Far Worse than Watergate: Widening Scandal regarding Colombia’s Intelligence Agency

Far Worse than WatergateA still-unfolding scandal in Colombia is revealing American Commission on Human Rights,” establishing that the government’s intelligence agency not only spied upon major players in Colombia’s democracy—from Supreme Court and Constitutional Court judges to presidential candidates, from journalists and publishers to human rights defenders, from international organizations to U.S. and European human rights groups—but also carried out dirty tricks, and even death threats, to undermine their legitimate, democratic activities. And it may have carried out its illegal surveillance with orders from top presidential advisors. The next Colombian administration must be challenged to fully reform the nation’s intelligence services to put an end to these authoritarian practices.

Spying was Only the Start

Files recently released from the Colombian Attorney General’s office confirm that operations by the Department of Administrative Security (DAS), the Colombian intelligence agency directly under the presidency, ventured much farther into criminal territory than illegal surveillance and wiretapping. The documents, dating especially from 2004-05 but also covering actions before and since, detail DAS operations targeting national and international human rights defenders, journalists, judges, and members of the political opposition. A series of cover pages, which can be seen here, describing campaigns with names like “Operation Halloween” and “Operation Transmilenio,” outline objectives such as: “generating controversy regarding NGOs,” “generating division within opposition movements,” “promoting actions to benefit the government in the 2006 elections,” “neutralizing influence in the Inter-links between individuals and illegal armed groups, and “neutralizing the destabilizing actions of NGOs in Colombia and the world.”

The tactics outlined in these operations included: framing a journalist by placing him in a fabricated guerrilla video and requesting the suspension of his visa (possibly to the U.S.); conducting sabotage against Constitutional Court judges; making it appear that opposition politicians and nongovernmental leaders had links to illegal armed groups or were engaged in corruption or adultery; stealing passports and ID cards; making threats; using blackmail.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Colombia, the DAS was behind threats against human rights defenders, including the sending of a bloody doll addressed, “for my beloved daughter” to the home of a human rights defender, and a threat against a journalist who was investigating the 1999 murder of journalist Jaime Garzón.

The DAS files include a memo with instructions that appear to be intended for a DAS agent to carry out a death threat against a journalist, threatening her daughter. The memo actually provides a script for the agent to read. “Recommendation: make a call near the installations of police intelligence. Don’t stutter, nor take longer than 49 seconds... Text: Good afternoon. Please is Dr. X there? Message: Are you the mother of X? [wait for her to answer]. Well I have to tell you that you don’t leave us any alternative, we told you in every possible way and you did not want to heed us, now even armored cars can’t save you....”