Colombia: Cloud of Scandal Haunts Uribe's Legacy

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Edgard Garrido / Reuters

Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe

When he stepped down in August after eight years as Colombia's President, Alvaro Uribe gave up the keys to the national palace, the private jet and the other perks of high office. But Uribe also surrendered his Teflon coating.

Uribe is hailed as a modern-day savior by many Colombians for orchestrating a military offensive that severely weakened Marxist rebels, making the country much safer and opening the door to an economic revival. Screwups — and there were many — were forgiven and forgotten. Had he not been banned by the Constitution from running in this year's presidential election, Uribe would likely have breezed to a third term. He bowed out with an 80% job approval rating.

But sans presidential sash and the aura it conveyed, Uribe has been scampering to defend himself and former aides amid accusations of skullduggery reminiscent of Watergate. Allegations include illegal payoffs, wiretapping and campaign-finance shenanigans. Several members of Uribe's inner circle could end up behind bars if convicted on charges based on the allegations. The former President further stained his image last month when he helped convince the Panamanian government to grant political asylum to his former intelligence chief, María del Pilar Hurtado, who was to be a key witness in the most serious scandal of the Uribe years.

During Uribe's second term, Hurtado briefly headed Colombia's version of the FBI, known as the DAS. In 2009, DAS agents were caught eavesdropping on opposition politicians, journalists, human-rights activists and, incredibly, Supreme Court justices. Uribe's greasing the skids for Hurtado's getaway prompted howls of protest. Jaime Arrubla, the president of Colombia's Supreme Court and one of the people spied upon, rightly noted that political asylum is supposed to protect "people facing political persecution, not the persecutors themselves."

Amid the prospect of indictments and trials, hard-line Uribistas in Bogotá are setting up a legal-defense foundation. "The idea is to raise money to pay the legal bills of former government officials, which will cost a lot," said Rodrigo Noguera, one of the organizers.

Uribe can't even escape controversy in Washington — he was met by street protesters on his first day of class at Georgetown University, where he is a distinguished scholar on the practice of global leadership.

First elected in 2002, Uribe quickly secured congressional approval of a Constitutional amendment that paved the way for him to win a second four-year term in 2006. But the support of fence-sitting lawmakers may have been obtained through offers of government jobs and other benefits. Two legislators were convicted of receiving payoffs, while two of Uribe's former ministers are now under investigation for bribery. One of them, former Interior and Justice Minister Sabas Pretelt de la Vega, recently sought — and was denied — political asylum in Costa Rica. Like former DAS director Hurtado, Pretelt de la Vega has denied any wrongdoing. But both sought political asylum claiming that they would not receive fair trials in Colombia.

Far more troubling is the DAS eavesdropping, a scandal that might have brought down a President less revered than Uribe. True, the intelligence agency was plagued by problems long before Uribe was sworn in. Last month, a former DAS chief was indicted for his alleged role in the 1989 assassination of front-running presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán. But under Uribe, the agency seemed firmly embedded on the dark side. In fact, Uribe's first handpicked DAS director currently faces criminal charges that he colluded with paramilitary death squads to murder union activists.

Besides monitoring Uribe's political opponents, the DAS targeted the Supreme Court. At the time, the court was investigating dozens of pro-Uribe lawmakers, including the former President's cousin, for their financial and political links to paramilitaries. Uribe apparently thought the court was out to get him and the ensuing surveillance campaign seemed designed to dig up dirt and discredit its magistrates. In one episode, a DAS agent convinced a cleaning lady to place a tiny tape recorder in the main court chambers, which allowed the DAS to monitor the judges as they discussed criminal accusations against Uribe's allies.

Speaking on Colombian radio last week, Uribe denied any wrongdoing and blamed the turmoil on unnamed "enemies" of his government. "No one can say that I ever gave any illegal orders," he added. Still, the DAS answers directly to the President, while former DAS agents have testified that the information on the Supreme Court was requested by and sent to the presidential palace.

Former officials under investigation include Bernardo Moreno, Uribe's loyal chief of staff, who noted that his dealings with the DAS "were always carried out with the knowledge of the President." In October, strong evidence of Moreno's involvement in the conspiracy prompted Colombia's Inspector General — an independent figure who monitors government malfeasance — to ban him from holding public office for 18 years.

According to an October 2009 cable sent by then U.S. ambassador William Brownfield and revealed by WikiLeaks, Colombia's National Police commander suspected that Moreno and another top Uribe aide, José Obdulio Gaviria, had ordered the illegal surveillance campaign. Brownfield noted that the police chief, General Oscar Naranjo, was speculating but called him the best-informed member of the Uribe government, and said his analysis "has a pretty good track record for success."

Uribe has also been knocked back on his heels by sensational revelations of corruption in government agencies under his command since 2002. For example, the government land-reform agency turned over properties meant for landless peasants to front men for drug lords and paramilitaries. Flower growers received millions in government credits, then donated large sums to the 2010 presidential campaign of Uribe's favored candidate. Then there's the National Narcotics Department, whose employees were caught doling out assets seized from drug traffickers to friends and colleagues. "It's a mess," said Juan Carlos Restrepo, the department's new director and designated cleanup man. "For some seized properties, there's no documentation. In other cases, you can find the documents, but there's no sign of the property."

Through it all, Uribe continues to enjoy wide popular support. He's even contemplating a run next year for mayor of Bogotá, the country's second most powerful political post. Yet, the dirty laundry now emerging raises serious questions about Uribe's performance in the top job. "These were Uribe's people, and he bears political responsibility for what happened," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. "His record is going to be sullied by these scandals." The downward reassessment has already begun. In a recent survey of 42 Colombian Presidents by the newsmagazine Semana, Uribe ranked a middling No. 20.