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Why Colombia Keeps Electing Presidents Tied to Murderers

To understand the Iván Duque Márquez victory this weekend, you need to understand the man behind him: former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images

Of the five presidential elections Colombia has held since 2002, Senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez has now won four: two under his own name, and two more on behalf of his hand-picked candidates. Yesterday, that candidate happened to be Iván Duque Márquez, a one-term senator and longtime international development technocrat. Duque made it to Congress on the strength of Uribe’s closed-list ticket: you vote for all the candidates, or you vote for none of them. Now he will move to Casa de Nariño, on the strength of Uribe’s coalition opposing the government’s ongoing peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). With stately grey hair, a decent singing voice, and a seemingly sincere passion for the virtues of market-friendly tax adjustments, the forty-one-year-old was not, as many critics argued, too young to govern. He was just young enough to be (relatively) untarnished by his links to Álvaro Uribe Vélez—who, among a great many crimes, both proved and alleged, is currently being investigated for murder.

Uribe, the next Colombian president’s sponsor, left the presidency in 2010, when the Constitutional Court prevented him from extending term limits a second time. (Top Uribe ministers had bribed legislators to approve the first extension.) His administration was praised for bringing security to broad swaths of Colombia, which experts had predicted would become a failed state. Increasingly, it’s also remembered for illegal wiretapping and intimidation; extensive collusion with right-wing narco-paramilitaries; and the systematic murder of civilians to inflate the number of guerrilla deaths the military could claim for its success metrics. Members of Uribe’s inner circle have been convicted of political crimes ranging from the essentially venal to deeply authoritarian. But Uribe himself has yet to fall, and the eponymous right-wing uribista movement is resurgent.

In February, the Supreme Court began investigating Uribe for intimidating key witnesses—one of whom was later murdered outside Medellín—against him and his brother, Santiago, who is currently on trial for leading a death squad. The following month, Uribe’s Democratic Center party won a plurality of seats in the upcoming Congress; Uribe, the single most-voted candidate, will likely be Congress’s next president. In May, the U.S.-based National Security Archives released newly declassified evidence that Uribe launched his career with the support of Medellín’s cocaine mafia. Two days later, Duque won 40 percent of the first-round election vote. The week after that, the Supreme Court declared four incidents for which Uribe is being investigated—three paramilitary massacres during his governorship of Antioquia deparment and the assassination of the human rights lawyer who denounced them—crimes against humanity.

As a senator, former Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro held the first congressional debates into paramilitary politics in Antioquia. And it was, perhaps fittingly, Petro who Duque defeated to complete Uribe’s return to power. Running on an anti-corruption and ambitious social spending platform, Petro received 42 percent of the vote in Sunday’s runoff, more than any leftist in Colombian history but well short of Duque’s 54 percent. He made many mistakes during the campaign: it took Petro, a former political militant with the demobilized M-19 urban guerrilla movement, far too long to distance himself from the spiraling crisis in nearby Venezuela. But he lost, ultimately, because he presented too credible an alternative to Uribe. Reactionary business sectors incited fears of expropriation and capital flight. Major media reinforced the narrative of impending “Castro-Chavist” dictatorship. As soon as the field was narrowed to two, Colombia’s traditional political class lined up behind a candidate most voters only knew as el que dice Uribe—the one who Uribe says.

I spent the week before the elections speaking with Duque supporters in Uribe’s hometown of Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city, where Duque won 72 percent of the vote. Fear of Petro, “populism,” and the Castro-Chavist menace came up often, as did total faith for Uribe’s leadership. (“That gentleman has big, big balls,” said a street vendor hawking pirated DVDs across the plaza opposite the Mayor’s Office.) There was the devout Evangelical couple that warned me of Petro’s plan to close churches and impose “gender ideology” on young school children. A university student wearing a bright green polo shirt lectured on the economic benefits of cutting taxes for “job creators.” Some supporters refused to believe Uribe could be guilty of all the nasty things he’s accused of—“Fake News,” one middle-aged mother of three called it. But many others, like the small restaurant owner, “poor but hard-working,” from the paramilitary-ravaged Caribbean banana zone, believed the accusations and didn’t care. “I’ve never been a violent person,” said the owner. “But don’t you see how many addicts and muggers and bums there are in the cities now? When they did the social cleansings, all of that disappeared.”

Luz Elena Galeano remembers the day in October 2002 when the military invaded Medellín’s Comuna 13, the district she lives in. Tanks rumbled through the labyrinthine streets that line the Aburrá Valley’s lush western mountains. Helicopters hovered overhead. Patrolling next to the soldiers and policemen were men with black balaclavas and handwritten lists of names. “It didn’t matter who you were, if you were on their list or not,” says Galeano, the president of Madres Caminando por la Verdad, Mothers Walking for Truth, a local victims’ rights group. “If they caught you on the street, or felt like taking you out of your house, they did it. And then you disappeared. We were all guerrillas anyway, right?”

