Colombia: The dark side of Alvaro Uribe

BOGOTA, Colombia — After Alvaro Uribe accepted a job at Georgetown University, a Colombian humorist suggested the former president should teach a course on wiretapping.

On his first day of class last week, Uribe was met by protesters who held up banners calling him a mass murderer.

Back in Colombia, meanwhile, nearly a dozen of Uribe’s former advisers are under investigation for abuse of power and could end up in prison.

So far, retirement has been a little rocky for Uribe. He is considered a hero by many Colombians for improving security in this war-ravaged nation. But since he stepped down on Aug. 7, more light is being shed on the dark side of his eight years in office.

“His legacy will still be positive due to the security gains,” said Michael Shifter, a Georgetown professor and president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank. “But his record was sullied by these scandals. These were Uribe’s people and he bears political responsibility for what happened.”

Uribe ran into trouble, analysts say, because he became increasingly power-hungry and paranoid.

First elected in 2002, Uribe quickly sought congressional approval of a constitutional amendment so he could stand for re-election in 2006. At the time, the Colombian constitution banned presidents from serving more than one four-year term.

The amendment was approved but accusations emerged that government ministers secured the support of key lawmakers by offering them jobs and other benefits. Two legislators were convicted of receiving payoffs and Uribe’s former interior and social protection ministers are now under investigation for bribery.

Even more serious is a scandal known as DAS-gate, which, according to Shifter, “makes Watergate look like child’s play.”

The DAS is the Colombian equivalent of the FBI and during the Uribe administration its agents illegally monitored the telephone calls and actions of opposition politicians, human rights workers, journalists and even Supreme Court justices.

At the time, dozens of pro-Uribe lawmakers were being investigated by the Supreme Court for their financial and political links to right-wing death squads. They included Senator Mario Uribe, the president’s cousin, who later resigned and went to prison. Experts say the president’s men wanted to embarrass and discredit the court judges.

“Uribe believed the Supreme Court was out to get him,” said Alfonso Cuellar, an editor at Semana news magazine, which broke the DAS-gate story. “That was not true but that’s what Uribe believed because he was surrounded by a small group of people who fed him rumors.”

This month, new details emerged about the infiltration campaign from a DAS agent cooperating with the investigators. Alba Florez, who has been dubbed by the Colombian media as the DAS Mata Hari, said she persuaded the bodyguards and personal assistants of Supreme Court judges to spy on their bosses.

Florez persuaded a cleaning lady to place a tiny tape recorder in the main chambers of the court which allowed the DAS to monitor the judges as they discussed criminal accusations against Uribe’s allies. The agent paid large sums for photocopies of court documents and even tried to record sessions with a tiny video camera.

Florez testified that Maria del Pilar Hurtado, who then headed the DAS and is now under investigation, knew all about her mission. “She was very pleased with our work,” Florez said.

So far, no smoking guns have emerged to tie Uribe directly to the case.

But former DAS agents claim the information on the Supreme Court was ordered by top officials and sent to the presidential palace. One ex-spy told investigators: “The president’s office demanded immediate results.”

Besides Uribe’s hand-picked DAS chief, his chief of staff, his attorney and several other close aides are also under investigation. Their legal problems prompted a quip from former Colombian president Andres Pastrana.

Noting that several of his former ministers have joined the new Colombian government, Pastrana said: “My aides are being called to serve. Uribe’s aides are being called to testify.”

While in office, none of these scandals dented Uribe’s popularity, which is why he was known as the Teflon president. Yet accusations of wrongdoing now dog Uribe as he builds a new life as an ex-president.

For example, Uribe’s inclusion last month on a U.N. panel that is investigating Israel's May 31 storming of a Turkish-owned flotilla bound for Gaza brought a new round of protests. Human rights activists claimed Uribe is not qualified to defend international law, in part, because he ordered an illegal cross-border military raid into Ecuador in 2008 that killed a Colombian guerrilla leader.

At Georgetown, where Uribe assumed his new post as “distinguished scholar in the practice of global leadership,” demonstrators pointed out that under his watch Colombian troops were accused of killing thousands of innocent civilians and dressing them up as guerrillas.

But fans of the former president also showed up at Georgetown to claim that his overall record — which includes military victories against Marxist rebels, a steep reduction in kidnappings and an economic boom — far outweigh the negatives. One supporter told reporters: “Uribe has been able to give more security to the Colombian people and I think that’s something very admirable.”

Many Colombians agree. Indeed, Uribe is considering running next year for mayor of Bogota — the country's second-most important political post — and polls indicate that, should he declare his candidacy, he would be the instant front runner.