Completely unknown to European experts, the Colombian secret services were considerably developed to face up to the guerrillas and drug trafficking. Financed and supported by the United States, they have become a tool of the Plan Colombia instead of responding to national purposes. Hypertrophied, they extend their activities to neighboring States. However, their multiple mistakes have marred their success due to the lack of coordination and internal frictions between the police forces.
- Inteligente, a publication of the Administrative Department for National Security
October 1953 is a relevant date for the birth of the Colombian secret services because Gustavo Rojas Pinilla’s military government created the “Colombian Secret Services Administrative Department” as a specialized entity for “the Nation’s domestic and foreign security matters.” In 1960, during the administration of Alberto Lleras Camargo and advised by the CIA of the United States, the Administrative Department for National Security (DAS) was founded.
In 1989, the Academia Superior de Inteligencia y Seguridad Pública (Intelligence and Public Security Academy) of Aquimindia was founded and afterwards, Head of State Virgilio Barco restructured the DAS in the interest of achieving “modernization and an increased use of technology”; this process continued in 1991 during the Cesar Gaviria Administration, when the structure and functions of the intelligence agency were established.
But these were not the only changes: during Andrés Pastrana’s term (1998-2002), the DAS -whose slogan is: “Loyalty, Courage and Honesty”- was modified again in order to make it more flexible and dynamic. Next, we are going to focus on the situation and disturbing perspectives of the Colombian intelligence community under the administration of Álvaro Uribe.
DAS Mission and Structure
In its condition as the largest civil secret service of the State, the DAS -with an annual budget of about 100 million dollars and more than five thousand agents- produces strategic and operating intelligence, carrys out criminal investigations, migratory control and protects dignitaries to “guarantee the internal and foreign security of the State, preserves the integrity of the constitutional regimen and the defense of the national interests”; consequently, it supports the President of the Republic in the policy-making and the decision making processes by proposing the Head of State, the National Security Council, ministers, governors and mayors the measures to preserve public order and reestablish it every time it is disturbed.
The DAS is headed by Jorge Noguera, 41, an attorney appointed by President Uribe with a career in the financial and public sectors, who participated in the activities of the First Army Division and took courses on military intelligence as an officer of the Army reserve for six years.
Under its control, the DAS has the following structure: an office of the deputy section chief (controlled by the Intelligence Academy, along with the informatics and internal control offices); a General Secretariat (office of deputy directors for administrative, financial and staff matters); the Intelligence General Direction (office of deputy director for analysis, operations, human sources and counterintelligence); Dirección general operativa (General Operational Direction) (deputy director of especial investigations, Interpol, migratory and anti-kidnapping matters), plus some 32 Sub-directions in the Departments of the country.
Preponderance of the operational aspect
Training takes place in two buildings of the DAS Intelligence Academy, Aquimindia, Bogotá, and Aguazul in Casanare; where some 200 previously selected students stay for eight months. It is important to point out that the main book of the Colombian intelligence is the “Manual de inteligencia de combate” (“Manual of Combat Intelligence”) -MIC- written in the 60s at the “Charry Solano” Army Intelligence School, which has updated itself with a strong influence of the American and Israeli doctrine. The MIC has guided the almost 15 000 members of the 11 intelligence agencies, which operate in the country without being able to avoid in its moment the “black sheeps”: two of the most famous drug trafficking ring leaders, Orlando Henao and Víctor Patiño came from the intelligence corps. For decades, they worked for the F-2, the police intelligence services.
Unlike the other secret services of the continent and due to the severe internal conflict in Colombia, the DAS has acted as a mainly operational body (it has even used a rewards system to gather information). Since 2005 it will have 12 tactical groups formed by 28 detectives each, trained by the police and the army whose training, modern armament, intelligence devises and infrastructure are valued at 5 million dollars and by the end of 2005, eight more tactic groups are expected to be operational at an additional value of 2.5 million dollars.
