Colombia's imperilled democracy

Adam Isacson
6 March 2009

The news out of Bogotá on 22 February 2009 was sadly familiar. Once again, Colombia's most-circulated newsweekly, the frequently independent Semana, had a big scoop. Once again, the scoop revealed criminal wrongdoing and authoritarian behaviour at high levels in the government of Colombia's president, Álvaro Uribe.

Adam Isacson is director of programmes at the Center for International Policy, Washington DC
Also by Adam Isacson in openDemocracy:
"The United States and Colombia: the next plan" (12 March 2007)"
"The Colombia-Venezuela-Ecuador tangle" (14 March 2008)This time, the magazine detailed results of a six-month investigation of the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS), the Colombian presidency's troubled intelligence service or "secret police". Throughout 2008, Semana reported, President Uribe's intelligence agency had systematically tailed and wiretapped dozens of citizens who by no means were "enemies of the state". The list of those under surveillance includes supreme-court justices, journalists, opposition politicians, generals, human-rights defenders, and a few senior government officials (see "Colombia intelligence agency scandal", Semana, 22 February 2009).

The revelations raise still more questions about Colombia's popular but mercurial leader. Since 2002, Álvaro Uribe has presided over a notable drop in several measures of Colombia's endemic political and drug-related violence. His hardline security policies have inflicted some spectacular and humiliating defeats on the widely reviled Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia / Farc) guerrilla movement.

These included a bloodless ruse in July 2008 that freed fifteen hostages whom the guerrillas had held for years, among them the renowned French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt (see "Colombia: a miraculous rescue, and what comes next", 7 July 2008). More recently, the capture of a leading Farc kidnapper in an army operation in Cundinamarca, central Colombia, represents another significant blow to a movement under pressure.

But the picture is mixed at best. Nearly seven years into Uribe's presidency, the conflict with the Farc and smaller ELN guerrillas that began in 1964 continues with no end in sight. These groups might have taken some hard blows in recent months, but they retain the capacity for ruthless action; the cold-blooded massacre of indigenous Awa peasants in southwestern Colombia on 4 February 2009 is evidence of the scourge they represent (see Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's guerrillas: between past and future", 16 June 2008).

Their adversaries, and the drug-economy that fuels so much of the conflict, are also unbowed. The amount of cocaine the country produces hasn't changed appreciably. Drug-funded "paramilitary" death-squads may have publicly disbanded, but their remnants have fused with the narco mafia to form a cluster of private armies that is now 10,000-strong.

The politics of scandal

The questions about the president and his security policies continue to mount. Colombia's supreme court and prosecutors are investigating allegations that dozens of Uribe's political supporters, including about a fifth of Colombia's congress, worked with the paramilitaries. Those accused include Uribe's first DAS director, Jorge Noguera, who is being tried for working so closely with paramilitaries that he even gave them lists of people to kill.

Also in openDemocracy on Colombia's politics and internal violence:

Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit"(25 October 2005)

Sue Branford, "Colombia's other war" (14 November 2005)

Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's elections: the regional exception" (10 March 2006)

Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's testing times" (29 March 2006)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal" (29 May 2006)

Jenny Pearce, "The crisis of Colombia's state" (14 May 2007)

Ana Carrigan, "Pawns of war: the Colombian hostage crisis" (15 November 2007)

Myles Frechette, "Colombia: interrupted lives" (21 January 2008)

Catalina Holguín, "Colombia: networks of dissent and power" (4 February 2008)

Jenny Pearce, "Colombia: who are the enemies of peace and democracy?" (9 April 2008)

Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's guerrillas: between past and future" (12 June 2008)

Andrew Stroehlein, "Medellin: revival and risk" (8 July 2008)In late 2008, the discovery of what happened to dozens of missing young men from a slum near Bogotá brought to light a horrifying military practice that human-rights NGOs had been denouncing for years. In order to earn rewards for high "body counts", soldiers throughout the country have taken to murdering hundreds of civilians each year and presenting their bodies dressed in camouflage as combat "kills".

