In an escalating scandal that could lay bare the deep divisions in this Andean nation, President Juan Manuel Santos on Tuesday ordered a thorough investigation into allegations that factions within the army might be spying on the government’s own peace negotiators in Havana.
Santos ordered his staff to find the “dark forces” that may be trying to “sabotage” the peace talks, which aim to end the 50-year civil conflict with the country’s largest guerrilla group.
The announcement came after Semana.com, one of the country’s most respected media outlets, reported late Monday that the army was working with civilian hackers to break into the email and text-message accounts of government peace negotiators, including chief negotiator Humberto de la Calle.
“Who could be interested in investigating, in recording, in intercepting our peace negotiators?” Santos asked during a meeting with the national police. “What dark forces are behind this?”
The secret spying office, called “’Andromeda,” operated out of a commercial district in Bogotá and was disguised as a restaurant and a computer lab. The office was set up in 2012 and operated for more than a year before being shut down by judicial authorities in late January, Semana.com reported.
The article was the result of a 15-month investigation and relied heavily on anonymous sources, but no high government official has suggested that it’s false.
Fernando Hernández, the director of the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, which studies the Colombian conflict, called the allegations “extremely serious.”
“This shows that within the state there are forces lined up against the peace process. There’s an extreme right-wing here that wants to sabotage the process,” he said. “What are the possibilities of peace dialogues under these conditions?”
The government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have been trying to hammer out a peace deal in Cuba for more than a year. The talks are controversial in some quarters. In particular, former president Alvaro Uribe — one of the country’s most popular politicians — has been an open critic, accusing Santos of turning a blind-eye to FARC crimes and atrocities in hopes of winning peace.
Since November 2012, negotiators have cleared two of the six points on the peace agenda. They resumed meeting in Havana this week as they discuss illegal drugs — one of the main sources of financing for the guerrillas, who are considered a terrorist group by Colombia and the United States.
The negotiations are seen as critical for Santos, who hopes to win reelection in May.
From Havana, the FARC said they would make an announcement about the spying allegations on Wednesday. Government negotiators declined to comment to local media.
Ironically, one of the key sources for the Semana.com story said that the commission in Havana was wary of transmitting sensitive information via email and through mobile PIN messages “because they knew that the Cubans could intercept the data if they sent it from the island.”
It’s still not clear who might get caught in the new scandal. While the news report cited the army, other media speculated that the newly formed National Intelligence Directorate, or DNI, might be involved. The DNI took the place of the scandal-riddled DAS intelligence agency, which was dissolved in 2011 after it was caught spying on opposition lawmakers, judges and journalists. DAS officials were also charged with passing confidential information to right-wing paramilitary groups who used it to order assassinations.
If the DNI is involved, it would be very problematic, said Jaime Duarte, an analyst at the Externado University in Bogotá, who studies military affairs.
“In that case, what was supposed to be the solution would be part of the problem,” he said.
What does seem to be clear is that there are deep divisions within the military, he said. While one part of it follows the command of the chief executive, the other part seems to be working against national aims.
“They’re as fractured as they say that the guerrillas are,” Duarte said of the military.
On Tuesday, Santos said he’s made a stand against rogue intelligence services in the past. The DAS spying scandal took place while Santos was minister of defense under Uribe. And it was Santos who, as president, oversaw its dissolution.
“I have not wavered in fighting the use of illegal intelligence, because I know very well that it undermines and debilitates the legal use of intelligence,” he said. “And the legal use of intelligence is absolutely necessary for any country to defend itself against its enemies.”
The new allegations have also put Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón, one of Santos’ closest aides, in the crossfire. On Tuesday, he appeared with Santos and also vowed to get to the bottom of the issue.
But Congressman Iván Cepeda, who may have also been targeted by the army spying, called for his resignation.
“I think Minister Pinzón should resign because it’s his responsibility,” Cepeda told RCN Radio. “What they were hoping to find with these intercepts is information that could damage the peace process.”