In the last several days a number of stunning disclosures have surfaced concerning the role of the Colombia military. First, the Colombian newsmagazine “Semana” revealed that military intelligence had conducted wire-tapping and surveillance for an operation called Andromeda from a listening post set up in a site disguised as a small restaurant named “Buggly Hacker” located in Galerias, a Bogota commercial district. Among the phone calls tapped and overheard it appears there may have been calls of members of the Colombian Government’s delegation involved in peace talks with the FARC guerrillas, whose delegation’s conversations may likewise have been tapped and overheard. When news broke of this activity, President Juan Manuel Santos declared publicly that these wiretaps (chuzadas, as they are referred to in Colombia) were illegal and had to be investigated at once. The President said publicly that he did not authorize and knew nothing about this activity. But the next day, President Santos declared that the chuzadas had been done legally!
Two things are very clear. First, that the President of Colombia is not aware of what a significant part of his government is doing, and that’s all right with him. And second, that the military are (quite literally) calling the shots in Colombia. It appears obvious that Mr. Santos changed his opinion overnight on the legality of the secret wire-tapping activity by military intelligence because military officers told him he could not call the activity illegal. In other words, they’re in ultimate control of the government in Colombia!
How could Mr. Santos determine that this activity was legal? There are laws which have provided great leeway to military intelligence. But they certainly do not extend to overhearing conversations between Colombian Government representatives and FARC representatives meeting in Havana supposedly aimed at arriving at a broad peace agreement through which the guerrilla war would be ended. Who would speak freely his or her ideas on what a peace agreement should consist of—a necessary part of peace conversations if they are to be productive— if he or she knew a third party was overhearing what was being
said? No one. Particularly if the party overhearing the conversations is the Colombian military, which has a long record of abusive conduct, and even has a representative at the peace talks, General Mora. The chuzadas are a serious impediment to frank and open dialogue between the Colombian Government and the FARC. One suspects that former President Alvaro Uribe Velez is likely the recipient of the information gained from the chuzadas, as he utilizes his close relationship with military officers to obtain information with which to undercut the peace talks, which he has publicly opposed. He earlier obtained the coordinates for movement of two FARC leaders as they came out of their bases to go to Havana—secret information he could only have gotten through a leak from a military or governmental source. Of course, President Santos has not moved seriously to investigate this leak. Why? Because he is not in control of the Colombian government.
This has been made clear by events in the last couple of days. “Semana”, much to their credit, has carried out and now published the results of an extensive investigation of corruption in the Colombian military. The investigation found military officers discussing how to skim off funds for their personal benefit from monies received by the military, the likely source of which was the United States Government. One of the persons involved in the recorded conversations is the current Commander of the Colombian Armed Forces, General Leonardo Barrero. Another article reported how supposedly disgraced General Rito Alejo del Rio, confined to a military installation in Bogota for his support of illegal paramilitary forces during his time as Commander of the Seventeenth Brigade in Carepa, near Apartado, essentially commands the installation, freely making supposedly-prohibited cell phone calls. And other military personnel who misbehaved had been involved in the “false positives” scandal in which military officers ordered the kidnapping of young men, had them killed, and then falsely presented them as guerrillas killed in combat.
The reports by “Semana” show an astonishing level of corruption in the Colombian military. President Santos has promised an investigation of these activities, of which he says he had no knowledge. Again, we see Mr. Santos as being out of the loop, heading a government he does not control. The conclusion is inescapable that the military controls the government and Mr. Santos is an uninformed bystander. He seems to believe that his job is to hob-nob with representatives of multinational corporations, as he did on a recent visit to Spain, inviting them to invest in Colombia and remove its valuable mineral resources for a pittance. The Colombian people deserve much better than this!
There is another aspect of the military’s current “dance of the millions” which is very troubling. The funds that are being stolen by military personnel are almost certainly provided by the United States government (i.e., U.S. taxpayers) as a part of the bloated budget of funds the U. S. government provides to the Colombian military. An obvious question is: Did the U.S. government personnel, such as the country’s military attache and Ambassador in Colombia, know what has been going on? And, if not, why not? This scandal calls for a full review of the U.S. aid program to Colombia and an immediate freezing of any funds in the aid pipeline. We in the human rights community have long known of the pervasive corruption in the Colombian military, though we did not know of the brazen theft of funds which “Semana” uncovered. It is high time that President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defense Hagel give their undivided attention to the Colombia situation. And the members of Congress should insist upon a thorough investigation, dismissal of those government personnel who overlooked these very serious problems, and prosecution of those who may have collaborated with the Colombian military to their own advantage.
John I. Laun is president of the Colombia Support Network.