The DAS wiretapping scandal unfolded in 2008 after opposition politicians, media and authorities discovered that Colombia’s now-defunct intelligence agency, the DAS, had been spying on the Supreme Court, journalists, human rights defenders and politicians.
Later dubbed the “Colombian Watergate” scandal, it sparked a worldwide outrage as it not only implicated the Colombian president as the alleged force behind the illegal surveillance but also drew ties to the US — a close ally and financial contributor to Colombia.
The scandal did not just implicate the DAS, but also then-Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, whose chief of staff has been charged with ordering the illegal wiretaps.
The DAS illegal wiretapping methods first surfaced in 2008 after then-Senator Gustavo Petro, received intelligence documents proving he had been shadowed and wiretapped.
Main wiretapping targets
Human Rights defenders, NGOs
The scandal almost immediately cost the head of DAS director Maria del Pilar Hurtado who, in spite of initially denying her agency had been involved with illegal activities, was forced to leave her post.
Del Pilar later fled to Panama where she received political asylum months before the Supreme Court ordered an arrest warrant.
But this was just the beginning of an unfolding scandal that uncovered a boundless conspiracy that did not just target politicians, but even more controversially, the Supreme Court, Colombian and foreign human rights organizations, and journalists.
In February 2009, weekly Semana revealed that the DAS was the main force behind a dark industry that served paramilitaries, guerrillas and corrupt political forces.
The investigations unveiled a comprehensive and extensive surveillance and interception campaign that had been targeting the Supreme Court in order to discredit the country’s institution that was investigating links between paramilitaries and politicians, the majority being political allies of President Alvaro Uribe.
The beginning: Uribe appoints DAS executive with paramilitary ties
The DAS was founded in the 1960 to provide strategic intelligence, criminal investigations, control the external and internal security of the nation and served as Interpol’s liaison in Colombia and was a contact for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). With close to 6,500 members, the agency reported directly to the President’s Office.
The DAS began spying on government opponents and critics after Uribe appointed now-convicted Jorge Noguera to run the DAS. Under Noguera, a number of intelligence agents with strong ties to the paramilitary AUC were appointed, and the agency formed the so-called g-3 unit that was in charge of the wiretapping that later became controversial.
Narvaez, who was fired from the DAS after the breaking of the wiretap scandal, gave workshops at both paramilitary camps and controversial ranchers’ federation Fedegan, whose members have regularly been linked to paramilitary groups.
The “Special Strategic Intelligence Group” G-3 was formed under Noguera and was assigned the primary responsibilities of monitoring human rights groups that had proven or could potential prove troublesome for Uribe.
But the specialized unit dissolved in 2005 after Uribe assigned Noguera the position of consul-general in Milan and was replaced by the “National and International Observation Group” (GONI) who continued to carry out similar operations, but focused mainly on Uribe’s political oppositions and the Supreme Court.
Documents confiscated at the DAS headquarters contained detailed information on magistrates’ families, children and political affiliations.
Among the victims were Supreme Court magistrate Ivan Velasquez. In 2008 solely, DAS recorded more than 1,900 of Valasquez’s phone conversations who was leading an investigation to uncover ties between politicians and paramilitary groups.
Other wiretapping victims were late-Presidents Ernesto Samper and Andres Pastrana, and candidates running in the 2006 elections.
It remains unclear how far the interceptions campaign reached exactly. When prosecutors first searched the agency’s office, agents refused cooperation and security footage from January 2009 showed how computers and boxes had been removed from the office.
DAS spying activities abroad
The actions of DAS extended beyond Colombian borders.
The agency monitored and shadowed several human rights defenders traveling abroad to attend meetings and conferences.
In 2010, it was discovered that DAS had send agents to Belgium and Spain to spy on a judge and members of the European Parliament.
Colombian authorities refused to cooperate following the uncovering of “Operation Europe” which intended to find information to delegitimize the work of European human rights advocates that worked in Colombia.
The strategy was to discredit such entities by creating press releases, website reports and by waging legal battles against them. DAS members attended NGO seminars, workshops and forums to compile confidential reports which included photographs and films of attendees.
Evidence provided by the Prosecutor General’s Office showed that the intelligence agency spied on UN officials, including the former director of the Colombia Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michael Fruling.
Documents on the international non-governmental group Human Rights Watch were also uncovered, with detailed information on the Americas Director Josa Miguel Vivanco.
In 2008, a series of surveillance operations had reportedly been carried out to spy on Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa.
The surveillance operations was allegedly launched after the Colombian army conducted a raid on a FARC camp on Ecuadorean territory. According to Semana, members of the security agency were stationed in the Ecuadorean capital in order to intercept both landline and cellphone calls made from Correa’s office.
The US fueled $6 billion dollars into the South American country under the Uribe administration for military aid.
Former US Ambassador William Brownfield said that Washington did know have any knowledge that US-funded equipment that was used for unlawful surveillance. In 2010, the DAS funding was suspended and the funds were transferred to the National Police.
