Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Wiretapping Highlights Mistrust of Peace Talks in Colombia’s Military

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.


News Briefs
  • According to Costa Rica’s La Nacion, insurgent PAC presidential candidate Luis Guillermo Solis will enter the second round the race with far more campaign resources than his rival, Johnny Araya of the ruling PLN. Because the PAC spent only a third of the ruling party’s budget on the first round in the campaign, it will be eligible for far more public campaign funding than the PLN. Araya’s campaign, meanwhile, will have to seek donations to supplement its funding, according to the paper. Meanwhile, in an interview with Reuters, Solis told the news agency that he would push for tax increases late in his term if he won the vote, in order to address the country’s growing government debt.
  • The Miami Herald reports that Haitian President Michel Martelly has arrived in Washington DC for meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill today. At the top of the agenda, according to the paper, will be the country’s long-delayed elections, with opposition  legislators and the Obama administration alike planning on pressuring the leader to hold a vote in the near future.
  • In the latest high-profile setback for security in Rio de Janeiro and the city’s “pacification” project, at least six people were killed in a shootout as officers attempted to apprehend suspects in the earlier shooting of a policeman. For the Wall Street Journal, the incident -- combined with violent headlines in São Paulo -- question Brazil’s readiness for the World Cup.
  • Speaking in Morelia, Michoacan yesterday, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced that the federal government would invest some $3.4 billion in economic and infrastructure development programs in the troubled state this year. Milenio reports that the president also committed himself to personally visiting Michoacan at least 12 times this year, to assess the progress of these efforts. More from the L.A. Times.
  • Following the Mexican government’s announcement that it would provide legal recognition to vigilante groups in Michoacan, numerous analysts have weighed in on the drawbacks of the decision. Animal Politico has a comprehensive roundup of both the positives and negatives of the move, according to a number of security policy experts (see an English translation via InSight Crime). The consensus seems to be that the decision is risky as the state will have to find a way to account for abuses committed by vigilantes. However, some contend that turning a blind eye to the militias, or -- even worse -- clashing with them, could have had the potential to complicate the violence in the state even further. 
  • Gustavo Gorriti, director of Peru’s IDL-Reporteros, offers a slightly cynical, realist take on the Mexican government's decision. Gorriti argues against claims that armed civilian militias have not been used successfully to promote the rule of law in Latin America, pointing to the Peruvian Rondas Campesinas as an example. According to him: “There is almost no example of a successful counterinsurgency experience, especially in rural areas, which did not organize, train and arm local militias.”
  • La Republica has an overview of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights trial held yesterday on Peru’s controversial Chavin de Huantar rescue mission, in which three detained rebels were allegedly executed by security forces. The government of Peru maintains that its operatives did not commit extrajudicial executions, as well as any failure to investigate the deaths.
  • Writing for the North American Congress on Latin America, Keane Bhatt has a solid -- if somewhat polemical -- critique of Human Rights Watch’s work in Latin America, arguing that it is shaped by a largely U.S.-centric lens of the region. While some of Bhatt’s argument seems overly focused on links within the HRW leadership and the Obama administration, his comparison of HRW’s work in the wake of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez’s death with its response to the death of Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi is interesting. As he notes, while HRW was quick to emphasize Chavez’s authoritarian tendencies while overlooking his PSUV party’s electoral victories, its response to Zenawi’s death was decidedly more balanced, and did not discuss election fraud in the Ethiopian leader’s roughly two-decade rule.
  • Amnesty International has released a statement -- picked up by the AP -- denouncing the forced eviction of more than 200 families from a makeshift settlement known as Canaan on Monday. Police officers  fired their weapons into the air and deployed tear gas against residents, and at least three people were injured, according to the human rights group.
  • In The Economist’s “Economist Explains blog,” the magazine’s Mexico City bureau chief Henry Tricks offers a concise explanation of why El Salvador’s government helped facilitate a truce between the rival MS-13 and Barrio 18 street gangs. The analysis is insightful, but more interesting is that he takes the position that the truce is valuable despite the dangerously high profile it has given gang leaders. In his opinion, support for the ceasefire should be continued under the next Salvadoran administration, so long as it is supplemented with urban development and prevention programs aimed at keeping at-risk youth out of gangs.