Colombia: spying on reporters shows army unable to shake habits of dirty war

By Joe Parkin Daniels

María Alejandra Villamizar has had a front row seat of Colombia’s civil conflict. Over a 25-year career, she has reported from rebel-held jungles to territories controlled by violent drug cartels. She also worked as an adviser to several presidents during successive attempts to make peace.

But she recently discovered that her work had put her in the crosshairs of the military.

An investigation by the local news weekly Semana found that the Colombian army gathered intelligence on Villamizar and more than 130 of her colleagues – including at least three US reporters.

Soldiers had trawled through information on social media in order to build “profiles” on each target, with comprehensive lists of their contacts, families and friends. Their political leanings were deduced from their posts and connections, and logged in a database.

The scandal revealed that despite a peace deal which led to the demobilization of the country’s largest rebel group, Colombia’s US-backed military are still unable to shake habits from a dirty war in which the rules that usually bind a democracy’s armed forces are non-binding – and journalists and opposition members are considered fair targets.

“What this shows is that the army has never known how to fight a clean war,” said Villamizar said. “They don’t know how to stand on the side of civilians, or even what their role is in Colombia.”

In recent weeks, the country’s military has come under further pressure amid demonstrations against the police force (which is overseen by the defense ministry). Thirteen civilians have been killed amid protests against police brutality during which three reporters were assaulted by officers.

Journalists have long been targeted in Colombia, and accused of collaborating with the leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc). That group signed a peace deal with the government in 2016, formally ending five decades of civil war that killed 260,000 people and forced over 7 million to flee their homes.

But violence still rages as dissident guerrilla factions and rightwing paramilitaries battle for territory once held by Farc. And as before, reporters in the most dangerous regions are still routinely surveilled and threatened by armed factions – including the army.

“As a journalist and a citizen it’s deeply upsetting to say, but we are a long way from being able to talk about post-conflict,” Villamizar said.

Colombia’s army is no stranger to scandal. Between 2002 and 2008, soldiers abducted and murdered thousands of civilians, declaring them rebel combatants in order to boost kill statistics and justify US military aid.

Unauthorized surveillance scandals are a recurring theme. In 2011, the country’s entire national intelligence agency, the administrative department of security (DAS), was dismantled after it was found to have wiretapped reporters, opposition politicians and human rights defenders.

Some DAS units had received US aid, but Washington has long had much closer ties to Colombia’s military, a key partner in the “war on drugs”. Between 2000 and 2015, Bogotá received $9.94bn in US aid, with 71% designated for security assistance. Since 2016, over $850m has been sent to support Colombia’s security forces – money which in theory is conditional on good behaviour.

But US citizens were also caught up in the latest scandal: army analysts gathered intelligence on three US journalists, Nicholas Casey of the New York Times, Juan Forero of the Wall Street Journal, and John Otis of NPR.

“It’s clear that the army, after all these years, still sees the press as an enemy of the establishment” said Jonathan Bock, deputy director of Colombia’s Press Freedom Foundation (or FLIP).

José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said he suspected Colombia’s army has been emboldened to target US citizens by the White House’s constant attacks against the press.

“Every time Trump attacks journalists or calls for excessive use of force against protesters, abusive leaders and military officials in the Americas feel they have a green light to engage in serious violations of human rights,” he said.

Colombia’s prosecutor general has said the spying cases would be included in an existing investigation into military wrongdoing. Senior commanders laid the blame on a few “bad apples” and fired 11 soldiers, including five colonels, three majors and a general. A second general offered his resignation.

But many analysts are skeptical that the investigations will pinpoint the officers or politicians who ordered the spying.

“Nobody who knows anything about Colombia has any reason to be confident that the intellectual authors will be held accountable,” said Adam Isacson, at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank.

Gerald Bermúdez, a photojournalist from Bogotá, was unsurprised that he and his colleagues had been targeted. “Colombia is not the democracy it pretends to be,” Bermúdez said. “But no-one can stop me from reporting: it’s my job and my life.”