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Anatomy of an Investigation: The Colombian State’s War Against Civil Society

Fri 30th Jan 2009

Aidee Moreno Ibagué recently learned that the Colombian government is investigating her for the crime of rebellion. But Moreno Ibagué (pictured) has not taken up arms against the state. She does not plant bombs in Colombia’s cities. Nor does she carry an AK-47 assault rifle in the jungles of rural Colombia where leftist guerrillas have been fighting to overthrow the government for more than four decades. She is a lawyer who lives in the capital Bogotá. More specifically, she is a human rights lawyer for the country’s largest peasant union federation Fensuagro (The National Federation of Agricultural Farming Unions). She is also an outspoken critic of the government’s security and economic policies and the dirty war it is waging against those who struggle for social justice. According to Moreno Ibagué, it is her work and her political views that have made her a target of the state. “I will not be silent when there are so many atrocities,” she declares emphatically. “They have not been able to assassinate me, so now they want to put me in prison.”

Moreno Ibagué comes from a family of social activists and it is a family that has suffered more than its share of suffering as a result of its political work. “Unfortunately, the violence has hit us hard,” she explains. “They murdered my husband in 1994. We had a five-year-old son and I was four months pregnant at the time. And then in 2000 they murdered my brother. That same year my 16-year-old niece was disappeared. After the death of my husband I returned to my union work and I now have four children; I worry about the children.”

It is no secret that the Colombian state has targeted the country’s civil society organizations and individuals working non-violently for social justice, repeatedly labelling them “subversives,” “guerrillas” or “terrorists.” On numerous occasions in recent years, President Alvaro Uribe has publicly accused human rights defenders of being spokespersons for the guerrillas. But while the country’s political leaders and its security forces have been at the forefront of such attacks, there has been little evidence showing the degree to which the country’s public prosecutors in the office of the Fiscalia harbor similar sentiments. On many occasions, the Fiscalia has conducted investigations into the actions of political leaders and members of the state’s security forces. But recent documents obtained from the Fiscalia authorizing the issuance of warrants allowing the National Police to spy on Moreno Ibagué and other members of civil society groups raises troubling questions with regard to civil liberties and due process.

The Colombian army’s recent seizures of laptop computers and documents belonging to guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has resulted not only in the arrest and imprisonment of Colombians actively involved with civil society groups; it has also led to the state spying on many others. On various occasions the government’s interpretations of seized information has been suspect, as evidenced by its portrayal of information garnered from the laptop of the late FARC Commander Raúl Reyes. Furthermore, rarely is any of the alleged evidence presented to the public; only the government’s interpretation of it.

Therefore, given such a lack of transparency, when arrest and wiretapping requests are approved by the Fiscalia the public is left to assume that the police have presented reliable evidence in order to obtain the necessary warrants. But recently obtained Fiscalia documents that authorize the opening of investigations and the issuance of warrants based on information obtained during military operations against the FARC suggests that the state prosecutors’ anti-terrorism office is little more than a rubber-stamping operation when it comes to approving requests by the National Police.

On November 28, 2005, the Colombian army’s Counter-Guerrilla Battalion No. 9 allegedly seized documents, including notebooks, following combat operations against fighters belonging to the FARC’s Antionio Nariño Front near San Agustín in the department of Huila. The documents were handed over to the Investigations and Intelligence Unit (SIJIN) of the National Police. Three and a half years later, based on alleged evidence obtained from the notebooks, the SIJIN sent a report to the Fiscalia requesting permission to open an official investigation and for warrants to intercept the phone calls and emails of numerous people affiliated with civil society organizations working in southern Bogotá.

