In an investigation published on May 1, Colombian weekly news magazine Semana reported that between February and December 2019, Colombian army intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance of more than 130 individuals, including human rights defenders, national and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and other members of the military.
Among those who were illegally monitored are veteran U.S. journalists, as well as partners of WOLA like rural land reform advocate César Jerez, indigenous leader Senator Feliciano Valencia, and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), a non-governmental organization that has represented families of victims illegally killed by members of the military.
The report adds more detail to a previous Semana investigation that revealed a military intelligence unit was illegally wiretapping journalists, politicians, and others, including members of the Supreme Court. Since the new report’s publication on Friday, 11 military officials have been dismissed or resigned. The Attorney General’s Office said it is investigating Gen. Nicacio Martínez, who headed the army at the time; the Inspector General’s Office is also opening an investigation.
Colombia should be devoting its intelligence resources to investigating organized crime networks and establishing a state presence in territories still essentially controlled by armed groups. Intelligence should also be used when appropriate to support investigations by the Attorney General’s Office into the killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. Instead, what the Semana reports reveal is that military intelligence is targeting reformers and the free press. The perversity of this can’t be understated.
Colombia previously lived through a major illegal wiretapping scandal in 2009, involving the now-dissolved Administrative Security Directorate (DAS). In 2014, an army intelligence unit was discovered, also by Semana, to have been hacking the communications of government peace negotiators taking part in talks with the FARC.
In order to send the message that these types of anti-democratic activities are unacceptable and will not be tolerated, it is essential that both the civilian Attorney General’s Office and Inspector General’s Office conduct thorough and independent investigations, resulting in appropriate sanctions and disciplinary procedures against those who ordered the illegal monitoring. A further purging of state intelligence units may be necessary to guarantee that history will not repeat itself again. Additionally, in order to send a message that the state is taking transparency concerns seriously, authorities should declassify and release all information illegally obtained about human rights defenders.
While important security gains were made under the 2016 peace accord, the Colombian army is currently facing significant challenges, due in part to the Duque administration’s resistance to fully implementing the accord, the lack of a negotiations process with rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), and an ongoing struggle to confront paramilitary successor groups. As many as 15,000 people are in more than 20 rapidly growing armed groups across the country. Colombia’s budget crunch has left the armed forces with only 15 out of 42 Black Hawk helicopters in good operating conditions. The army should not be spending scarce resources on compiling intelligence dossiers on the phone numbers, vehicles, and even the voting sites used by journalists.
Troublingly, the Semana investigation notes that Colombian army cyber-intelligence battalions have received about US$400,000 from “a foreign intelligence agency.” A military source told the magazine, “The Americans aren’t going to be happy that part of their own money, from their taxpayers as they say, has been diverted from legitimate missions like the fight against terrorism and narcotrafficking, and ending up used to dig up dirt on the lives of reporters from important media outlets in their own country.”
That U.S. assistance may be even tangentially related to this military activity is extremely alarming. These revelations, which cap a year of human rights and corruption scandals in the army, demand a thorough reappraisal of U.S. military assistance to Colombia, with full participation of congressional oversight personnel. Congress should move to freeze U.S. military aid to Colombia at the first indication that the Colombian army is pushing to have this behavior tried in the military court system, failing to cooperate with civilian investigators, using delaying tactics, or otherwise stonewalling efforts to hold accountable those responsible.
Journalists, human rights defenders and military whistleblowers should not be treated as “internal enemies.” These advocates are doing important and valid work to advance peace and uphold democratic practices, at a crucial moment for Colombia’s security. The military should recognize this work as legal and legitimate, and as essential for helping the armed forces do its job better, at a time when it risks being hobbled by corruption and poor leadership.
New revelations of illegal activity by Colombian Army intelligence. The magazine exposes some of the contents of 130 profiles that Army spies built on reporters, politicians, human rights defenders, and even fellow officers.
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 Journalreports 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 tellsEl 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.”
Citing their vulnerability to COVID-19 while imprisoned, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) orders house arrest for 25 people accused of committing war crimes while serving in the security forces. On April 22, the JEP’s Legal Situations Chamber denied release to two former senior officers, Colonels Joaquín Correa López y Jorge Eliécer Plazas Acevedo, both over 60 years old. The JEP mandated that they be granted humanitarian protective measures while detained.
