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Military scandals mire Uribe’s second term

Sam Logan for ISN Security | September 23 2006

A scandal surrounding a series of bombs in Bogota has created a climate of distrust within Colombia’s public security system, contributing to a rocky start for President Uribe’s second term in office.

Weeks into his second administration, Colombian president Alvaro Uribe has found himself in the middle of political turmoil. On 7 September, just one month after Uribe's inauguration, the newly appointed commander of the Colombian military, General Mario Montoya, issued a statement revealing that ranking members of the Colombian military were reportedly part of a conspiracy to plant car bombs in Bogota. The plan was to recover the bombs before they exploded, thereby earning the investigating officers credit, called “positives” under Uribe’s Democratic Security Program, for their work. Montoya’s announcement was apparently the first time the Colombian president had heard of the so-called “false positives” conspiracy.

According to reports, journalists from the Colombian daily El Tiempo told federal prosecutor Jorge Armando Otolora a day earlier that they had been informed of the plot by police sources and warned that they would soon go to press. The government decided to release the information ahead of the newspaper report to save face.

Montoya’s announcement prompted a weekend-long meeting between Uribe and members of Colombia’s public security organizations, during which the president asked various members of his security team to recount their understanding of the bomb plot. Uribe was certainly well briefed, but his announcement to the Colombian public further complicated matters.

The president claimed on Sunday, two days after Montoya’s announcement, that there was no evidence to prove the military was involved in the Bogota bombings.

During the months leading up to the presidential inauguration, police intelligence had conducted an investigation into a series of bomb discoveries in Bogota. The cases had failed to net even one suspect. The bombs, recovered in different areas of Bogota, were found by the same military intelligence team led by Major Javier Edren Hermida and Capitan Luis Eduardo Bernero.

Curiosity passed to suspicion when a taxi driver blew the whistle, claiming that he had not received the full amount of money promised for his role in the scam. In his report to federal prosecutors, the taxi driver claimed that a former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) operative known as "Jessica" had taken the lion’s share of money paid to them by members of Colombian military intelligence.

Whether or not Jessica was a double agent for the FARC to help the Colombian military plant bombs only to have one “accidentally” explode remains unclear.

The case was discussed during the Bogota anti-terrorism council meeting, attended by the mayor of Bogota, the vice minister of defense and the director of the attorney general's anti-terrorism unit.

It is likely that after this meeting, the vice minister informed his boss about the incidents, but the minister of defense sat on his information until Otalora rushed to tell him that the Colombian press was about to break the bomb plot story.

During his meeting with the minister of defense, the federal prosecutor claimed he had access to voice recordings, videos, photos and confessions that proved military officials were behind the bomb plot plan. He also claimed that the same individuals were behind the 31 July explosion of one car bomb that killed one civilian and wounded 19 solders. This is the explosion that some believe Jessica “accidentally” set off.

The evidence likely corroborated with information the vice minister of defense gathered during the Bogota anti-terrorism council meeting. Along with pressure from the Colombian press, this corroboration prompted the minister of defense to order Montoya to give the embarrassing public statement.

This is the same evidence that most likely entered the conversation during the weekend meeting when Uribe demanded to know about the false positives incident. This was the same evidence ignored by Uribe when he claimed there was no proof to support Montoya’s announcement, publicly contradicting the commander of the Colombian military when he denounced foul play within his own ranks.

This evidence, however, has recently resurfaced. On 19 September, Colombian news magazine La Semana, published an article in which it revealed that Otalora told members of a Colombian congressional committee investigating the scandal that there was evidence that proved the military’s involvement in the bomb case.

The federal prosecutor now claims that there is proof that two military officers were involved in at least six bomb threats and one terrorist attack.

When recounting his understanding of the police investigation and his meeting with journalists, Otalora told the congressional committee that the meeting with journalists did occur and that in the space of another three-minute meeting, he did tell the minister of defense about the proof he had obtained from the police.

This prompted one senator, Gustavo Preto, to question how the president of Colombia, the minister of defense and the commander of the Colombian military could have contradicted each other over the details of a delicate investigation into military misconduct that took Ortalora only three minutes to explain to the minister of defense.

Questions about the pressure Uribe’s Democratic Security Program places on the country’s public security organizations, specifically the military and the national police to produce “positives,” began to surface toward the end of the hearing. A system that places merit on each individual bust, capture or discovered bomb perhaps opens the door to a sinister level of corruption where the falsification of “positives” is tempting.

As Colombian security analyst Alfredo Rangel said in a recent Miami Herald article, this latest scandal is not the first but part of a series of scandals that points to “structural problems” in the Colombian armed forces.

The practice of collecting “positives” has evolved into a competition between the military intelligence organization and the police intelligence organization that may have led to the practice of creating false positives.

This competition is dangerous because it can contribute to distrust within the Colombian intelligence community.

Distrust deteriorates communication, which weakens the Colombian government’s position when combating the country’s “baby cartels,” remnants of the United Self-Defense Forces still heavily involved in drug smuggling, and the FARC. This distrust also has opened the door to a series of questions surrounding other bombings that until recently everyone believed had been planned by FARC.

With so much distrust in the air and the country’s core of security officials pointing fingers, making shady denials or simply contradicting one another, the beginning of Uribe’s second administration has gotten off to a difficult start. As La Semana pointed out in a recent article, the only winner so far has been the FARC, “without firing even one shot.”


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