In its request to the Fiscalia, dated November 13, 2008, the SIJIN claim that the army had “seized various documents with information about the FARC-ONT, and direct orders issued by the secretariat of this guerrilla group related to the movement of the masses.” The SIJIN report asserts that FARC notebooks contain information describing how the guerrilla group is organizing urban cells of the Clandestine Colombian Communist Party (PCCC) in the nation’s capital Bogotá. According to the SIJIN report, the captured notebooks show that the objectives of the PCCC is to organize cells on behalf of the FARC in an attempt to infiltrate various social sectors in the city including communal action committees, schools, universities, sports organizations, environmental programs, community kitchens and “NGOs and other organizations of a social character.”

SIJIN investigators claim that one notebook describes the mission of the urban cell named PCCC-USME, which is allegedly active in Usme in southern Bogotá. According to the SIJIN report, cell members listed in the notebook were named Javier, Victoria and Evangelista, and their mission is to participate in the Asamblea Sur (Somos Urbano Rural), which translates as South Assembly (We’re Urban Rural). Asamblea Sur is an organization that works to improve the lives of poor people—many of them forcibly displaced from rural parts of the country—in areas of southern Bogotá such as Usme. The organization seeks to gain legal recognition of newly-established community settlements and access to public services, as well as to defend the environmental and social rights of residents.

The SIJIN claim that subsequent investigations revealed the existence of an NGO named Corpocristal (Crystal Planet Environmental Corporation), which works with youths on environmental issues. According to the SIJIN, the FARC notebooks contain a phone number for “Javier” of the “PCCC-USME” cell and that this number corresponded to Edison Javier Reyes Roa, an activist in Usme who works for Corpocristal and is a participant in the Asamblea Sur. From this information, the SIJIN report draws the conclusion that the FARC has created social organizations and is using NGOs to gain access to the population of southern Bogotá by addressing environmental and other social problems faced by these communities.

While it is not unreasonable to assume that the FARC are trying to establish links to civil society groups—after all, most insurgencies do—most of the evidence against Reyes Roa is circumstantial. For instance, it is not unusual for a community activist in Usme such as Reyes Roa to work for an environmental NGO and to participate in the Asamblea Sur, whose mission is to address environmental and social problems in the community. Evidence that could be considered more compelling is the alleged existence of Reyes Roa’s phone number in the FARC notebook. But this phone number represents the only “evidence” suggesting that Reyes Roa is a member of the PCCC and is linked to the rebel group. Even if one were to accept this single hand-written piece of information as sufficient evidence to launch an official investigation into his activities, it still only implies that one individual PCCC member is active in Corpocristal and the Asamblea Sur and does not provide any proof that these NGOs as entities—or any more of their members for that matter—are linked to the FARC as the SIJIN claims.

The SIJIN report expanded on its assertions by also accusing people who have worked on social issues with Reyes Roa—and even people who have worked with people who have worked with Reyes Roa—of also being FARC operatives despite there being no evidence whatsoever in the FARC notebooks—or elsewhere—to support such claims. In fact, many of these people are viewed by the SIJIN as guilty by association. For instance, the SIJIN report includes an organizational chart of the alleged clandestine network headed by Reyes Roa. It lists a total of eight people for whom the SIJIN were seeking permission from the Fiscalia to officially investigate for the crime of rebellion, which is defined as “the use of weapons with the intent to oust the national government or to suppress or to modify the constitutional or legal regime.”.

One branch of the organizational chart claims that Reyes Roa is linked to Dora Yaneth Peña Cano, who is linked to Oscar Baron Garzon, who in turn is linked to Aidee Moreno Ibagué. Each link becomes increasingly vague and by the time the organizational chart reaches Moreno Ibagué, there is absolutely no evidence presented in the SIJIN report that shows a relationship between her and any of the others named. According to the report, Reyes Roa regularly communicated with Dora Yaneth Peña Cano, who also worked with the Asamblea Sur. The most damning evidence that investigators could provide to the Fiscalia implicating Peña Cano was circumstantial, claiming that she and Reyes Roa communicated regularly, exchanged information related to the Asamblea Sur and that the Asamblea Sur was mentioned in the FARC notebooks as an organization the PCCC was to infiltrate. None of the activities that the report ascribed to Reyes Roa and Peña Cano were unusual given that both were active participants in the Asamblea Sur.

