Feb 26

Constitutional Court President Mauricio Gonzalez Cuervo announces its 7-2 decision: the constitutional reform referendum bill was unconstitutional because of the way it was approved. President Álvaro Uribe cannot run for a third term on May 30.

President Uribe accepts the court’s decision.

This is a very good step for Colombia. Its institutions, especially the balance between democratic powers, showed real strength today. Mature and stable democracies do not change their constitutions to benefit one individual, no matter how popular. Colombia is to be congratulated.

The court’s decision is also good news for the Obama administration, which certainly had no desire to work with an “ally” governed by a third-term president who proved unable to leave power voluntarily.

Jan 20

With legislative elections scheduled for March 14 and presidential elections slated for May 30, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe is running out of time to change Colombia’s constitution and run for a third consecutive term in office.

The timetable is tight, but not impossible, Colombia’s Semana magazine explains.

Starting last week, when Inspector-General (Procurador) Alejandro Ordóñez submitted to the Constitutional Court his finding in favor of the referendum, the time period of 30 workdays began for Magistrate Humberto Sierra Porto to submit to the full tribunal his finding about its constitutionality. After these 30 days, which would end on February 22, the Constitutional Court’s nine magistrates could take another 60 to make their definitive decision. If this is positive, and Registrar Carlos Ariel Sánchez takes the full three months that he originally announced that organizing the referendum vote would require, the voting could take place in mid-August, by which time Álvaro Uribe would have no possibility of running for his second re-election.

But these procedures’ speed still breathes life into the possibility that the referendum could be approved and the President might run without having to change the electoral calendar. [Colombia's media is abuzz with speculation that pro-Uribe legislators might take the drastic step of trying to delay Colombia's election day.] These are the counts made in the majority of the political world’s circles: if Magistrate Sierra Porto presents his finding to the court’s full chamber in less than 20 days, as several sources in the high tribunal attest, the court could be issuing its finding by the end of February.

Then the ball would be in the hands of Registrar Sánchez, who over the past few months has been reducing the time he says he needs to arrange the referendum vote logistics. While in the middle of last year he told Semana he needed four months, in August he spoke of three and in November of two. As a result, and recalling his frequent changes of opinion, it would not be odd for Sánchez to accept that the referendum be voted a day before the legislative elections scheduled for March 14, using the same infrastructure for both votes. In theory, this would not require seeking a new list of guarantors, setting up new ballots, or organizing new voting precincts. In this case, the elections could be organized in less than two months.

However Sánchez, the registrar, said Monday that he would still need two months to organize the referendum vote. He cited “logistical and legal terms that would mean at least two months,” as well as contracting procedures. According to Semana magazine’s shortest timeline, that would place the referendum in mid-April, a mere month and a half before the presidential election in which Uribe might or might not be a candidate.

Oct 06

… of Colombians think that Álvaro Uribe is the only human being capable of governing Colombia, according to a poll featured in this week’s Semana magazine. This is equal to the percentage that believe someone else could do the job. The poll is full of good news for Colombia’s president as he edges ever closer to seeking a third term.

Sep 07

Colombia’s media over the past few days are full of elite, “respectable” opinion writers using some unusually dire language to describe the state of their country’s democracy. The cause, of course, is last week’s bare-majority vote in Colombia’s Congress allowing a referendum to let President Álvaro Uribe run for a third term.

Some examples follow.

The future dynamic appears to be one of the enthronement of a plebiscitary democracy without counterweights. The political-institutional cost of this phenomenon could be incalculable. …

What I still cannot understand is the President’s attitude. That of submitting the country to this exhausting and disconcerting process and that of castrating any possibility of democratic alteration in power. That of not having sown, after seven years, the continuity of his ideas through so many uribista leaders willing to take his place. That of thinking himself, in the end, indispensable and irreplaceable.

This reveals an egoism that could devolve into a caudillismo that is indigestible and, in the long term, damaging to the country. What Uribe is proposing, without saying it (because he doesn’t speak of such issues) is that in today’s world things are different, and we must overcome all of these democratic scruples, all of this legal formalism and all of this institutional tradition in order to consolidate the politically correct ideas that he embodies.

