Colombian intelligence agency's latest scandal: leaking docs to drug lord

The DAS, Colombia's scandal-ridden intelligence service, is alleged to have provided intelligence – including identities of undercover agents – to one of the region's most wanted drug lords.

By , Guest blogger

Colombia's scandal-ridden intelligence service, the DAS, is alleged to have passed on high value information to one of the region's most wanted drug lords, in what is only the latest case of apparent collusion between the agency and the country's underworld.

According to newsweekly Semana, the Administrative Department of Security (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad - DAS) has lost control of its own database. A collection of intelligence documents, including lists naming hundreds of undercover agents deployed across the country, was leaked to the publication, which has included censored snapshots of the "top secret" memos. They reportedly include the identity, mission, and home addresses of hundreds of detectives and informants.

Semana adds that some of the sensitive intelligence has been passed on to associates of major cocaine trafficker Daniel Barrera, alias "El Loco." The current head of DAS, Felipe Muñoz, addressed the allegations Monday, saying that "information on Barrera's organization" was leaked by at least two people some 20 days ago.

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Mr. Barrera, who has a $2.7 million reward on his head, is one of the country's most notorious drug lords, best known for brokering a business deal between left-wing guerrillas the FARC and the rebels' former enemies, a neo-paramilitary group known as the ERPAC. Last week a US court indicted Barrera on cocaine trafficking charges, the latest sign that international law enforcement considers him a high-value target.

If the DAS have leaked sensitive information about the identity of their investigators to Barrera, it is not the only favor they have allegedly done for the drug kingpin. Less than a month ago, two of Barrera's operatives paid the DAS a million pesos (about $500) to have their criminal record wiped clean, according to Semana. For whatever reason, Barrera's men were apparently given a discount. According to Semana, five years ago a criminal had to pay the DAS five million pesos (about $2,745) to get the same job done.

If the DAS is leaking information to Colombia's criminal groups, this is partly because agency officials are on board a sinking ship. The DAS has been mired in scandal since February 2009, when the news media discovered that the intelligence service was spying on opposition politicians, Supreme Court judges, journalists, and human rights activists. The outrage reached such heights that in September of that year, then-President Alvaro Uribe declared the DAS should be eliminated altogether. A year later, the director of the agency resigned in disgrace then fled to Panama to avoid standing trial. The proposal to dissolve the DAS, meanwhile, died in Congress in mid-2010.

However, Uribe's successor, President Juan Manuel Santos, was quick to pick up the project again, with the support of key figures in his administration. In many ways, the wiretapping scandal made it impossible for the government to spare the DAS. As Mr. Santos said at the time, "this is a sick patient that needs a Christian burial."

As a result of the DAS's impending dissolution, rogue agents now have a good incentive to sell sensitive intelligence to high-paying bidders like Barrera. If Santos has his way, by November the DAS's 6,800 employees will either be unemployed or working for a new intelligence service, most likely one that forms part of the Defense or Interior Ministry, not the presidency. But until then, the government faces the difficult question of "what to do with those who know too much," as news site La Silla Vacia puts it.

Probably the most unique characteristic of the latest DAS scandal is that, so far, it appears to involve merely rogue elements in the agency. In previous cases when the DAS was known to work with Colombian criminal groups, it was done with the full knowledge and approval of the organization's top command. Uribe's first pick to head the DAS, Jorge Noguera, led the agency for three years before resigning in October 2005, when it became clear that he was a favored collaborator of paramilitary warlord Rodrigo Tovar, alias "Jorge 40."

Under Mr. Noguera's watch, the DAS fed the paramilitaries intelligence that helped them plan and execute the death of sociology professor Alfredo Correa in 2004. The DAS provided Jorge 40 with a blacklist of suspected FARC collaborators, many of them union leaders, human rights workers, and opposition politicians based along the Caribbean coast.

The DAS did more than pass names to the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). According to Rafael Garcia, the agency's former chief of intelligence, a faction of the DAS was nicknamed the "three letter cartel" for its role in helping the AUC traffic drugs and launder money. Mr. Garcia said the DAS handled at least 100 million pesos (about $55,000) in narco-profits between 2003 and 2004.

Other intelligence branches in Colombia have become embroiled in similar corruption scandals. The army's central intelligence unit, the 20th Intelligence Brigade, was disbanded in 1998, following years of allegations that they helped death squads identify, kidnap, and kill suspected rebel collaborators. As with the DAS, the main problems with the 20th Brigade was a lack of professionalization and respect for basic human rights, and fuzzy priorities. Targeting the FARC and the ELN was valued above all else, at the expense of pursuing the paramilitaries or drug traffickers like Barrera. This collusion was often explicit. At one point during Mr. Uribe's first term, when a DAS officer tried to carry out an operation targeting the land holdings of a noted AUC commander, Noguera called off the operation and had the "rogue" detective transferred.

The latest allegations of DAS misdeeds are another reminder that the intelligence service has a troubled history of clandestinely working with drug traffickers rather than working against them. Noguera will soon be paying time for his collaboration with the AUC's drug lords. With Barrera reportedly in possession of some of the DAS's most sensitive intelligence, the Santos administration probably has little choice but to finally push through with the DAS's dissolution once and for all.

--- Elyssa Pachico is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of her research here.

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