By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 17, 2009
BOGOTA, Colombia, May 16 -- For weeks after the news broke, Colombians knew only that the secret police had spied on Supreme Court judges, opposition politicians, activists and journalists. Suspicions swirled that the orders for the wiretapping, as well as general surveillance, had come from the presidential palace.
Then on Friday, the inspector general's office announced an investigation against three of President Álvaro Uribe's closest advisers and three former officials of the Department of Administrative Security, or DAS, the intelligence service that answers to the president. Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez investigates malfeasance in government agencies, and his findings can be used in criminal prosecutions.
The latest revelations have come on top of an influence-peddling scandal involving the president's two sons, Tomás and Geronimo, and a widening probe of the links between Uribe's allies in Congress and right-wing paramilitary death squads. Though Uribe remains popular for having brought security and economic prosperity to a once-chaotic country, the scandals are hitting hard just as he weighs a run for a third term.
Latin America policymakers in Washington are also watching the controversy closely. The United States has funneled nearly $6 billion in mostly military and anti-drug aid to the Uribe administration for its fight against Marxist rebels and drug cartels. Myles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador in Bogota who closely tracks Colombia policy, said one possible ramification of the scandal is that the Obama administration could curtail aid.
"I think that Washington is increasingly nervous about this," Frechette said. "I just don't think that people in Congress, even the Republicans, are going to feel very comfortable with this kind of thing coming out about Uribe."
The allegations have dominated news coverage, with even media outlets that are openly supportive of Uribe revealing details embarrassing to the presidency. Government officials appear clearly uncomfortable.
"You cannot deny that this is serious, but justice is acting, the institutions are acting," Vice President Francisco Santos insisted at a recent news conference, answering a pointed question from one reporter. "What more do you want?"
The Colombian government has characterized the surveillance as the work of rogue DAS agents. José Obdulio Gaviria, a former presidential aide now spearheading Uribe's reelection effort, told the Bogota daily El Tiempo on Friday that criminal elements had infiltrated the department to hurt the government's image. "We are in a political war," he explained.
But the news media reported this past week that Jorge Alberto Lagos, former DAS director of counterintelligence, told prosecutors during 14 hours of interrogations how information about judges was turned over to two top Uribe aides, Bernardo Moreno and Gaviria. The attorney general's office, meanwhile, is offering to make deals -- leniency in exchange for information -- with other DAS employees, 33 of whom have been fired since the scandal broke in February.
El Tiempo, in an editorial Friday, questioned how the agency could have acted against Uribe's wishes when he controls it. "In everything that has happened, what has stood out are the poor arguments of the Casa Nariño," the editorial said, referring to the presidential palace.
The spying revelations, first made by Semana magazine, detail how the DAS zeroed in on some of Uribe's most vocal opponents, including Carlos Gaviria, who ran against Uribe in the 2006 election, and journalists who oversee tough coverage of government, among them Daniel Coronell, who runs a small Bogota television station and is a columnist.
DAS agents also intercepted phone conversations, studied financial records and tailed Supreme Court judges, authorities say.
Uribe and his aides have repeatedly clashed with the court over its investigation of links between lawmakers and a now-defunct paramilitary movement. So far, dozens of lawmakers have been arrested, including Uribe's cousin, former senator Mario Uribe. The president has called the investigation politically motivated.
One of those who was followed, and had his phone calls tapped, is former senator Rafael Pardo, once an ally of Uribe and now an opponent considering a run for president. Pardo, who has been interviewed by the attorney general's office, said the surveillance began as early as 2003 and included agents who followed him and intercepted his phone calls.
"This is a regime that uses intelligence to co-opt political rights," Pardo said. "How can you have political guarantees when the intelligence service is following politicians during their campaigns?"
Uribe, who first won office in 2002, has been dubbed the Teflon President by the media because several scandals have failed to dent his popularity. But he has been clearly irked by recent reports by Coronell, the television director and columnist, that his sons invested in land whose value skyrocketed when authorities designated it part of a tax-free industrial zone.
For more than two years, Uribe's government has also had to deal with investigations that have put close aides behind bars. Among those recently charged with murder was Jorge Noguera, the former DAS director and coordinator of Uribe's 2002 campaign in Magdalena state. Prosecutors say he passed intelligence to paramilitary hit men who then killed a well-known professor, a journalist, a union activist and a politician.
Still, Uribe's supporters in Colombia's Congress are lobbying for a constitutional amendment to permit a third run for the presidency in 2010. The president has not said whether he supports the effort, but the Senate is set to vote on a bill Tuesday that would trigger a referendum asking Colombians whether they want another reelection.