Washington, D.C., May 25, 2018 - A Colombian senator told the U.S. Embassy in 1993 that the founders of the Medellín drug cartel “financed” the election campaign of then-senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, according to documents posted today by the National Security Archive. Uribe served as president of Colombia from 2002-2010 and remains an important player in Colombian politics.
The newly-released cables describe nearly a decade of U.S. Embassy interactions with Uribe and show that U.S. diplomats had persistent concerns about Uribe’s ties to drug trafficking even as Embassy officials developed a working relationship the rapidly rising political leader.
In a February 1993 meeting with the U.S. Embassy Political Officer, Senator Luis Guillermo Vélez Trujillo, a longtime political ally of Uribe, said that the Ochoa Vásquez crime family “had financed [Uribe’s] political campaign,” adding that “Uribe is a cousin of the Ochoas [sic] Vasquez narcotrafficking family,” founders of the infamous narcotics trafficking group.
Vélez Trujillo told the Embassy that Uribe’s familial and financial ties to the Ochoas explained why Uribe and two others had secretly met with the wife of fugitive Medellín Cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar in December 1992 in an unsuccessful effort to negotiate his surrender to Colombian authorities. He said that “Escobar, through the Ochoas, is now demanding Uribe return the favors by trying to open a communication channel to [Colombian President César] Gaviria,” according to a U.S. Embassy cable describing the meeting with Vélez Trujillo.
At the time, Vélez Trujillo and Uribe were both Liberal Party senators from the department of Antioquia. Vélez was later a founding member of the pro-Uribe political party, Partido de la U.
Another Embassy contact cited in the cable, former Liberal Party senator Alejandro González, “reiterated [Luis Guillermo] Velez’s charges that Uribe fears for his life because he was unable to deliver for his Medellin cartel mentors,” according to the cable.
As president, Uribe forged strong ties with the U.S., secured billions in security assistance, extradited record numbers of drug trafficking suspects, and, through an aggressive military campaign, reduced by more than half the number of armed guerrilla insurgents in the country. In 2014, Uribe was again elected to the Colombian Senate, this time representing the Democratic Center Party.
But despite his continuing popularity in Colombia, lingering suspicions about his ties to drug traffickers, human rights abuses, and his encouragement of right-wing “paramilitary” forces have continued to tarnish his legacy.
There was a massive increase in extrajudicial killings by the Colombian Army during Uribe’s presidency (the “false positives” scandal). Members of his government, through the DAS intelligence agency, illegally surveilled and intimidated a long list of political opponents, including journalists, judges and human rights activists. Uribe’s cousin, Mario Uribe Escobar, is serving a sentence for his involvement with paramilitary groups, while his brother, Santiago Uribe Vélez, is now on trial for leading a death squad knowns as the 12 Apostles.
Recently it was revealed that the Colombian Supreme Court is investigating Álvaro Uribe himself for murder and witness intimidation connected to an investigation of crimes committed by members of the Metro Bloc, an illegal paramilitary militia group allegedly formed by Uribe and members of his family.
In 2004, the National Security Archive unearthed a 1991 U.S. military intelligence report listing Uribe among Colombia’s top narcotrafficking figures, alongside Pablo Escobar, narco-paramilitary chief Fidel Castaño, and more than 100 other organized crime figures. Uribe was a “close personal friend of Pablo Escobar,” according to the report from the U.S. Defense Attaché Office (DAO) in Colombia, and was “dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín Cartel at high government levels.”
The Colombian government denied several specific allegations in the 1991 intelligence report but did not try to refute the most significant assertions reported in the document: that Uribe had a close personal relationship with Pablo Escobar and business dealings with the Medellín Cartel.
Until now, there has been little additional documentation available on how the U.S. assessment of Uribe’s alleged narco dealings developed in the years before and since that report. In a 2009 interview with El Nuevo Herald, former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette (1994-1997) said that he asked Uribe about some of the rumors but was not satisfied with his explanation.
A March 1995 U.S. Embassy cable signed by Frechette summarized the range of allegations linking Uribe, then the newly-installed governor of Antioquia, to drug trafficking. The portion of the cable describing the allegations was redacted from a previously-released version of the cable.
Frechette wrote that Uribe, “like many prominent Colombian politicians,” was “suspected of having had peripheral involvement with Colombia’s narcotics trafficking industry.”
Embassy reporting from 1992 describes Uribe’s unsuccessful attempt to nominate, in a party caucus, a person associated with a known narcotics trafficking family as Liberal candidate for the mayorality [sic] elections in Medellin. When that effort failed, according to the report, Uribe then proposed the candidacy of an uncle of deceased Medellin narcotics czar Pablo Escobar Gaviria, which was also shot down.
