Uribe is the oldest of the five children of the wealthy Medellin landowner Alberto Uribe Sierra, whose murky connections and violent death at the hand of leftist guerrillas have left an indelible mark on his son’s career. Uribe Sierra was murdered in a botched FARC kidnapping in 1983. According to the investigative journalist Fabio Castillo, at the time of his death he was known as a “recognized trafficker” and wanted for extradition to the U.S.
Uribe’s early political career has been the subject of much speculation, rumors and accusations over his alleged links to Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel. He began his political career in the late 70s, holding the posts of Chief of Assets for the Public Enterprises of Medellin (EPM) in 1976 and serving as Secretary General of the Ministry of Labor from 1977 to 1978. However it was after he was appointed as Director of Civil Aviation in 1980 that the rumors began.
Uribe’s appointment coincided with the rise of Escobar as an international trafficker and Uribe has had to answer allegations that the unusually high number of pilot’s licenses and airstrip construction permits issued on his watch were a major contributing factor to Escobar’s success. According to Escobar’s former lover Virginia Vallejo, the drug lord held Uribe in high regard for establishing the infrastructure to transport cocaine to the U.S.
Accusations that Uribe was an ally of Escobar were to follow him into his first major political role. In 1982, Uribe became mayor of Medellin, a post he was to hold for less than half a year. His reasons for leaving remain unclear but several journalists and writers have alleged his mafia ties became an embarrassment to more senior political figures. In his short term, Uribe publicly supported two public works projects financed by Escobar; construction of new housing for the poor and a city-wide tree planting scheme. Further controversy followed after the death of his father when it was reported that Uribe flew to his father’s ranch in a helicopter belonging to Pablo Escobar.
In 2004, during Uribe’s presidential term, the U.S. National Security Archive (NSA) published a declassified 1991 intelligence report from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) that listed Uribe on a list of prominent Colombians involved in the drug trade. The report described Uribe as a “close personal friend of Pablo Escobar” and “dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin cartel at high government levels.” Uribe’s government dismissed the document, highlighting inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the intelligence and pointing out the report was unverified intelligence as the source of the information remains classified.
In 1984 and 1986, Uribe was elected to the Medellin City Council as a member of the Liberal Party. He followed this with a stint as a senator between 1986 and 1994 before returning to Medellin to become Governor of Antioquia in 1995.
Although Uribe received plaudits for strengthening public health and education and investing heavily in infrastructure, his time as governor is best remembered for his enthusiastic advocacy of the controversial CONVIVIR program. Many of these “citizen defense groups,” which were armed and supported by the military, rapidly evolved into paramilitary organizations and were essentially shut down in 1997.
Following his term as governor, Uribe ended his long allegiance to the Liberal Party over the party’s support for President Andres Pastrana’s peace negotiations with the FARC. After the spectacular collapse of the peace process, Uribe launched his own bid to be president in 2002 running on a hard-line security platform and promising to take the fight to the FARC. Standing as an independent Liberal and backed by a broad coalition of right and center-right parties he won in the first round with 53% of the vote.
Uribe quickly set about implementing his policy of “Democratic Security.” Supported by U.S. funds through “Plan Colombia”, he invested heavily in the armed forces and stepped up the military assault against the FARC and ELN initiated under his predecessor Pastrana. The guerrillas were driven from the territories they had controlled, which at that time was about a third of the country. Despite allegations that much of the military successes depended on paramilitary “pacification” of guerrilla territory paving the way for the army, the sight of the FARC on the run alongside a substantial drop in murder rates and kidnappings earned Uribe praise from abroad and sky-high approval levels at home.
Uribe complemented his militaristic policies with combative rhetoric and a deliberate shift in political discourse. He denied that Colombia was in a state of conflict, saying Colombia’s guerrilla insurgency consisted only of “criminals,” “bandits,” and “(narco-)terrorists.” Post 9/11, Uribe frequently linked the guerrilla insurgency to the U.S.’ global war on terror, once even going as far as suggesting the U.S. send troops to Colombia as it had done to Iraq.
While launching a military offensive against the guerrillas, Uribe’s government tacked in the opposite direction in dealing with Colombia’s right-wing paramilitaries. The Justice and Peace law, which came into force in 2005, was supposed to oversee the demobilization of the national paramilitary organization the AUC. Although it marked the end of the AUC, the process has been heavily criticized for letting paramilitary leaders escape with light punishments for human rights atrocities before using their wealth and influence to integrate into politics and business. It also led to the emergence of neo-paramilitary groups and criminal gangs made up of mid-level AUC commanders who assumed control of the group’s criminal networks.
For his critics, Uribe’s military political career has been tainted by connections with Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups. In 2006, allegations emerged of top-level collusion between paramilitaries and politicians in the wake of the Justice and Peace process. What became known as the “parapolitics” scandal consumed members of Uribe’s family, some of his closest political allies and advisers and a substantial section of his congressional support. Both paramilitaries and Uribe’s political opponents accused Uribe himself of collaboration with the AUC, but this has never been proven.
The security gains made under Uribe were accompanied by pro-business economic policies and a push to attract foreign investment. The policy led to rocketing levels of outside investment as multinationals previously scared off by the prospect of guerrilla violence flooded the country looking for new opportunities.
In 2006, an amendment of the 1991 constitution allowed Uribe to stand again and win a second consecutive term, the first Colombian president to do so for over a century. Two years later, revelations emerged that members of Congress had been bribed to vote in favor of the amendment in another scandal, that became known as “Yidispolitica”, after the Congresswoman who admitted taking the bribes offered.
At the time, controversy over the amendment split the Liberal Party and led to the formation of the Party of National Unity, better known as the U Party, which became the official backers of Uribe. This split completed the process that began with Uribe’s election as an independent, breaking the duopoly of the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party that had dominated Colombian politics for more than a century.
Uribe’s second term was tainted by the unravelling DAS scandal. Known as the wiretapping scandal, it involved illegal surveillance, intimidation and smear campaigns targeting Uribe’s political enemies, including politicians, judges, human rights workers and journalists and has been labelled a “dirty war” against his opponents. The scandal has so far taken down numerous Uribe appointments to the DAS and some of his closest advisers. Uribe himself is part of an ongoing investigation.
As the end of his second term approached, Uribe’s supporters attempted to amend the constitution again to allow him to stand for a third time. They collected the required signatures to hold a referendum on the issue, but the constitutional court declared it unconstitutional while questioning the funding of the campaign and the methods used.
Despite the scandals, increased security and high-profile successes in the campaign against the guerrillas, such as the rescue of kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt in 2008 and the killing of “Raul Reyes,” kept Uribe’s popularity high and he left office with approval ratings in the high seventies.
In the elections that followed, Uribe backed his former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, who pledged to continue Uribe’s policies. However, since Santos’ victory the relationship between the two has become increasingly strained as Santos has distanced himself from his predecessor both in policy and in rhetoric.
By the time of the 2011 local elections, Santos had removed Uribe’s allies from key government positions and replaced them with his own supporters. The elections themselves saw defeats for the candidates Uribe backed in the biggest and most symbolic elections. Although these were accompanied by victories in key areas of strategic and political influence, Uribe has begun to cut an increasingly isolated figure in government circles.
When Santos appointed a vocal Uribe critic, Rafael Pardo as Labor minister, Uribe launched a blistering verbal assault on Santos, accusing him of betrayal and hypocrisy. With the attack seemingly marking a terminal severing of ties between the two, experts believe Uribe is now set to regroup with U Party loyalists and may well become the main opposition figure to the government.