Colombia: The Uribe Administration and Congressional Concerns
CRS Report for Congress
Colombia: The Uribe Administration and
Nina M. Serafino
Specialist in International Security Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
On August 7, 2002, President-elect, Alvaro Uribe Velez, age 49, is scheduled to
take office amid an intensifying conflict. Uribe’s election has been widely attributed to
his law-and-order campaign promises to pursue the guerrillas vigorously by increasing
Colombia’s military budget, doubling the size of the military to 100,000, and creating
a one-million man civilian militia to aid the Colombian military, as well as to the
worsening security situation in Colombia. Nevertheless, Uribe’s campaign slogan,
“Firm Hand, Big Heart,” also reflected the social concerns that have marked his 20-plus
year career in local, regional, and national government. In the United States, the election
of a president with a reputation as a “hardliner”poses new questions for Members of the
Congress, especially as Congress considers whether to broaden the scope of U.S. aid
to Colombia to provide funding for actions against Colombia’s leftist guerrilla and
rightist paramilitary forces.
The son of a businessman and rancher, Uribe was born on July 4, 1952, received a
law degree in 1977 from the University of Antioquia, and has served in local, regional,
and national government posts since 1976. In 1993, he received a certificate in
Administration and Management from Harvard University, with course work in conflict
resolution, and in 1998 he received a scholarship from the British government to research
social policy and education at St. Anthony’s College at Oxford University as a Senior
Associate Member.1 He and his wife, Lina Moreno, have two sons.
1 Andrew Buncombe and Toby Follett. UK Study-Grant for Colombian Caught in Human Rights
Row. The Independent (London) May 18, 1998. p 8. The article reports that despite protests at
Oxford against the admittance of Uribe, who had just finished a controversial term as governor
of Antioquia (see below), the warden of St. Anthony’s said he wouldn’t have been admitted “if
we thought he was involved in human rights abuse.”
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
A native of the department of Antioquia, Uribe has built much of his public career
there. Antioquia has the second largest population in Colombia, after the federal district
of Bogotá. It is noted for a distinct entrepreneurial spirit, business acumen, and social
mobility that made it a leader in coffee production, commerce, manufacturing, and
finance,2 and, some would suggest, contributed to the rise in the 1980s of the cocaine-
trafficking cartel centered in Medellín, the department capital.3
Uribe began his career in appointed posts, serving first as an administrator in a
Medellin city office dealing with public works (1976). He then moved to Bogotá when
he was appointed general secretary at the Labor Ministry (1977-1978), and served in a
second national post as Director of Civilian Aeronautics (1980-1982). He returned to
Antioquia, when he was appointed the Mayor of Medellín, in 1982.4 (In 1983, his father
was killed, allegedly by members of the leftist guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia (FARC) during an attempted kidnapping.) Noted as a “crime buster” while
mayor,5 Uribe subsequently served from 1984-1986 on the Medellín town council. He
was next elected to two four-year terms as a national Senator (1986-1994), and then to a
three-year term as governor of Antioquia province, serving from Jan. 1, 1995- December
31, 1997. During his years as senator and governor, according to one news report, he
established a reputation “for fiscal skill and honesty-but also for having a prickly
In the course of his career, Uribe has been viewed as both a social reformer and a
law-and-order politician. While governor, he explained this duality: “as a student, I
thought all the problems were caused by social inequalities. Now I realize that if we don’t
fight crime, we cannot improve the standard of living. And so I made a decision to
strengthen the state and the social structure.”7 Thus, during his term as senator, Uribe was
one of the primary proponents of national health legislation, and as governor he
emphasized education, providing subsidies to encourage school attendance, according to
two Colombian analysts. He also achieved “successes in carrying out public works
projects and new social spending,” according to a newspaper report.8
2 David Bushnell. The Making of Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1993. pp 176-177.
3 In Political Economy and Illegal Drugs in Colombia (Boulder, Co., Lynne Rienner Publishers,
1995), Francisco E. Thoumi cites several hypotheses concerning the growth of the drug industry
in Colombia, among them economic factors, a long tradition of contraband, and “Antioqueño
values that measured an individuals’ social worth by his or her wealth regardless of his origin....”