A conviction that is no doubt sincere. Just as those of Chávez, Evo or Correa might be in their governing platforms. …

I esteem and respect President Uribe and I admire his capacity for work and leadership, which few Colombian presidents have shown. I supported his first reelection, but today it gives me the shivers to think that he believes that two were not enough and that he is seeking, at any price, a third term.

- Enrique Santos Calderón, co-director of El Tiempo and brother of Vice-President Francisco Santos, writing in El Tiempo.

This is not the moment to be complacent about Colombian democracy, nor with the will of the majority. It is time to pass from yellow to red alert. The government and its congressional supporters possess absolute power, and they have demonstrated that they will not be detained by legal or regulatory barriers, nor will they respect the Constitution. It must not be forgotten that the majority of coups d’etat have been directed by charismatic leaders – prominently that of Hitler in 1933 – … and that they are carried out with the collaboration or complicity of legislators who are captive, attracted, coopted or intimidated by the executive backed by the military or by popular majorities.

- Rudolf Hommes, minister of finance in the government of César Gaviria, writing in El Tiempo.

From this point forward I announce that I will not vote again for President Uribe, though I admire him and though I thank him for all that he has undoubtedly done for the country.

My complaint with Uribe is about what I consider to be the two largest failures of the sum of his two terms: his unwon war against corruption and his impotence when it comes to redistributing income among Colombians.

Doing away with corruption was even his campaign theme. But not only do we not breath any air of political or administrative health, many of the government’s attitudes – including the methods used to approve the referendum – are acting directly and publicly as terrible examples for the collective unconscious of the Colombian people, which already shows a propensity toward easy money and get-rich-quick schemes. I can’t remember the country ever having a worse atmosphere when it comes to the issue of corruption.

- El Tiempo columnist María Isabel Rueda, a professed supporter of Uribe since he was governor of Antioquia department in the mid-1990s.

Let’s see whether in twelve years the caudillo Uribe is able to beat the FARC, but maybe not four but eight more years will be needed, until 16 or 20 are completed (or perhaps 40 or 50, like Fidel and like Franco). Why don’t we just prepare another constitutional reform that will allow our Perón, our Porfirio, to govern until 2030? Or until there is a soldier for every coca plant and half the country’s budget is sucked up by a big-bellied army.

- Bestselling (in Colombia) author Héctor Abad Faciolince, writing in El Espectador.

Sep 06

Or, in English, “While Uribe breathes, may nobody else aspire [to be president].”

Noted by El Tiempo editor Enrique Santos (who attributes it to former Interior Minister Jaime Castro in a must-read column) and Semana magazine, citing Bogotá graffiti.

Sep 02
The Uribistas celebrate on the floor of Colombia’s House. (Picture from Semana.)

Only a month ago, Colombian politics watchers believed that the referendum to allow President Álvaro Uribe’s reelection was dead. A month of political strong-arm tactics revived it, and yesterday it cleared what might end up having been its biggest hurdle. Colombia’s House of Representatives, by a vote of 85-5, approved the referendum bill, sending it to Uribe for his signature.

Despite appearances, this was a very, very close nail-biter of a vote. Colombia’s House has 166 members. The entire opposition stayed out of the chamber – whether to abstain, to prevent the arrival at a quorum necessary for a vote, or both. The bill needed 84 votes to pass and only got 85. Not a ringing endorsement, but enough to gain full congressional approval.

Members of opposition parties insist that the needed votes were only gained through offers of political favors, like the ability to choose the next occupants of key government posts. “What has happened in the Congress is an embarrassment because every kind of corruption has been seen,” said former Medellín Mayor and independent presidential candidate Sergio Fajardo. Liberal Party presidential candidate Rafael Pardo, a former defense minister, charged today that recent shifts of mid-level positions in the national prison system may have been the result of such backroom dealing on behalf of the referendum.

The next obstacle the referendum faces is Colombia’s Constitutional Court, which must rule on the constitutionality of the law and the process by which it was approved. There is no fixed period for how long this process must take; El Tiempo estimates about 80 days, but also includes a chart of possible timetables that could have the court’s ruling as early as mid-November or as late as next April, a month before the May 30 presidential elections.

The Uribe government would ideally want to schedule the referendum before December – less than three months from now. A vote during Colombia’s long holiday period (mid-December to mid-January) is impossible, and after that, much focus will be on the March congressional elections.