The objective is to have these DAS elite commands ready to immediately react in the city or the rural areas to search, capture, or eliminate (if violent resistance is offered) guerilla, drug trafficking leaders, and the paramilitary, as part of an all-embracing strategy aimed at facing the following imminent threats for the Nation, the democratic institutions and the citizens: terrorism; drug trafficking; illicit finances; arms, munitions and explosives smuggling; kidnapping and extortion; as well as homicide, corruption and ordinary crimes.
Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC)
With the purpose of overcoming the limitations the national intelligence system has, especially in its “Policy of defense and democratic security”, the Uribe Administration put the -Joint Intelligence Committee-into action to bring together the security agencies of the Nation and coordinate the national strategic intelligence, so that the President of the Republic and the Minister of Defense can have access to elaborated analyses effective for the decision making process; harmonizing the distribution of tasks, promoting specialization, the horizontal exchange of information and the joint spreading of the operational successes, aimed at increasing the levels of inter-operating capacity. This is why Regional Intelligence Committees (attached to JIC) has been founded too in every Colombian department (province or state).
The JIC, chaired by the Minister or Vice-Minister of Defense meets once a week and is formed by the Joint Chief of Staff’s head of the intelligence department and the directors of intelligence of the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the National Police and the DAS; as well as by the head of the information and financial analysis unit of the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit.
By the way, in January 2005 the Colombian magazine Semana published a confidential report on the FARC’s finances made by the JIC in an inter-institutional work saying that such a terrorist group was being basically fed by kidnappings and cattle robberies, whereas drug trafficking, considered by the security forces as its primary source of incomes, hardly ranked third. In accordance with this investigation, 70% of the drug trafficking business in Colombia is still controlled by the traditional mafia groups, while the guerrilla markets the remaining 30%.
Through the Haws route
Colombia distinguishes itself from the majority of the rest of the countries of the region because it has not suffered prolonged military governments or democracy interruptions. Therefore, it has not had transition periods, something used by the government to frustrate the establishment of a congressional special commission with access to secret information and in charge of making sure that the intelligence services do their work as well as making sure these activities do not break the law or violate the citizens’ rights. In short, to force them to respect democracy and the rule of law.
To oppose a better “transparency” and the subjugation of the “civil control of the intelligence apparatus”, a hard line sector of the State highlights the complex nature of the domestic conflict, by claiming that “drug terrorists” would not only have huge resources but “ideological allies” in the Congress and the judiciary, a situation that would worsen, for the Colombian state would continue being vulnerable to the infiltration of drug trafficking and the guerrilla.
Consequently, hawks affirm they have gotten relevant triumphs, such as the arrest of the FARC ringleaders “Simón Trinidad” (in Quito) and Rodrigo Granda, alias “Ricardo González” (in Caracas); “thanks to the compartmentalized work of the secret services.” Thus, they reject a bigger control and favor the strengthening of the cooperation ties with the police and military institutions of neighboring countries in order to strengthen the antiterrorist war.
The Achilles’ heel of the security policy
In May 2003, Nelson Vargas Rueda, accused of being “El Marrano” (a guerrilla man who murdered three American missionaries in 1999), was extradited. Vargas always said he was not “El Marrano”, though. In July 2004, the American justice corroborated what he said when it decided to return him to Colombia. The man, who had spend two years locked in a maximum security prison, constantly said he was innocent and at the end, President Álvaro Uribe had no choice but to admit the shameful mistake.
How could it be explained that someone, whose identity is not confirmed, has already been condemned and extradited? Obviously, something failed: intelligence and the capacity to turn the pieces of circumstantial evidence provided by witnesses into a fact that the captured person was the guerrilla man looked for by the justice. The Vargas case is not an isolated case. Capturing and prosecuting citizens based on the testimony of an informer is a common procedure that makes the intelligence corps and justice itself less credible.
Beyond the optimistic official rhetoric, in real life, the rivalry between the different security corps encouraged by the pressure of the Uribe administration to get immediate results, as well as the lack of coordination, are affecting the basic protocols of intelligence work. “The eagerness to hit and create a favorable climate of opinion lead to spectacular captures with the minimum verification”, affirms Fernando Brito, former director of the DAS.