4 Colombia changed to a system of elected mayors with the adoption of the 1991 Constitution.
5 Tim Padgett and Ruth Morris, The Technocrat of Steel. Time Magazine, June 10, 2002, p 35.
6 Time Magazine, ibid.
7 M.A. O’Grady. A Colombian Governor Who Makes Things Happen. The Wall Street Journal.
March 7, 1997. p A15.
8 Scott Wilson. Colombia Elects A Hard-Liner on Fighting Rebels. The Washington Post. May
Uribe gained a reputation as a “hardliner” during his term as governor, which
coincided with a period of increasing warfare, in particular an increase in activities of the
privately-funded “self-defense” or “paramilitary” groups, within that department.9 As
governor, Uribe promoted the establishment in Antioquia of state-sponsored “Convivir”
civilian rural defense organizations which were intended to provide intelligence to local
police and military commanders and were authorized by national law in 1994. Uribe
strongly defended them. In July 1997 testimony before the U.N. Human Rights
Commission, he stated they were “a legal manifestation of the civilian population’s
legitimate right to self-defense in the face of rising guerrilla violence.”10 By that time, the
Convivir groups had became controversial nationwide (and were dismantled in the late
1990s) because of human rights abuses, a reputation of secrecy, and a perceived
unaccountability to civilian authorities, and because some were believed to have served
as fronts for or were otherwise linked with the illegal paramilitary groups. (At least four
Convivir groups in Antioquia province are cited by Human Rights Watch for massacres
or murders during the period that Uribe was governor; Uribe shut down one of them.)11
Uribe also was willing to try other ways to end the conflict in his department. He
invited a team from the Harvard Negotiation Project to Antioquia to train peasants in
conflict resolution techniques. He also asked the national government to invite the
United Nations to send U.N. “blue helmet” peacekeepers to Antioquia, to intervene in the
conflict (which the national government rejected). Such experimental approaches were
admired by some analysts, but considered quixotic or naive by others.
The May 26, 2002 Elections
A dissident member of Colombia’s Liberal Party, Uribe ran as an independent on the
“Colombia First” ticket in the May 26 elections. He obtained just over 53% of the vote
in an eleven-candidate field, after surviving three attempts on his life by the FARC in the
six months before his victory. Some analysts believe that his victory was due in part to
the ruptures within Colombia’s two traditional parties, the Liberals and the
Conservatives, one of whose candidates has won every Colombian elections since 1958.
The Conservative Party did not run an official candidate, with many members reportedly
9 According to the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1996, an
escalation in paramilitary killings in Antioquia and other regions “reflects the intensified
competition between paramilitary and guerrilla organizations for control across a broad sweep
of territory.... The victims of paramilitary killings, however, were overwhelmingly unarmed,
noncombatant civilians whose summary murders the paramilitary forces rationalized as
punishment for possible ties to the guerrillas.” Section on Colombia, p 393.
10 According to the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1997,
The report also states that “The [Colombian] Ombudsman’s 1997 report to Congress, however,
reiterated his office’s opposition to the Convivir program...[because] it involved citizens in the
armed conflict, stripped them of their protected status, and converted them into legitimate targets
of attack.” Colombia section, p 462.
11 Telephone conversation with Robin Kirk of Human Rights Watch, June 12, 2002. Human
Rights Watch documented two of the cases in War Without Quarter: Colombia and International
Humanitarian Law, October 1998. This book also discusses the Convivir concept and debate at
length, and cites abuses by Convivir groups in other departments. See pp 85-99.
Uribe’s one-round majority victory was the first since Colombia introduced a two-
round run-off system with the 1991 constitution. Uribe bested two candidates who had
lost to President Pastrana in the 1998 election. Serpa, the official candidate of the Liberal
Party, gained 32% of the vote (about 3% less than in the first round of elections in 1998).
Noemi Sanin, a dissident member of the Conservative party running as an independent,
gained about 6% of the vote (some 21% less than her take in the 1998 first round). A
surprise to some analysts was the 6% of the vote won by the candidate of a new
democratic-left party, Luis Eduardo Garzon, a former labor leader.
During the campaign, Uribe was generally perceived, according to one analysis, as
emphasizing “citizen security and state authority, political reform and the fight against
corruption,” in contrast to his major opponents’ emphasis on social equity, political
reform, economic recovery and reform, and a negotiated or political end to the armed
conflict.12 The most widely reported elements of Uribe’s campaign message were his
promises to increase Colombia’s military budget, approximately double the size of the
military to 100,000 (at which point he would eliminate obligatory military service for all
males), and create a one-million man civilian militia to aid the Colombian military.
