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.
Main wiretapping targets
Human Rights defenders, NGOs
The DAS illegal wiretapping methods first surfaced in 2008 after then-Senator Gustavo Petro, received intelligence documents proving he had been shadowed and wiretapped.
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.
- Far Worse than Watergate (Washington Office on Latin America)
- Colombia: The dark side of Alvaro Uribe (The Washington Post)
- Colombian intelligence agency scandal (Semana)
- Colombia ex-spy chief Hurtado granted Panama asylum (BBC)
- Colombiaʼs Domestic Spying Scandal (Center for International Policy)
- U.S. aid implicated in abuses of power in Colombia (The Washington Post)