Wiretapping Scandal Shakes Colombia

Originally published on August 29, 2011 8:12 pm

In Colombia, a major scandal involving the country's intelligence service is unfolding. Colombia's chief prosecutor says the spy service bugged the Supreme Court, intercepted the phones of its justices and followed their every move.

Prosecutors also say the illegal surveillance was directed from the offices of former President Alvaro Uribe, who in his eight years in power was Washington's closest ally in Latin America.

With hours of tape as evidence, prosecutors say the Department of Administrative Services (DAS), which is under the president's control, targeted the court's justices and the investigative magistrates, who function something like prosecutors.

The purpose was to find ties between the criminal underworld and the court in order to discredit the country's highest judicial body.

"Through the intelligence agency, they tried to control, attack and discredit — actions that cannot be viewed as some isolated DAS plan, an entity that is dependent on the presidency of the republic," prosecutor Misael Rodriguez said at a court hearing earlier this year.

He says Bernardo Moreno, Uribe's chief of staff, oversaw the effort. Moreno has been charged and is in jail awaiting trial. He denies the accusations.

Former President Uribe, who left office last year and has not been charged, denies any involvement.

But prosecutors say the president's office wanted to derail court investigations linking illegal armed groups and congressmen allied with Uribe.

William Romero is among the former high-ranking DAS members who have told prosecutors that the agency collected information and shipped it to the president's office.

"What we were told was that this was a requirement of the director of the DAS and the president, to know how narco-traffickers were manipulating inside the Supreme Court," Romero tells NPR.

Romero and other former agents also say that DAS units used some American assistance in the illegal surveillance. The State Department in Washington says it has no knowledge of U.S. government equipment being misused in Colombia.

In one court chamber, bugging devices were placed under tables where exchanges between judges and witnesses take place.

The person responsible for the bugging was Alba Luz Florez, a 33-year-old former agent known to DAS as Y-66.

"They made me see it as a national security [issue], that national security could be compromised by this possible connection," Florez says, referring to possible underworld ties with judges. "So for me it was an honor [to undertake the operation]."

Florez, who avoided charges by cooperating with prosecutors, used court security people, chauffeurs and even the coffee ladies to plant bugs and gather intelligence.

Among those she recruited was the driver for the court's top investigative magistrate, Ivan Velasquez.

"I knew everything about his family, absolutely everything about his children," Florez says, referring to the driver. "So I began to see what he liked, how I could perhaps fill his needs."

She learned the driver needed to pay child support for several children, so she paid him. And she learned that he admired Uribe, the then-president.

"Let's do it for the president," she recalls telling him.

The small office of Velasquez, the star investigative magistrate, had once been bugged.

"Here I talk to all kinds of people, with lawyers, with eventual witnesses that can provide information, people who know about things that happen in their regions and want to help," says Velasquez, sitting at his desk. "There are risks to these declarations. What I mean is that a microphone here could be very effective."

He says the surveillance was designed to intimidate him and witnesses.

But to date, 30 congressmen — virtually all allies of Uribe — have been convicted after being investigated by the court.

And the attorney general's office has also been busy: Four of Uribe's top aides are under investigation. The former president's conduct is also under review, by a special legislative commission.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel. In Columbia, the intelligence service is caught up in a major scandal. The country's chief prosecutor says the spy service bugged the Supreme Court, intercepted the phones of its justices and followed their every move. Prosecutors also say the illegal surveillance was directed from the offices then-President Alvaro Uribe, who in his eight years in power was Washington's closest ally in Latin America. NPR's Juan Forero has the story from Bogota.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

JUAN FORERO: Those are Supreme Court justices deliberating, a conversation illegally recorded by the DAS, Colombia's spy service. It was later provided to local radio stations, among hours of tapes in the hands of Colombia's chief prosecutor.

Prosecutors say the DAS, which is under the control of the president, targeted the court's justices and the investigative magistrates who function like prosecutors. The purpose: to find ties between the criminal underworld and the court in order to discredit the country's highest judicial body.

MISAEL RODRIGUEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Prosecutor Misael Rodriguez says at a court hearing that the agency was used to control, attack and discredit. He says Bernardo Moreno, Uribe's chief of staff, oversaw the effort. Moreno has been charged and is in jail awaiting trial. He denies the accusations.

Former President Uribe, who left office last year and has not been charged, denies any involvement. But prosecutors say the president's office wanted to derail court investigations linking illegal armed groups and congressmen allied with Uribe. William Romero is among the former high-ranking DAS members who've told prosecutors that the agency collected information and shipped it to the president's office.

WILLIAM ROMERO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: What we were told, Romero tells NPR, is that these are the orders of the DAS director and the president.

Romero and other former agents also say some American assistance was used by DAS units in the illegal surveillance. The State Department in Washington says it has, quote, "no knowledge of U.S. government equipment being misused in Colombia."

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Here at this court chamber, bugging devices were placed under tables where exchanges between judges and witnesses take place. The person responsible for the bugging was Alba Luz Florez, a 33-year-old former agent known to DAS as Y-66.

ALBA LUZ FLOREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: My bosses told me it was an issue of national security, Florez says in an interview.

FORERO: Florez, who avoided charges by cooperating with prosecutors, used court security people, chauffeurs and even the coffee ladies to plant bugs and gather intelligence. Among those she recruited was the driver for the court's top investigative magistrate, Ivan Velasquez.

FLOREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: I knew everything about the driver's family, absolutely everything, Florez says. So I began to see how I could fill his needs. She learned the driver needed to pay child support for several children, so she paid him. And that he admired President Uribe.

FLOREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Let's do it for the president, she recalls telling him. Velasquez, the star investigative magistrate, sits in his small office, which had once been bugged.

IVAN VELASQUEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Here I talk to lawyers and witnesses who want to provide information, says Velasquez. He says the surveillance was designed to intimidate him and witnesses.

But to date, 30 congressmen - virtually all allies of Uribe - have been convicted after being investigated by the court. And the attorney general's office has also been busy; four of Uribe's top aides are under investigation. The former president's conduct is also under review, by a special legislative commission. Juan Forero, NPR News, Bogota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.