In this sense, the renowned “Ideas for Peace Foundation” concludes that “there have always been two wars in Colombia: that of the army and that of the police. And this has not changed much due to the poor links between both institutions.”
Counting on security corps, which run contrary to each other and have public clashes among themselves, there is no time enough to exchange information which is usually controlled by the army, the police and the DAS at the same time. Then, the problem is not only related to the quality of the information but to its processing and analysis.
This has serious consequences in an intelligence system like the Colombian one which depends too much on informers, usually more than on investigations or the evidences provided by the use of technology. Even when human sources are a valuable tool for intelligence work, they are also very risky, especially when many informers belong to the underworld, and when they have twisted interests and sell the information unscrupulously. Therefore, the information provided must be verified with other sources and subjected to rigorous evaluations; something that not always happens.
According to authorities, at least 10% of the operations or processes based on the testimony of the informers turn out to be huge failures. Due to these problems in the intelligence work and the criminal investigation, the Colombian state pays a high price: the useless efforts of hundreds of members of the police and district attorneys who work on plans that will later be aborted and millions spent in operations which end up with hundreds of innocent people imprisoned who when released become “military targets” of the illegal armed groups accused of collaborating with the security forces while the true criminals remain free.
The secret services in their labyrinth
Undoubtedly, a persistent characteristic of the Colombian intelligence community is the repetition of functions among the various agencies, DAS’ confused mixture of duties (where often the intelligence activities and those of the criminal investigation clash), along with the obstacles to achieve a satisfying complementariness between the military, the police and DAS intelligence.
Due to all these facts, in February 2005, different voices were added to the requests made to President Uribe to fire the DAS director, after the publication of a new scandal revealed by newspaper El Tiempo from Bogotá and the Cambio magazine: the head of the computer science department of the DAS, Rafael García Torres, was arrested once some investigators of the very same DAS confirmed the said official and two subordinates erased from the system the arrest warrant, with extradition purposes, of four Colombians (drug dealers and paramilitary). García Torres is an old friend of Jorge Noguera, the director of the DAS, with whom he studied and worked, and that was the reason why he was taken to the intelligence service as his right-hand man.
Previously, the public opinion witnessed another episode of friction between the main leaders of the Colombian national security: after the alarming announcement made by the director of the DAS in which he said that “the FARC are training youngsters between 12 and 17 years old to perpetrate suicide attacks”, the chief of the Army rejected Noguera’s version, who continued the controversy by adding that “such disrespectful statements are the result of resentments because I said some military commanders had no will to go over to the offensive.”
But these are not the only objections against the DAS. The Miami newspaper El Nuevo Herald reported in April 2005 that “President Álvaro Uribe, his closest adviser Fabio Echeverri and officials of the state-owned oil company Ecopetrol were sued in a federal court of Florida for alleged acts of corruption, abuse of power, intimidation and threats” to favor, through an oil contract, American Drummond Company to the detriment of enterprise Llanos Oil Exploration.
The legal action, said President Uribe, would use the DAS to “fabricate” a case of assets laundry against the manager of the affected firm, the citizen of Dutch origin Hendrik van Bilderbeek (arrested in Bogotá) to get economic benefits in the agreement with Drummond. In view of this serious accusation, spokesmen of the Colombian executive assured that Álvaro Uribe had neither power to interfere with oil contracts nor responsibility on the denounced facts.
In another example, the evident case of the controversy among the secret services took place after the capture of the FARC ringleader “Simón Trinidad” in Quito in January 2004. The Colombian police, supported by the CIA, had been tracking the movements of the guerrilla man for months until he was captured. At the same time, the army had had its own intelligence work. Therefore, the Minister of Defense of Colombia appointed a single chief for the operation which ended successfully. However, the police and the army wanted their work to be more recognized than the other’s.
