Colombian Senator Antonio Sanguino moves around town in a bullet-proof vehicle, with three pistol-packing bodyguards watching over him as he attends meetings and political rallies.
But the leftist senator says that while the bodyguards protect him from assassination attempts, they have been unable to neutralise another type of threat: Sanguino believes Colombia’s intelligence services have been intercepting his phone calls, looking at his emails and tracking his WhatsApp chats since early last year, and sending that information to the nation’s governing party.
On Friday, he joined two other opposition senators who are presenting evidence of alleged illegal espionage to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and seeking protective measures from the Washington-based organisation.
The senators claim rogue officers in the military worked with conservative President Iván Duque’s party to spy on numerous civilian targets in the largest espionage scandal in a decade.
“We want [the commission] to pressure the Colombian government into carrying out a rigorous investigation, that also reveals who has ordered our communications to be intercepted,” Sanguino said in his Bogota office.
“I have always had security problems,” said the senator, who in his youth was an urban militant for a left-wing guerrilla group. “But this is the first time that I realise my communications are being reviewed by someone else.”
The legal steps taken by Sanguino and senators Iván Cepeda and Roy Barreras follow a report by a Colombian news magazine saying that several members of the opposition, high court judges and journalists were spied on by the military last year.
In an article published last Sunday, Semana magazine reported on interviews with members of an elite military intelligence unit who say their superiors ordered them to use software and equipment purchased for spying on terrorist groups to eavesdrop on high-ranking members of the opposition and on a judge who was overseeing a witness-tampering case involving former president Álvaro Uribe.
The magazine claims that knowledge of the espionage scandal within some sectors of the government forced the commander of Colombia’s Army to resign in late December.
General Nicacio Martínez said he was stepping down to spend more time with his family, and his lawyer told news outlets this past week that the general had no knowledge of the purported illegal espionage operation.
Defence Minister Carlos Trujillo said he had no knowledge of phone tapping and email interceptions prior to the Semana report and promised an internal investigation. Trujillo also said that in early December when he became defense minister, he ordered subordinates to carry out an “inventory” of the nation’s intelligence activities over the past decade.
Colombia’s attorney general also launched an investigation into the espionage scandal after the report.
Incidents of phone-tapping and illegal spying have plagued Colombia over the past decade.
In 2011, the country’s largest intelligence agency was disbanded after an investigation found that its agents for years had been tapping the phones of journalists and opposition leaders with the approval of the agency’s director. The phone tapping occurred under the presidency of Uribe, who is now a senator and an influential member of the current president’s Democratic Center party.
In 2014, computer technicians working for the Democratic Centre’s presidential candidate were arrested for spying on government negotiators and members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia as they undertook peace negotiations. Senior party members claimed the technicians acted without their consent.
'Year after year'
“These denunciations of illegal interceptions happen year after year in Colombia,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “There is a serious risk that these practices, which violate privacy and democracy, will become normal in the country.”
Senator Iván Cepeda, who went to Washington to discuss the surveillance uncovered by Semana, said he will meet with members of the US Congress and ask them to closely monitor US funding for Colombian intelligence agencies.
Cepeda believes officials in the military and the governing party are targeting politicians and journalists who support the 2016 peace deal with the FARC rebels and are critical of how Duque has handled its implementation.
Another politician who was spied on, according to Semana, is the governor of a rural province who has criticized the national government’s plans to fight cocaine production with an herbicide that can cause cancer.
Sanguino, who was elected to the Senate on behalf of the Green party, has been an outspoken critic of the military and early last year opposed the naming of Martinez as army chief, citing his poor human rights record.
He said he worries that information taken from his communications could be used to launch “libelous” campaigns against him or even to stage physical attacks.
“The consequences of being spied on are unpredictable,” he said. “We are in a country were members of the opposition have long been persecuted.”
by Manuel Rueda and Christine Armario, Associated Press