The Obama administration often cites Colombia’s thriving democracy as proof that U.S. assistance, know-how and commitment can turn around a potentially failed state under terrorist siege.
The country’s U.S.-funded counterinsurgency campaign against a Marxist rebel group — and the civilian and military coordination behind it — are viewed as so successful that it has become a model for strategy in Afghanistan.
But new revelations in long-running political scandals under former president Alvaro Uribe, a close U.S. ally throughout his eight-year tenure, have implicated American aid, and possibly U.S. officials, in egregious abuses of power and illegal actions by the Colombian government under the guise of fighting terrorism and drug smuggling.
American cash, equipment and training, supplied to elite units of the Colombian intelligence service over the past decade to help smash cocaine-trafficking rings, were used to carry out spying operations and smear campaigns against Supreme Court justices, Uribe’s political opponents and civil society groups, according to law enforcement documents obtained by The Washington Post and interviews with prosecutors and former Colombian intelligence officials.
The revelations are part of a widening investigation by the Colombian attorney general’s office against the Department of Administrative Security, or DAS. Six former high-ranking intelligence officials have confessed to crimes, and more than a dozen other agency operatives are on trial. Several of Uribe’s closest aides have come under scrutiny, and Uribe is under investigation by a special legislative commission.
U.S. officials have denied knowledge of or involvement in illegal acts committed by the DAS, and Colombian prosecutors have not alleged any American collaboration. But the story of what the DAS did with much of the U.S. aid it received is a cautionary tale of unintended consequences. Just as in Afghanistan and other countries where the United States is intensely focused on winning counterterrorism allies, some recipients of aid to Colombia clearly diverted it to their own political agendas.
For more than a decade, under three administrations, Colombia has been Washington’s closest friend in Latin America and the biggest recipient of military and economic assistance — $6 billion during Uribe’s 2002-10 presidency. The annual total has fallen only slightly during the Obama administration, to just over a half-billion dollars in combined aid this year.
Although significant gains were made against the rebels and drug-trafficking groups, former high-ranking intelligence agents say the DAS under Uribe emphasized political targets over insurgents and drug lords. The steady flow of new revelations has continued to taint Colombia’s reputation, even as a government led by Uribe’s successor and former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, has pledged to replace the DAS with a new intelligence agency this fall.
Prosecutors say the Uribe government wanted to “neutralize” the Supreme Court because its investigative magistrates were unraveling ties between presidential allies in the Colombian congress and drug-trafficking paramilitary groups. Basing their case on thousands of pages of DAS documents and the testimony of nine top former DAS officials, the prosecutors say the agency was directed by the president’s office to collect the banking records of magistrates, follow their families, bug their offices and analyze their court rulings.
“All the activity mounted against us — following us, intercepting our telephones — had one central purpose, to intimidate us,” said Ivan Velasquez, the court’s lead investigative magistrate and a primary target of the DAS surveillance.
Gustavo Sierra, the imprisoned former DAS chief of analysis, who reviewed intelligence briefs that were sent to the presidency, said that targeting the court “was the priority” for the DAS under Uribe.
“They hardly ever gave orders against narco-trafficking or guerrillas,” Sierra said in an interview.
Some of those charged or under investigation have described the importance of U.S. intelligence resources and guidance, and say they regularly briefed embassy “liaison” officials on their intelligence-gathering activities. “We were organized through the American Embassy,” said William Romero, who ran the DAS’s network of informants and oversaw infiltration of the Supreme Court. Like many of the top DAS officials in jail or facing charges, he received CIA training. Some were given scholarships to complete coursework on intelligence-gathering at American universities.
Romero, who has accepted a plea agreement from prosecutors in exchange for his cooperation, said in an interview that DAS units depended on U.S.-supplied computers, wiretapping devices, cameras and mobile phone interception systems, as well as rent for safe houses and petty cash for gasoline. “We could have operated” without U.S. assistance, he said, “but not with the same effectiveness.”
One unit dependent on CIA aid, according to the testimony of former DAS officials in depositions, was the National and International Observations Group.