El Tiempo discusses another, more chaotic possibility: holding the referendum at the same time as the March legislative elections, in the same balloting. This could happen if the pro-Uribe-majority Congress passes legislation changing a few deadlines – including the date by which Uribe would officially have to declare himself a candidate (currently November 30). If this strategem succeeds, Colombia could effectively be treated to a two-month-long presidential campaign: one that begins with a March 2009 referendum on whether Uribe can run, and ends with the May 2009 election.

All this assumes, though, that the Constitutional Court – once it rules – will rule in favor of allowing the referendum to go ahead. This is not a certainty. The list of procedural problems with the law is long, as this enumeration by Colombia’s El Nuevo Siglo newspaper makes clear. A former constitutional court justice, Clara Inés Vargas, told several Colombian radio outlets earlier today that the court’s approval would be difficult to obtain. However, the majority of the current court’s justices are now Uribe appointees, so things could be different now.

Aug 26

Following up on yesterday’s post: Colombia’s House of Representatives did not vote last night on the re-election referendum bill. They adjourned near midnight after 92 of the body’s 166 members recused themselves from the vote.

The main reason was that 86 of them were already under investigation by Colombia’s Supreme Court for the crime of “prevaricato” – roughly, acting against legal procedure. Several months ago, these 86 voted in favor of the referendum before they were legally allowed to do so, as Colombia’s governmental Registry had not yet approved the signatures on the public petitions that made the vote legally possible.

As a result, the chamber spent its session yesterday considering each recusal request individually, and the vote never occurred. It may occur tonight, as the House is convening again this afternoon.

El Tiempo indicates that when the vote does occur, the referendum to allow President Uribe to seek immediate re-election is likely to be approved.

While it was not possible to pass the law, from the first moments it was more or less clear that the necessary votes were in place.

The first sign was the body’s refusal to approve a request from Rep. Guillermo Rivera to exclude the issue from the day’s agenda. The request was denied by a 93-42 vote.

One way to interpret this, as several congresspeople said, is that it indicated that the 93 representatives who refused to approve Rivera’s proposal are the same ones who want to vote in favor of the referendum.

Aug 25

Today may be the most important day for Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s bid to run for a third straight term in office. The lower house of the country’s Congress, the Chamber of Representatives, is to vote on legislation to hold a referendum this fall. In that vote, Colombians will decide whether to change their constitution – for the second time in four years – to allow Uribe to compete in the May 2010 presidential vote and remain in power for twelve straight years.

A month ago, after opposition figures took over the presidencies of Colombia’s House and Senate, most Colombian analysts were arguing that the re-election referendum was as good as dead. But late last week, some hard-nosed behind-the-scenes politicking convinced Colombia’s Senate to pass a bill.

This legislation, allowing a referendum for a third consecutive re-election, closely resembles what the Senate had already passed. The House, however, had months ago passed a bill interpreted only as allowing a referendum to give Uribe the right to run in 2014, leaving the Congress deadlocked.

It is not clear whether, when it votes tonight, the lower house will change its position and approve a referendum for 2010 reelection. The pro-reelection camp first needs a quorum: 84 of 166 representatives must be present for the vote. Those who do show up are almost certain to vote yes, with the rest boycotting to prevent the possibility of a quorum. (This is what happened in the Senate, when 58 of 102 senators reported for a 56-2 vote in favor of the referendum.)

Whether that 84-member threshold will be reached is the subject of feverish speculation in Colombia’s media. The pro-Uribe camp claims to have more than 85, or as many as 92 or 94 votes, already locked up. Opposition figures, meanwhile, are denouncing that legislators are being offered favors, or otherwise pressured, to vote “yes” to allow the referendum.

If the bill passes the House this evening, its next step is Colombia’s Constitutional Court, which must guarantee that the referendum law meets with several procedural and constitutional requirements (explained in a Flash animation, in Spanish, on the La Silla Vacía website).

The outlook is completely uncertain.

Aug 04

Following on Friday’s too-brief post, here is a fuller discussion of the reasons why President Álvaro Uribe is suddenly facing serious obstacles to a 2010 re-election bid.

We rely heavily here on direct citations from Colombian press and web sources, whose analysis of the country’s politics deserves translation into English.

