Just as the fallout from the last wiretapping scandal was dying down in Colombia, allegations have surfaced yet again that intelligence officers monitored the communications of government officials and members of civil society involved in the peace talks with FARC rebels in Havana. While it is still unclear who exactly is responsible for the latest scandal, all signs point to “loose wheels” in the military, emphasizing unease with the peace process among the army’s top brass.
Semana magazine broke the story on Monday, the result of 15 months of investigating and interviews with over 25 intelligence sources. Just like the previous wiretapping scandal, which prosecutors have linked to the office of former President Alvaro Uribe, this operation was ostensibly labeled as a counterterrorism initiative. But instead of targeting guerrilla operatives, military intelligence agents monitored the communications of lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle and Peace Commissioner Sergio Jaramillo. Other targets included left-leaning political figures who have supported the FARC talks from the sidelines, like Congressman Ivan Cepeda and former Senator Piedad Cordoba.
Using a hybrid lunch restaurant/computer science workshop as a front, members of military intelligence agency DINTE and a handful of civilian technical contractors tracked the text messages, online chats and emails of their targets, Semana reports. The operation began in September 2012, one month before President Juan Manuel Santos officially announced the peace talks. According to some involved in the project, it ended in October 2013 after the DINTE’s cyber intelligence branch came under scrutiny for conducting illegal electronic surveillance.
Following Semana’s report, Santos has ordered an investigation into the operation, which he called “totally unacceptable.” Reuters notes that the president said the surveillance had been ordered by “loose wheels” and “dark forces” in the armed forces.
This is not the first time that Santos has had to contend with the military’s “loose wheels” interfering with and potentially endangering the peace talks. In April, unknown elements in the army provided Uribe with an internal memo listing the coordinates where military operations had been temporarily suspended in order to guarantee the safe passage of guerrilla leaders leaving Colombia to join their comrades at the negotiating table in Cuba. As the most prominent critic of the peace process, Uribe gleefully posted its contents on Twitter as “proof” of official collusion with the rebels, to the annoyance of the Santos administration.
Uribe, for his part, has denied anything to do with the surveillance, telling Caracol Noticias that it was an “infamy” to suggest otherwise. “The biggest corruption of this government is to hide and distract from public opinion, to put up smokescreens,” the ex-president said.
Of course, Uribe is not the only critic of the negotiations in Havana. Members of the military command are skeptical of it as well, and Santos’ support for a military justice reform law (which was struck down by the Supreme Court in October) was partially designed to ease their concerns. Ever since peace talks began, the Santos administration has repeatedly battled perceptions in the army command that an eventual peace deal would give amnesty to guerrillas while leaving them vulnerable to prosecution in civilian courts for human rights abuses.
El Espectador reports that a source in the intelligence service told one of its journalists that the surveillance program had been orchestrated by a powerful class of retired generals and colonels, known as the “Generation of the ‘70s.” Their objective, according to the paper, was to put pressure on Santos to “change the rules” of the peace talks or, failing that, cause them to derail.
Heads have already begun to roll in the military as a result of the Semana report. Two generals, including army intelligence chief Mauricio Ricardo Zuñiga and cyber intelligence head Jorge Zuluaga, have been relieved from duty. With the government investigation only just beginning, no doubt others will follow.
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