On February 25 the Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its annual report on the human rights situation in Colombia. It is a very useful document, full of hard-to-obtain statistics. It also makes some reasoned, high-credibility judgments about controversial topics like implementation of the peace accord and government efforts to protect threatened social leaders.
The Colombian Government didn’t like the report. President Iván Duque criticized “imprecisions” and “not telling the truth” about the government’s performance in implementing the FARC peace accord’s rural provisions, adding that the report’s recommendation that the National Police pass from the Defense Ministry to the Interior Ministry was an “infringement of sovereignty.” High Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, who is charged with implementing many peace accord commitments, said “I have no problem with being told that things are being done badly, but blunders [chambonadas] like this don’t lead to anything.”
This is not the first time that Colombia’s government and the OHCHR have had public disagreements since the office’s establishment in 1996. This won’t be the last time, either. The Office’s injection of inconvenient facts and perspectives into the high-level debate shows why its continued presence in Colombia, with a strong mandate, is so important.
Here are some highlights from the report:
On attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders
In 2019, OHCHR documented 108 killings of human rights defenders, including 15 women and two LGBTI defenders.
The Timely Action Plan initiated by the Ministry of Interior in December 2018 was developed to improve such coordination. To increase the effectiveness of this Plan, broader and more sustained participation of regional authorities and civil society should be prioritized.
Killings of women human rights defenders increased by almost 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2018.
Of the 108 killings documented by OHCHR, 75 per cent occurred in rural areas; 86 per cent in municipalities with a multidimensional poverty index above the national average; 91 per cent in municipalities where the homicide rate indicates the existence of endemic violence; and 98 per cent in municipalities with the presence of illicit economies and ELN, other violent groups and criminal groups. Fifty-five per cent of these cases occurred in four departments: Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca and Caquetá. The sectors most affected continued to be those defending the rights of communities and ethnic groups, amounting to 65 per cent of all killings and sustaining a trend documented by OHCHR since 2016.
OHCHR continued to document attacks against representatives of Community Action Councils (JACs). 16 Especially in rural areas, JACs serve as the main body for communities’ political participation and the promotion of development and human rights initiatives. While noting a significant reduction from 2018, when it verified 46 cases, OHCHR documented 30 killings of representatives of JACs in 2019.
On the government’s response to these attacks
OHCHR appreciated the efforts of the Office of the Attorney General to investigate the cases it reported and noted some progress in 55 per cent of these cases, all of which occurred between 2016 and 2019. However, challenges persisted in the prosecution of intellectual authors of attacks against human rights defenders. The accused had been convicted in 16 per cent of the cases; 20 per cent were at trial stage; indictments had been issued in 7 per cent of cases; and a valid arrest warrant had been delivered in 11 per cent of cases.
The National Commission on Security Guarantees should be more regularly convened in order to fulfill its full role pursuant to the Peace Agreement, particularly concerning the dismantlement of criminal groups that succeeded the paramilitary organizations and were often responsible for killings of human rights defenders.
The Intersectoral Commission for Rapid Response to Early Warnings (CIPRAT) should sharpen its focus on human rights defenders, especially by defining coordinated and concrete measures to implement actions based on recommendations of the Ombudsman’s early warning system.
The Ministry of Interior’s National Protection Unit (UNP) made significant efforts to respond to the extraordinarily high demand for individual protection measures. Still, measures granted were not always adequate for the rural contexts in which most human rights defenders were killed. In 2019, six human rights defenders were killed in rural areas of Cauca, Chocó, Nariño and Risaralda despite protection measures. Prevention and early warning should be prioritized over temporary, individual and reactive protection measures, which do not address the structural causes behind the attacks.
OHCHR highlights the need to increase collective protection measures. Such measures constitute a prevention mechanism, inasmuch as they seek to address risks faced by communities and organizations through the coordination of different authorities to advance human rights guarantees. Whereas the 2019 budget for collective protection measures represented merely 0.22 per cent of the budget of UNP, the implementation of collective protection measures was often hampered by coordination issues between national, departmental and municipal institutions.