Four reasons a constitutional reform referendum allowing re-election is unlikely this fall:

1. The congressional leadership elections during the week of July 20 were, in a sense, the final nail in the coffin. As they began a new session, Colombia’s House and Senate elected new presidents, both of them from center-right parties that have been firmly pro-Uribe since their creation. The Senate is now led by Javier Cáceres of the Radical Change party, and the House is headed by Édgar Gómez of the Citizens’ Convergence party.

According to La Silla Vacía, both politicians are on the verge of leaving the pro-Uribe bloc.

Cáceres is considered to be in opposition. The reason? Within the pro-Uribe bloc they believe that Cáceres will be loyal to Germán Vargas [a right-wing senator, the head of Cáceres' Radical Change party, who supported Uribe until earlier this year, when he publicly opposed re-election], and not to the government, since he needs Radical Change’s approval in order to run for Senate in 2010. … As representatives of this party confirmed to La Silla Vacía, Gómez struck an agreement months ago with César Gaviria [the former president, now head of the opposition Liberal party] to join the Liberal Party, where he began his political career and in which he will carry out his 2010 campaign, during the second half of this year.

La Silla Vacía speculates that Gómez and the Liberals may push hard for approval of a new Victims’ Law – which was overturned by President Uribe in June – because “it will be a popular campaign issue for them in 2010.”

The chambers’ presidents are not as powerful as their U.S. counterparts (the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader), but have significant control over the legislative agenda, La Silla Vacía explains.

Cáceres and Gómez choose who speaks in the plenary sessions, which bills deserve priority and decide when a quorum is sufficient to begin debating a bill. If they turn a blind eye and fail to count attendance at the right moment, they can sink a bill. They also exercise influence over some congresspeople, as they define which senators and representatives deserve a change in their official car or office arrangements. This extra power makes them able to tip the balance when it comes to choosing committee chairmanships.

How did the opposition – still a minority of Congress – carry out this takeover? La Silla Vacía explains:

Many ask how it was that the President lost control of such important positions at such a crucial moment for the referendum. The explanation is the same as always: bureaucratic resentments in the small Uribista parties who feel abandoned by the president. There were also several Uribistas’ concealed loyalties to candidates like “Uribito” [Andrés Felipe Arias, Uribe's former Agriculture Minister and likely Conservative party candidate if Uribe does not run] and Juan Manuel Santos [Uribe's former Defense Minister and a likely candidate of the Unity "La U" party if Uribe does not run], which ended up strengthening the opposition.

2. Time is running out. Semana describes a rapidly closing window for changing the Constitution in time for the 2010 voting.

While it is dead politically, technically it is still in its death throes. According to the Law of Guarantees, November 30 is the deadline by which the President must announce whether or not he intends to be a candidate for a third term. But in these four months two legally required phases must be overcome within very narrow time periods. First, the Constitutional Court’s revision of the bill, which during the last re-election took more than three months. And second, the convening of elections by the Civil Registry which, according to that agency, would take a similar amount of time. In other words, two processes that normally could take between six and eight months would have to be reduced by half. If the Uribista machinery were the steamroller that it was in the past, those two processes could be “railroaded through” in that time, despite the controversy it would inspire. But if anything was clear after July 20 [when the new congressional leadership was chosen], it was that the pro-Uribe bloc in Congress may still be a majority movement, but now it is not a steamroller.

3. The two chambers of Congress are unlikely to resolve a key difference in their referendum bills: the possibility of consecutive re-election. The Senate passed a bill for a referendum on whether to allow Uribe to run again in 2010. The House bill instead is written in a way that has been interpreted to allow re-election only in 2014. The House-Senate committee charged with “reconciling” the two bills does not appear likely to yield to the Senate’s 2010 version, writes Semana.

The majority of the 25 conferees named by the House have refused to serve on the committee, arguing that they fear legal consequences [more on that below]. However, there is an additional, weightier reason that they never invoke in public: that they don’t believe in the referendum anymore. And if the moment to turn the page is to be the reconciliation of the bills, then that moment has arrived.