What began with different versions ended up in the leak to television programs and the monitoring videos of “Simón Trinidad” in Quito placing the unpopular (and now dismissed President) Lucio Gutierrez in serious difficulties before the Ecuadorian public opinion, mainly opposed to the interference of its country in the Colombian conflict. The entry of Colombian secret agents to the Ecuadorian territory was also evident and what the intelligence corps did to investigate the guerilla ringleaders was also discovered.
The sinister face of intelligence?
Something worse happened later when in August 2004, Congressmen Wilson Borja and Alexánder López, together with trade union and human rights organizations denounced before the Attorney General of the Nation a plot to attempt against their lives, including that of the trade union leader of Cali, Luis Hernández and human rights advocate Berenice Celeyta, whose threat made the “Center for Human Rights of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial” of the United States, linked to similar agencies in 20 countries, to request the Colombian government to conduct a thorough investigation.
As part of this case, the district attorney’s office raided the office and house (in Cali and Medellín), of the Lieutenant Colonel of the active army, Julián Villate, and found secret documents about an alleged «Dragon Operation», apparently in charge of a “parallel intelligence network” that involved the companies “Latin American Comprehensive Consultancy” and its associate “Serasys”, intertwined with several state security agencies: Third Brigade of the Army, Cali Metropolitan Police, Police Intelligence Service and DAS.
This alleged network would have gathered information about the political positions, activities, and mainly, the vulnerability in the movements of the opposition political leaders (even the Mayor of Bogotá Luis Garzón), trade union and social leaders and advocates of human rights. The inquiries regarding this serious denunciation have not finished yet.
For its part, the 2004 Annual Report on Colombia, issued by Reporters without Borders, warned that an “anti-terrorist statute”, passed in December 2003 (waived later by the Constitutional Court), threatened the fundamental rights of the citizens and jeopardized the secret of the press sources, thus confirming an intolerant and intrusive attitude of the Colombian Executive. Reporters without Borders equally recalled that President Álvaro Uribe made statements against the nongovernmental organizations, and accused them of complicity with terrorism, after 80 of them labeled him “authoritarian” and reproached his permissiveness with paramilitary groups.
With a similar perspective, the “Human Rights Watch Report 2005” and the “Amnesty International Report 2004”, agreed to denounce that the internal conflict in Colombia was still accompanied by generalized abuses of human rights and the International Humanitarian Law, where “all the actors of the conflict -guerrilla, paramilitary groups, and the armed forces- commit serious violations such as massacres, murders and kidnappings.” Finally, Amnesty International indicated that Uribe’s government was not taking credible actions yet to break up the ties between the armed forces and the paramilitary groups, allowing impunity.
The other side of the coin
But not all is negative. There is also the other side of the coin. It is like when together with a proper informer, the intelligence agencies implement an adequate coordination, patience, reserve and precision on the “target”; as it happened when “Sonia” was captured, the most important head of finances of the FARC. She was extradited in March 2005 to the United States after being arrested through an effective and bloodless intelligence operation of the army.
On that particular issue, a report presented to the National Congress by the Head of State Álvaro Uribe in 2004, indicated that during his term, roughly 23 000 subversive people had been neutralized (either killed or arrested); equally, in the last two years, DAS has arrested 13 persons accused of being the ringleaders of the FARC and 2 281 members of illegal armed groups, thus dismantling also 210 drug dealing organizations. One of the most relevant arrests by DAS was that of Wilmar Marin Cano, also known as “Hugo”, ringleader of FARC’s front 22 and considered the main kidnapper of such violent group.
According to this official balance, the operational results of the security and intelligence forces against criminal groups allowed to reduce 20% of homicides, 49% extortionate kidnappings, 30% of terrorists actions, 75% of attacks on populations and 46% of forced raids; whereas about 2 282 guerrilla would have deserted and joined the rehabilitation programs thus enabling -for the first time- the presence of the law enforcement personnel in all municipalities of the country.
However, the decisive victories against the guerrilla are still an illusion for the Colombian State, according to French professor Daniel Pecaut, expert on issues about Colombia, who reiterated: “The FARC are still very far from being defeated and could adapt to the operational victories of the Military Forces”. That is, reorganizing after having taken great blows, like the arrest -in Quito and Caracas- of two of its ringleaders or carrying out a strategic withdrawing at the military offensive.
