Colombia’s citizen surveillance methods once again under scrutiny

Revelations about Gustavo Petro’s former chief of staff Laura Sarabia highlight the pitfalls of unrestrained intelligence services, empowered to ignore the rights and freedoms of citizens

Gustavo Petro
Former director of the DAS, María del Pilar Hurtado, was sentenced in the so-called 'chuzadas' case.Mauricio Dueñas Castañeda

The facts: One of Colombia’s intelligence agencies recently admitted to illegally tapping the phone of nanny Marelbys Meza, based on the false suspicion that she was part of a vicious criminal syndicate. Moreover, this innocent young woman was subjected to a polygraph test in the basement of a building near the presidential palace, because she was suspected of involvement in the theft of an unspecified sum of money from the home of her employer, Laura Sarabia, who until recently served as President Gustavo Petro’s chief of staff.

The ramifications: The consequences of this scandal are severe and far-reaching. Not only has it dealt a blow to the popularity of Colombia’s first leftist government, but it has also raised concerns among analysts over the country’s intelligence services. Jerónimo Castillo, a security expert with the Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP), warns that Colombia has been on a dangerous path towards becoming a police state in recent years, as its official surveillance apparatus has been recklessly and systematically abused. “We find ourselves stuck in a system where technical surveillance is frequently misused. To improve transparency, it’s critical that we rethink the system and address the ambiguity around who is being monitored, how they’re being monitored, and the justifications for their monitoring.”

The Attorney General’s Office and the Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Interpol (DIJIN), an agency attached to the police, have both been soiled by the scandal. The National Intelligence Directorate was established during the Juan Manuel Santos administration (2014-2018) to oversee and coordinate various agencies with security and counterintelligence functions, much like the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Experts like Armando Borrero say this model is appropriate because competition between agencies provides a “control mechanism. They are all watching each other, and often leak information to the news media that would otherwise never come to light.”

Sarabia’s case has uncovered a stream of irregularities that continue to confound investigators after Meza, Sarabia’s former nanny, filed a complaint that led to a series of revelations in Semana magazine. These irregularities include the use of polygraph tests by intimidating interrogators, as well as the illegal tapping of cell phone communications made by Meza and Fabiola Perea, another employee in Sarabia’s household. The headlines evoked memories of years past when the now-defunct Administrative Department of Security (DAS) conducted illegal phone taps. Colombians have grown accustomed to violations of their rights and freedoms, and there are no oversight mechanisms in place to control these clandestine operations. Colombia is grappling with a multifold challenge full of violent actors who are straining its democracy to breaking point.

“The implications of bugging the Court,” says Castillo, “are extremely sensitive for state security. But this seemingly straightforward case should reinforce the message that every citizen has rights: we all have the right to keep our lives private. It is vital that every individual is entitled to the protection of a judicial authority throughout any legal process.” In the United Kingdom, the House of Commons wields significant influence: it can demand accountability and require that agencies such as MI5 (intelligence) or MI6 (counterintelligence) respect legal boundaries.

Sociologist Eduardo Pizarro León Gómez notes: “Unfortunately we have a large vacuum in this regard, which is why we have these messes. The intelligence agencies in Colombia operate with broad autonomy and little transparency. There is no effective parliamentary commission overseeing the methods and targets of government surveillance.” The issue is complex and has a bleak outlook. Even in a digital world, the ability to truly address it appears to be nothing more than a superficial solution. “It remains uncertain whether the [bugging] order came from the Attorney General’s Office or the DIJIN. In the past, the order could have come from various authorities: a police general named [Humberto] Guatibonza, the F2 or DAS. We can always find someone to blame,” says Castillo.

The issue has caused concern among journalists and civil rights organizations, given the history of espionage against the press. Recent cases sensationalized in the media are quickly forgotten without any tangible legal outcomes. Castillo says that the public debate is once again focused on the here and now when in reality “we are facing a recurring violation of rights through illegal wiretapping by the Colombian government. Rather than examining the issue at a structural level, our perspective is simplistic — we say it’s just a squabble between Sanabria and [Colombian Ambassador to Venezuela, Armando] Benedetti. We are dealing with a deep-rooted issue that happens over and over again no matter who is in power, but we treat it like gossip or a quarrel between two individuals.”

Law 1621, enacted in 2013, lays out the guidelines for intelligence and counterintelligence activities, and sets the parameters for a regulatory framework. In Chapter IV, a general code of conduct is established for monitoring these activities. However, analysts concur that the mechanisms are often violated by overzealous officials exceeding their authority. “Colombian society has been very weak,” said Armando Borrero. “There is a lack of professionalism in the Second Commission of Congress, which has had oversight in these matters since 1992. They seem to engage whenever we have these scandals, but they are not trained like the U.S. Congress, where the Senate Intelligence Committee relies on experts in this field. They know who’s doing what and examine budgets with a magnifying glass. Not here. Our committees even struggle to evaluate the resumes of colonels who are slated for promotion.”

Alberto Casanova is the current head of the National Intelligence Directorate in President Petro’s administration. A former special forces soldier in the M-19 guerrilla force with a degree in philosophy from the University of the Andes (Colombia), Casanova isn’t often in the spotlight. His primary role, according to our sources, is to detect potential coups d’état, a consuming preoccupation for the President since taking office.

Casanova’s activities have been overshadowed by an alleged communication breakdown with the Navy, Army and National Police. The Sarabia scandal underlines the tension between the Petro administration and the military, leaving unresolved issues in its wake. The situation is likely to be politically weaponized for control, rather than resolution, raising serious questions about the appropriate way to deal with such disputes. This highlights a persistent problem in Colombia — the systematic infringement of civil liberties — a problem that Petro promised to address during his campaign.

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