The trial of ex-President Uribe puts Colombia at a legal crossroads  

President Uribe with his former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos.
President Uribe with his former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos.

Álvaro Uribe Vélez is a behemoth of Colombian politics. A stalwart leader whose legacy in the 21st Century is matched by those who shaped a previous century: Margaret Thatcher, Pierre Trudeau, Ronald Reagan, Francois Mitterrand, Mikail Gorbachev. He also becomes the first former Colombian President to stand trial in a criminal case of alleged witness tampering and procedural fraud.

The recent appointment of Luz Adriana Camargo as the country’s Attorney General, marks a pivotal moment in a decades-old investigation into the former President and the decision to press forward with a trial signals a significant escalation in a case that has long captured the nation’s attention.

The move to prosecute Uribe follows a thorough review of new “physical and material evidence” by the prosecutor’s office. This decision comes after years of legal wrangling, dating back to 2012 when Uribe initially accused the hard-left Senator Iván Cepeda of conspiring against him. The tables turned in 2018 when the focus shifted to investigate whether Uribe himself had manipulated witnesses, leading to charges of obstruction of justice.

The appointment of Camargo as Attorney General now adds a layer of complexity to an already polarized political landscape. Her predecessor, Francisco Barbosa, was perceived as sympathetic to the right-wing political faction, an ally of ex-President Iván Duque, and who in turn, was Uribe’s candidate in the 2018 election.

Against a backdrop of political tensions between Petro’s Pacto Histórico coalition, and Uribe’s right-wing Centro Democrático Party, Camargo’s appointment underscores the explosive nature of law and politics in Colombia, and that came to a hilt when pro-Petro demonstrators attempted to storm the Supreme Court to pressure magistrates in appointing the president’s candidates for Attorney General, including Attorney General Luz Camargo.

Uribe, who served as Colombia’s president from 2002 to 2010, will receive the court date in his criminal case in mid-May, despite his unassailable popularity and reputation as a resolute leader. But allegations of human rights violations committed by paramilitary groups during his second term, have cast a shadow over an indelible political life. His trial also represents a critical moment for Colombian democracy, testing the strength of its institutions and commitment to the rule of law.

Amidst the legal maneuvering, Uribe’s Democratic Center party highlighted its commitment to “the democratic institutions” and called for ex-president Uribe’s due process be respected “under the law and Constitution.” Uribe has always maintained his innocence, asserting that he has been unfairly targeted by political adversaries.

Uribe’s trial also dredges up memories of Colombia’s troubled past, notably the “false positives” scandal during his presidency. This ominous chapter, characterized by the extrajudicial killings of more than 6,400 civilians to boost the Army’s body count against FARC serves also as a somber reminder of the complexities of recent Colombian history and enduring scars of the internal conflict.

As the legal proceedings unfold, Colombia is at a crossroads, grappling with questions of accountability and rule of law. The outcome of Uribe’s trial will reverberate not only within Colombia but also on the international stage, shaping perceptions of the country’s commitment to justice and transparency.

In the crucible of Colombian politics, the Uribe trial will resuscitate the darkest moments of the sadistic paramilitary offensive against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, as well as the Marxist guerrilla’s confirmed war crimes and crimes against humanity. The pursuit of justice and the quest for accountability will also be decisive in defining whether Colombian democracy has a future beyond the battlefields of past and present.