Journalists who would report on the severe violence in San José de Uré, southern Córdoba, are silenced.
August 12, 2020
Journalists who would report on the severe violence in San José de Uré, southern Córdoba, are silenced.
August 12, 2020
About the dangers of practicing journalism in Sahagún, Córdoba, a town that is the birthplace of a disproportionate number of political leaders.
August 6, 2020
Colombia’s Free Press Federation (FLIP) learns that 14 more journalists were among the 130 civilians for whom military intelligence had been maintaining detailed profiles, part of a scandal known as the “Secret Folders” that broke in early May. That pushes to 52 the known number of profiled civilians who work as journalists.
June 12, 2020
May 22, 2020
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Ambassador Michael Kozak
U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg
U.S. Department of State and U.S. Embassy to Colombia, Bogota
Dear Ambassador Kozak and Ambassador Goldberg,
We write out of deep concern, which we are confident you share, regarding the revelations that Colombian Army intelligence units compiled detailed dossiers on the personal lives and activities of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, union leaders, and possible military whistleblowers. As you know, the group contained U.S. citizens, including several reporters and a Colombian senator.
This scandal is disturbing in itself and for what it says about Colombia’s inability to reform its military and intelligence services. In 1998, the 20th Military Intelligence Brigade was disbanded due to charges that it had been involved in the 1995 murder of Conservative Senator Álvaro Gómez Hurtado and his aide and, according to the 1997 State Department human rights report, targeted killings and forced disappearances. In 2011, the Administrative Security Department (DAS), Colombia’s main intelligence service, was disbanded due to the massive surveillance, as well as threats against, human rights defenders, opposition politicians, Supreme Court judges, and reporters. In 2014, Semana magazine revealed army intelligence was spying on peace accord negotiators in the so-called Operation Andromeda. In 2019, Semana exposed another surveillance campaign using “Invisible Man” and “Stingray” equipment against Supreme Court justices, opposition politicians, and U.S. and Colombian reporters, including its own journalists. In March 2020, a Twitter list compiled by the Colombian army identified the accounts of journalists, human rights advocates, and Colombia’s Truth Commission and Special Jurisdiction for Peace as “opposition” accounts.
The surveillance is far worse than a massive invasion of privacy. The targeting of political opposition, judicial personnel, human rights defenders, and journalists leads to threats, attacks, and killings. For example, during the 2019 surveillance operation, Semana reporters and their family members received funeral wreaths, prayer cards, and a tombstone. This surveillance and targeting has a chilling effect on the very people and institutions needed to maintain a vibrant democracy. It means that no amount of government protection programs can stop the targeted killing of human rights defenders and social leaders. The persistence of this kind of surveillance suggests that an important segment of Colombia’s military and intelligence services – and of the political class – fail to appreciate the fundamental role of a free press, human rights and other civil society organizations, and peaceful dissent in any vibrant democracy.
We are also deeply concerned to hear that some U.S. intelligence equipment may have been used for these illegal efforts. Semana “confirmed with U.S. embassy sources that the Americans recovered from several military units the tactical monitoring and location equipment that it had lent them.”
As we review this latest manifestation of Colombia’s deeply rooted problem of identifying as enemies and persecuting those who wish to defend human rights, uphold justice, and report the truth, we ask ourselves: What can ensure that this never happens again?
At a minimum, we recommend that the U.S. government:
If the nation is to realize the vision of so many Colombians to create a truly “post-conflict” society with shared prosperity under the rule of law, then intelligence targeting and surveillance of democratic actors must finally end. Thank you for your efforts to ensure Colombia turns the page for once and for all on these deadly, illegal, and anti-democratic activities.
Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL)
Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America
Colombia Grassroots Support, New Jersey
Colombia Human Rights Committee, Washington DC
Colombian Studies Group, Graduate Center – College University of New York
Colombian Studies Group, The New School
International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights
Latin America Working Group (LAWG)
Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA)
Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
School of the Americas Watch
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective
May 26, 2020
On May 19 WOLA hosted a 2-hour discussion of new revelations that Colombian Army intelligence had been spying on journalists, judges, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, and other military officers. The nine speakers included several victims of the spying and some U.S.-based analysts.