According to another Embassy report, in 1993 Uribe and two others met with the wife of narcotics capo Pablo Escobar to try to negotiate his surrender, a meeting facilitated by Uribe’s alleged acquaintance with the family.
Another Liberal Party politician told the reporting officer that Uribe is [related] to the Ochoa Vazquez [sic] family, some of whose members are currently serving time on narcotics convictions, that Uribe received campaign contributions from them, and that he feared for his life for not having “delivered.”
Some of the documents published today cast doubt on these allegations, citing Uribe’s vehement denials, or downplay them, noting that such charges are common in Colombian politics.
A 1988 cable signed by U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) J. Phillip McLean said that the “sketchy information available” about rumors that then-senator Uribe had narcotics ties “was offset during a lengthy interview in which [Uribe] presented documentation and explanations regarding his alleged contacts with narco traffickers.”
In January 1992, just a few months after the September 1991 DIA report, the U.S. Embassy questioned the inclusion of Uribe in a similar list of “possible narcopols” in Colombia, writing, “If, as we suspect, Uribe’s only transgression is to belong to a family that has done legitimate business with narcos, his inclusion in this list is not warranted.”
Other records cited in an “updated version” of the same report said that Uribe’s family had “extensive land and business holdings in Antioquia” and that they did “legitimate business, such as cattle ranching, with known Antioquia traffickers.” In June 1992, U.S. Embassy DCM David L. Hobbs wrote that, “With each meeting we become less inclined to believe the narco ties attributed to [Uribe].”
But U.S. concerns about Uribe’s possible links to narcos never fully abated and intensified after the escape of Medellín cartel boss Pablo Escobar from home confinement in July 1992. Days later, a cable signed by U.S. Ambassador Morris Busby said that “we [at the Embassy] still remain leary [sic] of Uribe’s own possible narco connections.”
About six months later, following reports that Uribe and two others had secretly met with Escobar's wife, another Embassy cable records a conversation with Uribe, who “called on [the Political Officer] at the Embassy January 26 to explain his version of events and clarify his role” in the episode, which was also reported at the time.
Uribe told U.S. Embassy officials that he and two others had met with Escobar’s wife, María Victoria Henao Vallejo, to convey the message that, in the Embassy’s words, “he would be more than willing to act as a guarantor of Escobar’s safety” if that were the only obstacle to his surrendering to Colombian authorities. Escobar famously escaped from house arrest in July 1992, and spent the next 16 months on the run from Colombian and U.S. authorities before being killed in a December 1993 police operation.
Uribe said the meeting was arranged by Iván Velásquez Gómez, who was then the inspector general for the department of Antioquia and is currently the head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). According to Uribe, Velásquez had said he could arrange a meeting with Escobar’s mother, Hermilda de los Dolores Gaviria Berrío, but instead set up a meeting with Henao. Álvaro Villegas Moreno, the Conservative former senator and governor from Antioquia who is considered by some to be “the man who built the career of Álvaro Uribe,” also attended the meeting with Henao.
Uribe said he did not realize they were dealing with Escobar’s wife until they were several minutes into the conversation, and had no explanation for why the meeting had been arranged with her and not Escobar’s mother.
Uribe said he emphasized to Mrs. Escobar that he had no authority to negotiate, and his visit was not sanctioned by the government. He expressed his deep concern about the violence, and that he was willing to do whatever necessary to ensure that Escobar is allowed to surrender peacefully. He told Mrs. Escobar that Medellin desperately needed peace, and that President Gaviria’s surrender decrees were the best mechanism to achieve this.
Uribe “was visibly agitated” during his meeting with the Embassy official, and he “constantly paced the small office” in the U.S. Embassy where it was held, according to the summary. Uribe “said he wanted the Embassy to be aware of his exact role in the affair and understand that everything was transparent and above-board.” Uribe “emphatically denied rumors that Escobar himself was at the meeting” and “said he absolutely rejects any thoughts of dialogue or concessions to Escobar.”
The Embassy Political Officer said that that Sen. Vélez Trujillo had told him that “he believes it was Uribe who initiated contact with Escobar’s mother,” and reminded him “that Uribe is a cousin of the Ochoas [sic] Vasquez narco trafficking family… who have financed his political campaign.” Vélez Trujillo said that “Escobar, through the Ochoas, is now demanding Uribe return the favors by trying to open a communication channel to [Colombian President César] Gaviria.” Vélez Trujillo died in 2007.