4. Too many members of Congress fear legal consequences if they support the referendum. The 2004 constitutional change allowing Uribe to run in 2006 passed only because undecided members of a House committee were improperly offered favors. One of those members, Yidis Medina, is now in prison for accepting the power to name her associates to several lucrative positions in exchange for her pro-re-election vote. That scandal, called “Yidis-politics,” has cast a long shadow on attempts to move a second re-election forward. Notes Semana:

The “Yidis-politics” precedent has made it so that not a single government official even dares insinuate that he might be offering any favors to a legislator in exchange for their support of re-election. Those who did this in the last election ended up in trouble with the law. In addition, the 86 legislators who voted for the referendum [in December] before the National Electoral Council approved the signature count [on the petitions for the bill to be considered] are being investigated by the Supreme Court.

What might happen next, then? Key members of the Uribe government and the leadership of pro-Uribe parties insist that they are still trying to get the referendum bill reconciled by the middle of August, despite the obstacles. If that fails, their next options could be:

1. Convene a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, pushing off the 2010 elections if necessary. This is unlikely According to Semana, “Some recalcitrant ‘Furibistas’ [furious Uribistas, of course] mention the possibility of a legislative act or even a constituent assembly after the referendum sinks. None of that will fly in the Congress. As ex-President César Gaviria affirmed, ‘If the Uribista legislators weren’t able to elect their own congressional leadership, how are they going to process a constitutional reform in such a short period of time?’”

2. Have a referendum to allow a non-consecutive re-election in 2014. “What could happen,” Semana believes, “is a formula that could allow Álvaro Uribe to return to power in 2014. This would be a transaction which would give a little satisfaction to the president and allow everyone to wash their hands.” However, the magazine adds, Uribe’s return would be a poor idea.

Colombian democracy would be more fluid if, after eight years in government, its ex-presidents were unable to return, as is the case in the United States. An ex-president with a possibility of returning would cast a very heavy shadow during the interim. It is hard to imagine the Calvary suffered by Uribe’s replacement knowing that, among his followers, there is an expectation of monarchical restoration.

Will Uribe really just leave power next year? Some analysts are unwilling to believe that the president’s re-election drive is over. “The referendum is moribund, but re-election is alive and kicking,” writes Claudia López in El Tiempo today. “We cannot declare victory,” adds opposition supporter Daniel García-Peña in El Espectador. “Let’s not forget that in this country magical surrealism outweighs institutional reality, and the ‘Rule of Opinion’ kills the ‘Rule of Law’ (in the chess sense of the word).”

García-Peña, along with many other commentators in Colombia, refers to a controversial new rhetorical figure that keeps popping up in President Uribe’s speeches of late. The president keeps saying that the “Rule of Opinion” (Estado de Opinión) “is the superior phase” of the “Rule of Law” (Estado de Derecho). It is not clear what Uribe means by this – his language is rather abstract, poetic and vaguely populist – but it has many observers concerned that it implies a popular president’s prerogative to challenge institutional constraints. Including constraints on re-election? Nobody knows.

Jun 12

The White House press secretary’s office today confirmed what the Colombian Presidency told us on Tuesday: that Colombian President Álvaro Uribe will be paying a visit to Washington on June 29, where he will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama. It will be the first private face-to-face meeting between the two presidents since Obama’s inauguration in January.

Here is what the White House statement says, and what it probably means.

President Obama will meet with President Uribe at the White House on Monday, June 29.

That is the Monday of the only week in June or July when Congress is out of session. Most representatives and senators will be out of Washington for the Independence Day “Work Period.” This will limit President Uribe’s congressional agenda.

Colombia is a close ally and partner of the United States, and the President looks forward to discussing a broad range of bilateral and hemispheric issues, including ways to enhance our cooperation on security and development challenges in Colombia and throughout the Americas.

That could mean just about anything. Move on.

The President also looks forward to discussing with President Uribe our economic engagement, including the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement,

The Free Trade Agreement, signed in October 2006, has not been ratified by the U.S. Congress. The agreement is controversial because of Colombia’s severe labor rights problems, among other economic, democracy and human rights concerns. There are several other reasons why Congress is not likely to take it up during 2009:

  • The legislative agenda for the months when Congress is likely to be in session (July, September, October, November) will be taken up by the Obama administration’s ambitious health care and climate change proposals, as well as the 2010 budget. There is little space to debate the Colombia agreement.
  • An “easier-to-pass” trade agreement with Panama is slated to come up for debate first, but even that agreement is awaiting action from Panama on labor and tax law issues.
  • It is very difficult politically to pass a free-trade agreement in the midst of a severe economic recession.
  • The likelihood that Uribe may seek a second re-election casts doubts on the direction of democracy in Colombia. Along with para-politics, “false positives” and the DAS wiretap scandal, this makes the agreement harder to sell in Washington.