The discussion’s video feed is below. The first is presented in the languages the speakers used, and the second is dubbed with a full English translation.
May 23, 2020
A discussion of new revelations that Colombian Army intelligence has been spying on journalists, judges, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, and other officers, with several victims of the spying and some U.S.-based analysts.
May 19, 2020
Cross-posted from WOLA’s website. RSVP for the online event there.
Join the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective (WFP), the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), the International Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights, the Colombia Human Rights Committee, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), and Amnesty International USA for an online forum.
On May 1, 2020, the Colombian weekly news magazine Semana revealed that Colombian military intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance on more than 130 individuals between February and December 2019. Among those targeted were human rights defenders, Colombian and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and members of the military. Several were targeted for reporting, documenting, or representing families of victims of extrajudicial killings, and for bringing to light other grave abuses.
This illegal espionage is not a new phenomenon. In 2011, Colombia’s former intelligence agency, the Administrative Security Directorate (DAS), was dismantled after revelations in 2009 that it was illegally wiretapping and monitoring the activities of civil society leaders, judges, and politicians. The recent revelations by Semana raise the question: why is this a recurring problem in Colombia, and what needs to happen to secure accountability and at last bring about much-needed reforms to Colombian army intelligence and military doctrine?
Journalists, human rights defenders, and military whistleblowers are carrying out crucial work to advance peace and uphold democratic practices amid a fragile security situation in post-conflict Colombia. When units in the military criminalize this work, it undermines efforts to build a more peaceful, democratic Colombia. What should be done to guarantee the end to illicit surveillance of social leaders? What role can the U.S. government play in achieving accountability, given its status as Colombia’s top military donor and trainer? How can the Organization of American States and the United Nations guarantee protection, justice, and non-repetition of such crimes? What are the implications of these revelations for Colombia’s 2016 peace accord?
To help answer these questions, we invite you to join us for a webinar with individuals targeted by this illegal surveillance and with Colombia human rights experts.
Tuesday, May 19, 2020
1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. GMT-4 (Washington, D.C.)
12:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. GMT-5 (Bogotá, Colombia)
Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace
WOLA Human Rights Award Winner 2015
Land rights leader
José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCA-JAR)
Senator, Senate of the Republic of Colombia
Colombia-based journalist for NPR and WSJ
Photojournalist, VELA Collective
Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
Executive Director, Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL)
Executive Director, Latin America Working Group (LAWG)
Director for the Andes, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
Simultaneous interpretation into English and Spanish will be available.
Instructions for webinar access will be emailed to registered participants.
May 17, 2020
An analysis of the possible beneficiaries of Colombian Army intelligence units’ illegal surveillance of journalists, politicians, rights defenders, and other officers.
May 9, 2020
An overview of a year of human rights scandals in the Colombian Army’s intelligence apparatus.
May 7, 2020
Semana, a Colombian newsmagazine that often exposes human rights wrongdoing in Colombia’s armed forces, published another scoop on May 1, 2020. Army intelligence units, it found, had been developing detailed dossiers on the personal lives of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, and possible military whistleblowers. The list of targets includes U.S. citizens who work in Colombia as reporters for major media outlets.
This is the latest of a long series of scandals involving illegal wiretapping, hacking, surveillance, or threats from Colombia’s powerful, U.S.-backed security and intelligence forces. Though Colombia has taken modest steps toward accountability over its military, the Semana revelations show us how fragile and reversible this progress is.
The purpose of intelligence should be to foresee and help prevent threats to law-abiding people and their freedoms. In a country where a social leader is murdered every other day, such threats abound. For scarce intelligence resources to be diverted away from those threats, and channeled instead to illegal and politicized ends, is a betrayal of public trust and an attack on Colombian democracy.
