Wiretap scandal grows in Colombia

Times Staff Writer

President Alvaro Uribe faced a new scandal Tuesday over alleged wiretapping of political opponents and journalists, one day after he ordered the arrest of 19 present and former Colombian officials accused of signing a “devil’s pact” with right-wing paramilitaries.

In a news conference Tuesday, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos disclosed that the administration had uncovered a broad and systematic practice by the national police of wiretapping prominent public figures, including members of Uribe’s government.

The 12 top generals in the national police were dismissed or forced into retirement Monday over the scandal, including Colombia’s police chief, Gen. Jorge Daniel Castro, and the head of police intelligence, Gen. Guillermo Chavez.

Santos insisted that neither he nor Uribe was aware of the wiretaps. As defense minister, Santos is responsible for the Colombian armed forces, including the 130,000-member national police. He said the wiretaps had been going on for as long as three years.

“Neither he nor I nor anyone in the administration was aware this was going on,” said Santos, who became defense minister last July.


The disclosures come as Uribe deals with a growing scandal involving allegations that many of his political supporters have colluded with outlawed paramilitary groups blamed for numerous human rights violations, including mass killings.

Arrest warrants were issued Monday for five members of Colombia’s Congress for having signed a 2001 pact with paramilitary leaders promising to work together to “re-found” the nation. Eight other members of the Senate and lower house had been arrested previously and accused of ties to the paramilitaries.

The Uribe government said it became aware of the alleged illegal wiretapping Sunday night, when it began investigating how transcripts of wiretapped conversations appeared in Semana, a newsweekly based in Bogota, the capital.

The article embarrassed Uribe with its portrayal of jailed paramilitary leaders running criminal enterprises from their cells. The imprisoned militia leaders are in the process of confessing and giving up illegal property as part of the demobilization process engineered by the president. About 31,000 paramilitary fighters have laid down their arms as part of the plan aimed at ending four decades of civil war.

Human rights organizations and opposition groups have long suspected that they were the objects of surveillance and eavesdropping, said Jorge Rojas Rodriguez, president of a leading Bogota-based Colombian human rights organization known by its Spanish initials, CODHES.

“The government has a lot to explain from a democratic point of view, how it uses military intelligence to find out what the opposition says,” Rojas said. “It only shows this is a police state that puts a premium on arbitrariness over the rule of law.”

At the news conference, Santos said there was no proof that the national police commander or his intelligence director knew of the wiretap practice. He said he “lamented” that both had to resign but added that they had to take “political responsibility” for the actions of the force.

Santos introduced the new commander of the national police, Gen. Oscar Naranjo, who promised to “purify” the force and disclose details of the wiretaps as they are known during the course of the investigation.

Naranjo had headed the force’s investigative unit, leading inquiries of drug traffickers.