On the military and human rights
OHCHR documented 15 cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life in Antioquia, Arauca, Bogotá, Cauca, Guaviare, Meta, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Santander and Valle del Cauca. This was the highest number of such cases OHCHR recorded since 2016. In 13 cases, the deaths appeared to have been caused by unnecessary and/or disproportionate use of force. According to information documented by OHCHR, in 11 cases the deaths occurred in military operations related to public security involving anti-narcotics and law enforcement activities. In six cases, the deaths were preceded by law enforcement activities that potentially could have allowed for the arrest of the suspects and thus avoided their killing. In one case, OHCHR observed that weak command and control appeared to result in the killing and attempted enforced disappearance of one person. The military was allegedly responsible in 10 cases and the police in four, while there was alleged joint responsibility for one killing. In all 15 cases, the Office of the Attorney General initiated investigations, but these did not appear to follow the Minnesota Protocol.
OHCHR documented cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life by members of the military and police. In following up on these cases, OHCHR was concerned that the military criminal justice system continued to request jurisdiction over such investigations. In some instances, the Office of the Attorney General even referred cases to the military justice system. In the case of El Tandil, Nariño, the Office of the Attorney General did not take the necessary actions to retain the case within its jurisdiction.
On blurring the lines between military and police
OHCHR observed an increased resort to the military to respond to situations of violence and insecurity. Despite existing protocols, norms and public policies regulating the participation of the military in situations related to public security, these were not fully applied in a range of settings, such as in rural areas in Arauca, Antioquia, Caquetá, Cauca, Córdoba, Cesar, Chocó, Meta, Nariño and Norte de Santander. Nor were they fully applied in urban centres, such as Convención, Medellín, Santa Marta and Valledupar, where the military conducted anti-narcotics operations and other law enforcement activities. Military training, equipment and the nature of military duties are inappropriate in such circumstances. According to police statistics, homicides increased in municipalities in Arauca, Norte de Cauca, Catatumbo and Sur de Córdoba, despite an increased military presence.
On 15 September, the General Command of the Colombian Armed Forces’ announcement establishing anti-riot squads composed of professional soldiers raised questions concerning Colombia’s respect for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ guidance related to the responsibility of the police, rather than the military, to maintain public order.
In line with the need to strengthen the police’s institutional capacity, OHCHR recommends transferring oversight of the police to the Ministry of Interior.
On “stabilization” and establishing state presence in ungoverned territories
Efforts to establish a comprehensive State presence, particularly of civilian authorities, including the Office of the Attorney General and the police have been insufficient, especially in rural areas. The five Strategic Zones for Comprehensive Intervention established by the Government through Decree 2278 of 2019 were created to address this vacuum. However, OHCHR observed that State presence in these areas has remained predominantly military and that the pace of establishing a stronger presence of civilian authorities was slow.
The Office of the Attorney General is present in almost half of Colombia’s municipalities. Nevertheless, it continued to face difficulties to reach rural areas, especially in Antioquia, Arauca, Amazonas, Caquetá, Cauca, Chocó, Guaviare, Huila, Meta, Nariño and Vaupés, greatly affecting its capacity to guarantee access to justice for all.
In 2018, 16 PDETs were formulated with high levels of community participation, including indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian communities. While this generated significant hope for the effective implementation of PDETs, during the reporting period, OHCHR observed few advances and minimal coordination with other relevant programmes, such as the Collective Reparation Plan contained in the Victims and Land Restitution Law and the Comprehensive National Programme for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS).
[T]he Comprehensive Rural Reform should be supported by an adequate budget to fully implement all of the plans, entities and mechanisms established in the Peace Agreement, rather than a limited focus on PDETs. However, the 2020 budget was reduced for all the institutions responsible for implementing the Comprehensive Rural Reform.
On illicit crop eradication and substitution
Police continued to recruit civilians to eradicate illicit crops. This practice exposes civilians to loss of life or injury due to the presence of anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance among the crops. Between January and November, 24 civilians and 8 antinarcotics police officers were affected by such devices in Tumaco, Nariño, while eradicating illicit crops.