Preventing a further repetition of these intelligence abuses will require Colombia’s government to take bold steps. These include holding those responsible, at the highest levels, swiftly and transparently accountable for their crimes. Because U.S. assistance may be implicated in, or at least adjacent to, the military intelligence units’ actions, how Colombia responds must have giant implications for the integrity of the bilateral relationship and the ostensible purposes of U.S. aid. Any indication that these crimes may once again end up in impunity must trigger a cutoff of U.S. aid to the units involved.
What we know about the latest revelations comes mainly from Semana and other Colombian media. We lay it out in the following narrative.
Unauthorized wiretapping scandals recur with numbing regularity in Colombia. In 2009, Semana—which tends to reveal most of these misdeeds—uncovered massive surveillance and threats against opposition politicians, judicial personnel, reporters, and human rights defenders. These were carried out by an intelligence body, the Administrative Security Department (DAS), that reported directly to President Álvaro Uribe. The DAS had already run into trouble earlier in Uribe’s government (2002-2010) for collaborating with paramilitary groups on selective killings. As a result of the 2009 scandal, the DAS was abolished in 2011.
In 2013 Colombia passed a landmark intelligence law prohibiting warrantless surveillance or intercepts, and put strong limits on judges issuing warrants against people who were not organized criminals, drug traffickers, or terrorists. The law created a congressional oversight body that has been largely inactive, while a commission to purge intelligence files issued a report that was not acted upon.
By 2014, army intelligence was at it again. Semana revealed the existence of a hacking operation, “Andromeda,” working out of what looked like a restaurant in western Bogotá. Its targets included government negotiators participating at the time in peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. Since then, efforts to hold accountable those responsible for Operation Andromeda have shown “no results to date,” according to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
President Juan Manuel Santos’s second term (2014-2018), marked by the conclusion of a peace accord with the FARC, was a quieter period for military human rights scandals. A moderate, and moderately reformist, high command implemented doctrinal changes and supported the peace process, while human rights groups documented fewer extrajudicial executions committed directly by the armed forces.
Progress reversed sharply in 2019. The high command that new President Iván Duque put into place, including Army Chief Gen. Nicacio Martínez, fell under criticism from human rights groups for their past proximity to “false positive” extrajudicial killings a decade earlier. Colombian media began gathering reports about increased abuses, and abusive behavior, at the hands of military personnel. Semana revealed that in a January meeting Gen. Diego Luis Villegas, the chief of the military’s “Vulcan Task Force” and now head of the army’s “Transformations Command,” said, “The army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over.… If we need to carry out hits, we’ll be hitmen, and if the problem is money, then there’s money for that.”
In April, troops in Gen. Villegas’s task force killed a former FARC guerrilla in northeast Colombia’s volatile Catatumbo region. Semana reported later in the year that a colonel had told his subordinates that he wanted Dimar Torres dead. (Gen. Villegas apologized publicly for the killing, and the colonel is detained awaiting trial.)
In May 2019, the New York Times ran with a story that Semana had been sitting on: army chief Gen. Martínez and his commanders were reviving “body counts” as a principal measure of commanders’ effectiveness. Rather than measure territorial security or governance, army brass decided to require unit commanders to sign forms committing themselves to a doubling of “afectaciones”—armed-group members killed or captured—in their areas of operations. This raised concerns about creating incentives for “false positives”: killings of innocent civilians in order to pass them off as combatants to pad body counts, as happened thousands of times in the 2000s.
Whistleblowers within the military were the main sources for the Times story. Rather than upholding those whistleblowers and rethinking “body counts,” the high command launched a campaign to root out officers who talked to the media, including New York Times reporter Nicholas Casey. In what Semana revealed in July and called “Operación Silencio,” counterintelligence officers began interrogating and polygraphing army colleagues suspected of snitching. (We would learn in May 2020 what the army was doing at the time about Nicholas Casey.)
