Colombia: Iván Cepeda, the Man Who Put Uribe Vélez against the Ropes

By Carlos Aznárez on September 7, 2020.

Ivan Cepeda

Iván Cepeda is one of the founders of the Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE) and has suffered the great pain of seeing his father, a member of the Patriotic Union, murdered by paramilitarism in 1994. Cepeda has also been one of the facilitators of the unfulfilled Havana Peace Accords, and has tried hard to bring about dialogue with the ELN. Today, this brilliant senator is one of the great references in Colombian politics and above all in a left that seeks the path to government and to end so many years of bad government. Here is our recent interview with him.

CA: You are one of the men who, along with other social leaders, have been denouncing for a long time the functioning of the Colombian establishment and above all, the behavior of Álvaro Uribe Vélez, former president and now one of the people on trial. What is your opinion about how this trial of Uribe is being handled and do you think something is starting to change so that he really pays for everything he has done?

This is a long story that goes back to the beginning of Uribe’s first term. I was in the process of creating the association of victims of state crimes which is a broad coalition of organizations and individuals who have suffered state violence in Colombia. There were extraordinary crimes and paramilitarism, and of course at that time Uribe tried to create a kind of wall of impunity so that the paramilitaries would have access to the State Congress, which was called parapolitics in Colombia. From then on we have had a very intense history of political confrontations that have led to judicial confrontations. More because of him than because of my initiative. I have also denounced him for crimes against humanity and it is one of those cases that is now in the Supreme Court.

As often happens on these occasions, as we say, the rope is cut by the thinnest, it was a case of manipulation of witnesses, bribes to more than twenty paramilitary witnesses and the attempt of judicial fraud, was what led to this situation. In this I carry a principle of realism, it seems to me that the attitude that one must have in the struggle for human rights is to know that the processes are slow, there are advances and setbacks, there are defeats and victories. But here the fundamental thing is constancy and perseverance. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, for example, say so, to show that progress can be made. I have full confidence in that. His arrest, marks a milestone, I do not know if he will advance to a trial, but it is a political defeat for him, he has had to leave Congress.

CA: There is always talk of Uribe’s relationship with the paramilitaries and drug trafficking, but how much evidence is there in that regard?

There is evidence that does not emanate from any source other than Uribe himself. Uribe has recognized his friendship and close relationship with drug traffickers and with various clans of the most powerful. If you remember the history of the Medellin cartel, where the Escobar brothers and the Ochoa were. The Ochoa’s is a powerful clan that also runs cattle ranching businesses. Uribe has recognized this, he has said it with pride, there has even been a family relationship between his father and his brothers with the Ochoa brothers and clan, to mention one example, but there are many. It is about to be proven judicially, if this friendship; besides being quite suspicious or an illegal friendship, translated into a criminal link.

These are accusations that have been made with many testimonies. About twenty paramilitaries have given testimony, pointing to very specific conditions, circumstances of time, manner and place in which a relationship with Uribe developed. As if this were not enough, Uribe has had political participation, in actions that have effectively developed the state of paramilitarism, such as the creation of some companies that occurred from the mid-1990s called Convivir, which were practically the shell, the structure used to develop paramilitarism nationally. Although Uribe was not the president of the Republic, but rather the governor at that time, he was the one who most enthusiastically developed these structures, which were later shown to be made up of paramilitaries.

In other words, there are public records, documents in which paramilitary chiefs, who were not yet known at the time, were directing these companies. This allowed me to develop the issue more broadly. There are also family members of Uribe who have been convicted of paramilitarism, as is the case of his cousin and his brother Santiago who today are on the verge of being convicted of paramilitarism. Several of his political friends, partners, congressmen, allies, and ministers have also been convicted of paramilitary ties.

CA: How much can this whole process of getting to the truth, be helped with the extradition of Salvatore Mancuso to Colombia going contribute?

This is a key piece. Salvatore Mancuso comes from an Italian family that came to Colombia, specifically to a coastal department on the east coast of Colombia called Córdoba. It is a department that was strategic in the development of paramilitarism. There was a public monument there actually dedicated to the paramilitaries. In the social clubs, the paramilitaries met among themselves and with political leaders. Even with Uribe, who has a large hacienda in that area.

Today he is paying for what he calls a 1500 hectare kidnapping, it is gigantic. The Mancuso family is made up of several brothers, and of course, Uribe and Mancuso knew each other. The Colombian government that today is led by Uribe’s party and his political student President Duque have no interest in Mancuso coming to tell in detail all those social anecdotes that led to crimes against humanity.

CA: There is a crucial issue that is the Peace Accords, which unfortunately have been left aside by the government. What is your opinion about the reasons why these agreements have failed and if there has not been a certain naivety in the signatories, on the part of the FARC, on this issue?

I think that more than a failure, there was a total lack of compliance, because if they had been applied in a successful way, something else would be happening in Colombia. There is a political struggle. There are five reforms that are not conquering paradise, but they are important. Rural reform; a reform that has to do with the political world and democratizing the country. Another has to do with the issue of drug trafficking and a different approach. Another has to do with developing a different model of state in the territories. The last one has to do with truth and justice for the victims. These five reforms are explosive for the more conservative political establishment because they affect their interests and not so much because they imply a social and political revolution, but because they could be the beginning of a transformation that is at the base of the armed conflict in Colombia.

So it must be said that the Peace Agreement is a very valuable agreement. It has been opposed by the extreme right because they know of its political significance. If the Peace Accord were an inconsequential matter that did not cause any kind of disturbance in the political class, surely there would not be so many efforts not only to not apply it, but to kill those who have signed it and the social leaders of the territories who are clamoring for its application. So there is a contradiction here, if one starts from the theory of class struggle, the Peace Accord is of course a field of social confrontation. It is not simply a deception that the political class made in order to fall into a trap.

There is a problem at the heart of it. These reforms have cost us many lives in Colombia and will continue to cost us. To the extent that the FARC were naive enough to sign this, I don’t think they can be accused of that. They knew perfectly well what was going to happen and said so. “We know that they are going to fail,” but they consciously made that political decision, which I believe was the right one. Because the armed conflict is not the way, it has left us thousands of victims in the country. We have not been able to advance, after many efforts and sacrifices in elementary democratic reforms. It has been used by the United States to make Colombia the laboratory and the platform for the whole continent of the worst methods of dealing with popular and alternative movements in many countries. The methods that were applied in Colombia were then exported to the rest of the continent. Remember that former Presidents Macri and Uribe are two great friends. So for all those reasons we have to defend this agreement. Despite the difficulties and problems it has, we must celebrate both this agreement and continue the struggle for peace.

CA: We all know that there are more U.S. troops in Colombia, they were always there, but now the entry has been escalated with various excuses. How do you see the population reacting to this kind of “invasion” that is taking place, which also comes with the green light of Duque?

This invasion is just one piece of a great invasion. This is not just 53 advisors who came to Colombia. This is a piece of a gigantic operation that already exists. It has many components. For example, a fleet that for the first time makes such a significant incursion, with US Navy ships in the Caribbean Sea. But also illegal elements such as the incursion that took place in Venezuela. They say they are going to invade Venezuela, but that is not the plan.

Here it’s like they did in Vietnam, they start with a series of devices that are created for a scenario that ends up triggering a kind of uncontrollable spiral. In Venezuela there are sectors that are prone to use force. Colombia has an important concentration of troops on the borders. So, a very dangerous scenario is being created. They try to explain the buildup simply as the fight against drug trafficking and that is not true. Since these troops arrived they have been operating, which we have managed to stop with legal actions, despite this, justice has made a mockery of us. Since the troops arrived in Colombia on July 2 a spiral of massacres has been unleashed, we call it a massacre when three or more people are killed.

They have intervened in three of the areas where the U.S. military is present with this type of criminal action. That doesn’t mean that they are the ones promoting it, we can’t be sure of that. But what is clear is that they were brought in to delimit the criminal groups that are in those territories. It is clear that this strategy is a failure. Because what is happening since the arrival of these troops is violence has increased.

CA: Do you think there is complicity of the Colombian army in all this?

Colombia is a society that paradoxically, by proclaiming itself democratic, is the most militaristic in the continent. This is an important feature. They have committed more serious crimes than the worst dictatorships the continent has ever had. This shows that a formal democracy can be more bloodthirsty than a dictatorial state because in this structure the military forces have a central place. Not only the military forces, but that role can also be exaggerated. In the militaristic forces there are also civilians who are worse than the military, because they do not put themselves at stake, and may even be irresponsible.

There are many civilian militarists in Colombia starting with Alvaro Uribe. A historical tradition of declining any allegiance to the sovereignty of the Colombian army has developed. It has sent the most military personnel to the School of the Americas. We must remember that Colombia participated in the Korean War with a battalion. It has been the country most likely to approve the most interventionist decisions of the United States or England, for example. As was the case of the Malvinas in Argentina. There is a long tradition, and the peace process was the first crack in that tradition. It has manifested itself in complaints to the army about corruption, the involvement of their colleagues in arms in the paramilitary and drug trafficking. This shows that the peace process can have democratic effects on the military.

CA: How do you see the Colombian left of which you are a part, to face the current situation? It is known that after this difficult process that you told us about, of the noncompliance with the peace process, there was some demobilization, but last October there was a strong reaction, like Chile, like in other countries.

I believe there are several factors that have contributed to the Colombian left’s ability to aspire to the government. Within these factors is the fact that the peace process has meant a minimal opening, a minimal but important democratic opening by the sectors of the left. We were able for the first time for one of our candidates to reach the second round of the presidency without being assassinated. It is worth noting that he obtained 8 million votes. We have had several provincial leaders who have successfully carried out their time in office. It is all part of what we are talking about, the US invasion by stages, the fact that they are working intensely to destroy the peace agreement, the persecution of territorial leaders, the discrediting of for example Gustavo Petro or almost all of us because all this shows that what is there is a rumor that conditions have matured.

That in my opinion, it explains a lot of what we are talking about. Such aggressive campaigns would be incomprehensible if there were no chance of electoral success. Is electoral success the construction of a socialist state? That is a big discussion we should have and I think that what goes against the left today is not the right or these issues but our own logic, in that the challenge is internal too achieve the coalition and unity that we need to become a government with other forces that goes beyond the left.

CA: On the Colombian left we have seen men and women with strong leadership skills who have then had to go back and forth. As you say, the enemy of unity is within ourselves. Do you think there is a possibility of some leadership and organization that unifies this left to reach government?

It is the only way. The problem is not the election result. It’s what we discussed. The elections can be won, after such a political crisis by the extreme right that used the pandemic to concentrate its own power. We can win the election, we have several people, a program, experience, there are factors that can be thought of in that matter. But it’s not enough to win, we have to have a model of government and sustainability, which is a historical block, as Gramsci says, to move forward at this time.

CA: Finally, how difficult is it to be a human rights fighter in Colombia. I say this because of your personal history, you felt in your own flesh the enormous pain of losing a father but also of being targeted by the paramilitaries and other reactionary sectors in Colombia. It is admirable for us who have suffered here in Argentina from the loss of comrades that you are still so strong and constant in the defense of human rights. But again, how much does that cost personally and politically?

It is a significant challenge, it is high risk and the family and environment suffer. I think that’s what affects me the most, not so much other issues. But that’s a sensitive factor. Now there are two important reflections on this. Of course that is the only option and the best and most dignified one. I subscribe to that idea of Marx that the worst defect of human beings is servility or servitude. I think that’s a dignified and unique possible option. If for people like me, the situation is very difficult, we have to think about the situation of peasant leaders who have a leading position in Afro and indigenous communities. Ours is more viable and we have the possibility of expressing ourselves in the media, as we do now. We have a level of visibility that is not a minor thing. Those who really suffer, in silence and invisibility, are the people who lead in the territories.

Source: Resumen Latinoamericano, translation North America bureau