Uribe had assumed office that August, but it was Operation Orion that inaugurated his self-proclaimed era of Democratic Security. Ostensibly intended to root out leftist militias, the operation was coordinated by then-Defense Minister Martha Lucía Ramírez, Duque’s running mate, and executed in conjunction with Diego “Don Berna” Murillo Bejarano, perhaps the most powerful drug lord in Medellín’s history. Galeano’s husband, Luis Javier Laverde, did not “disappear” in the initial phase, as up to a hundred or more residents reportedly did. He was pulled off a bus in 2008, by the paramilitaries who stayed behind to control the local drug trade and protection rackets. Four years later, Galeano was forced to flee across the valley; her activism on behalf of victims having drawn death threats. “We were supposed to be the Laboratory of Peace,” she says, laughing.

In 2003, Uribe chose Medellín as a pilot site for the negotiated demobilization of Colombia’s national paramilitary structures. Don Berna made a mockery of the process, using it as cover to strengthen his control of the city’s underworld. But in a limited sense, Uribe’s peace worked. “Don Berna’s consolidation created the conditions for change in Medellín,” says Angélica Durán-Martínez, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell who studies patterns of drug violence. With no market competition, and a unified state security apparatus offering protection against their rivals, Berna and his paramilitaries disciplined the local youth gangs, reducing needlessly “visible” forms of bloodshed and allowing city officials to perform certain basic functions in neglected peripheral neighborhoods. Those seen as undesirable, such as drug users and queer people, were eliminated.

Once the world’s murder capital, Medellín famously became the World’s Most Innovative City. Today, an expansive web of cable cars will take you from the elevated metro line up the vertiginous mountain walls, at a safe, respectable distance from the zinc-roofed slums below. Along the shaded, boutique storefronts and cafes in Poblado, the only bodily fluid being spilled is the vomit of inebriated foreigners.  

Beneath the renovated facade of the Medellín Miracle, extreme inequality remains, and other, less attention-grabbing forms of violence, like extortion, have proliferated. In 2008, Uribe ordered the secret, overnight U.S. extradition of Berna and 13 other top commanders who were reportedly preparing dossiers on his ties to the paramilitaries—setting off a prolonged power struggle between remaining factions. Galeano’s husband was taken soon after; she believes his body was disposed of in a giant trash dump at the edge of Comuna 13, along with those of some 300 other victims. Periodic turf wars continue to break out whenever the latest government-brokered truce breaks down. So far this year, there have been 32 murders in the Comuna 13 alone. “Everyone wants to talk about how good things are,” says Galeano. “They prefer to keep the truth buried.”

The first city in the country to industrialize, Medellín has long thought of itself at the forefront of Colombian capitalism. And in his eight years as president, Juan Manuel Santos—Uribe’s hand-picked man before Duque—has attempted to sell the world on an altogether similar national turnaround narrative. The demobilization of the FARC—and potential demobilization of the smaller, more volatile National Liberation Army (ELN), which agreed to a five-day election ceasefire as part of its talks with the Santos government—will do for the war-torn Colombian periphery what dismantling the Medellin Cartel has supposedly done for the city’s slums. Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016, but the true vindication of his Third Way alternative (“the market wherever possible, the government wherever necessary”) came last month, when Colombia was invited to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Peace, said Santos, is “a necessary condition for our development,” for Colombia to become a truly “modern country.”

Santos’ falling out with Uribe is often reduced to an ideological disagreement over the peace process. But Uribe had himself pursued talks with the FARC rebels, on terms more lenient than those eventually offered by Santos. Santos’ betrayal was personal. He appointed a cabinet hostile to Uribe, and allowed prosecutions against his former allies to move forward. To the extent there was an ideological element, it was over the relation of brute force to their shared economic project. Santos had served as Uribe’s defense minister during the height of the war with the FARC. But he sensed that Uribe, with his open disdain for journalists and the basic rights of opponents, had become a liability, if not at home then abroad—that rampant state violence, while no doubt necessary to contain the guerrilla, was preventing Colombia from taking its place among modern, developed nations.

Some commentators have speculated that, like Santos, Duque might break with Uribe once in office and govern like the centrist the hardliners in his own party have long suspected him to be. It’s unlikely for a few reasons: Duque does not have Santos’s mastery over backroom Colombian politics, and Santos did not have Uribe lording over his Congress, setting the legislative agenda. But the more important question is how meaningful such a break would even be.

“There are lots of groups that would bristle or would take moral offense at the notion that they are invested in the nastier side of development,” says Mary Roldán, a Colombian historian at the City University of New York. But when it comes down to it, the Santoses and Duques of Colombian history have always made peace with the Uribes and their methods. They understand, even if they would never admit as much, that “at the local level, these processes have only been possible through illicit forms of control.” Santos’s pro-peace governing coalition rallied around Duque, though it likely means the ultimate doom of their signature legislative project. They know how Uribe operates and what he represents, and they decided, in the end, that his protection was worth it. In a moment of economic precarity and profound social transformation, many Colombians have turned toward a “strong hand” they can trust—even, and in some cases especially, one that is stained in blood. Faced with the prospect of genuine institutional change, Colombia’s ruling elite have, as well.