BOGOTA, Colombia – Former President Alvaro Uribe was grilled by lawmakers Wednesday over allegations of ties to drug traffickers and right-wing paramilitaries, accusations that have dogged him over decades in Colombia's politics.
The claims have taken on new relevance as Colombians start to come to grips with their violent past and seek a lasting peace with Marxist rebels.
The questioning of the conservative leader, who was president in 2002-10, was orchestrated by leftist Sen. Ivan Cepeda. Both men have suffered firsthand a half-century of political violence. Uribe's father was killed in a guerrilla ambush. Cepeda's senator-father was gunned down on a Bogota street in 1994 as part of a campaign of terror against leftist politicians following an earlier peace deal.
In a 90-minute speech, Cepeda presented documents and testimony by former paramilitaries, many of whose claims have previously been known, feeding rumors and suspicions about Uribe. The former president has dismissed them as politically motivated. Many involve his family and date from the start of his political career in Medellin when the city was dominated by Pablo Escobar's cocaine cartel.
"Colombia is at a crossroads between perpetuating war, hate and violence or opening the difficult path to reconciliation and peace," Cepeda told a packed assembly of lawmakers and journalists. "Knowing the truth is key for the political process our country is undergoing."
Uribe, who got the most votes of any senator winning seats in March elections and is the leading opponent of President Juan Manuel Santos, left the legislature at the start of the session in protest. He called it a "moral lynching" promoted by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the "media servants of terrorism."
But after walking across Plaza Bolivar to present evidence to the Supreme Court accusing Cepeda of slander, Uribe returned to defend his record and attack the current administration.
As president, Uribe beefed up security forces and intensified military offensives against the FARC, helping to dramatically reduce what was then one of the world's highest homicide and kidnapping rates. He also extradited more than 1,000 suspected drug traffickers to the U.S., earning him a reputation as Washington's staunchest ally in the region.
He remains a sharp-tongued warrior, with a populist touch that resonates with many Colombians of even modest means, but his hand-picked presidential candidate, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, failed to unseat Santos in the hard-fought election this year that was largely viewed as a referendum on whether to continue two-year-old peace talks with the FARC.
Analysts consider the debate on Uribe's legacy an attempt by the government and its allies to weaken him politically so he can't play the role of spoiler should a peace deal be struck. It's also an important step in the country's search for reconciliation after decades of bitter fighting.
"This is another phase of what's going to be a long-term catharsis for Colombia," said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. "Dredging up decades of conflict take a long time and makes it hard on both sides to move forward. If the process isn't handled well it can be very risky."
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APjoshgoodman