(There has been conflicting information as to whether this militia would be armed or not.)
Nevertheless, Uribe’s 100-point program contains a broad social, political, and
economic agenda.13 His proposal starts by outlining his vision for a new Colombia, where
instead of 60% of the population living in poverty, most would be counted as middle
class. He envisions a country of political and economic democracy with “legitimate
[government] authority” and “zero power” for those who foment violence, a “Colombia
without guerrillas and without paramilitaries.” His Colombia would be inhabited by
citizens who enjoy opportunity for all, and who respect the environment. His 100- point
program explicitly rejects some aspects of the classical neoliberal economic model,
which, he says “leaves social welfare to chance market forces, while increasing misery
and social injustice.” (Elsewhere, however, he has assured businessmen that his
administration would strive to put in place “a clear and correct macroeconomic policy,
public order and a stable business environment designed to make Colombia attractive to
foreign and domestic investors alike.”14) He also proposes a series of government
reforms to reduce the size of the state and bureaucracy, including the elimination of one
of Colombia’s two legislative chambers, in order to cut government spending.
During his campaign, one of Uribe’s opponents, Liberal Party candidate Horacio
Serpa, and others, accused Uribe of supporting the paramilitaries, and others rumored that
12 International Crisis Group. The Stakes in the President Election in Colombia. ICG Latin
America Briefing, 22 May 2002, p 7. The ICG reports that after Uribe pulled ahead in the polls,
the three candidates who pulled the most votes after Uribe “began to focus on a number of
Uribe’s issues, in particular strengthening of the state against the insurgent and paramilitary
forces, the abolition of obligatory military service and corruption.” p. 7. According to this ICG
report, Uribe also insinuated that Serpa had a “connection to the drug-money scandal involving
President Samper,” whom he served as Interior Minister. p 9.
13 This program is reproduced in full, in Spanish, at
[ ht t p: / / www.al va r our i bevel ez.com.co/ que_pr opone/ mani f i e st o.ht m] .
14 Mercedes Bermejo. Colombia Presidential Hopeful Focuses on Security, Stability. The
Financial Times. April 4, 2002.
he had ties to drug traffickers. Uribe denies such accusations, and none has been
substantiated, although they continue to taint perceptions of Uribe and his future
presidency. Part of the allegations of ties to drug traffickers sprang from his father’s
friendship with Fabio Ochoa, head of a cocaine-trafficking family, a friendship which
Uribe’s defenders stated was based on a mutual interest in horses. The allegations of
sympathies towards paramilitary groups may stem in part from longstanding differences
between Uribe and Serpa on the Convivir groups, and the links of some of those groups
with paramilitary forces.15 Some analysts also claim that the accusations have persisted,
despite the lack of evidence, because of suspicions about some of Uribe’s friends and
associates.16 In addition, paramilitary groups were viewed as supporting his candidacy.
Challenges Facing Uribe and Congressional Concerns
Uribe’s election comes at a time of ever intensifying conflict in Colombia. FARC
is increasingly carrying the conflict into Bogotá and other urban areas, with sabotage of
infrastructure and bombings. It holds hostage many Colombian government officials,
including the current governor of Antioquia and six national legislators, and since the
elections it has threatened the lives of mayors in towns which voted for Uribe. For U.S.
policymakers, Uribe’s election and inauguration come in the midst of Congressional
debate over whether to provide U.S. military assistance to Colombia for purposes other
than counternarcotics. From the perspective of current U.S. policy,17 Uribe faces three
major challenges. One is to curb drug production in Colombia, including making more
efficient the “Plan Colombia” counternarcotics programs. A second is to stabilize and
improve the economy. A third is to strengthen the state in order to curb the violence
perpetuated by leftist guerrillas and the rightist paramilitaries.