Meanwhile, Colombia's entire political apparatus is paralysed by another question. Will Álvaro Uribe seek another change to Colombia's constitution to run for a third four-year term in 2010, paralleling what Hugo Chávez has done in neighbouring Venezuela in securing his referendum victory on 15 February? The president has so far refused to make a public decision, though his supporters have fought any legal measures that could pose a threat to another re-election bid.

The exposure of evidence that the president's own intelligence service made a habit of spying on prominent citizens, journalists and political opponents have intensified Colombia's already febrile political atmosphere.

"Here we work on targets and objectives who could become a threat to the security of the state and of the president", a DAS detective told Semana. "Among those are the guerrillas, the emerging criminal groups [the new paramilitaries], 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."

These "targets", the magazine finds, have included judicial officals investigating the president's allies for alleged ties to death squads. "Any person or entity who represents an eventual danger for the government has to be monitored by the DAS", the source told Semana. "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'."

The judicial official most pursued, Semana reveals, is auxiliary supreme-court justice Iván Velásquez. Judge Velásquez is the chief investigator of the so-called "para-politics" scandal: the webs of linkages between politicians, most of them pro-Uribe, and paramilitary groups who killed tens of thousands and displaced millions over the last twenty years. (In Colombia's system, the supreme court investigates and tries active members of Congress.) Though politically weak, isolated and underfunded, Judge Velásquez and a small team of investigators have persevered in their effort to root out paramilitary influence, despite open, public expressions of hostility from President Uribe and his top advisors.

Even more intimidating has been the private hostility exerted through the DAS. Judge Velásquez "was never left alone for a minute", writes Semana. During a three-month period in 2008 alone, the magazine documents, President Uribe's spies recorded 1,900 of the phone conversations of the man whose job was to investigate the president's political allies' criminal relationships. The DAS also spied on investigators working with Judge Velásquez, as well as their families (see "Harassment of the Colombian Supreme Court", Semana, 2 March 2009).

The continuing chain of scandals shows that Colombia still has powerful elements - political bosses, military officers, crony capitalists - who keep one foot in the country's legitimate institutions only to undermine them, occasionally through brutal means. They do so to protect wealth and power accumulated through corruption and ties to organised crime. In today's Colombia, they pose an even greater threat than the badly weakened guerrillas (see Jenny Pearce, "Colombia: who are the enemies of peace and democracy?", 9 April 2008).

This is not news, though it may fly in the face of the Colombian government's (and the previous US administration's) international efforts to portray Álvaro Uribe's Colombia as a shining success-story. The ongoing campaign to "rebrand" Colombia as a safe, prosperous tourist destination dovetails with efforts to lobby the US Congress to approve a free-trade agreement that, for the foreseeable future, is stalled due to strong opposition from key Democratic Party leaders (as well as the difficulty of approving any trade pact in the middle of a deep recession).

Colombia's latest scandals certainly muddled the message that Colombia's defence and foreign-relations ministers sought to send to the new US administration during a visit to Washington on 24-26 February (see "DAS scandal Looms over Colombia Visit", Council on Hemispheric Affairs, 26 February 2009). The cabinet officials wish to continue US aid flows that have totalled $6.8 billion - most of it military and police aid - since 2000. This aid, the US ambassador was forced to admit, included some of the equipment the DAS used to spy on prominent citizens.

A time to choose

Behind the officials' images of progress and prosperity, there is a bitter struggle going on in Colombia - and one that is far wider than the one between the state and the guerrillas, serious though that is.

This larger struggle is between the people who benefit from Colombia's status quo and those working to change it; those who order massacres and those who seek justice for past crimes; those who benefit from organised crime and the drug trade, and those who seek to dismantle powerful criminal networks; those who infiltrate and corrupt democratic institutions, and those who fight to make them work; those who record people's telephone conversations, and those whose lines are tapped.

A Barack Obama administration still establishing its strategic direction is slowly turning its focus toward Colombia. In doing so, it must take note of this struggle. For amid scandals old and new - and as Colombia's crucial re-election decision nears - the young United States leadership needs to be sure which side Álvaro Uribe is on.

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