On August 4, 2020, Colombia’s Supreme Court placed former president Álvaro Uribe Velez under house arrest. While he has not yet been declared guilty of any crimes, the court’s magistrates claim their decision was necessary given the crimes he has been accused of—procedural fraud and witness tampering. Uribe’s detention corresponds to a broader regional tendency of living former presidents falling under intense judicial scrutiny. This phenomenon is present among all of Colombia’s neighboring democracies, ranging from the imprisonment of Panama’s Ricardo Martinelli and Peru’s Pedro Pablo Kuczynski on the political right to those of Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on the political left. 

Nonetheless, Uribe’s case stands out because it is unprecedented in the modern history of Colombia, where no democratically elected former president has been imprisoned in over a century. The lawsuit also stands out because of the intense reactions it has provoked in Uribe’s supporters. In cities across the country, such as Bogotá, Barranquilla, and Medellín, citizens took to the streets in their cars, abstaining from going by foot only in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, waving Colombian flags and expressing their solidarity in chants. 

Recent polling indicates that a near-majority of Colombians disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision, and even current president Iván Duque has come out in support of Uribe, claiming that he has always believed in the former president’s “innocence and honorability,” risking criticism for commenting on the independent decisions of the judiciary branch. While it is much too early to engage with the evidence surrounding the case, these reactions can only be understood in the context of Uribe’s legacy as one of the most transformative and influential Latin American statesmen of the 21st century, a man who has been both the protagonist of Colombia’s recovery from the depths of its late-20th-century crisis and the center of its current political polarization. 

1990-2002: On the Brink of Collapse

Between 1990 and 2002, Colombia saw a period of growing violence, instability, and uncertainty. Funded by increasingly wealthy and powerful drug cartels, the Marxist terrorist groups of FARC and ELN came to control enormous swathes of land where they could commit brutal atrocities with absolute impunity. These guerrillas would ultimately be declared responsible for at least 343 massacres, 77 terrorist attacks, 3,800 targeted civilian killings, 4,000 attacks on civil property, and 24,000 kidnappings, after which victims were typically kept in unsanitary barbed-wire camps in the depths of the jungle, often for several years. FARC alone would reach a size of 20,000 men by 2002, about a tenth of the size of Colombia’s military at the time, which enabled them to engage in attacks as bold as seizing Mitú, the capital of the Vaupés department, in 1998. In 2002, FARC also took the town of Bojayá along the Pacific coast, killing 119 people of all ages and occupations, several of whom sought refuge in a local church. 

In response to these Marxist terrorist groups, several right-wing paramilitary terrorist organizations emerged. Like FARC and ELN, the paramilitaries were funded by drug cartels and exercised territorial control and ruthless extrajudicial violence against innocent civilians. While the National Center for Historical Memory has attributed more overall victims to left-wing violence, after accounting for kidnappings and wounds, the paramilitaries performed the most deadly attacks as they sought to combat a largely invisible enemy. Given the clandestine nature of guerrilla warfare, it is likely that these figures are vast underestimates. Similar statistics are also pending on cases of sexual violence by both terrorist forces.

Combined, these groups controlled over a million square kilometers of Colombia’s national territory, much like the more recent territorial control ISIL exercised in Syria and Iraq, producing a widespread perception of Colombia as a nearly failed state. Murder rates skyrocketed to some of the highest in the world, the economy floundered as foreign investors withdrew their capital, and highly talented Colombians fled the country for security. Inequality intensified as millions of internally displaced citizens were suddenly pushed from their lands to compete in the country’s overwhelmed urban job markets. In a decade when most of the world seemed to move beyond the ideological conflict of the Cold War, there seemed to be little hope for Colombia or its future. 

Nonetheless, the foundations for Colombia’s reconstruction were beginning to reveal themselves under President Andrés Pastrana, Uribe’s predecessor. Pastrana pursued a failed peace negotiation with FARC, granting them temporary legal control over a demilitarized zone the size of Switzerland, which enabled them to grow even stronger and ultimately resume terrorist activities with full force. While Colombians often remember him for that failure, he simultaneously achieved a substantial improvement in the country’s relations with the United States. Ultimately, this would lead to the Clinton administration’s approval of Plan Colombia, a military and economic aid package of nearly five billion dollars in its first stage from 2000 to 2006. Subsequent expansions would ensue under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, with support from key figures in both major parties, including the current Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. While the primary motivation for these American governments was to reduce the flow of narcotics into the United States, this new funding also enabled Colombia to restore security for its citizens and pursue a path towards sustainable development.

