The Colombian newsmagazine Semana, which has revealed several examples of corruption or human rights abuse in the armed forces over the past year, publishes a new cover story revealing that Army intelligence units, in 2019, assembled at least 130 dossiers of information profiling journalists (including U.S. reporters in Colombia), opposition politicians, judges, human rights defenders, union leaders, and even other military officers and President Iván Duque’s own chief of staff. Semana alleges that military cyber-intelligence units may have misused, through corruption, some of approximately US$400,000 per year in assistance from “a foreign intelligence agency.” An unnamed military source says, and the article largely concludes, that an illegal espionage effort of this scale would have had to been ordered by top military commanders. These commanders include Army chief Gen. Nicacio Martínez, who retired in December 2019 shortly before Semana revealed an earlier, related intelligence scandal.
Less than 24 hours before Semana’s revelations become public, the Defense Ministry fires 11 senior officers, including several with direct involvement in the intelligence scandal. The 11 include Gen. Eduardo Quirós, who already stood accused of a role in 2019 communications intercepts and surveillance of journalists that Semana had revealed in January. Another general retires: Gen. Gonzalo Ernesto García Luna, who had headed the Joint Department of Intelligence and Counterintelligence but had not faced accusations before.
On May 2 President Iván Duque tweets, “I won’t tolerate those who dishonor the uniform or carry out practices contrary to the law. I’ve asked Carlos Holmes Trujillo, since he arrived at the Defense Ministry, to carry out a rigorous investigation of the past 10 years’ intelligence efforts.”
On May 3 Colombia recalls the military attaché from its embassy to the United States, Col. Juan Esteban Zapata. He forced into retirement due to his alleged role in illegal spying on civilians when he headed the Army’s 1st Military Intelligence Brigade.
The U.S. embassy in Colombia states that it is “deeply concerned about allegations in media reports of illegal activity within the Colombian armed forces and about any possible misuse of U.S. assistance,” the Wall Street Journal reports on May 3. The Journal is unable to get a comment from U.S. Southern Command, which works most closely with Colombia’s army. “The use of U.S. aid to spy on opposition politicians, journalists and social activists would be a flagrant violation of the purposes for which the aid was provided and an abuse of government power,” says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
In a May 3 statement, the Bogotá office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights “acknowledges the measures adopted” in response to the revelations, like the firing of 11 officers, “and reiterates the urgent need to undertake additional actions to prevent the repetition of such events.”
In a May 3 statement, a long list of journalists subject to the military spying demand answers to several questions about what was done to them.
On May 4 the government withdraws the assignment of retired Gen. Nicacio Martínez, who headed the Army in 2019 during the scandal, to be the military attaché in Colombia’s embassy in Belgium, and thus the country’s military representative to NATO. Gen. Martínez tells El Tiempo that he is “the victim” of “a defamatory campaign against me” carried out by “a group of people, there must be economic and political interests who want to take command or want other people to be in command of the Army.”
In a May 4 statement, the Truth Commission calls on the Defense Minister to turn over documents related to the Army’s illicit spying.
On May 6, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo tells a Senate committee, “we reject any illegal action against opposition leaders and journalists.” He adds that 24 commanders of intelligence and counter-intelligence units have been changed in recent months.
On May 6, three senators subjected to the spying, Antonio Sanguino, Roy Barreras, and Iván Cepeda, send a letter to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission denouncing the Army’s actions and demanding a public list of all who had dossiers compiled about them.
In a May 8 editorial, the New York Times strongly objects to the Colombian Army’s espionage against Casey, its reporter. It adds, “Colombia needs to address not just malfeasance in its military when it is exposed by the press, but also the culture of abuse and the sense of being above the law that continue to infect the army. It makes little sense to denounce human-rights violations and at the same time appoint an officer with General Martínez Espinel’s history to lead the army.”
May 1, 2020