Colombia’s ex-pres faces blowback over peace talks

Libardo Cardona/ AP Writer

Alvaro Uribe did more as president than any Colombian leader to weaken the South American nation’s main leftist rebel group and he has been among the most vocal opponents of peace talks with the insurgents. Now, he’s finding that his strident opposition to the negotiations is bringing him some unsought attention.

Uribe’s high-profile role in what has become a fierce battle for this Andean nation’s future has drawn new scrutiny to his ties to provincial politicians, military officers and landowners accused of backing illegal right-wing death squads that killed thousands of noncombatants in Colombia’s decades-old dirty war.

Formal talks to end the half-century-old conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, began in November in Cuba, and the latest round closed Thursday for a two-week recess with no agreement on the first agenda item: agrarian reform.

Uribe has been relentlessly attacking his successor, Juan Manuel Santos, the instigator and champion of the negotiations. Uribe insists Santos, who is up for re-election in May 2014 but has not declared his candidacy, is leading the country to ruin.

Any peace pact reached at the Havana talks with the FARC, Latin America’s oldest and most potent rebel army, would only rekindle instability in the conflict-scarred nation Uribe led from 2002-2010, the former president maintains. Uribe vehemently opposes Santos’ plan to pardon and grant amnesty to FARC commanders so they can participate in political life. To him, the rebels are nothing more than criminals.

“He’s not the president of peace,” Uribe told reporters Monday in his latest attack on Santos. “He’s the president who asks the courts for impunity for terrorists, the president who got elected in the name of security and who is leading the country on the road to the re-establishment of violence.”

Uribe has been both speaking and tweeting relentlessly against the talks.

“What democracy sits down to negotiate with terrorists who continue to murder its police and soldiers?” he tweeted last month after publishing a photograph of the corpses of three slain police on a roadside.

This week, he pointed out that rebels killed two police officers as they accompanied government workers on a land-restitution mission. Santos has refused to negotiate under a cease-fire, instead preferring to keep the FARC under constant military pressure.

Santos’ initial response to Uribe’s withering verbal attacks was to hold his tongue. But lately he has been returning the rhetorical fire, calling Uribe a “street ruffian” who “hides a knife” beneath the rustic poncho he fancies.

And now Colombian prosecutors have reopened a criminal investigation into accusations that Uribe formed a paramilitary death squad nearly two decades ago while he was a law-and-order state governor.

The men’s feud reflects deep, longstanding divisions between the conservative provincial landowners whom Uribe represents and a more progressive urban class. The latter believes that Santos’ efforts to compensate the conflict’s victims and return millions of acres of stolen land to displaced peasants can address the FARC’s main grievances and produce a lasting peace.

Uribe’s opponents accuse him of continuing to stoke death squads that have killed thousands since they were first formed in the 1980s to protect ranchers and cocaine traffickers from rebel kidnapping and extortion. Among their victims: peasants agitating to reclaim stolen land. From January through September 2012, the United Nations says, at least 37 human rights and land-recovery activists were killed in rural Colombia.

“Uribe has a lot of unsettled scores,” as do the “ranchers and businessmen who enriched themselves off land theft and drug trafficking,” said Ivan Cepeda, a leftist congressman who wants Uribe in jail.

Uribe denies any association with such illegal groups.

But detractors say he successfully weakened the FARC in an alliance with shadowy groups that backed the far-right militias. More than 60 lawmakers allied with Uribe have been convicted of colluding with or benefiting from ties with far-right militias since 2006.

The case that prosecutors reopened against Uribe in January alleges that he and his brother Santiago formed a far-right militia on the family ranch, Guacharacas, in the Antioquia state town of San Roque in 1995, when Uribe was governor. Citing testimony from two imprisoned witnesses, prosecutors contend the ranch was used as a base of operations for the group, whose members allegedly committed “multiple crimes including massacres and selective killings.”

Uribe did not respond to a question about the case during an interview with The Associated Press last month, but his lawyers have repeatedly denied the charges.

Uribe attorney Jaime Granados called the case “insane,” and said he would prove “the whole thing is a farce.”

While it is difficult to say whether Uribe’s criticisms of the peace process have affected it in any way, the slow progress of the talks has only hurt Santos politically. He hasn’t said he will run for re-election but has repeatedly stressed he will pull the plug on the talks unless significant progress is made.

Uribe is constitutionally barred from running again but has formed a political party that is expected to field a candidate. One potential nominee: the president’s cousin, Francisco Santos, who was Uribe’s vice president and now calls the current government “the most intolerant Colombia has had in many years.”

That has led some to believe that President Santos wants Uribe out of commission, and that reopening the criminal case against him is just the way to do it.

Recent polls show Uribe with a higher approval rating than Santos: 65 percent compared to 44 percent, according to a mid-February survey conducted by Gallup. The same poll found 62 percent of Colombians said they didn’t think a settlement will be reached in the peace talks. The poll surveyed 1,200 people and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Both sides have reported advances in the peace talks, particularly on agrarian reform, but have offered no specifics. Colombia is a country where 7 percent of the population owns 80 percent of the land, the National Office of Notaries and Registrars says, and more than 3 million people have been forcibly displaced by illegal armed groups, principally by far-right militias.

Changing the balance of ownership has been a chief demand of the rebels and just as fiercely opposed by wealthy ranchers.

The ranchers’ chief spokesman, Jose Felix Lafaurie, has said the group opposes the peace process for the same reason as Uribe: No one should negotiate with “bandits.”

Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera and Frank Bajak contributed to this report.