Former director of the DAS, María del Pilar Hurtado, convicted in the case of the 'chuzadas'. Mauricio Dueñas Castañeda
The concrete facts: one of the Colombian intelligence agencies illegally tapped the cell phone of nanny Marelbys Meza, under the false suspicion that she was part of one of the most bloodthirsty criminal gangs in the country, and subjected her to a polygraph test in the basement of a building adjacent to the presidential palace. The worker was linked to the theft of a still unspecified sum of money from the house of Laura Sarabia, the 29-year-old who employed her and who until this week was in charge of President Petro's cabinet.
The implications: a plot that, in addition to sinking the popularity of the first leftist government to minimum levels, and dismantling the president's closest circle, has installed a new state of alert among various analysts who detect a complex historical and structural problem in the questionable activities of the Colombian espionage services. Expert Jerónimo Castillo, a researcher at the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP), warns that for some years the country has been heading towards the development of a police state: "We are, basically, trapped in a system that has abused and trivialized the use of technical surveillance schemes. That system would have to be rethought because there is no clarity or state transparency about who is monitored, how it is monitored and why it is monitored."
The scandal has been splashed, especially the Prosecutor's Office and the Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Interpol (DIJIN), an agency attached to the police. Since the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos (2014-2018), the National Intelligence Directorate was established, with the aim of reorganizing and articulating a model that, as in the case of the United States, uses several official agencies that converge in parallel in their security and counterespionage tasks. A format that experts such as Armando Borrero adjectivate as "adequate" because competition between agents constitutes a "control tool. They are watching themselves, and many times they leak matters to the press that would otherwise never be known."
In the case of Laura Sarabia, the complainant was the former caregiver of her children, Marelbys Meza. But since the publication of the magazine Semana, there have been reports of irregularities still to be clarified, ranging from the use of the polygraph outside the judicial offices, with the intermediation of allegedly threatening interrogators, to the illegal interceptions of the cell phones of Meza and Fabiola Perea, another of the workers of the house of the former cabinet chief. All the headlines clearly evoke the episodes of illegal wiretapping carried out in the past by the obscure and disappeared Administrative Department of Security (DAS). The problem is only becoming entangled and Colombians have become accustomed to similar episodes in which the rights and freedoms of citizens are often violated without there being political control or control mechanisms for an activity whose secrecy is essential to their work. Even more so in a conflictive society like the Colombian one where a diversity of violent actors intersect that have pushed the democratic balance to the limit.
"The implications of 'chuzar' the Court," explains Castillo, "are very delicate at the level of state security. But this apparently simpler case should serve to reinforce the message that rights are for everyone, we all have the right to have our private life protected and we should all be covered by the guarantees of a judicial authority during any process." In countries such as the United Kingdom, the House of Commons exercises certain controls, has the ability to demand accountability and force agencies to operate within the limits of legality, such as MI5 (intelligence) or MI6 (counterintelligence).
For sociologist Eduardo Pizarro León Gómez, however, "unfortunately we have a great void in that aspect and that is why everything ends up overflowing. The intelligence agencies in Colombia are created and developed with broad autonomy, with very obscure management, and without an effective parliamentary commission that is responsible for who is monitored, how it is monitored and with what instruments." A thorny issue. And of bad prognosis, if one takes into account that the possibilities of limiting it in a digital world are increasingly cosmetic. "Today it is not clear whether the order came from the Prosecutor's Office or the DIJIN. At one time he was a police general named Guatibonza. Before it could have been the F2 or the DAS. We will always find culprits," says Jerónimo Castillo.
The problem has generated unease in journalistic circles and other civil rights organizations, due to the history of spying against the press. Cases that in recent years have jumped to the media as quickly as they are swept under the carpet, without concrete or visible judicial results. That is why Castillo complains that the public debate has refocused on current issues, when in reality "we are facing a recurring practice of violation of rights by illegal wiretapping by the Colombian State. We do not approach the discussion from a structural angle, but from the simple perspective: the fight between Mrs Sanabria and Mr Benedetti. We are dealing with a profound issue, which is repeated indifferently from the government of the day, as if it were a fight or gossip between two individuals."
Law 1621 of 2013 establishes parameters and a regulatory framework for intelligence and counterintelligence activities. Chapter IV elaborates on a series of generalities to monitor this type of work and establishes a kind of code of conduct. Analysts agree, however, that they are mechanisms that are repeatedly violated by agents who exceed their powers and on which there has been no greater will to tackle. "Colombian society has been very weak," says Armando Borrero, "the Second Committees of the Senate and Chamber, which have control powers since 1992, have not been very professional. They operate when there are scandals, but they have no training in the matter, as is the case in the American Congress, where the Senate Intelligence Committee usually has experts, or have worked in that field, or have some familiarity. They know the projects, they examine the budgets with a magnifying glass. Not here. These commissions barely operate when they are brought the resumes of the colonels who are going to be promoted to generals."
Today the head of the National Intelligence Agency of the Government of President Petro is Alberto Casanova. For many a discreet figure, philosopher of the University of the Andes, former militant of the special forces of the M-19 guerrilla and former head of security of the president. Sources close to the government say that its fundamental function is focused on detecting any hint of a coup d'état, apparently one of the delusions that most overwhelm the president since he took office.
Casanova's activities, they conclude, have been overshadowed by an alleged short circuit in communication with the Navy, the Army and the Police. The incident exposes already known tensions of the Executive with the military establishments and leaves open questions that will most likely be instrumentalized by the opposition for political purposes rather than with a vocation for control that they did not exercise when they were in power. A situation, in the end, that has been cooking under the shadow and that could exacerbate the damage caused by the chronic violation of individual freedoms that Gustavo Petro raised, precisely, as one of the mainstays of his political project.
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