Set up to root out ties between foreign operatives and Colombian guerrillas, it turned its attention to the Supreme Court after magistrates began investigating the president’s cousin, then-Sen. Mario Uribe, said a former director, German Ospina, in a deposition to prosecutors. The orders came “from the presidency; they wanted immediate results,” Ospina told prosecutors.
Another unit that operated for eight months in 2005, the Group to Analyze Terrorist Organization Media, assembled dossiers on labor leaders, broke into their offices and videotaped union activists. The United States provided equipment and tens of thousands of dollars, according to an internal DAS report, and the unit’s members regularly met with an embassy official they remembered as “Chris Sullivan.”
“When we were advancing on certain activities, he would go to see how we were advancing,” Jose Gabriel Jimenez, a former analyst in the unit, said during a court hearing.
The CIA declined to comment on any specific allegations or the description of its relationship with the DAS provided by Colombian officials. “The three letters CIA get thrown into the mix on a lot of things, and by a lot of people. That doesn’t mean that allegations about the agency are anything more than that,” said a U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
As initial DAS revelations emerged in the Colombian media during late summer 2009, then-U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield called an embassy-wide meeting and asked which U.S. agencies represented were working with the DAS, according to a secret State Department cable released by WikiLeaks. Representatives from eight agencies raised their hands — including the CIA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service. All agencies, Brownfield reported in the Sept. 9 cable, “reaffirmed that they had no knowledge of or connection to the illegal activity and agreed to continue reducing their exposure to the agency.”
Brownfield, in subsequent meetings with Uribe and other officials, urged the government to get out in front of the disclosures and warned that they could compromise the U.S.-Colombia partnership.
“If another DAS scandal erupted, our Plan B was to terminate all association with DAS. Immediately,” Brownfield reported telling Francisco Santos, Uribe’s vice president, and DAS Director Felipe Munoz on Sept. 16, 2009.
Still, the relationship continued for an additional seven months. In April 2010, Brownfield announced that all U.S. funds previously directed to the DAS would henceforth go to Colombia’s national police. Today, the 51-year-old DAS, with 6,000 employees, multiple roles and an annual budget of $220 million, still limps along. But Munoz has been under investigation, as have four other former DAS directors.
Uribe, speaking through his lawyer, Jaime Granados, declined a request for an interview. But the former president has denied that he oversaw illegal activities and said officials from his government were being persecuted politically. Four of his top aides are under investigation, and his chief of staff, Bernardo Moreno, is jailed and awaiting trial on conspiracy and other charges.
Interviews with former U.S. officials and evidence surfacing in the DAS investigation show that the agency has for years committed serious crimes, a propensity for illegal actions not unknown to embassy officials.
The first DAS director in Uribe’s presidency, Jorge Noguera — whom the U.S. Embassy in 2005 considered “pro-U.S. and an honest technocrat” and recommended to be a member of Interpol for Latin America, according to WikiLeaks cables — is on trial and accused of having helped hit men assassinate union activists. Last year, prosecutors accused another former DAS director of having helped plan the 1989 assassination of front-running presidential candidate, Luis Carlos Galan.
Myles Frechette, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia from 1994 to 1997, said that even in his tenure American officials believed that DAS units were tainted by corruption and linked to traffickers. But he said the embassy needed a partner to develop intelligence on drug smugglers and guerrillas.
“All the people who worked with me at the embassy said to me, ‘You can’t really trust the DAS,’ ” said Frechette. adding that he thinks the DAS has some of the hallmarks of a criminal enterprise.
Several senior U.S. diplomats posted to the embassy in more recent years said they had no knowledge that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies were involved in DAS dirty tricks, but all said it would not surprise them.
“There were concerns about some kinds of activities, but also a need in the name of U.S. interests to preserve the relationship,” said one diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I’m reasonably confident our support was correct.”
Duque is a freelance journalist based in Bogota, Colombia. Correspondent Juan Forero, also based in Bogota, contributed to this report.