The Washington Post reported that William Romero, a former director of the Human Resource department of DAS, received CIA training and said in an interview that DAS relied on “US-supplied computers, wiretapping devices, cameras and mobile phone interception systems, as well as rent for safe houses and petty cash for gasoline.”
“We could have operated” without U.S. assistance, he told the US newspaper, “but not with the same effectiveness.”
One unit that reportedly relied heavily on US equipment was in fact the GONI unit who’s main objective was spying on Supreme Court magistrates.
Dismantling of DAS and court cases
The revelations led to the resignation of more than 33 DAS agents and more than a dozen of arrests.
Among them was Uribe’s Chief of Staff, Bernardo Moreno, who was barred from holding office and charged with conspiracy, unlawful violation of communications equipment, abuse of power and fraud.
Jorge Alberto Lagos, the former deputy director of counterintelligence was originally sentenced to 12 years in prison but received a reduced sentence after he agreed to testify. He later implicated another close aid of Uribe, Jose Obdulio Garviria, as a main promoter of the interception violations.
Fernando Tabares, another former deputy director of DAS, was also convicted for his role in the illegal wiretapping of government opponents and is serving eight years in prison.
Taberes spoke before the Supreme Court saying that he attended a meeting with then-DAS analysis chief Marta Leal and Uribe’s chief of staff in which he was told the president required intelligence regarding Supreme Court justices, congressmen, and journalists.
Uribe has not been formally charged for the DAS scandal and has continuously denied his involvement. Congress has been conducting a preliminary investigation since 2010.
Maria del Pilar Hurtado fled Colombia in November 2011 and received political asylum by the Panamian administration of Ricardo Martinelli, a personal friend of Uribe.
In 2011, President Juan Manuel Santos dissolved the DAS agency.
Former adviser looked at closely
On February 2, questions were also been raised over the involvement of the Senator of the Democratic Center party Jose Obdulio Gaviria, who was the presidential adviser to Uribe and considered the strategist behind many of his ideas.
Deputy Prosecutor General Jorge Perdomo said that the investigation, which is based on records between 2007 and 2008, “was able to establish the possible participation of Jose Obdulio Gaviria.”
Gaviria, one of Uribe’s most loyal aides, has been suspected of involvement for years, but none of the suspicions have previously led to a formal investigation.
Due to the fact that Gaviria is now a Senator, prosecutors can no longer conduct an investigation themselves and must pass the case on to the Supreme Court, the same court Uribe and Gaviria allegedly spied on.
Hurtado’s arrest and whistle blowing on Uribe’s involvement
The former director Maria del Pilar Hurtado turned herself in to authorities on January 31, 2015 at her country’s embassy in Panama where she spent more than four years seeking political asylum.
The court case against Hurtado ended at the beginning of February and she was sentenced to 14 years in prison in April. The Prosecutor General has suggested some measures to ensure Hurtado’s collaboration and perhaps gain the information they need to prosecute others involved.
The former director of DAS could receive benefits if she helps prosecutors determine whether former President Alvaro Uribe was involved in the illegal spying of the Supreme Court.
If the Prosecutor General is able to make a deal in exchange for information about the former president’s involvement, it could lead to serious charges and put Uribe’s political future in jeopardy.
In an interview with Blu Radio, the Deputy Prosecutor General said that one of the “big questions” in this research “is whether there was participation of former President Alvaro Uribe Velez.”
Prosecutor General Eduardo Montealegre ordered his group of advisers to review existing legislation to see if it would be possible to negotiate benefits with Hurtado in return for information about who else was involved.
Some of the benefits that have been suggested in exchange for her collaboration include: the chance of home detention or a more comfortable prison, access to work and study, or even a reduced sentence.
Montealegre invited the former head of the DAS to “collaborate with justice” at a press conference on Saturday and said that “there is still opportunity to initiate collaborative mechanisms.”
The aim of these collaborative measures is for Hurtado to “tell the prosecutor who gave the order for these illegal interceptions and who were the recipients within the State.”
While lower-ranked former DAS officials have indicated that the illegally obtained information on anyone who “interrupted the governance of Uribe” was meant for the former president, Hurtado has so far stayed silent on the question of whether the former president should be directly implicated.
Moreno was sentenced to eight years house arrest.
In a statement published in a series of tweets, the former president denied any allegations of spying or wiretapping.
In relation to María del Pilar Hurtado, Uribe stated that “neither she nor the Presidency, nor myself ordered illegal actions.”
Uribe went on to accuse President Juan Manual Santos of “bullying” and “an escalation of torture.”
One tweet even referred to political persecution: “The Deputy Prosecutor’s media interventions demonstrate that this is political persecution disguised as indictment.”
Far Worse than Watergate (Washington Office on Latin America)
Colombia: The dark side of Alvaro Uribe (The Washington Post)
Colombiaʼs Domestic Spying Scandal (Center for International Policy)
U.S. aid implicated in abuses of power in Colombia (The Washington Post)