Presidents Andrés Pastrana and Bill Clinton, Source: Alamy

In this context, Álvaro Uribe Velez was elected in 2002 as an alternative to the failed appeasement policies of the past, with a mandate to bring an end to the deep crisis of the late 20th century. This mandate would be renewed with his re-election in 2006, making him the first Colombian president to govern for more than four consecutive years since 1904.

2002-2010: The Rise of Uribe and the Colombian Renaissance

July 27, 2003 Cover of Colombia’s Semana magazine. Caption: The year that hope returned.

The application of three interdependent pillars characterized Álvaro Uribe’s government. The first of these, and the one he is best known for, is that of democratic security, involving the restoration of state presence in the areas endemically plagued by terrorist organizations. By approximately doubling both the funding and the personnel of Colombia’s armed forces using Plan Colombia funds, the government achieved historic improvements scarcely comparable to those of any other nation in modern world history. 

Its homicide rate dropped from a relative peak of 68.3 per 100,000 people, surpassing Honduras and South Africa as the world’s highest, to 33.7 in 2010, the lowest figure in Colombia since 1984. The decline in battle-related deaths was similarly impressive, falling from over 2,200 in 2002 to 419 by 2010, less than a fifth of the 2002 figure. Kidnappings, which had long been one of the main funding sources of FARC and ELN in particular, also decreased spectacularly, falling from nearly 3,000 in 2002 to just over 300 in 2010. To put this into perspective, had these figures remained at their 1998-2002 averages until 2010, this would have amounted to the kidnapping of 18,000 additional Colombians, the death in battle of another 5,000, and the intentional homicide of another 78,000 during that period.

Source: World Bank
Source: World Bank
Source: CNN

The second pillar of Uribe’s strategy was the restoration of investor confidence as the motor for private-sector driven economic growth, enabled by a growing sense of security against crime and terrorism. By increasing the country’s overall investment rate from 13 percent to 28 percent of GDP, the Uribe administration contributed to a sustained increase in economic prosperity. Average annual GDP growth rates increased from 0.69 percent between 1998 and 2002 to 4.66 percent between 2002 and 2006, and remained strong at 4.47 percent between 2006 and 2010, despite the global shock of the Great Recession. While much of this growth can be attributed to the commodities boom of the early 2000s, explaining the similarly high growth rates of neighboring oil exporters Venezuela and Ecuador during this period, Colombia’s private sector-driven growth model has more effectively curtailed commodity-export dependency. It therefore enjoyed a greater per-capita expansion than its neighbors between 2002 and the end of the boom in 2014. Furthermore, while both Venezuela and, to a much lesser extent, Ecuador, were incapable of sustaining their levels of productivity after oil prices collapsed in 2014, Colombia’s economy continued to grow for the remainder of the 2010s.

The final pillar, deeply intertwined with the second and crucially necessary to sustain the first, is that of social cohesion, grounded in the belief that improving the well-being of the worst off is both a good in itself and a source of overall social stability and prosperity. Through a combination of social programs, more widely distributed economic opportunities, and the re-establishment of security in areas with significant terrorist presence, the incomes of Colombia’s bottom 20 percent of earners rose to 136 percent of their 2002 levels by 2010, exceeding both the country’s overall income growth and the growth of any other individual income group. Colombia’s middle 60 percent also saw substantial income growth under Uribe, reaching approximately 131 percent of their 2002 incomes. Only the incomes of the top 20 percent grew at a slower rate than those of the overall economy. 

Constructed using World Bank Data

Beyond these improvements in monetary prosperity, Colombia’s worst-off saw substantial material improvements during the Uribe years. The country’s urban slum population was almost  halved from 22.3 percent in 2000 to 14.3 percent in 2009, and its population lacking basic sanitation services fell from 26.3 percent in 2002 to 17.7 percent in 2010. Life expectancy at birth increased across the country by two years, a result of both improved healthcare and greater security. This shift was particularly strong in formerly terrorist-occupied areas. For instance, in 2002, Colombians in the department of Caquetá could expect to live three years less than their counterparts in the capital city of Bogotá. By 2010, state presence had been mostly restored in Caquetá, enabling life expectancy to rise by four years and reach the levels enjoyed in Bogotá.