The only example provided in the SIJIN report of the type of information exchanged between the two was that Peña Cano told Reyes Roa she had experienced difficulties with another member, Oscar Baron Garzon, although no further details were provided. This latter—and only—suggestion of a relationship between Peña Cano and Baron Garzon is presented in the report as evidence that the latter is the next link in the clandestine chain. The report describes Baron Garzon as a social activist in the Ciudad Bolívar neighborhood of southern Bogotá and claims that his brother runs community kitchens that allegedly involve members of the PCCC.

The final link in this branch of the organizational chart—Aidee Moreno Ibagué—is completely disconnected from the previous ones and nowhere in the report does the SIJIN make any attempt to explain the connection between her and the others on the chart. The only reference in the report to Moreno Ibagué states that she “works as a lawyer for the NGO Fensuagro, which has economic links to the British NGO Justice for Colombia.” The SIJIN report also claims that Fensuagro—which is a union federation and not an NGO as the National Police claim—is mentioned in the FARC notebooks. The fact that Moreno Ibagué works for Colombia’s largest rural union federation—with more than 80,000 members—and that Fensuagro appears in the FARC notebooks is apparently sufficient “evidence” for the SIJIN to investigate her. The report also inexplicably implies that Fensuagro’s links to the British NGO Justice for Colombia further implicate Moreno Ibagué—even going so far as to include photos of the logos of both Fensuagro and Justice for Colombia as though that corroborates the implication.

Moreno Ibagué denies knowing any of the others listed on the organizational chart and believes that she is being persecuted because of the work she does. “The Colombian state has accused me of the crime of rebellion for the sole purpose of continuing its efforts to discredit Fensuagro, in which I am the national secretary for human rights,” claims Ibagué. “It has sought to block our work on the national and international level; it is simply state terrorism. They are seeking to discredit our organization in this manner because we know that we have a narco-paramilitary, neoliberal, extreme-right government in our country that seeks to put an end to all political, social and democratic expression.”

While it is not surprising that the National Police would cast such a wide net in its attempts to identify operatives of the FARC’s clandestine political network, the Fiscalia is expected—and required by law—to demand sufficiently compelling evidence before authorizing an official investigation and allowing for the interception of emails and phone calls of suspects. However, despite the clear lack of evidence presented in the report, prosecutor Jorge Iván Piedrahita Montoya of the Fiscalia’s anti-terrorism office approved the requests of the SIJIN the same day he received them.

Piedrahita Montoya deemed that the flimsy evidence provided by the SIJIN—apparently all that the police could muster after more than three years of investigative work—met the “minimum proof” required to show the existence of links between Reyes Roa, Peña Cano and three others on the organizational chart. Consequently, he authorized the opening of an official investigation into the five for the crime of rebellion.

In a separate ruling in the same case made on December 19, prosecutor Luis Isnardo Barrero deemed the SIJIN had successfully established that the FARC was implementing a strategy to clandestinely infiltrate social organizations and communities by focusing on social problems affecting the population. He also deemed that investigators had sufficiently verified the identities of those involved in these clandestine operations and authorized the opening of an investigation into Moreno Ibagué and others on the organizational chart for the crime of rebellion—despite the absence of evidence linking Moreno Ibagué to any of the other suspects.

Barrero authorized the SIJIN to intercept Moreno Ibagué’s cellular phone and her Fensuagro email account. The prosecutor also authorized the police to engage in surveillance of email addresses belonging to a wide array of people that she communicates with as part of her work such as members of Justice for Colombia, including that organization’s director Liam Craig-Best. According to Craig-Best, “Justice for Colombia coordinates support provided by British unions to Colombian unions including Fensuagro. Aidee Moreno Ibagué’s work is entirely legitimate and it’s shocking that the Colombian government would intercept not only her emails but also those of people she works with such as foreign reporters, human rights workers, as well as Justice for Colombia’s emails.”

