Colombia’s Ex-President-Turned Influencer Is Still Tweeting Under House Arrest

He’s accused of bribing witnesses and procedural fraud in a high-profile case against him.
Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe speaks to supporters gathered at the Democratic Center Party headquarters in Bogota, Colombia, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. Uribe appeared before Colombia's Supreme Court on Tuesday for questioning in a case involving all

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Colombia’s former president, Álvaro Uribe, known for his tough crackdown on Marxist rebels, was placed under house arrest August 4 by the Supreme Court as he is investigated for tampering with a high-profile legal case.

Uribe, arguably one of the most powerful people in the South American nation, is accused of bribing witnesses and procedural fraud. 

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A prolific Tweeter and influencer, he let the world know via the social media platform that “the removal of my freedom has made me profoundly sad for my wife, for my family and for Colombians, who still believe that I have done something good for the country.” 

Uribe’s house arrest is the latest development in a Kafkaesque string of cases in a region where unethical and corrupt behavior from politicians often goes unpunished and impunity is the norm.

The accusations against Uribe concern a case related to alleged ties to right-wing paramilitary organizations that battled the former guerilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in the 1990s and early 2000s.

In 2014, Senator Iván Cepeda accused Uribe and his brother of helping to form the Bloque Metro paramilitary group in the late 1990s. Uribe filed counter charges against Cepeda, alleging that Cepeda manipulated witnesses to testify against him. 

The latest case, for which Uribe has been placed under house arrest, investigates whether Uribe manipulated witnesses himself.

The decision to put Uribe under house arrest comes three years after FARC rebels demobilized as part of a peace agreement brokered by former president Juan Manuel Santos. Under the deal, rebel leaders took congressional seats in exchange for laying down their weapons. Uribe was the peace deal’s most vocal critic and insisted that FARC leaders should not be allowed to hold public office until they had been prosecuted for their crimes. Uribe’s father was killed in 1983 during a botched FARC kidnapping. 

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Uribe responded to the latest Supreme Court ruling, saying it caused him, “profound sadness for his wife, for his family, and for all the Colombians who believe I did something good for my homeland.”

A decade after he left the presidency, Colombians are divided on Uribe’s legacy and his current role as a Tweet-happy political influencer. Supporters credit him with saving them from the FARC and restoring security. His critics claim his hardline approach to the FARC relied on a paramilitary alliance and that his tactics were plagued with human rights abuses. Current president Iván Duque, Uribe’s protégé, won the 2018 election in large part by harnessing voter nostalgia for Uribe’s 2002-2010 term.

Uribe “was a figure with immense popularity so this ruling by the court is a political bombshell,” said Yann Basset, a political scientist at the University of Rosario in Bogotá. “The former president has opposed the peace process with FARC and tried to torpedo the peace agreement.”

“It will definitely bring political repercussions,” he added.

The trial is likely to further cleave an already deeply polarized nation over whether Uribe should be locked up. His arrest takes place as FARC rebel leaders roam free in Congress, thanks to the peace deal, without facing justice for their alleged crimes.

In the run-up to Uribe’s 2002 electoral victory, FARC rebels controlled huge swaths of territory in Colombia, which slid toward a failed state. Uribe promised to wrestle Colombia back from the FARC’s grip. With millions of U.S. dollars from Washington to build up the Colombian military, he drilled the FARC back into the jungle during his presidency.

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But Uribe’s military success against the FARC in the jungle was tempered by scandals in the capital. Under his watch, members of the military killed young, poor men they falsely claimed were guerillas in an affair known as the ‘false positives’ scandal. Some of the president’s congressional allies were found guilty of colluding with paramilitary groups. The Supreme Court’s case will mine through evidence to determine if in fact Uribe also had links to these right-wing self-defense forces.

Defenders of the former president insist that corruption plagues the judiciary and the charges against the former president are a plot authored by Cepeda, a long-time foe and perceived FARC sympathizer, to throw Uribe in jail. The ex-president’s party has fought for judicial reform, which observers think has the potential to absolve Uribe of legal proceedings filed against him.

On the night of the court ruling in Colombia’s second city Medellín, where the former president is from, people hit the streets in protest of Uribe’s arrest. The protests challenge a country dogged by cases of the deadly coronavirus disease. As of today, there were 335,000 confirmed cases and 11,315 deaths for the nation of 50 million.

Duque gambled ex ante on his mentor’s innocence ahead of any definitive ruling on the case. 

“I am and I always will be a believer in the innocence and honor of Uribe,” said the president, “someone who by example has won a place in the history of Colombia.”

Cover: Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe speaks to supporters gathered at the Democratic Center Party headquarters in Bogota, Colombia, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. Uribe appeared before Colombia's Supreme Court on Tuesday for questioning in a case involving alleged witness tampering. (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia)