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The Colombian media is in the midst of a nostalgia fest sparked by the twentieth anniversary of Pablo Escobar's death (far be it for this blog to join in). The jefe of the Medellín Cartel, estimated fifteenth richest man in the world, some time Liberal party congressman, some time grave robber, Escobar has been the subject of a number of best selling books in both Colombia and the United States, two upcoming feature films, a Botero painting, and a telenovela (El Patrón de Mal, where the “Boss of Evil” is apparently a lovable, chubby-yet-charismatic underdog trying to balance his work and his love life). It is probably fair to say that Escobar is the most famous Colombian outside Colombia (apologies to Gabo Marquez and Shakira).
Ex-President Alvaro Uribe is currently filing a defamation suit against his ex-Minister of Defense, Gabriel Silva Luján, who compared the litigious Uribe to Escobar in an opinion piece in El Tiempo. Luján's column focused on Uribe's current activities, namely the “Uribe Centro Democrático,” which has a complex and varied range of political beliefs, running the gamut from vigorous support of whatever Uribe likes this week, to furious denunciations of things Uribe doesn't like this week. The party (though it insists on referring to itself as a “movement”—the term is telling) includes a number of high profile politicians including current President Santos' cousin, Francisco Santos, and will provide the primary challenger to Santos's reelection next year in the shape of Oscar Ivan Zuluaga (more on him later).
Luján's critiques are apposite—he notes that, like Escobar, Uribe demands unwavering loyalty, and apes the macho language of the mafia. Luján remarks that the Centro, while not emulating the Medellín Cartels' espoused political philosophy, emulates its servility with respect to its leader. Luján raises an eyebrow at the Centro's laughable logo, which is simultaneously reminiscent of corporate logos (suggestive of the party's neoliberalism) and dominated by the face and name of Uribe (suggestive of the cultish undertones of uribismo). Luján goes as far as to describe his ex-boss’ current machinations as resembling, more than anything, Nazism, perhaps drawing on Kershaw's description of the National Socialist Party's “working toward the Fuhrer,” though I would argue caudillismo is a fitter term. Despite that, it is the comparison with Escobar that gets Uribe all touchy.
I wonder why? Perhaps it would be worth taking it a bit further and looking at what semblances and divergences can be found between the two men in a wider sense (just out of curiosity, you understand, not out of any cheap desire to stick the boot in. Oh no. Not at all.)
Most obviously, we can say they are both remarkably successful in their chosen fields of endeavor. Whatever else he was, Escobar was and remains the drug dealers’ drug dealer, the face of innumerable infantile fantasies, the Bowlderized icon of a global anti-culture, a sort of Anti-Bob Marley. Uribe similarly is, amongst other things, a consummate self-publicist and politician, who has and continues to dominate the political narrative for over a decade, starting when he first ran under the seductive slogan, “Firm Hand, Big Heart,” with a promise to “get tough with insurgents” (the right wing always falls back on BDSM tropes to win votes).
They are of the same generation, born three years apart at the beginning of the cycle of systematic partisan bloodletting known as La Violencia. Both grew up in Medellín, the intensely proud, entrepreneurial, Catholic second city of Colombia, surrounded by numerous siblings.
Both developed a fierce loyalty to their respective heritages: Escobar, the son of a campesino farmer and a primary school teacher who had migrated from rural Rionegro to urban Envigado, has become a populist folk hero due to his civic largesse and outspoken love of “el pueblo”; Uribe was the son of a landowner who was deeply in debt, living in the middle-class neighborhood of Laureles, before making his fortune in the 1970s as a political and real estate broker for the nacro-industry and buying extensive cattle farms in Antioquia and Cordoba. Uribe Senior was murdered by the FARC's Fifth Front on his ranch in 1983.
Both had and have interesting relationships with the state, one from within, the other from without. Escobar declared war on the Colombian state, built his own army, subverted the judiciary and penal systems, denounced the state’s relationship with the United States, and attempted to force its hand on the matter of extradition. Uribe utilized state institutions to pursue personal vendettas, declared twice a “State of Emergency” to extend the power of the executive (ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in 2003), and elevated militarism and the security state until it manifested as a sort of state capture.
Of course, the two men's paths crossed occasionally. Early in Uribe's career, he granted pilot licenses to drug traffickers as head of Aerocivil. He was removed from his post of Mayor of Medellín in 1982 after five months for openly attending a Cartel meeting at Escobar's Napoles hacienda. After the death of his father, Uribe flew to pick up the body in one of Escobar's helicopters. In 1991, a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report described Uribe as a “close personal friend” of Escobar, and linked him to “a business involved in narcotics activities in the United States.”
Well, the 1980's were a complicated time in Colombia.
The two men also shared some associates. In the early 1980's the Medellín Cartel, with the Cali Cartel and others, set up Death to Kidnappers (MAS), a death squad, to counter the FARC forays into their business realm. MAS was forbear to the most powerful paramilitary group of the last 20 years, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), which was led by mass murderer Carlos Castano, who had come up through the ranks of MAS (after military training in Israel), and who would later support Uribe in his first presidential campaign “as the man closest to our ideology and philosophy." AUC's military commander, Salvatore Mancuso, incidentally, had a finca that bordered Uribe’s, and Mancuso would later say that the AUC financed Uribe’s 2006 reelection campaign (Mancuso was later extradited to the United States; Uribe denies his claims). His extradition was a shock after Law 975 of 2005, an Uribe initiative known as the “Justice and Peace” law. The legislation gave AUC combatants broad concessions, allowing paramilitaries to keep profits made from criminal activities during their time in the AUC, limiting sentences to a maximum of eight years and authorizing the sentences to be served on private farms instead of in prisons, and not obliging them to dismantle their power structures in return for demobilization.
Both men innovate, adapting old techniques for new purposes—Escobar with his groundbreaking use of carbombing and kidnapping (developed out of La Violéncia, later used to more notorious effect by the FARC), Uribe with his promotion of the Convivirs—officially sanctioned rural vigilante groups guilty of displacing hundreds of thousands while Uribe was Governor of Antioquia. The Convivirs were more or less similar to the Guatamalan Civil Defense Patrols; Salvatore Mancuso was a national advisor on the initiative.
The Uribe Centro Democrático's staunch and unyielding opposition to the Santos government’s peace process with the FARC has catalyzed fervent debate in Colombia, which is to be welcomed; next year’s presidential elections now look like they will be, in effect, a plebiscite on the negotiations to Havana (unfortunately to the detriment of wider political debate in Colombia regarding...well everything really). The Centro’s insistence however, that the negotiations will “legalize” the FARC, crying “shame” that “this government will negotiate with the biggest drug cartel in the world," stand stark in contrast to the no-doubt merely superficial similarities between Escobar and Uribe, or the alleged links between the Centro's presidential candidate and paramilitarism.
The wider point of this post is not that Uribe is equal to Escobar—clearly this is not the case. However, it is worth considering the story of these two men’s paths to power and success in their chosen fields, what those paths might suggest about the functioning of power in Colombia in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and how those patterns influence today.
That being said, on Uribes' filing of a complaint against Luján: if you were feeling slightly catty, you might comment that the lady doth protest too much.
Luke Finn is a writer and international accompanier with Fellowship of Reconciliation Peace Presence in Colombia. He graduated from the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester.