Colombia's Ex-President, Alvaro Uribe, Stays in the Limelight and in His Opponents Crosshairs

Alvaro Uribe at the Nueva Granada military university in Bogota, Colombia, on August 26, 2011.

Alvaro Uribe at the Nueva Granada military university in Bogota, Colombia, on August 26, 2011.  (AP)

Presidents typically quit the limelight when their terms end, ease into contemplative repose, perhaps pen a memoir, and stay out of their successors' hair.

Not Alvaro Uribe.

Thirteen months after leaving office, the feisty conservative barnstorms around Colombia like a candidate, picks fights in combative Twitter blasts and heaps criticism on his successor.

"It's not in me to simply live as an ex-president," Uribe, Washington's closest Latin America ally during his tenure, told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "I'm a street fighter."

There seems to be no middle ground; those who don't love him tend to despise him, while those who elected him twice by a landslide help to keep his poll ratings at a strong 60 percent.

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Uribe is esteemed for putting the FARC, Colombia's main rebel group, on the defensive during his 2002-2010 tenure and for overseeing the bold rescue from rebel clutches of Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate held hostage for 6 1/2 years, and three American military contractors.

He is known as the man who professionalized Colombia's military and ended the country's notoriety as the world's kidnap capital.

At the same time, he is accused of having abetted a dirty war against the FARC's alleged sympathizers in which hundreds of bodies of noncombatants piled up.

"Uribe broke the mold as president," says Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank the Inter-American Dialogue. And as a back-seat driver, "he is departing radically from tradition."

At 59, Uribe justifies his activism by claiming he is needed to save his Andean nation from backsliding into chaos.

However, his strategy may be backfiring and inviting his own legal peril. It is encouraging his enemies to gather evidence against him in hopes of putting him behind bars.

Just last week, Jorge Noguera, his hand-picked chief of the DAS domestic security agency, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for collusion with paramilitaries and murder. Prosecutors said he provided "hit lists" of leftist activists and was directly responsible for the killing of a prominent sociologist who was aiding the forcibly displaced. When Noguera left the agency in 2005, Uribe extolled him as a "buen muchacho" -- a good guy.

Twice in recent months, Uribe has shown up at Colombia's Congress for questioning by a commission investigating him for alleged offenses including illegal spying by the DAS after Noguera's departure.

Two of Uribe's closest associates are in jail awaiting trial: his former agriculture minister, charged with corruption over subsidies awarded to rich political allies, and his former chief of staff, accused of ordering the spying on judges, journalists and political foes.

Most of the judges targeted were on the Supreme Court, which at the time was investigating several dozen close Uribe allies for allegedly colluding with illegal far-right militias.

On Sept. 8, video testimony was released in which a jailed paramilitary boss claims to have run a death squad from the ex-president's family ranch in the 1990s with Uribe's complicity. Uribe denies the allegation.

It would be "very difficult for former President Uribe not to end up at some point on trial. I think it's just a matter of time," said leftist Rep. Ivan Cepeda, who obtained the testimony and has long been compiling evidence against Uribe.

Uribe says the evidence-gathering makes Cepeda a "moral assassin."

Both men lost their fathers violently: Uribe's was killed on his ranch in 1983 by the FARC, which stands for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia; a right-wing death squad including two soldiers assassinated Cepeda's father, a communist senator, a decade later.

While Cepeda was working to put his father's killers in jail, Uribe was building a national reputation as a hard-charging politician bent on taking rural Colombia back from the rebels.

Uribe would deal the FARC a knockout punch in 2008, the year of the Betancourt rescue as well as a cross-border raid into Ecuador to kill a rebel commander. That action reaped computer files implicating Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as a FARC supporter.

The raid would earn Uribe regional censure, but U.S. applause.

Although leftist rebel violence is now restricted to remote regions, a recent uptick in violence prompted a shake-up in Colombia's military leadership and is making Colombians jittery.

Maria Astrid Mendez, a 44-year-old housewife interviewed at a Bogota bus stop, said that under Uribe "we felt more protected. We could take our children out for a drive outside the city. Even at night."

"I think that if President Uribe did something wrong, like the eavesdropping or paramilitarism that he's accused of, history alone will judge him," she added. "I don't think that President Uribe is a paramilitary."

Uribe accuses his foes of waging a campaign of "criminal vengeance." His defenders say the critics are simply tools of the FARC. To The Associated Press, he shrugged off the attacks, saying: "It's all right. That's democracy."

He lives with one of his two sons in a Bogota house on a police compound. His wife, Lina Moreno, lives mostly on a family ranch near Medellin, 240 kilometers (150 miles) away.

He spends a lot of time doing what ex-presidents do here just as they do in the U.S: He lectures for fees, gave some seminars at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and recently had the role of elder statesman co-chairing a U.N. commission that investigated Gaza-related violence.

But he is rarely out of the public fray for long.

A teetotaler and yoga practitioner, he jokes that he takes homeopathic drops to ease his temper, but they do not work.

After procedural wrangling stopped his first session with the investigating commission, Uribe stormed out of Congress and paraded 15 blocks to a downtown hotel, drawing a crowd.

"Fascist! Paramilitary!" some people shouted.

But most cheered, and some tried to shake his hand. "Go, Uribe!" one hollered. "We're not going to abandon you!"

President Juan Manuel Santos, whose approval ratings have soared above 80 percent, won election on Uribe's coattails after serving as his defense minister but does not seem to need him now.

Santos has angered his former boss by mending ties with Chavez, whom Uribe has repeatedly accused of aiding the FARC in order to destabilize Colombia.

Santos has responded with good-humored restraint.

"I have a mantra now," he told a TV interviewer. "Don't fight with Uribe. I will not fight with Uribe."

As president, Uribe united the right with moderates who despaired at Colombia's worsening violence, said Adam Isacson, an analyst with the think tank Washington Office on Latin America. "Now, the moderates -- and many of the right-wingers -- are with Santos, and Uribe and a small coterie of far-right figures are shooting from the sidelines," Isacson said.

Uribe's tongue-lashings also have targeted Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for saying he never really trusted the Colombian.

Tweeted Uribe: "Lula: A lot of us Colombians repudiate your permissiveness with FARC narcoterrorists," a reference to high-level contacts Silva's Workers Party had with the rebels.

After the sentencing of his ex-security chief Noguera was announced Wednesday, a message on Uribe's Twitter account said: "I have trusted him. If he committed an offense, it pains me and I offer apologies to the citizenry."

The battle to preserve his legacy keeps Uribe in constant motion.

Putting an end to an AP interview at Bogota military university where he had just offered a lecture on global perceptions of terrorism post-Sept. 11, Uribe buttoned up his suit jacket and headed for another forum.

"As long as the creator gives us energy," he remarked. "we've got to stay in the fight."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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