Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images
Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe (left) speaks during a public congressional hearing in Bogota earlier this month about allegations that the country's intelligence service spied on high court judges during his government.
In Colombia, a major scandal involving the country's intelligence service is unfolding. Colombia's chief prosecutor says the spy service bugged the Supreme Court, intercepted the phones of its justices and followed their every move.
Prosecutors also say the illegal surveillance was directed from the offices of former President Alvaro Uribe, who in his eight years in power was Washington's closest ally in Latin America.
With hours of tape as evidence, prosecutors say the Department of Administrative Services (DAS), which is under the president's control, targeted the court's justices and the investigative magistrates, who function something like prosecutors.
The purpose was to find ties between the criminal underworld and the court in order to discredit the country's highest judicial body.
"Through the intelligence agency, they tried to control, attack and discredit — actions that cannot be viewed as some isolated DAS plan, an entity that is dependent on the presidency of the republic," prosecutor Misael Rodriguez said at a court hearing earlier this year.
He says Bernardo Moreno, Uribe's chief of staff, oversaw the effort. Moreno has been charged and is in jail awaiting trial. He denies the accusations.
Former President Uribe, who left office last year and has not been charged, denies any involvement.
Alba Luz Florez, a former Colombian intelligence agent, has avoided charges in the scandal by cooperating with prosecutors. She used court security people, chauffeurs and even the coffee ladies to plant bugs and gather intelligence.
Alba Luz Florez, a former Colombian intelligence agent, has avoided charges in the scandal by cooperating with prosecutors. She used court security people, chauffeurs and even the coffee ladies to plant bugs and gather intelligence. Juan Forero/NPR
But prosecutors say the president's office wanted to derail court investigations linking illegal armed groups and congressmen allied with Uribe.
William Romero is among the former high-ranking DAS members who have told prosecutors that the agency collected information and shipped it to the president's office.
"What we were told was that this was a requirement of the director of the DAS and the president, to know how narco-traffickers were manipulating inside the Supreme Court," Romero tells NPR.
Romero and other former agents also say that DAS units used some American assistance in the illegal surveillance. The State Department in Washington says it has no knowledge of U.S. government equipment being misused in Colombia.
In one court chamber, bugging devices were placed under tables where exchanges between judges and witnesses take place.
The person responsible for the bugging was Alba Luz Florez, a 33-year-old former agent known to DAS as Y-66.
"They made me see it as a national security [issue], that national security could be compromised by this possible connection," Florez says, referring to possible underworld ties with judges. "So for me it was an honor [to undertake the operation]."
Florez, who avoided charges by cooperating with prosecutors, used court security people, chauffeurs and even the coffee ladies to plant bugs and gather intelligence.
Among those she recruited was the driver for the court's top investigative magistrate, Ivan Velasquez.
"I knew everything about his family, absolutely everything about his children," Florez says, referring to the driver. "So I began to see what he liked, how I could perhaps fill his needs."
She learned the driver needed to pay child support for several children, so she paid him. And she learned that he admired Uribe, the then-president.
"Let's do it for the president," she recalls telling him.
The small office of Velasquez, the star investigative magistrate, had once been bugged.
"Here I talk to all kinds of people, with lawyers, with eventual witnesses that can provide information, people who know about things that happen in their regions and want to help," says Velasquez, sitting at his desk. "There are risks to these declarations. What I mean is that a microphone here could be very effective."
He says the surveillance was designed to intimidate him and witnesses.
But to date, 30 congressmen — virtually all allies of Uribe — have been convicted after being investigated by the court.
And the attorney general's office has also been busy: Four of Uribe's top aides are under investigation. The former president's conduct is also under review, by a special legislative commission.