Sources: World Bank and Radboud University

Perhaps most notably, the country would enjoy an improvement in its education. The percentage of Colombian students completing primary school, previously constrained by the difficulties of living in conflict zones or extreme poverty, would rise from 61 percent in 2000 to 87 percent in 2010, and the expected years of schooling for recently born Colombians would increase from 11 in 2002 to 14 in 2010. This newly educated workforce will likely form the basis for continued prosperity in the decades ahead as Colombia moves beyond its traditional cash crop and mineral exports. Signs of an innovation-based economy are already beginning to present themselves in the exponential increase of domestic patent applications, ten times more abundant in 2016 than in 2002. For perspective, in Peru, the only major Latin American economy to achieve a higher GDP per capita growth rate than Colombia between 2002 and 2016, patent applications increased by a factor of 2.5 in the same period.

Source: World Bank

2010-2020: Polarization and Prosperity

Since Uribe left office in 2010 with an approval rating of 75 percent, the country’s political scene has continued to revolve around his legacy in a fundamental and unprecedented break with the period that preceded him. Before the 2002 election, Colombia’s history was characterized by a long and nearly uninterrupted succession of governments between the Liberal and the Conservative parties, a two-party system even older than the Republican-Democrat system of the United States and the Conservative-Labour system of the United Kingdom. By contrast, since 2002, neither traditional party has successfully won the presidency, and of the past six major national elections, including five presidential elections and the 2016 plebiscite on the peace deal with FARC, all but the narrow re-election of former president, Juan Manuel Santos in 2014 delivered an outcome Uribe campaigned for or supported. 

During this time, the country has continued to make valuable progress, albeit at a much more modest pace. Its homicide rate continued to fall from 33.7 in 2010 to 24.9 in 2017. Throughout the 2010s, its GDP growth rate averaged 3.7 percent, well below the high growth rates of the Uribe years but well above the Latin American average of 2.1 percent for the same period. By 2014, extreme poverty had reached half of its 2002 levels, and in 2016, the number of middle-class Colombians first surpassed the number of those living below the national poverty line. In April 2020, Colombia joined Mexico and Chile as the third Latin American member of the OECD, reflecting the international community’s recognition that, despite its ongoing problems, Colombia stands amid a transformation from a vulnerable near-failed state to a stable society with an advanced economy. 

However, this period has also been scarred by increased political polarization, featuring two significant clashes with former president Uribe at their center. The first of these emerged as then-President Santos, initially elected as Uribe’s political successor, began to unveil the details of his peace negotiations with FARC, a process he first announced in 2012. While Colombia has a long tradition of negotiating peace settlements with illegal armed groups, including the aforementioned failed Pastrana peace process and President Uribe’s demobilization of about 30,000 paramilitaries, the original Santos peace deal offered especially controversial concessions, including the government-funded establishment of a political party to represent the former terrorist organization, the granting of 26 seats in Colombia’s Congress to said party, and the establishment of a fully independent tribunal meant to judge FARC’s crimes by significantly more lenient standards. As Uribe and his closest supporters began to object to these concessions, Santos gradually fell out of favor with them, and would increasingly designate those who disagreed with his vision as “enemies of the peace,” further increasing political tensions. 

The fate of the peace settlement would be narrowly decided by a plebiscite in 2016, when a majority of voters sided with Uribe’s “No” faction, forcing the government to renegotiate several of the agreement’s most egregious details. Among other reforms, the number of seats in Congress granted to FARC was reduced to 10, the operation of the new tribunal was given a ten-year time limit, and its sentences were made accountable to Colombia’s existing Constitutional Court, significantly reducing the risk of impunity. Even this new peace deal, however, remained well beyond what many Colombians considered acceptable, especially considering that Santos had vowed to end the peace negotiations if the “No” faction won. According to a 2018 poll, only 23 percent of Colombians believed that FARC would provide reparations for victims, abandon violence, truthfully confess to their crimes, and face just penalties, as the Santos administration had promised. 

