By Pedro Pizano and Andrés Manosalva
A version of this article was first published in Spanish in The New York Times on Sept. 30, 2020.
On August 3rd, Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered—in a 1,554-page auto, fifteen times longer than usual—, the preventive detention of former President and then Senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez. The question is whether Uribe “determined”, knew, (or should have known) that his lawyer was allegedly bribing and threatening witnesses, and when he learned about it.
In the aftermath of the detention order, voices both on the left and the right have made overt threats of reigniting violence. Discussions often descend into name-calling and into accusing others of being “dangerous,” “lesser,” “stupid,” “uneducated,” or “without memory.”
The polarization surrounding Uribe suggests that Colombia might go down the road that Emil Cioran warns about in his Genealogy of Fanaticism: “When we refuse to admit the interchangeable character of ideas, blood flows . . . . The devil pales beside the man who owns a truth, his truth.” Uribistas and anti-Uribistas must try to be less sure about their truths. The country should debate and examine the evidence without labels.
Viewing one’s ideology, one’s candidate, one’s worldview, as not only better—and this second step is crucial—but also as morally superior, has enabled bloodshed.
Uribe is innocent until proven guilty. The investigation offers us an opportunity to end the culture of impunity. A mature liberal democracy requires that the powerful and influential answer the call of justice, but also the protection of their due process. Uribe’s legal fortune must not be the spark that lights a new fire, but rather a milestone for justice and peace in Colombia. It is time to attempt to put an end to fanatical partisan politics in which belonging to a side seems to trump the rule of law, justice, and liberal democracy.
In the 1990s, with more than 60 homicides per 100,000 people, Colombia was one of the most violent places in the world. From January to June of this year, the country registered its lowest homicide rate in generations: 23.31 homicides per 100,000 people. Steven Pinker and Malcom Deas have shown that Colombia’s reputation as a violent place since time immemorial is a myth, yet the country has had periods of intense Violence—with a capital V. These have diminished, in part, due to the Peace Process between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian Government. Recent massacres, protests, riots, and abuses show, however, that progress is fragile. If Uribe’s case is not resolved in a credible, transparent, and lawful manner, violence might intensify.
After Uribe voluntarily resigned from his Senate seat, the investigation was transferred from the Supreme Court to the Attorney General’s office, opening the debate of whether the current Attorney General, Francisco Barbosa, is impartial. Barbosa is a friend of President Iván Duque, who was elected representing Uribe’s party. This is not an obstacle in itself but any appearance of impropriety must be avoided. Barbosa denied any “impediment or recusal from the case at hand.” The Supreme Court also rejected a motion for recusal. In other matters, Barbosa’s willingness to put the duties of his office before his personal interests has come into question.
Missteps and opacity only add to suspicion and distrust. Institutions and their representatives must safeguard their own legitimacy. As citizens, we must remain vigilant using the mechanisms that the law affords us, political debates, journalism, and our personal behavior. In any case, individuals must be held accountable for their real and proven guilt—but not be treated as scapegoats for our collective responsibility.
Some of his detractors think that Uribe deserves punishment regardless of evidence, due process, or a fair trial. Many of his supporters dismiss the charges against him and insist that whatever crimes he may have committed are justified because of his accomplishments and accuse his critics of extremism. Both without evidence. They both make the mistake of wanting to wield the judiciary not as a source of stability but as a weapon against their political opponents. The exalted reaction to Uribe’s detention and the use of the law as a nakedly political tool are not new. Colombia has had leaders who have been just as polarizing, triggering periods of political violence.
In February 1944, Laureano Gómez, a conservative who would become president, was jailed when Alberto Lleras Camargo, a liberal minister and future president, suggested that Gómez should be sued for defamation. A judge acquiesced and jailed Laureano for a day and a few hours.
A liberal commentator, Juan Lozano y Lozano, wrote at the time, as cited by Juan Esteban Constain: “There is a patriotic obligation to treat Mr. Gómez, not how you treat a claimant, but how you treat a strike. Mr. Gómez is, above all, a great social reality.” The same can be said of Uribe.
Also, in the 1940s, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who defied both liberal and conservative political elites, declared in his speeches, “I am not a man, I am the people.” The assassination of Gaitán on April 9, 1948 was crucial in the road to one of the darkest periods of Colombian history known as “La Violencia,” a bitter civil war between polarized political factions that left between 80,498 to 113,032 dead.
In 1994, then-president Ernesto Samper, facing clear evidence that money from the Cali Cartel financed his campaign, coined a sentence that still resonates in the country: “Here I am, here I stay.” Though there were ample grounds for impeachment, Samper made good on his promise and finished his term. Were he to face trial, as he should, Samper, like Uribe, ought to be afforded the highest standards of due process.
Today, Uribe is not regarded as a “claimant.” Like Laureano, like Gaitán, and Samper, his sole name is polarizing, either the embodiment of the nation or of the nation’s evils.
Now that the Attorney General has taken over the investigation against Uribe, there is no need for a special tribunal or a recusal from A.G. Barbosa. The country demands rigorous respect for due process, and a prompt, appropriate and credible decision to either press charges against Uribe or to dismiss them in a convincing, transparent, and legitimate way.
Uribe’s defense, led by Jaime Granados Peña and Jaime Lombana Villalba, in response to a questionnaire we gave them in preparation for this article, said: “it is important [to note] that the defense of President Uribe is based on showing the truth.” Both supporters and detractors can agree that the truth must prevail.
If the Attorney General convincingly investigates the accusations and guarantees Uribe’s right to due process, it has an opportunity to restore its credibility and the country’s trust in the justice system. It may also contribute towards ending the cycle of dehumanization of whoever is seen as the political adversary at the moment, and stopping the vicious spiral of violence.
Even if the outcome does not please us, we must be able to demand, debate, and have disagreements within the constructive stridency of liberal democracy, without fanaticism, without threats, without dehumanizing, avoiding losing our peace to violence.
Pedro R. Pizano serves as the International Criminal Law and Human Rights Journalism Fellow at the McCain Institute for International Leadership.
Andrés M. Manosalva holds a J.D. from George Washington University Law School and is currently pursuing his M.F.A. in Creative Writing at North Carolina State University.