Regarding this matter, the prestigious Fundación Seguridad y Democracia (Security and Democracy Foundation) of Colombia, asserted that “despite the offensive attitude of the police and the increase of its operational capacity, it has been unable to significatively change neither the acceleration rate nor the absolute number of the guerrilla attacks”. Actually, till later last year, the subversive people had remained relatively withdrawn in the midst of a generalized offensive of the military, but with the arrival of 2005, the guerrilla increased the number of ambushes, attacks against military bases and strikes on peoples.
Attempt to improve the situation
In the midst of an intensification of the violent actions of the FARC and the crisis in April 2005, after the President of the United States retired 4 senior officers of the army that opposed the reform, the Colombian government has begun -based upon the Joint Manual JP-3 of the United States Armed Forces- to perform military changes for a joint command and control in order to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the operations carried out by the Military Forces, including the intelligence works.
For the Uribe administration, this change had already shown its effectiveness in other countries, and in Colombia through the Joint Task Force Omega and the Joint Command of the Caribbean. Hence, it should move on despite the resistance of “a reduced group of generals of the army who see their bureaucratic power at stake”.
Intelligence extraterritorial operations
Now, going back to the analysis of the intelligence system, it must be pointed out that Colombia does not have a proper and modern legal framework to set the limits, range and controls of the intelligence activities. Consequently, many secret operations or the infiltration into illegal groups bring about conflicts, doubts and legal ambiguities. The thing is even worse if these acts take place abroad as happened in Ecuador and Venezuela where instead of favoring the cooperation mechanisms with the neighboring security corps, what prevailed was distrust and the acts of violence of the Colombian government.
These events showed a possible future scenario: as part of an international strategy against terrorism and drug dealing, and the implementation of “preventive security” plans promoted by the United States, Colombia may sign agreements with the neighboring countries to guarantee the permanent presence of the Colombian intelligence agents in their territories with the purpose of monitoring the activities of Colombian terrorists or drug dealers as a previous step so that the Colombian secret services can carry out, apart from the intelligence work, joint special operations with the security corps of other countries to capture and extradite the said criminals.
Regarding this, it should be kept in mind that DAS has a list of 65 people who, according to it, act as the spokespersons of the FARC and the ELN in Cuba, Nicaragua, Mexico, Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, France and Belgium.
In addition, the director of DAS informed in September 2004 that the FARC had infiltrated -with ideologues and spokespersons- in Chile and Argentina through unions “to promote the social dissatisfaction and thus get a regional expansion of its organization”. In this sense, DAS also monitors the links the FARC has for the smuggling and exchange of drugs for arms in Paraguay, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica.
History repeats itself?
In April 2005, Jorge Enrique Díaz, former director of DAS in the North of Santander (Colombia) and José Celis, active sergeant of the Colombian army, were found tortured and murdered in La Fría, Táchira State (Venezuela). According to an investigation carried out by magazine Cambio, their mission was to capture Ramiro Vargas, the ringleader of subversive ELN, who seemed to have been negotiating properties in the area.
This confirmed that the Colombian intelligence was still carrying out extraterritorial operations despite the recent diplomatic confrontation with Venezuela for the Rodrigo Granda case.
The United States in the Colombian intelligence
Clearly, after September 11, the American government substantially increased the participation of its intelligence community in Colombia as well as its financial and logistic assistance. This is the reason why nowadays there are about 800 “military advisers” or “Joint Planning Assistance Teams” (veterans of the Special Forces, pilots, strategists, engineers, and intelligence and war medicine experts, among others) in the Colombian territory.
At the same time, the following institutions also operate there officially or secretly: Department of Defense, South Command, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, Central Office of Images and the National Reconnaissance Office, BFI, Secret Service, DEA, Department of Internal Security, Custom Services, and the Army, the Navy and the Air Force Intelligence Services.
Some of these entities coordinate actions with the USAID and an Office for Migrations through non governmental institutions, social assistance programs and the construction of infrastructure works.