As President Santos fell out of favor with a majority of Colombians, with an approval rating of 14 percent by January 2018, this first clash gave way to an even sharper confrontation between those interested in protecting Colombia’s current model of development and those seeking to radically overturn it. The second round of the country’s 2018 presidential elections saw the victory of Iván Duque, a loyal member of Uribe’s Democratic Center Party whose slogan, “legality, entrepreneurship, and equity“, closely mirrors Uribe’s three pillars, against Gustavo Petro, a former member of the demobilized M-19 terrorist group, criticized for his inflammatory discourse and praise of Hugo Chavez, the architect of Venezuela’s current brand of socialism. In this new controversy, unlike the debate surrounding the peace process, a sizable portion of Colombians does not fit clearly with either camp, as shown in the 2019 municipal and regional elections, when most key mayors and governors were elected against the candidates endorsed by Uribe’s Democratic Center and Petro’s movement. Nonetheless, the country’s loudest voices remain in tense combat, with Petro calling for people to stop paying their service bills in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic as a sign of civil disobedience. 

Both of these clashes are crucial towards understanding the political reactions to Uribe’s recent detention. To Uribe’s supporters, this recent development seems to confirm the twin fears they’ve held for the past ten years—namely, an increasingly politicized judicial system that treats former enemies of the Colombian state more leniently than its successful defenders, alongside an increasingly assertive radical left that could eventually seize control of the country. The former concern is often illustrated by the fact that Jesús Santrich, a former FARC militant strongly suspected of engaging in illegal activities after the peace deal, was released from prison before his trial by the order of the Supreme Court, in contrast to Uribe’s quick detainment. Not surprisingly, Santrich ultimately fled the country. 

Meanwhile, the latter concern is grounded in the fact that Uribe’s detention emerged from a judicial confrontation against Senator Iván Cepeda, one of Gustavo Petro’s best-known supporters and a man whose political engagement began as the son of two militants of the Colombian Communist Party, the former political wing of FARC. While he claims that he has since distanced himself from Soviet-style socialism for its authoritarianism, he enjoys the support and admiration of the current FARC party, which describes Cepeda as “an example of perseverance, just like [his] giant of a father.” In turn, Cepeda’s personal sympathy for FARC remains evident, since he accompanied FARC senator and former kingpin Pablo Catatumbo to pick up Santrich from prison after the Supreme Court decided to release him. Both of these fears, ultimately, can be synthesized in a grim reality: while unelected former FARC terrorists occupy seats in Congress, Álvaro Uribe Vélez faces house arrest without having committed any proven crimes.

Prospects for the Future

The Supreme Court’s decision, whatever its judicial merits or lack thereof, comes as a harsh political shock, especially as the country grapples with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, it may well represent the sharp but necessary conclusion to the country’s present political predicament. Whether Uribe is declared innocent or guilty, the coming legal battle will prove, especially to the former president’s more moderate opponents, that despite his undeniable political influence, he is by no means above the law, and is susceptible to the same vulnerabilities facing former presidents across Latin America’s democracies. 

Furthermore, while there is significant disagreement in Colombia on this specific court decision, there is a broad popular consensus on the need to reform the country’s often corrupt and politicized judicial system. The Uribe decision will likely further stimulate the current government to pursue such a reform, simultaneously satisfying a common demand of the Colombian people while quelling the fears of those who believe that the judicial system has been irreparably corrupted since the 2016 peace deal. 

Finally, Uribe’s August 18 resignation from the Senate will likely provide a sense of closure for his formal political career, and his return to a regular civilian legal status has implied the transfer of his case from the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to that of the Attorney General, potentially enabling the full public disclosure of the evidence relevant to the case and allowing for a more transparent trial, carried out by an institution that does not lie at the heart of the controversy. All of these developments will hopefully enable Colombia to partially disentangle the unfortunately intertwined and pressing issues of Uribe’s particular legal case with the necessary reform of the broader judiciary branch and the political interests of Uribe’s enemies and supporters. 

Whatever the case, all Colombians should hope that the country can move past its present polarization, develop pragmatic solutions to the tense perceptions of grave injustice left behind by the FARC peace process, and continue to build on the gains that have allowed it to leap out of the abyss it was trapped in just 20 years ago. Only time will tell if these challenges can be met, and who, if anyone, will step up to meet them.