The revelations by former National Security Agency officer Edward Snowden that Colombia joins Brazil and Mexico as one of the most spied upon countries in the Western Hemisphere propelled to the top of diplomatic agenda a topic which is hardly new, nor a surprise, to many who live here.
In fact, the outrage in the national media, as well as declarations from the country’s Foreign Ministry asking the United States government to clarify the extent of domestic spying, seems obtuse given this country’s longstanding role as a close regional ally of the U.S., and its decades-old engagement in fighting drug trafficking.
We’ve been spied upon for as long as there has been a guerrilla insurgency and a lucrative cocaine trade. In fact, I remember clearly, when the FARC were engaged in talks with the Pastrana administration (1998-2002) and which coincided with the arrival of the first major cellphone operators in Colombia that calls made from the country and which included certain catch words such as coca, Escobar, narcotics, Revolutionary, guerrilla, etc…were picked up and monitored by agents sitting in some undisclosed location.
If several key words merged in a conversation you were likely to get a letter from your home government stating: “We are obligated under Statute such-and-such to inform you that a call placed from Colombia on such-and-such day was monitored by us (entity named) due to the nature of the conversation….” As my phone calls to Canada always focused on the weather, I was never too concerned who was listening.
Tapping into regular landlines appears to have been common practice in this country for at least a decade. One of the biggest scandals involving the presidency of Alvaro Uribe Vélez had to do with the Department of Administrative Security DAS (Colombia’s Intelligence Agency) listening to the conversations of journalists, politicians and human rights organizations. The DAS “chuzadas” were so prominent and indiscriminate that Mr.Uribe was forced to shut down DAS and many of the senior officials who directed the tappings fled the country or are now sitting out their days in prison.
Then again, one of the most spectacular and covert military operations which led to the release in 2008 of three U.S government contractors held captive by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, as well as presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 11 military personnel, was grounded in intelligence gathering. In close cooperation with the United States, the Colombian government intercepted emails from the guerilla’s highest command, the Secretariat, re-routing them to field commanders with misleading information as to when and where the hostages had to be moved. The operation was so precise that it was called ‘Check Mate.’
If DAS was listening to phone calls within Colombia, why wouldn’t a foreign government? It has always been my belief that every detail of one’s life in this country – as long as you are a permanent or temporary resident – is being scrutinized systematically by the spies among us. And they are everywhere. They just don’t dress the part. They are not heavy winter coat John Le Carré types walking through the Virrey Park. More the Edward Snowden profile: thirtysomething-ish, well-educated, turning up in Colombia “on business” and working as “cultural analysts.”
One guarded agent I knew operated a gym in the north of the city. Running the martial arts side of the business for two years, he then vanished into thin air. I believe he’s somewhere in Afghanistan. I even suspect that several of these “information consultants” wined and dined at my house over the years. I have never thought of checking under the dining room table for electronic devices.
I also remember being told once by a reliable source that at any given moment there could be hundreds of intelligence operatives operating in Colombia who didn’t “officially exist.” In plain English: they didn’t get in line for a visitor’s stamp at El Dorado airport. Why bother with immigration formalities when you can slip out of Panama in under 45 minutes? Chancellor Holguín, more than anyone should understand the full extent of intelligence surveillance in this country.
Facebook, MSN, Apple, Google are some of the larger-than-life names signaled by fugitive Snowden as having provided the NSA with direct access to the back ends of its communicating systems. For billions who use the digital world freely (and seemingly uncensored) this news comes as a shocking surprise. But it shouldn’t. In our post 9/11 world it was clear that governments needed to hand power to the people by having “users” create cyber profiles. You can tell a lot more of someone’s “likes” or “causes” than by their passport picture. In today’s world it’s safer to have a virtual profile than fly beneath the digital radar. Facebook is safe, in so much as, once there, you can be traced, studied, understood. Not having a digital foot print is as precarious as not owning a credit card. For monitoring purposes, you need to exist.
The world handed Facebook mega data on a silver plate. Hence, its corporate value is not what it owns, but what it “shares.” And we are the one’s doing it. We would be fools to think that the work of trans-national intelligence agencies comes down to mining our mail. But if it’s one sent from Colombia, you can be sure, that it will be mined for the meaning in the words. And on this note: this will not change anytime soon, no matter how many “explanations” Colombia’s Foreign Ministry requests from friends in Washington.