The second half of 2019 had more bumps for the army. Semana revealed corruption scandals, including selling permits to carry weapons and misuse of funds meant for fuel and other needs. These led to the firing of five army generals, including Gen. Martínez’s second in command. In November, the civilian defense minister, Guillermo Botero, was forced to resign amid allegations of a cover-up of an August bombing raid on a rearmed FARC dissident encampment, which killed eight children.
After a stormy year-long tenure, Gen. Nicacio Martínez, the army commander, abruptly resigned on December 26, 2019. (The General told El Tiempo that he discussed his exit with his family on December 8, notified President Iván Duque the next day, and was out 17 days later.) On January 13, 2020, Semana published a bombshell cover story on what it called “the real reasons that caused the government to retire the army commander.”
May 7, 2020
This is an English translation of a statement signed by the U.S. and European human rights and humanitarian aid organizations whose logos appear above. (PDF en español)
The international civil society organizations that sign this communiqué express their solidarity with the more than 130 people, including journalists, members of political parties, NGOs defending human rights, and trade unionists who, according to Semana magazine investigations, have been victims of a new episode of illegal interceptions, through the implementation of a computer monitoring program, executed by several units of the national Army. These intercepts, which include even high officials of Iván Duque’s government, call into question the guarantees of constitutional and democratic principles in Colombia.
The results of this journalistic investigation are worrying: the surveillance took place in response to the publications, by the New York Times in early 2019 on the return of extrajudicial executions, and the investigation by La Liga Contra el Silencio and Rutas del Conflicto in July 2019 about agreements between extractive companies and the Ministry of Defense.
Freedom of expression is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, in Colombia it is a constitutional right (article 20) and it is essential, as stated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in its chapter VIII, for the development of democracy and for the full exercise of human rights.
As highlighted by the Office in Colombia of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, state intelligence systems should be used for the protection of human rights, and not to violate them. In this sense, we urge the Colombian State to take concrete measures to regulate these intelligence systems .
It is urgent that the Colombian State, in an exercise of transparency with the Colombian people and with the international community, carry out the pertinent investigations to clarify the origin of these actions and bring to the competent authorities those responsible for this very serious aggression against the work of human rights defense, freedom of the press, and guarantees to the political opposition in Colombia.
The Colombian State must, likewise, provide sufficient guarantees for life and integrity and the right to defense of individuals and organizations defending human rights in general and in particular of those who have been exposed with this illegal practice.
As international civil society organizations, we warn of the high risk of the sustainability of the peace process in Colombia, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with this type of persecution of the political opposition, added to the increase in murders of human rights defenders and ex-combatants from the Farc, which so far in 2020 already number more than 100, according to the records of Indepaz.
Bogotá, May 6, 2000
May 7, 2020
An encounter between the chief of Colombia’s armed forces and journalists for whom the Army built a dossier of personal information.
May 4, 2020
An encounter between the chief of Colombia’s armed forces and a U.S. journalist for whom the Army built a dossier of personal information.
May 4, 2020
An analysis of the latest intelligence abuse scandal in the Colombian Army, revealed by Semana on May 1.
May 4, 2020
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.
May 4, 2020
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
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.
May 1, 2020
Semana provides new evidence behind January 2020 revelations that Army intelligence has been carrying out illegal surveillance of reporters, NGOs, politicians, and other civilians.
May 1, 2020
A virtual museum exhibit about past struggles of the free press in Colombia. With initial features on Arauca, Caquetá, and Córdoba.
April 21, 2020
March 10, 2020
Profiles of brave Colombian journalists and the threats and attacks they face in the exercise of their profession.
February 10, 2020
A review of the state of press freedom in Colombia, produced to coincide with the latest annual report of the Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa.
February 9, 2020
An annual report on the state of press freedom in Colombia by the Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa.
February 8, 2020
Reporters who broke some of Semana’s big recent stories about human rights abuse and corruption in Colombia’s Army tell of terrifying threats, surveillance, and communications intercepts.
January 18, 2020