Wiretaps Raise New Problem for Colombia's Uribe

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia, May 15 -- Opposition politicians in Colombia demanded an explanation from President Álvaro Uribe's government on Tuesday after it was revealed that an elite police intelligence unit had for two years been illegally tapping the phones of opposition figures and journalists.

The disclosures, made late Monday by Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos after a long meeting with Uribe, was embarrassing for an American ally that has received upwards of $4 billion in mostly military and anti-drug aid. Democrats on Capitol Hill have expressed reservations about supporting a free-trade pact with Colombia, citing its troubling human rights record, and some in the U.S. Congress are pushing for more restrictions on military assistance.

The government said the attorney general's office would immediately open an investigation into the wiretapping.

Carlos Gaviria, who ran second to Uribe in last year's presidential election, said in an interview that opposition parties -- including his Democratic Pole -- would press for a hearing in Congress to learn what the government knew about the operations. Santos told reporters on Tuesday that Gaviria was among those whose phone calls were intercepted.

"Somebody ordered the taping, and this information then goes to someone, for some particular purpose," said Rafael Pardo, a former senator and defense minister. "The question is not who was taping, but what is the bigger reason for this?"

Opposition politicians said they were particularly troubled by the revelations because Uribe himself had suggested last month that he knew about at least some operations involving surveillance of the opposition. At a news conference, he accused his opponents of attempting to doom a free-trade agreement that his government wants with the United States.

"I have proof, which I am not going to reveal -- it is from military and police intelligence -- that some of those who have gone to the United States say, 'We're going to attack the treaty by accusing this guy Uribe,' " the president said in a televised briefing.

"Many of the critics that go there to defame the government are the adversaries here" of the free-trade pact, Uribe said. "And I have specific proof. In order not to reveal them, I will not make any personal references."

On Monday night, the government moved quickly to distance itself from the wiretapping disclosures. Santos, the defense minister, suggested that the National Police had mounted a rogue operation. He also said the police had tapped the phones of some members of Uribe's government, though he did not name the targets.

"The procedure is totally unacceptable, illegal and contrary to the policy of the government," Santos said in a statement. As in the United States, tapping a phone requires a judge's order. Without an order, it is considered a crime punishable by one to three years in prison.

The government removed Gen. Jorge Daniel Castro, the head of the National Police, and Gen. Guillermo Chávez, the chief of police intelligence. Ten other generals were also removed as part of a shake-up. Gen. Oscar Naranjo, a legendary police official who has worked closely with the Americans in the dismantling of cocaine cartels, was named the new police director.

The revelations come in the midst of the "para-politics" scandal that, as of Monday, has led to charges against 14 congressmen, all but one of them allies of Uribe, for alleged ties to illegal paramilitary groups. Those groups have been accused of operating as death squads.

Officials said they learned of the wiretapping after Colombia's leading newsweekly, Semana, on Sunday published transcripts of secret conversations in which jailed paramilitary members ordered murders and ran drug-trafficking operations. The disclosure of those recordings, which were made by the police, prompted the government to warn paramilitary commanders that they could lose legal privileges they had been granted in exchange for disarming and entering into negotiations with the government.

Uribe's government has criticized journalists for reporting that the secret police, known as the DAS, were providing intelligence data to paramilitary warlords. And government officials have said little about persistent complaints from opposition figures that their phones were tapped. On Monday, opposition officials questioned why the government disclosed the wiretapping only after the tapping of paramilitary members had been made public by Semana.

"The president of the republic only acted when it was shown that the police intelligence was working not just against the opposition but against the paramilitaries," said Sen. Gustavo Petro, who held a recent congressional hearing and accused Uribe of being soft on paramilitary groups. "The question is why didn't he react two years ago? And why didn't he react when the DAS was doing it and then giving the intelligence to the paramilitaries?"

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