Given all of these obstacles, perhaps at least President Uribe will gain some clarity from the White House about the Obama administration’s intentions over the next few months. In recent weeks, the message has been muddled:

  • After the Summit of the Americas in April, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said the administration plans to move forward with the Free Trade Agreement “sooner rather than later,” and that it sought to “identify and work through any outstanding issues we might have so we might move forward with that. And that process will begin immediately.”
  • On the other hand, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke told an audience in late May that “Colombia needs to address the issue of violence against union leaders before the U.S. Congress votes on a free trade agreement.”

and the long-term, institutional consolidation of security gains in Colombia through effective governance,

This appears to be a reference to “Integrated Action,” a series of programs in specific regions that have long been under the control of armed groups. The Integrated Action model intends to combine military operations with an effort to bring the civilian state into ungoverned territories. As mentioned in three recent posts, these programs show some promise, but are largely military so far and face significant coordination problems. They are, however, being viewed as the future of much U.S. aid to Colombia, and the United States has devoted significant amounts of resources to programs in the La Macarena and Montes de María regions.

In the past month, key Colombian government officials responsible for carrying out Integrated Action programs, chiefly the defense minister and the presidential advisor for “Social Action,” have left their posts. Before investing more in the Integrated Action model, the Obama administration may seek to gauge whether the Colombian government will be as committed to these programs in those officials’ absence.

as well as other ways to further strengthen the bilateral relationship.

This language, of course, is too vague to mean much. But it seems apparent that President Uribe’s principal audience for this visit is domestic. The Colombian president hopes to demonstrate that he enjoys a warm relationship with the U.S. president.

But the bilateral relationship and Colombian domestic politics overlap uncomfortably in one critical area: the president’s possible re-election bid. Uncertainty over whether Uribe plans to run again in 2010 will hang palpably over this official visit.

Non-involvement in another country’s electoral processes is a very strong principle, and we should not expect President Obama or any other administration officials to comment publicly on the re-election question. If Uribe decides to run, however, U.S. concern about democratic checks and balances in Colombia will have an undeniably significant impact on the bilateral relationship. It is up to the Obama administration to find a tactful way to communicate that.

Apr 04

Colombians are picking up on any detail that might indicate that the Obama administration is de-emphasizing the bilateral relationship. From the new La Silla Vacía website:

A curious bit of information that went unnoticed at the Inter-American Development Bank summit in Medellín was President Uribe’s [March 29] speech. Before investors, 47 governors from the IDB member countries, and some government representatives, including the president of the People’s Bank of China and the Prime Minister of the Bahamas, the Colombian leader chose to speak about local issues like Families in Action [an economic subsidy program] and successes against the FARC. After a few minutes, some of the meeting’s organizers observed with alarm that Timothy Geithner, the U.S. treasury secretary, chose to disconnect himself from the simultaneous translation feed.

Apr 03

Sometimes, reading translated transcripts isn’t enough.

Here is a video, with English subtitles, of some of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s more heated attacks on journalists and peace activists in Colombia. In many cases, the president accuses his targets, without evidence, of supporting the FARC guerrillas. The impact on press freedom of such words, from a popular president speaking on nationally broadcast television, is immeasurably chilling.

These clips come from a somewhat longer video prepared by several non-governmental Colombian human rights groups for presentation at the March 23 hearings of the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission. That video – in Spanish, with clips of interviews with experts and activists – is here.

Alvaro Uribe and Freedom of Expression from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

Feb 27
In just three months, the Presidential Intelligence Service (DAS) recorded 1,900 of the phone conversations of Auxiliary Justice Iván Velásquez, the chief investigator in the “Para-Politics” scandal.

Apologies for the delay in posting about last weekend’s highly disturbing revelations that the intelligence service of the Colombian Presidency, the DAS (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad) has once again been systematically wiretapping and following private citizens.

