BOGOTÁ, Colombia — President Álvaro Uribe, the top ally of the United States in Latin America, is enmeshed in a scandal over growing evidence that his main intelligence agency carried out an extensive illegal spying operation focused on his leading critics, including members of the Supreme Court, opposition politicians, human rights workers and journalists.
The scandal, which has unfolded overmonths, intensified in recent weeks with the disclosure of an audio intercept of a top official at the United States Embassy. Semana, a respected news magazine, obtained an intercept of a routine phone call between James Faulkner, the embassy’s legal attaché, and a Supreme Court justice investigating ties of Mr. Uribe’s political supporters to paramilitary death squads.
Other recordingsobtained in investigations by journalists and prosecutors point to resilient multiyear efforts to spy on Mr. Uribe’s major critics by the Department of Administrative Security, a 6,500-employee intelligence agency — possibly South America’s largest — that operates directly under the authority of the president’s office.
The agency, known widely by the acronym DAS, has been the focus of accusations ofillegal spying before. But this case is sowing fear among Mr. Uribe’s critics in the political elite, coming as the president, a conservative populist, presses ahead with a project to secure a third term.
While Mr. Uribe is ideologically isolated on a continent that has shifted to the left, he is following the example of neighbors who have changed their constitutions to remain in office, likeVenezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, and Ecuador’s, Rafael Correa.
“Uribe is seriously weakening Colombia’s democracy,” said Ramiro Bejarano, a lawyer and opposition leader who was a director of DAS in the 1990s. Earlier this year, Semana obtained recordings, transcripts of intercepts and other files from current and former DAS employees that showed that Mr. Bejarano was among several senioropposition leaders whose phones were illegally tapped by DAS. Five appointees have led DAS since Mr. Uribe came to power in 2002. The first four resigned amid claims of illegal surveillance and are being formally investigated by Colombia’s attorney general.
The accusations against Mr. Uribe’s first DAS director, Jorge Noguera, are the most serious. He is charged with organizing the murders of threetrade union activists and a well-known sociologist, Alfredo Correa d’Andreis. The charges are based on reports that under his leadership, DAS gave paramilitary leaders their names on an assassination list.
Mr. Noguera stepped down in 2005, when Mr. Uribe appointed him consul in Milan. Mr. Noguera has since left that position, and the government has distanced itself from him.
But all of Mr.Noguera’s successors — including the current director, Felipe Muñoz, are under scrutiny over reports of irregularities, notably wiretaps, which are illegal in Colombia without a court order. Some of the most recent disclosed intercepts were recorded just weeks ago. Others were made over several years earlier this decade.
For instance, the Special Intelligence Group, a secret DAS unit also known as G-3,operated into 2006 and focused on monitoring human rights groups critical of Mr. Uribe’s government, like the Colombian Commission of Jurists and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective.
“Chills went down my spine when I discovered the lengths that DAS went through to watch my every movement,” said Alirio Uribe, a human rights lawyer (no relation to President Uribe) for the José AlvearRestrepo Collective who, through prosecutors’ investigations and congressional testimony, gained access to part of the file that G-3 kept on him and his wife and children.
He compared what he saw in the file, which included photos of his children, transcripts of phone and e-mail conversations, details on his finances and evidence that DAS agents rented an apartment across from his home to monitor...
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