Within this, we find the “Ernesto Esguerra” base, “Tres Esquinas” -Caquetá Department (South), where the “Joint Intelligence Committee” is located with a “Command, control, communications, computers and intelligence -C4I structure” through the “Peace Panorama System” program with state of the art technology to discover mobilizations of troops, intercept and transmit messages “in real time” as well as monitoring a huge zone of rivers and forest in the geo-strategic Amazonian region of the Colombian South, the best coca and poppy producing area of the country as well as of guerrilla activity.
The equipments the South Command had in Panama were transferred to Tres Esquinas, the most important “brain” of the war against terrorism and drug dealing in Latin America. This 1 500 has platform, located at 3 000 meters above the sea level right in the confluence of rivers Caquetá and Orteguaza, has a 2 500 meters landing strip for planes used in intelligence works and early alerts: AWACS-E3, Orion P-3, RC-7 (“ghost plane”) and airplanes Galaxy C-5 for the massive transportation of troops.
It also has areas for the training and the stay of the staff; sophisticated radars connected to satellite systems given by the United States government to be managed by American advisers and Colombian military men as part of a group of “relocatable over the horizon” radars (ROTHR), ground-base surveillance radars (GMR) and advance early warning radars (AEW) installed thanks to the budget of the Plan Colombia (now Patriot Plan) to monitor the country including the Atlantic and the Pacific borders from Putumayo, San Andrés island, the Guajira, Vichada, San José del Guaviarem Leticia, among others.
At the same time, several member states of the European Union give their support to Colombia on intelligence issues; for instance, reconnaissance satellite “Helios” financed by Spain, Italy, France and Belgium offers the Colombian intelligence its infrared technology to make night photographs whereas the British government gives its assistance on matters of military, police and DAS intelligence.
Intelligence by contract
The extended use of contractors in Colombia (some 600) instead of military personnel means that few Americans are aware of the level of involvement of their country in the Colombian territory and its escalation for Colombia is the third recipient of American military assistance after Israel and Egypt.
“The American public opinion is very sensitive to the counting of deaths”, said Colombian general Néstor Ramírez, former military attaché in Washington. “Suppose 20 American military men die here. That would be the end of the Plan Colombia; however, since 1998, more than 20 private contractors have died or disappeared in Colombia and this has been hardly known”, he added.
In short, the main American companies hired by the Department of Defense to “advise and support” the intelligence activities in Colombia are: DynCorp; Aerospace Technologies, Inc.; TRW (radar system for the processing of anti-drug and counterinsurgency intelligence); Matcom (it coordinates anti-drug intelligence air missions); Cambridge Communications (radars and equipments from Leticia up to the Tres Esquinas base); Northrop Grumman, California Microwave Systems: they control an air system to collect intelligence images and communications in guerrilla and drug dealing zones.
Joined to them are: Alion, LLC (consultants to improve the Colombian capacity to collect and process information); Rendon Group (it advises the Ministry of Defense of Colombia in psycho operations); Science Applications International Corp. (analysis of intelligence images on the American embassy security and the staff), and Man Tech: it controls the Plan Colombia information databases and transmit them in “real time” to the authorities; it also operates equipments which intercept communications and collect images for the DEA.
Forced by the different facets of the internal armed conflict of its country, the Colombian intelligence system favors the operational aspect and not the strategic one still being unable to reach an adequate level of inter-operating capacity between DAS and the military and police security corps along with a poor verification of data coming from the national network of informers; a fact that provokes inter agency conflicts in the presentation of the results to a government that demand immediate triumphs.
However, the secret services have gotten a qualitative increase in the last years regarding the criminal groups, by improving the perception of the internal security thanks to the huge resources of the “Plan Colombia” but at the expense of keeping its doubtful history on the basic human rights whereas its “irregular extraterritorial action” against the ringleaders of the guerrilla by implementing an “antiterrorist preventive security” strategy promoted by the United States could provoke far-reaching conflicting situations with other countries if they don’t start to respect sovereignty and the International Law.