The intelligence agency, which reports directly to President Álvaro Uribe, has been embroiled in several scandals in recent years. In late 2005 its director, Jorge Noguera, was accused of collaborating closely with paramilitaries on efforts ranging from facilitating narcotrafficking to developing lists of human-rights defenders and labor leaders to murder. Late last year, the supposedly “reformed” DAS was found to have been ordering surveillance of opposition Senator Gustavo Petro, a revelation that forced the resignation of DAS Director María de Pilar Hurtado.

The DAS continues to be a highly troubled institution, as the agency – or at least a large rogue element within the agency – is using much of its resources to spy on prominent citizens. Its “targets” include opposition politicians, social-movement leaders, journalists, and – perhaps most troublingly – Supreme Court officials trying to investigate ties between paramilitary narcotraffickers and dozens of President Uribe’s political allies.

The news outlet that broke the story, the Colombian newsmagazine Semana, has not added an English version of its cover story to its website. Here are some translated excerpts.

The DAS is still recording

Between the 19th and 21st of January, most of the “secrets” of many of Colombia’s top peraonalities were destroyed on the 11th floor of the main DAS headquarters. “We received the order to gather everything we had in several offices in the building, and in other buildings, and bring it to the Counter-Intelligence office. For two days external disk drives were gathered, hard drives were changed out of computers, CDs, voice files and confidential documents were collected. I alone, without counting my colleagues, carried two boxes full of those things,” one of the DAS detectives who participated in this unique collection told Semana. “Of all the boxes that were taken to Counter-Intelligence, with documents, recordings and the rest, only one remained, which was taken out of the 11th floor at the end of the afternoon of Wednesday the 21st. I don’t know what was left in that one, or where they took it. I just know that everything else was destroyed,” the source affirms.

The suspicious mission of recovering and destroying information was carried out by a small group of officials. Though they sought to do it in the most discrete manner, it was inevitable that a few DAS members would notice the unusual things going on during those days. But what was it that they were destroying with such urgency? Much of the files that don’t exist today were, among others, recordings, secret documents and intelligence analyses that contained information about a wide variety of personalities whom the DAS was watching.

Supreme Court justices, journalists, opposition politicians, generals in the armed forces, prosecutors, and even some high government officials made up the group that, for the past several months, was being monitored by the security body.

Many thought that it would be hard for the DAS to confront a situation worse than that of October 2005, when it ended up tangled in a scandal stemming from paramilitary infiltration that ended with the resignation, and subsequent jailing, of then-Director Jorge Noguera.

At that moment, deep reforms to the institution were promised so that this would not happen again. But it happened. Despite the subsequent directors’ good intentions, the information gathered by Semana makes clear that there is a powerful sector in this agency that is at the service of paramilitaries, guerrillas, and dark political interests.

“Here we work on targets and objectives who could become a threat to the security of the state and of the President. Among those are the guerrillas, the emerging criminal groups, some narcos. But among these targets is also, and obviously this is one of the functions of the DAS, to monitor some personalities and institutions to keep the Presidency informed. For example, how could it not be a DAS mission to monitor [Senator Gustavo] Petro, who is a former guerrilla and is in the opposition. Or [opposition Senator and peace facilitator] Piedad Córdoba, for her ties to Chávez and the guerrillas,” said to Semana a detective who works in the Subdirectorate of Operations of the DAS, part of this entity’s intelligence directorate. “Any person or entity who represents an eventual danger for the government has to be monitored by the DAS. As a result, more than a year ago, the activities of the [Supreme] Court, and some of its members, came to be considered and treated as a legitimate ‘target.’”

Targeting the justice system

This fact was corroborated to Semana by four other DAS officials, members of the intelligence, counter-intelligence and operational directorates. In addition to these testimonies, Semana obtained some of the analyses developed by DAS members, which make evident their efforts to follow, wiretap and monitor members of the Court. One of the most revealing reports is about Auxiliary Justice Iván Velásquez, the chief investigator for the “para-politics” scandal.

Velásquez has been subjected to a “man-to-man defense” since the “Tasmania” incident in October 2007, when President Álvaro Uribe accused the judge of fabricating testimonies against him, which ended up being a hoax. They don’t leave Velásquez alone for even a minute, as can be gathered from the DAS report.

