Another Intelligence Scandal in Colombia Highlights the Need for Lasting Reform

When the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, agreed to demobilize as part of Colombia’s landmark 2016 peace agreement, it ended 50 years of armed conflict. It also left the Colombian army without its chief adversary. The country still faces internal armed threats, like the smaller guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, and about 10,000 fighters are scattered across dozens of smaller militias, some of them led by former FARC members. But for Latin America’s largest army, the adjustment has been fraught with difficulty.

The army built up a formidable intelligence apparatus during the country’s decades of internal conflict, thanks to generous assistance from the U.S., which saw Colombia as a partner in its fight against drug traffickers and terrorism. A major intelligence law that was passed in 2013, during Juan Manuel Santos’ presidency, placed important limits and oversight protections on civilian and military intelligence agencies’ ability to spy on citizens. Meanwhile, as the peace negotiations with the FARC made progress, the military changed its doctrine to adjust to a post-conflict context.

But President Ivan Duque, who came to power in 2018, comes from a political party that opposed the peace accord and is much more permissive toward the security forces. Once in office, he appointed controversial figures to senior positions, including Guillermo Botero as defense minister and Gen. Nicacio Martinez as army chief, neither of whom shared the spirit of the Santos administration’s reforms.

Now, that U.S.-backed intelligence apparatus is at the heart of several scandals that have buffeted the Colombian military over the past year. In May 2019, The New York Times reported in a bombshell cover story that Duque’s new commanders had reestablished body counts as a measure of battlefield success, risking increased killings of civilians in a country with a dark history of military abuses. Then, Colombia’s main weekly newspaper, Semana, revealed last month that The New York Times’ reporter who wrote that story, Nicholas Casey, was one of at least 130 people for whom army intelligence units had compiled dossiers full of personal information. The targets included American and Colombian reporters, human rights activists, Supreme Court judges, opposition politicians and even fellow officers whom army spies suspected of being whistleblowers.

This is not a new scandal for Colombia, which experienced similar ones involving misuse of intelligence resources in 1998, 2005 and 2009. Despite the 2013 intelligence reform, Semana reported the following year that army hackers were spying on government peace negotiators. Even without the FARC as a pretext for domestic espionage, the same elements of the military continue to commit the same crimes. How can Colombia avoid yet another repeat in the future?

In the wake of last month’s domestic spying scandal, senior Colombian officials have mostly been saying the right things and have taken some important steps. Twenty officers have been forced out of the army, including two generals and a colonel who was part of the defense attache’s office at the Colombian Embassy in Washington. Congress held an oversight hearing to question government ministers about the issue. And the internal affairs branch of government, which hands out administrative punishments, has summoned 13 accused officers to “disciplinary trial.”

But the scandals didn’t end there. In mid-May, Semana revealed the existence of a counterintelligence effort that has been ongoing for three years, known as “Operation Baton.” When Colombia became an official NATO “partner” in 2017, the trans-Atlantic alliance required Bogota to undergo a thorough cleanup of suspected corruption. As a result, 16 of the Colombian military’s 63 generals, as well as 128 other lower-ranking officers, have been investigated on charges of colluding with organized criminal organizations and drug traffickers. One general may even have sold information to the FARC for years.

With the FARC out of the picture, Colombia needs to figure out what its giant intelligence apparatus is truly for and make it far more accountable than it is today.

The scandal’s immediate aftermath offers hope that Colombia’s military—or at least its intelligence apparatus—might see some overdue reforms that should have been made after the peace deal. The media attention is embarrassing, and it weakens the position of hard-line opponents of the FARC accord. The U.S. government, which has aided the intelligence units behind the wiretaps and profiling, is saying little publicly but has reportedly made its displeasure known privately.

Still, reform is no guarantee. Pro-government voices have spoken out in defense of the military, including one newspaper columnist who recently lashed out at officers who “throw mud at others in the press.” And police officers investigating army intelligence abuses reportedly received very troubling threats over WhatsApp, telling them to “back off” from the issue and including specific details about their personal lives, right down to, in one officer’s case, his spouse’s occupation and the type of car he drives.

“Usually, whenever a scandal breaks out, the sitting president and his defense minister act surprised and some junior officers are called out as ‘rotten apples’ and fired,” Colombian journalist Daniel Coronell, one of the army’s spying victims, wrote recently in The New York Times. So far, Colombia’s response has gone a step beyond that, ensnaring some high-ranking generals. But much more remains to be done.

Late last year, Botero and Martinez were both forced out of their respective roles as defense minister and army chief. Their successors have talked about cleaning house, but it’s not clear yet whether they’re really committed to a difficult, bottom-up reform process. They may simply be waiting for the pressure to ease when Colombia’s easily distractible media moves on to another topic.

Yet the results of Operation Baton have made clear that Colombia needs a more accountable military. Colombians also deserve to know whom or what the army’s rogue intelligence operation was serving. With the FARC gone, army spies can no longer cite guerrilla warfare, terrorism or communism as justifications for using sophisticated intelligence tools against citizens in a democracy. It’s more likely, then, that the intelligence units were acting at the behest of another person or organization.

Those who were giving the orders and receiving the data probably don’t wear uniforms. On June 2, Colombia’s Supreme Court opened a preliminary investigation against former President Alvaro Uribe, the leader of Duque’s Democratic Center party, who saw a few intelligence scandals during his time in office from 2002 to 2010. Justices are investigating credible, anonymous allegations that Uribe may have received some or all of the intelligence that army personnel were illegally gathering.

To find out whether that is true, journalists, activists and foreign officials must keep sustained pressure on the Colombian government and not allow this scandal to blow over like so many others in the past. Some of that pressure can come from Washington, the source of more than $8 billion in military and police aid to Colombia since 2000. The Senate Intelligence Committee should hold a hearing or otherwise take a formal look into the role of U.S. assistance in the domestic spying scandal. And the State Department should support an investigation by an ad hoc independent group of experts, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, whose international members can carry out an impartial investigation without fear of retribution inside Colombia. The U.S. must stop providing assistance to the Colombian intelligence units that were responsible—if not to the entire Colombian army—until officials in Bogota show a sustained commitment to reform and identify the still-unnamed officers or political bosses that have been giving spies illegal orders.

As a large, conflict-prone nation with 50 million people surrounded by often-unstable neighbors, Colombia will always need a professional intelligence service. The recent wave of scandals, though, indicates that it doesn’t have one right now. With the FARC out of the picture, Colombia needs to figure out what its giant intelligence apparatus is truly for, rebuild it from the ground up and make it far more accountable than it is today.

Adam Isacson (@adam_wola) is the director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America.


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