OHCHR highlights the recent determination, in a joint report by the Government and United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), that 95 per cent of families participating in PNIS fulfilled the voluntary eradication requirement, whereas 0.4 per cent returned to the cultivation of illicit crops.
JEP personnel investigating “false positive” killings have extracted about 54 bodies of possible Army victims from a mass grave in the town cemetery of Dabeiba, Antioquia. In this historically conflictive municipality, the practice of killing civilians and claiming them as combat deaths may have gone on for 25 years. Victims have had little or no recourse until the JEP’s effort began.
Forensic investigators from the Special Jurisdiction for Peace at a mass grave in the town cemetery of Dabeiba, Antioquia, where they have uncovered more than 50 bodies. Many are believed to be victims of Army killings.
Gen. Mario Montoya, who headed Colombia’s army between 2006 and 2008, testifies for two days before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). At least 41 victims are in attendance, others gather outside to protest.
The JEP is holding hearings for its “macro-case” about so-called “false positive” killings, in which military personnel murdered thousands of civilians and claimed them later as combat kills. Eleven military witnesses have signaled Gen. Montoya as playing a key role in creating the incentives for these killings.
The law governing the JEP dictates that when a person has been implicated by a report or testimony, the JEP will give that person the opportunity to give his or her version of what happened. At that opportunity, the person may recognize or deny the allegations.
In 40 minutes of comments, Gen. Montoya denies any responsibility for the “false positives,” and invokes his “right to remain silent,” responding vaguely to magistrates’ questions.
Gen. Montoya’s silence causes an outcry among victims. They particularly object to Montoya’s response when magistrates ask him how to prevent “false positive” killings in the future. Montoya reportedly replied by citing most soldiers’ low social class origins. “We have to teach them how to use the bathroom, how to use silverware, so it’s not easy.”
On February 18, active-duty Col. Álvaro Amórtuegi tellsCaracol Noticias that in 2001, Montoya had ordered him to kill some people captured by paramilitaries, adding that he would send him some armbands with which to pass them off as guerrillas. When he refused, the colonel alleges that Montoya replied, “You’re a coward, you disgust me and I spit on your boots… If you’re afraid, go kill an idiot or a crazy person, or take them from the morgue.”
Some victims’ groups call on the JEP to expel Gen. Montoya for his non-cooperation, which would send his case to the regular criminal justice system.
In a blockbuster scoop, the Colombian newsmagazine reveals that Army intelligence units have been hacking the communications of, following, and even threatening, Supreme Court justices, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, military whistleblowers—and even Semana’s own reporters.
A cover story in the Colombian weekly Semana reveals that Army intelligence units have been illegally intercepting the communications of, following, and threatening high-court judges, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, and journalists—including Semana reporters investigating military human rights and corruption allegations. Those being followed and intimidated include Army officers who had been providing information to investigators about these allegations.
The magazine speculates that revelations about the illegal intelligence operation—the product of a dramatic judicial police raid on Army intelligence facilities in mid-December—forced the late-December exit of the Army’s chief, Gen. Nicacio Martínez. Gen. Martínez denies that he retired for this reason, blaming “retaliation” from elsewhere in the army “for denouncing and preventing corrupt acts.”
Semana hints that Army personnel were passing information from intercepted communications to a legislator in the government’s party, the Democratic Center. Much speculation centers on Senator Álvaro Uribe, who was embroiled in a wiretapping scandal during the latter years of his 2002-2010 presidency. One of those being wiretapped is a Supreme Court justice in charge of a case against the former president, who is under investigation for witness tampering.
Supreme Court President Álvaro García calls for a special investigation.
The Inter-American Human Rights Commission expresses “deep concern” about the revelations.
Visiting Bojayá, Chocó, President Duque promises to increase military presence and social investment in the battered municipality.
That day, Bojayá social leader Leyner Palacios, who had met with President Duque three days before, receives a truculent letter from the commander of the Titan Joint Task Force, a Chocó-based military unit. Palacios had denounced episodes of collusion between members of the security forces and Gulf Clan paramilitaries. In what he calls a “freedom of information request,” Commander Darío Fernando Cardona Castrillón asks Palacios to provide “names or surnames of the security-force members, and the place and date during which such illegal acts were committed, so that respective investigations may be initiated.”