In total, the warrants issued in the cases related to the FARC notebooks authorized the SIJIN to intercept more than 150 email accounts belonging to unionists, human rights defenders, academics, journalists and the offices of NGOs without any evidence that they had participated in the commission of a crime. In addition to Fensuagro and Justice for Colombia, the SIJIN also intercepted the emails of The Movement for Victims of State Crimes, the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the US-based Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) among others. According to a FOR statement, “The fear that such interception engenders may also promote self-censorship by human rights defenders and therefore impact their right to freedom of expression. Finally, it may be a harbinger of worse to come for the affected individuals, such as unfounded criminal prosecutions based on the data collected.” FOR also noted that the United States is partly responsible since the State Department awarded a $5 million contract to California-based Oakley Networks in 2006 to provide “internet surveillance software” to the SIJIN.

While the Colombian National Police, with the help of US taxpayer-funded surveillance equipment, carried out the spying activities, it was the Fiscalia that irresponsibly authorized the investigation of people for the crime of rebellion based on very little, and in some cases a complete lack of, evidence. The only actual evidence presented in the SIJIN report relevant to the eight accused was a single phone number belonging to Reyes Roa that was allegedly found in a FARC notebook. Beyond that, the evidence—or lack thereof—showed that the other seven people were guilty of nothing more than association. In the case of Moreno Ibagué, she was not even guilty of that. However, all of the accused—and the domestic and foreign organizations that they collaborate with who were also spied upon—do have two things in common: They are all engaged in the struggle for social justice and are critical of the Uribe government.

The Fiscalia’s rubber-stamping of the SIJIN’s warrant requests raises troubling questions about due process and the rule of law for the thousands of Colombians who are either currently under investigation or have already been imprisoned. It is estimated that there are more than 7,000 political prisoners in Colombia. Many of them are accused of the crime of rebellion and are languishing in prisons without ever being convicted. Among them is Liliany Obando, a human rights activist and international representative for Fensuagro who has been incarcerated for the past six months without trial. The Fiscalia authorized the SIJIN to investigate Obando based on alleged evidence—which has never been made public—garnered from the computer of FARC Commander Raúl Reyes. While Colombian authorities have claimed Obando’s case is based on information contained in emails that she exchanged with Reyes, a counter-terrorism investigator for the National Police has since denied that any emails were found on the FARC leader’s laptop, stating: “We haven’t seen any e-mails, I haven't found them so far. They found a large number of e-mail addresses, but Reyes kept these in a Word document and other Microsoft documents.” Despite the fact that the counter-terrorism investigator’s revelation contradicts the core “evidence” in the government’s case, Obando continues to languish in prison.

In the cases related to the FARC notebooks, authorization to investigate the accused was given by two prosecutors: Jorge Iván Piedrahita Montoya and Luis Isnardo Barrero. Moreno Ibagué claims that Piedreahita Montoya has abused the rights of many other people in the past, often resulting in peasants being detained by the state’s security forces and falsely accused of crimes. In one controversial case that recently came to the public’s attention, Piedreahita Montoya authorized a widespread investigation of databases at five universities based on very little evidence in an attempt to track down subversives. In response to a public outcry over Piedreahita Montoya’s actions, Attorney General Mario Iguaran recently dismissed the prosecutor. However, questions remain about just how widespread the Fiscalia’s practice of rubber-stamping police investigation requests is and regarding the plight of those who have already been imprisoned as a result of such actions. As the FARC notebook cases make evident, it appears that in at least some instances the Fiscalia has acted as an accomplice in the state’s war against civil society organizations. As for Moreno Ibagué, she is worried because the accusations and the investigations authorized by the Fiscalia could lead to worse things. “I fear for my life,” she admits. “In this country, they can kill us on any street corner.”

This article first appeared on Colombia Journal.


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