Alejandro González, the former Liberal senator from Antioquia, told the Embassy that Uribe feared “for his life because he was unable to deliver for his Medellin cartel mentors.” González was assassinated the following year.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy were “convinced that the meeting was not sanctioned by the Gaviria administration and that nothing ever came of it,” according to the February 1993 cable. Uribe and the two others “were acting out of what they saw as their individual self-interest,” the report states, and “Uribe’s involvement could well have something to do with his relationship to the Ochoas.”
Nevertheless, the Embassy said it had “no recent information linking him to traffickers.”
Some of the allegations linking Uribe to drug trafficking stem from his political ties to Ernesto Samper Pizano, whose presidential administration (1994-1998) was hobbled by evidence that his campaign took contributions from the Cali Cartel, and to César Villegas Arciniegas, a close friend and confidant of Samper who was convicted in 1998 for his role in the scandal and assassinated in 2002.
In March 1993, one of Busby's cables to Washington said the Embassy believed there was “substance to the rumors” that Samper, Villegas Arciniegas, and Uribe—who he characterized as “a key Samper supporter”—had links to narcotrafficking. Busby worried that the alleged ties would have a negative impact on U.S.-sponsored counternarcotics operations in Colombia.
Rumors of the involvement of these three with narcotics traffickers abound, and although hard evidence is lacking in all cases, we believe there is substance to the rumors. It is not clear how close the direct link between Samper and the traffickers is (or was), but we have serious doubts that, if elected, he would pursue counternarcotics with the same energy and vigor that [President] Gaviria has.
The rumors stemmed in part from evidence that Villegas Arciniegas, as director of planning for Colombia’s Civil Aviation Administration in the early 1980s, had given operating licenses to known narcotraffickers. Uribe, who was then director of the organization, appointed him to the position.
Frechette, who followed Busby as U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, told El Nuevo Herald in 2009 that he was never satisfied with Uribe’s explanation as to why he named Villegas Arciniegas for the post. “How did you come to hire Villegas?” he asked Uribe. “You do know that Villegas without a doubt gave those licenses to the narcos?”
A July 1993 Embassy cable on Samper’s key advisers and supporters had a somewhat different take on what the rumored narcotics ties meant for a Samper presidency. Referring to a “variety of allegations and innuendo” leveled against some of Samper’s supporters, the Embassy said they are “probably no more serious than those against previous successful Colombian presidential campaign staff and supporters, and certainly do not presage a drastic reversal of counter narcotics policy in a Samper administration.”
The cable said Uribe was “the only Medellin politician to declare whole-heartedly for Samper” and that he “will be Samper’s point-man in Medellin, a key district for anyone who wants to be president of Colombia.” But Uribe had “proved an enigma to the Embassy,” according to the cable, and the extent of his actual connections to narcotraffickers remained unclear.
His family ties to narcos (he is cousin to the Ochoas) plus rumors from credible contacts taint him, but past declarations against the traffickers and vehement protestations to the Embassy… say otherwise.
The two different versions of the “Narcopols” list—the first from January 1992; the second, “updated,” version from three months later—reveal an Embassy trying to figure out how best to classify drug-tainted Colombian politicos, separating those directly involved in narcotrafficking from those whose campaigns took money from cartels, which the Embassy characterized as “a near universal practice in Colombian politics.”
Among others listed in the former category are Alberto Rafael Santofimio Botero and José Antonio Name Terán, a pair of old-line Liberal Party leaders who the Embassy viewed as having strong ties to narcotraffickers.
Santofimio, who was floated as a presidential candidate in 1990, was a “notorious narcopol,” according to the updated report, who “has himself been involved in narcotrafficking.” Santofimio is currently serving out a 24-year prison sentence for his role in the 1989 assassination of Liberal presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán Sarmiento.
Name Terán was “associated since 1983 with a top North Coast trafficker,” according to the Embassy report, and was allegedly “involved in cocaine and marijuana trafficking and money laundering.” Name Terán, who died in 2011, is said to have “provided security for 881 kilos of cocaine seized in September 1989 through bribes paid to local police officials.”
An Uribe protégé, Iván Duque Márquez, is considered likely to win the most votes in the first round of Colombia’s presidential election later this month. Duque’s father, Iván Duque Escobar, was the governor of Antioquia from 1981-1982, when Uribe was head of the Civil Aviation Administration. According to an account by former Newsweek reporter Joseph Contreras, Governor Duque confronted Uribe after it was discovered that his office had approved an aviation license for Medellín Cartel figure Jaime Cardona.