In the documents Semana has, it is revealed that during three months they intercepted 1,900 of his phone calls, in which he spoke with everyone: Supreme Court justices, Justice and Peace prosecutors to know what the paramilitary witnesses were revealing, with the Prosecutor-General’s Office’s witness-protection program to know who was ready to give evidence, with para-politics witnesses, among hundreds of other calls.

But Velásquez was not the only member of the Supreme Court being watched by the DAS. Investigators, other justices and auxiliary judges of the high court were also the object of “monitoring.” According to several detectives, among these “targets” was Francisco Ricaurte, until recently the President of the Supreme Court; the president of the court’s Criminal Chamber, Sigifredo Espinosa; and justices César Julio Valencia and María del Rosario González. “When the confrontation between the court and the presidency worsened, about a year and a half ago, the order was to know as much as possible about all the justices, using all necessary means, from human sources to technical measures. When the confrontation began to diminish, the monitoring was concentrated only on those deemed high-priority, like Velásquez,” one of the detectives who works in the intelligence directorate, and who participated in following some justices, told Semana.

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Feb 17

Gerardo Reyes in Saturday’s El Nuevo Herald: “What is your opinion of him [Álvaro Uribe] today?”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia (1994-1997) Myles Frechette: “Very frustrating. He is a much different person than I thought. He is not democratic, he doesn’t have much respect for the judiciary or the Congress, he is an authoritarian and very populist person, in many senses he is very similar to [Hugo] Chávez.”

This interview is fascinating. Frechette relates a 1996 meeting with Álvaro Uribe, then the governor of Antioquia department, in which he confronts Uribe about rumored past ties to narcotrafficking. Frechette says he was “not satisfied” by Uribe’s answers.

Feb 07

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe did it again today.

At a town-hall meeting in the department of Meta, the president made comments once more tying his critics – in this case, human rights and peace advocates – to Colombia’s brutal, murderous guerrillas.

In fact, Uribe said, those who oppose his security policies are part of the FARC. They are nothing more than a guerrilla unit he calls the “Intellectual Bloc of the FARC.”

There’s no nuance here. This isn’t political debate. At best, this is McCarthyism. At worst, it’s a powerful president publicly, and with no evidence, linking his political adversaries with a terrorist group – which essentially declares open season on them.

The Obama administration must take note of this behavior which, to say the least, does not befit what one would expect of a close U.S. ally, much less a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Here are translated excerpts of Álvaro Uribe’s own words, uttered earlier today.

Let’s not get distracted. While they kidnap and murder and set off car bombs, the guerrillas want to dress themselves in the cloak of peace.

We aren’t going to let them fool us now. The guerrillas, trying to disorient us, produce blood but talk of peace. We’re not going to allow this, compatriots.

We’re not going to allow the FARC’s “intellectual bloc” to disorient us now with a discourse of peace, which in the end strenghthens terrorism. And we have to wage this battle in the whole country.

The FARC’s “intellectual bloc” is very clever. In the past, in Europe, they said: “the FARC are justified, because Colombia is a very unjust country, there is no democracy in Colombia,” knowing that they taught this country and they taught the paramilitaries to murder mayors, to pressure governors, to eliminate democracy, and knowing that they cause more and more poverty, that they and tha paramilitaries were the largest causes of displacement in Colombia, of unemployment, of the absence of investment.

And they shield themselves in something else: at all hours they live talking about human rights, simply to make our soldiers and police more timid.

We punish every violation of human rights, but what we cannot allow is that, with their little story about peace and with their permanent accusations against the armed forces, they now paralyze our Democratic Security policy, as the FARC’s “intellectual bloc” seeks to do.

Now, people say to me: Mr. President, don’t use that combative language, be very careful. Then I ask: we can’t fight this battle? Must we then allow the country to return to the disorientation that leads to the exaltation of terrorism, led by the FARC’s “intellectual bloc?” Let’s not fall into this trap.

What the FARC’s “intellectual bloc” does is say in Europe and in the United States: “careful, Uribe is a paramilitary, don’t approve the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia because Uribe is a paramilitary and a human-rights violator.”

Now, the FARC’s “intellectual bloc” doesn’t dare to defend the FARC directly; the FARC’s “intellectual bloc,” is very clever, very astute, it doesn’t dare to oppose fundamentally the Democratic Security policy; the FARC’s “intellectual bloc” defense the FARC simply by talking about peace.