Former President and current Colombian Senator, Alvaro Uribe, was revered by the Bush administration as he cooperated with the US in its demands of fighting guerilla movements in the country and combating illicit markets. Despite serious legal attempts (de jure) of democratic erosion, his proposals for centralizing power were rejected by the Colombian judicial and legislative branch. Professor and Political scientist, Laura Gamboa, applauded this as an example of a political opposition using institutional mechanisms to combat democratic erosion. While Uribe did not centralize power as President, his legacy of promoting impunity and ignoring the judicial system has extended to President Duque. Gamboa’s analysis in “Opposition in the Margins” is excluding the long-term impacts of state repression as well as the impunity that started with Uribe, which is allowed to continue by the US due to the “War on Drugs.” The victory that Gamboa claims for Colombia is therefore ephemeral, as both men through executive power (de facto) have repressed protesters, human rights activists, and undermine democratic efforts for transitional justice.
Uribe was an immediate threat to Colombia’s democracy as he wanted to curtail the powers of the Constitutional and Supreme Court in 2002, 2006, and 2008, wanted to increase his powers by decree in 2003, proposed two immediate presidential re-elections in 2004 and 2010, and even attempted to reduce the size of congress in 2008. He not only co-opted security agencies and tampered with evidence but also surveilled journalists, trade unions, and human rights organizations that were critical of his usage of paramilitary groups. Much of the state repression during his time is associated with his infamous mano dura approach when dealing with guerilla movements and producers of coca. It is even alleged that he was involved in the massacres of La Granja (1996), San Roque (1996) and El Aro (1997) while serving as governor of Antioquia and for the assassination of Jesus Maria Valle: an attorney and human rights defender working with victims in those cases. Uribe utilized paramilitary groups to not only persecute his opponents but many of the executed civilians were later found to be false positives. Finally, despite his controversial record, he was allowed to run for the Senate and won in 2014. Fortunately enough for the families of victims, Uribe is currently facing charges for witness tampering and bribery is currently arrested and awaiting trial.
It is crucial to foster an environment that is conducive to different views, as Robert Dahl states in “Polyarchy; Participation and Opposition” that a fully consolidated democracy has the principle of responsiveness to citizens and treats the opinions of those in opposition as equal. Where individuals have the “freedom of expression” and to signify their preferences through “collective action” or in this case through protesting. While Colombia regionally ranks comparatively well in the quality of democracy, it is witnessing the growth of state intolerance and violent state-suppression. Such a trend is no coincidence as Uribe served as an election campaign aid for Duque in 2018 and later as an informal mentor. Both dislike the Colombian peace deal and have implemented a mano dura approach. However, what both lack is democratic legitimacy as defined by political scientist Janice Gallagher, as the ability to “protect one’s citizens” and “integrate” them into the democratic process regardless if they are in opposition or not. Colombia simply has an abysmal record in such an area, as 460 activists that have protested have been killed since 2016. Uribe and Duque have the fatal flaw of using a militaristic design to organize security forces and have consistently involved the military in civilian affairs and for political motives when crushing protests, conducting illegal raids and searches, and alienating rural communities. These same rural and marginalized communities are highly unequal and face issues of poverty and isolation. As for Uribe and Duque, they both have a conservative stance, and naturally, such communities oppose this conservative stance. Therefore, for partisan and political reasons both men have opted to isolate rural communities, undermine the peace deal that provides state funding, and simply have no incentive for incorporating them formally.
Even if we were to ignore partisan political dynamics, Duque has also undermined the balance of power and national law, as he has tried to protect his allies through blocking statutory law that defines the powers of Colombia’s War Crimes Tribunal: The JEP. Duque has demanded it to be returned to Congress, despite this law of prosecuting those involved in state-violence being approved by the Constitutional Court after a two-year process. Not only are close military allies roaming free despite human rights violations but Duque continues to delay transitional justice through his political declarations and stalling. To make matters worse, six young Colombians were killed in broad daylight by federal forces in September 2020 as protests continue against him. This followed after the deaths of 13 protesters and Javier Ordonez, a lawyer, at the hands of security forces in the same week. Finally, despite pressure from the UN and the International Criminal Court (ICC), Duque also continues to manage Colombia’s Police forces under the Defense Ministry rather than under the Interior Ministry. This means acquiring state impunity is easy as violators are tried in military rather than civilian courts.
Since the US is a consistent ally and supporter of the Colombian government, it shares the responsibility of the current militarized state as it is a direct outcome of Plan Colombia and its approach of interdiction. The US supplied training, equipment, and weapons to Colombian forces which allowed Uribe and now Duque to use militarized security forces and right-wing paramilitary groups for political means. Not only have they been criticized for human rights violations and excessive use of force, but Colombia under both presidents has been consistently criticized for its inability to hold paramilitary groups accountable. If the US truly abides by democratic principles, then it should condemn Duque for undermining a democratically ratified peace deal, for attempting to block the judicial branch when prosecuting war criminals, for suppressing protesters violently, and for slashing funds for truth commissions that were democratically established.
Unfortunately, through both liberal and conservative administrations, the US has reflected that it is more concerned with its “War on Drugs” than promoting and preserving democratic principles in Colombia. Rather than placing diplomatic pressure on Duque to tolerate protesters and end repressionary tactics, the US has simply demanded Duque to reduce cocaine flows or face a $160 million reduction in aid. As for Biden and his upcoming administration, he has placed the flow of illicit substances on top of its agenda as he desires a “multidimensional approach” that includes “localized-aerial coca spraying” and “regional coordination mechanisms for interdiction.” A clear reflection that while Plan Colombia has officially ended, the US still prioritizes interdiction and illicit markets over serious regional trends of deterioration for civil liberties.
Professor Gamboa’s claim of Colombia repelling Uribe’s efforts of democratic erosion was simply ephemeral. While Uribe’s repressionary tactics were insidious, they have fully manifested themselves as Duque has amplified state intolerance and has continued Uribe’s approach of state repression through militarized security forces. The status quo is ideal and quite polarized in Colombia, however, it is undeniable that Uribe and Duque have fostered state impunity for themselves and close allies. While protesting democratic backsliding is consuming and difficult, it is necessary as a democratic system is one that is fought to be established and preserved.