At his inauguration in August, President Juan Manuel Santos declared that he would end the long-running Colombian civil war once and for all by continuing the “Democratic Security” policies of his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe. This strategy, while producing gains against guerilla groups throughout the country over the past decade, has come at the price of increased human rights abuses, legal subversion, and political coercion by the Colombian state, a trade-off that both Uribe and his successor deny exists. However, recent events suggest otherwise, revealing not only the existence of this quid pro quo, but also the continuation of repressive tactics designed to stifle dissent and restrict official accountability in the midst of increasingly lethal military operations.
Nothing serves as better evidence of this trade-off than the ongoing saga of ex-Senator Piedad Córdoba.
Among the most visible and effective political champions of women, indigenous peoples, and Afro-Colombians in the country, Córdoba is also well known for her ties to prominent leftist Latin American leaders, her advocacy of a peaceful negotiation to the decades-old Colombian civil war, and her relentless criticism of former President Uribe’s militaristic solution to the conflict.
Yet despite their opposing views, Senator Córdoba’s standing is such that Uribe, when he was president, authorized her to serve as a mediator in an eventual prisoner exchange between the Colombian government and the leftist guerrillas of the FARC in 2007. A kidnapping victim herself in 1999, Córdoba subsequently founded Colombianos Por La Paz in the wake of her release and since then has become one of the most vocal proponents of this cause in her country. Her efforts towards this end earned her a nomination for the 2009 Nobel Peace prize from past laureate and renowned Argentine human rights activist, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel.
However, on September 27 the Colombian Inspector-General, Alejandro Ordóñez, revoked Piedad Córdoba’s Senatorial credentials and banned her from holding political office for the next 18 years due to her alleged “collaboration” with the FARC.
Based upon evidence obtained from laptops that were recovered as a result of Operation Phoenix, the 2008 cross-border air strike by the Colombian military that killed high-ranking FARC commander Raúl Reyes and at least 20 others in a makeshift camp in the jungles of northern Ecuador, Ordóñez claimed that the 55-year-old Senator had “exceeded her functions as well as the authorization she was given by the government to negotiate a humanitarian exchange”.
The Inspector-General also accused Córdoba of advising the FARC on matters such as “improving their strategy for reaching their objectives,” thereby violating, among other laws, Article 48 of Law 734 passed in 2002, which states that it is a crime for an individual to “encourage or perform acts tending to the formation or subsistence of armed groups to the margins of the law; promote, sponsor, finance, organize, instruct, direct or collaborate with them.”
In addition to the evidence gleaned from the recovered hard drive, Ordóñez also based his charges against the Liberal Party senator on phone taps and testimony from informants provided to the Inspector-General by the DAS, the primary Colombian security and intelligence agency. This evidence however, was obtained illegally in what has been dubbed the “Chuzadas scandal,” an illicit operation sanctioned by the upper echelon of the Uribe administration during his second term, which saw the DAS spying on leading opposition politicians and judges.
The fact that the DAS had been illegally spying on Piedad Córdoba for many years, coupled with the recent punishment levied against her based on Ordóñez’s findings, has many in Colombian political circles crying foul.
“It is unquestionable that it is a political decision,” declared fellow opposition Senator and wiretap target Gustavo Petro. “We are facing an extreme right that wants to cause great political disorder in the country in order to retake power.”
Ironically, while the Inspector-General has used much of this specious evidence to support his case against Piedad Córdoba, he has concurrently stripped the primary culprits in the scandal of their rights to hold office for similar periods of time. These include 18-year bans for ex-President Uribe’s personal secretary, Bernardo Moreno, and former DAS directors Jorge Noguera and Maria del Pilar Hurtado.
Former intelligence director Fernando Tabares was recently sentenced to more than eight years in prison by a Colombian judge in exchange for his cooperation in the case, fueling speculation that his former superiors are the next ones to be legally prosecuted in the fallout from the scandal.
However, it is unlikely that Hurtado will be affected by any further disciplinary actions, as she was granted political asylum in Panama on November 19 at the urging of Álvaro Uribe. The ex-president’s two sons reside in the country, where he also retains considerable business interests, and he is known to be a close friend of the current Panamanian president, Ricardo Martinelli, thus making such an unusual request for asylum possible.
In the face of such legal subversion orchestrated by his former boss, Juan Manuel Santos has avoided directly addressing this flagrant abuse of diplomatic protocol between Uribe and Martinelli. Instead, the sitting Colombian president initially expressed “regret” at not being informed of this decision earlier, but since then has not shown any further interest in pursuing the matter.
Also, Alejandro Ordóñez himself is currently under investigation for his supposed role in the five year-old “Yidispolítica scandal,” yet another incident of official misconduct that occurred under Uribe’s watch.
The then-Protection Minister, Diego Palacio, and Colombian ambassador to Italy, Sabas Pretelt, allegedly bribed a former Congresswoman, Yidis Medina, to vote in support of Uribe’s reelection in a 2006 referendum to determine his eligibility to serve an additional term in office. Ordóñez apparently failed to act on evidence in his possession to prosecute either Palacio or Pretelt in this instance, yet has somehow still remained in a position of considerable influence.
Ordóñez’s apparent immunity may stem from his invaluable utility in the perpetuation of Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policies under Juan Manuel Santos, namely by removing potential whistle blowers from the official political discourse.
Incidentally, the much-heralded killing of senior FARC commander Mono Jojoy by the Colombian military came less than a week before Ordóñez stripped Córdoba of her credentials, effectively removing one of the Colombian government’s most influential official critics from her post in the midst of an intensifying counterinsurgency campaign.
On November 16, not even two weeks after a Senate commission approved Córdoba’s dismissal, joint Colombian air and ground forces bombed and invaded a FARC rebel camp in Ipiales near the Ecuadoran border, allegedly killing 14 guerrillas, eight of whom were women, as well as a 12-year-old boy.
Santos’s defense minister, Rodrigo Rivera, subsequently declared, “This is further evidence of the success of the cooperation between the military and the police in the fight against terrorism.”
Yet, even though Córdoba has remained politically sidelined during the recent hostilities between the Colombian armed forces and the FARC due to her purported ties to the guerrillas, on December 9 she was thrust back into the national spotlight.
The ex-Senator received an open letter from the FARC General Secretariat requesting her oversight over the proposed release of five hostages in the near future. A couple of days later, Córdoba announced that in tandem with her organization, Colombianos Por La Paz, she would work with the Santos administration to secure the safe passage of these five hostages in the upcoming weeks, thus reengaging in the same humanitarian work that caused her to lose her credentials in the first place.
Perhaps coincidentally, it was announced the following week that Jorge Luis Quintero Milanés, a judge on the Colombian Supreme Court, would review her legal challenge to Ordóñez’s decision.
This judicial and executive inconsistency underscores the rejection of the Colombian government, first under Uribe and now under Santos, to accept or pursue any non-military solutions to the ongoing internal conflict, except in incidents such as a proposed hostage release or exchange between belligerents. The neglect of peaceful strategies coincides with the increased use of political subversion by the state to spy on, target, and ultimately remove any dissenting voices from the national political discourse.
Most likely cognizant of this reality, Córdoba withdrew her legal challenge in a letter posted on her official website on December 22, stating that she would not pursue further action “while Alejandro Ordóñez is the inspector general of the nation.”
“He doesn’t accept thoughts different than his own,” said Córdoba in a an October interview. “Those of us who disagree with official injustices are, according to him, guerrillas or terrorists.”
C.L. Smith is a freelance international relations analyst with a focus on inter-American issues.