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COLOMBIA: All the President’s Spies

BOGOTA, Jun 13 2009 (IPS) - Colombian journalist Hollman Morris phoned an international news agency and said in an agitated voice: “I am being followed by the police.”

As he left his apartment on the north side of Bogotá, he saw a police car on the other side of the street; when he reached his parents’ apartment a few minutes later, to drop off his kids, another car was parked near the building.

And when he reached the spot where he was planning to meet with this reporter, a third car with plainclothes police officers made it clear to him that orders had been given to follow him.

Ten days earlier, President Álvaro Uribe had publicly accused Morris of being an accomplice of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) because of his newspaper coverage of the release of a group of kidnapped victims by the insurgent group.

A few weeks later, Morris commented in a meeting of journalists on the “chilling” discovery of a dossier in his name that had been kept for some time by the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS) – Colombia’s domestic secret police service, which answers directly to the office of the president – when its offices were searched on orders from the attorney general’s office in the midst of a scandal over widespread illegal wiretapping.

The file contained photos and information on his parents, siblings, wife and children, and on his day-to-day movements, with a level of detail that reminded those looking at it of the thorough investigations carried out by hired killers while planning their hit jobs.

Morris is one of the reporters who was targeted by the DAS, which illegally eavesdropped on a wide range of opponents of the right-wing Uribe administration. Searching through DAS computers, investigators from the attorney general’s office found that the secret police had intercepted the phone calls and e-mails of Supreme Court justices, opposition lawmakers, reporters and even the likely presidential candidate of the opposition Liberal Party, Rafael Pardo.

The ongoing scandal over illegal wiretapping operations by the DAS has led to the resignation of the director of the intelligence agency, María del Pilar Hurtado, and investigations of the last four directors as well as 30 DAS agents.

The similarities of the case with the Watergate scandal, which forced U.S. president Richard Nixon (1969-1974) to step down, have been cited by opposition figures calling on Uribe to resign – not a likely outcome, however, due to the president’s high level of popularity and Colombian society’s jaded attitude towards such scandals, which are all too common in this country.

Before DAS

The government of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (1953-1957) replaced the security police by creating the Servicio de Inteligencia Colombiano (SIC) in 1953, which was answerable to the president’s office and used methods like those of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the U.S.

The SIC worked in close coordination with the state Office of Information and Propaganda, in activities like monitoring the press, with advice from Karl von Merk, a former secretary to Nazi Germany’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, according to a report by journalist Alberto Donadío.

The SIC, DAS’s predecessor, played a significant role in the investigation of Rojas Pinilla’s political opponents.

In April 1955, the SIC searched the headquarters of the Liberal Party and, based on letters from guerrilla leaders in the regions of Tolima and Llano, accused the party’s leader, Alberto Lleras, of being involved in subversive activities.

The SIC also alleged that it found evidence to accuse the dean of the National University law school, Abel Naranjo, of communist infiltration after the bloody events of Jun. 9, 1954, when the army opened fire on student demonstrators.

The SIC set out on a mission of sniffing out communists in Colombia, which included spying on and arresting reporters. Hernando Santos Castillo, who later became director of the newspaper El Tiempo, was arrested painting anti-government graffiti in downtown Bogotá. Around the same time the then presidential candidate of the Conservative Party, Guillermo León Valencia, was arrested as well.

Another activity carried out by the SIC was denounced by a military commander in the western province of Valle del Cauca, who said SIC agents were operating in complicity with “los pájaros” in that province – the term used to refer to paramilitary squads at the service of conservative elites.

Similar activities were carried out at a Feb. 5, 1957 bullfight, when numerous SIC agents infiltrated among the public beat dozens of spectators who booed Rojas Pinilla’s daughter María Eugenia when she arrived. According to U.S. Embassy reports, 20 people were killed.

The DAS era

The DAS, created by decree in 1960, continued the SIC’s work, under the shelter of the state of siege and the security statute (the latter was adopted in late 1982) – instruments that almost became part of the legal system after the 1991 constitution was passed.

According to a later draft law on the state of emergency, searches and wire tapping could be carried out without a legal warrant. The draft law was denounced at the Eighth Human Rights Forum, held in 1996, which stated that under the government of president Julio César Turbay (1982-1986) “an addiction to such practices, justified in the name of defence of the fatherland, had been instilled in the young officers.”

Not as crude as torture and dungeons, the tradition of hounding and eavesdropping on political opponents has been maintained and refined with the latest technological advances.

Vans with equipment that can simultaneously tap 16 calls in an area of 70 metres followed judges, politicians and journalists in recent months

In the days of General Rojas Pinilla, the focus was on hunting down communists and dissidents. Today, involvement in activities opposed to the government is more dangerous than being a communist.

For example, the Supreme Court judges began to be followed when they started investigating and arresting legislators who had worked together with far-right paramilitary groups to manipulate elections and electoral results.

Besides wiretapping their phones, the DAS investigations looked at bank accounts, tax returns, parties the judges had attended, trips they had taken, gifts they received – anything that might possibly be used to discredit them.

While the opposition and journalists saw these activities as an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the judges who were investigating more than 60 Uribe allies in Congress for their ties to the paramilitary militias, the government insinuated that the magistrates were involved in money laundering, had ties with drug traffickers, or were accomplices of the guerrillas.

The documents, instructions, archives and photos gathered by the investigators of the attorney general’s office show that at least 50 people were spied on without a legal order, “in line with the democratic security policies” of the Uribe administration, as a memorandum from a detective to the DAS counterintelligence director states.

The targets of surveillance “are being politically persuaded to mobilise a bloc that could counteract the election of the president,” says another of the agents describing his work in Pasto, in the south of the country, referring to the possible approval of a constitutional amendment to allow presidents to run for a third term.

Because the DAS, like the now-defunct SIC, is directly answerable to the president, there is little doubt about the origin of the orders for illegal wiretapping and surveillance.

But the investigations by the attorney general’s office and the office of the public prosecutor have only led to offices near Uribe, and no further. And although the DAS wiretapping operations are eerily similar to Watergate, the difference lies in that the scandal has not yet reached the president’s desk.

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