Reflecting the divergence of opinion between the United States and Colombia as to
the relative urgency of problems facing Colombia, counternarcotics was not a topic
addressed by Uribe’s campaign. There is little on the public record on Uribe’s planned
counternarcotics policy. His 100 point program calls for the elimination of drugs, and the
improvement of the Plan Colombia program. Some analysts state that Uribe endorses the
concept at the heart of U.S. counternarcotics policy, which is that one fundamental means
to combat the guerrillas is to deprive them of the profits they earn from illegal drugs. One
news report indicated that he views “a commitment from the U.S. to provide Colombia
with the technical and financial assistance it needs to fight drug trafficking” as “central”
to his plans for governing, and wants the United States to resume sharing radar-
surveillance information with Colombia for the interdiction of drug-trafficking aircraft.18
15 Serpa expressed opposition to the concept, even though, as Minister of the Interior during the
Samper Administration (1994-1998), he was part of the government that instituted them.
16 A BBC dispatch alleges that “there is evidence that some of his [Uribe’s] friends have been
involved” in drug trafficking, “but nothing has ever stuck to him.” BBC News. Analysis:
Uribe’s Challenge, by Jeremy McDermott. May 27, 2002.
17 For information on current U.S. policy toward Colombia, see RL31383, The Andean Regional
Initiative (ARI): FY2002 Supplemental and FY2003 Assistance for Colombia and Neighbors.
18 Marc Lifsher. Colombia’s New Leader Vows to Vanquish Guerrillas. The Wall Street Journal.
May 28, 2002. p A14.
Some analysts also expect him to insist on placing more emphasis than in the past on
providing social support to those involved in coca cultivation.
Uribe’s campaign stress on fiscal conservatism, and his choices for his economics
team, suggest that his yet-to-be-delineated economic policy will not be problematic to
U.S. policymakers.19 Some analysts question, however, Uribe’s ability to fund all his
goals. In particular, some wonder where he will get the money to provide for an expanded
army and to increase social welfare programs. Despite news articles that Uribe will
succeed in forming a working coalition in Congress, some wonder whether Uribe will be
able to secure the support necessary to pass economic reforms.
One problematic issue for U.S. policymakers has been Uribe’s alleged sympathies
for the “self-defense” paramilitary forces. Although these allegations may in part be
attributed to campaign rhetoric, Mary Robinson, head of the United Nations Human
Rights Commission, has stated that Uribe is “tolerant toward paramiliatary groups.”20
U.S. policy has regarded the rightist paramilitary forces as just as problematic for
Colombian security as the leftist guerrillas, viewing their extensive human rights abuse
and their self-acknowledged involvement in drug production as undermining the
legitimacy of the state. The FY2000 supplemental “Plan Colombia” legislation (P.L.
106-246) and the FY2002 Andean Regional Initiative (P.L. 107-115) legislation have
placed conditions on U.S. assistance to Colombia designed to encourage the arrest and
prosecution of members of the paramilitary groups, and to cut ties between them and
members of the Colombian security forces.
Thus far, Uribe has indicated that he intends to treat the rightist paramilitary groups
on a par with the leftist guerrillas, although in doing so he has departed to some extent
from the Pastrana policy. In his victory speech on May 26, Uribe stated that he would
seek a dialogue with those groups operating outside the law, on the condition that they
give up “terrorism” and agree to a cease-fire. Although the Pastrana Administration
engaged in negotiations with the two major leftist guerrilla groups (breaking off
negotiations with the FARC in February 2002, and with the National Liberation Army
(ELN) in May 2002), Pastrana has not been willing to enter into negotiations with the
paramilitaries. Uribe has also indicated his intention to request that the United Nations
play a role in new conflict reduction and resolution measures in Colombia.
Another topic many U.S. analysts find troubling is Uribe’s million-man militia
proposal. Some analysts object that it draws civilians into the conflict, putting them in
harm’s way. Some express concern that Uribe has yet to demonstrate that he understands
the serious problems raised by the Convivir experience, particularly the lack of state
control, or that he has developed ideas for mechanisms to prevent their reoccurrence.
19 One of Uribe’s primary economic advisors, Rudolf Hommes, was Finance Minister from 1990-
1994, carrying out the Gaviria administration’s market liberalization policies. For Finance
Minister, Uribe has selected Roberto Junguito, currently the Colombian representative to the
International Monetary Fund, who has previously served as finance minister. For National
Planning Director, Uribe has chosen Santiago Montenegro, a former dean of the economics
faculty of the University of Los Andes, and currently President of the National Association of
20 Taxi Drivers to Join Uribe’s New Army of Informers. El Pais - English Edition. May 30, 2002.