COLOMBIA’S NATIONAL POLICE FORCE is facing allegations that it wiretapped a high-profile journalist investigating the involvement of cadets in a prostitution ring.
While the attorney general’s office and Colombia’s president have separately ordered investigations into the allegations, critics say the probes are being hindered by death threats and conflicts of interests. This is the third major wiretapping scandal in Colombia in less than a decade.
The latest scandal broke when prominent radio host and former news anchor Vicky Dávila announced that she, her family, and her reporting team had been trailed and wiretapped by the national police.
Dávila, who was investigating allegations that some 300 police cadets were engaged in a prostitution ring catering to top officials, told The Intercept that she believed she had been followed since 2014.
“I found out when an unknown person, who claimed to be a member of the police and wanted to clear their conscience, wrote to me and [fellow journalist] Claudia Morales to inform us that we were being targeted by a clandestine police spying program,” Dávila said.
Since Dávila went public with the allegations in December, four other prominent journalists investigating the police have also claimed to be victims of wiretapping and harassment.
Colombia’s attorney general, Eduardo Montealegre, has publicly supported Dávila, adding credibility to her charges.
“The attorney general’s office has strong indications that there existed tracking and interception of Vicky Dávila and other journalists by police,” said Montealegre’s office in a tweet.
Following that statement, the attorney general’s office reported that the prosecutor leading the investigation in Bogotá had received a series of anonymous calls that included death threats. In response, Montealegre said his office “would not be intimidated.”
The attorney general’s office declined to respond to questions from The Intercept about the investigation. The national police could not be reached for comment.
Amid the ongoing investigation, President Juan Manuel Santos has refused to fire the director of the national police, Gen. Rodolfo Palomino, who is also facing allegations that he sexually harassed a subordinate in 1998. Santos expressed doubt over the evidence presented by Dávila and Morales, calling their allegations no more than “gossip and rumors.
“It would be irresponsible on my part to sacrifice someone with such a career in the police,” Santos told the press. “If they bring me evidence, they can be sure I will act.”
Origins of a Spy Scandal
The national police force became the primary authority for carrying out surveillance activities when Colombia’s intelligence agency, the Administrative Department of Security, or DAS, was dismantled in 2011. Its closure was part of the fallout over revelations that the agency had been illegally spying on the country’s Supreme Court, opponents of former President Álvaro Uribe, and human rights organizations.
In 2014, the police force expanded its surveillance work to prevent potential attacks during ongoing peace talks with FARC rebels. That year the national police established the Directorate of Police Intelligence, or DIPOL, a unit that has two legal interception offices, one for email and another for telephone communications, Dávila’s source claimed.
Another scandal erupted in 2014, when it came out that a covert army spy unit was found selling classified information on the peace talks to Uribe’s political party.
Despite these repeated incidents, Colombia’s Congress has never received the appropriate tools to monitor military and police intelligence-gathering programs, says Sen. Iván Cepeda, one of the lawmakers whose calls and emails were intercepted by DAS.
“There is a commission in Congress that should monitor and control precisely these sorts of circumstances,” Sen. Cepeda said in an interview with The Intercept. “The great problem is that this commission has no tools that allow it to maintain control.”
Dávila’s allegations, if proven true, would be another example of the dangers of unchecked spy powers.
Her claims, based on information from the confidential source, allege that police were using legal surveillance as a façade for illegal spying targeting journalists, politicians, and other officials. The source said Dávila was a “high-value target” because her team was investigating corruption within the police force, including allegations of the prostitution network.
Dávila’s La FM Radio had previously reported that cadets at Colombia’s main police school in the capital, Bogotá, had been part of an illegal prostitution ring. According to witness testimony, the alleged ring was offered as a service to high-ranking officers; cadets were given drugs and alcohol and later filmed having sexual relations.
As for the spy scandal, the president ordered a commission to review the allegations made by Dávila and Morales, but the two journalists say the effort is a mere political show that seeks to deflect the negative publicity generated by the scandal.
“I believe [police director] Palomino stays, at least until this shit commission comes up with something,” Morales told the newspaper El Espectador. “At the end of the day, the incoming director will continue with the same internal rot.”
Top photo: Newly graduated officers attend a ceremony commemorating the 123rd anniversary of the police force at the General Santander police school in Bogotá, Colombia, on Nov. 14, 2014.