia’s Supreme Court in the past. In 2010, the high court opened an investigation into an extensive illegal wiretapping network targeting journalists, rival politicians and human rights defenders while he was president. The head of the country’s intelligence agency at that time was sentenced in 2015 to 14 years in prison for the illegal spying.
The latest investigation against Uribe may hinge on the testimony of Carlos Enrique Vélez, a former paramilitary leader known as alias “Comandante Víctor.” After originally stating that Iván Cepeda visited him in prison to get him to incriminate Uribe, Vélez changed his story and revealed that Uribe’s lawyers had paid him to lie about Cepeda.
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In an interview with Semana in late July, Vélez stated that Uribe’s lawyers, including Cadena, had paid him 40 million pesos (some $10,500) to lie about Cepeda and persuade other former paramilitary members to do the same.
At first, Cadena said that the money given to witnesses, including Vélez, had been to help them financially through difficult times, adding that the former president had not been aware of these payments.
However, a different version has now been put forward. In late July, Uribe’s defense team stated that Cadena had been extorted by Vélez and had not revealed the truth, due to his involvement in the Uribe investigation.
As part of its broader investigation, the Supreme Court is now considering both allegations about the payments and will soon hear new evidence about Uribe’s involvement.
In the meantime, Uribe will remain in a position that he had long hoped to avoid: under arrest.