Necessary Evils in Colombia

(International Relations and Security Network, 27/02/2007)


In the latest high-profile arrest in Colombia’s ongoing political scandal, authorities on 22 February arrested Jose Noguera, the former director of the Administration Security Department (DAS) - a powerful organization responsible for domestic and international intelligence activities and reporting directly to the office of the president.


Noguera, who ran the DAS from 2002 to late 2005, maintained close ties with the leaders of Colombia’s paramilitary forces, providing them in at least one documented case with a list of academics and trade unionists who were later murdered by paramilitary forces. Noguera’s arrest reveals beyond a doubt that ties with paramilitaries run beyond Colombia’s political arena.


His arrest, at least for now, has not tarnished Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's public support, which is standing firm at about 70 percent. But Washington is getting nervous, with some politicians concerned that Noguera’s arrest could be a prelude to the exposure of the true nature of the relationship between Colombia’s military and paramilitary.


Uribe first met Noguera during his presidential campaign in 2001. After having dinner with Noguera and his family in Colombia’s Magdalena department, Uribe decided to hire the promising young man to be his campaign manager for the region. In the end, Magdalena was the only coastal state Uribe won that year. Uribe then asked Noguera to be the director of the DAS, an appointment some looked upon with suspicion.


Noguera had no experience inside Colombia’s intelligence-gathering community. He was an outsider who wanted to change the nature of the DAS from an intelligence gathering organization to one of action. His career was plagued by failure and suspicious activity.


Colombia and Ecuador operated a joint mission in August 2004 to capture a top commander of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Raul Reyes. According to Colombia’s Semana magazine, this operation failed and left Ecuadorian authorities, Interpol and the Colombian Defense Ministry wondering exactly why Uribe had hired Noguera.


When a high-ranking member of the DAS, Rafael Garcia, was arrested in January 2005, widespread opinion generated suspicion about Noguera’s paramilitary contacts. A year later, Uribe asked Noguera to resign from the director position and fired his second in command.


Noguera returned from diplomatic work in Milan in February to face arrest and charges of his involvement with two top paramilitary commanders: Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, also known as Jorge 40, and Hernan Giraldo.


According to Colombia’s attorney general Jorge 40’s brother, Alvaro Pupo, made at least nine visits to Noguera’s office. Investigators believe Pupo acted as the direct link between the two. They also suspect that Noguera passed a list of names to Pupo that Jorge 40 later passed to his men as a black list of people targeted for death.


Colombian investigators also consider Noguera’s relationship with Jose Gelvez Albarracin, who was the political officer for well known paramilitary chieftain Hernan Giraldo, as an indication of further links between the former DAS director and the paramilitaries.


In a February interview with Semana magazine, Albarracin detailed how he and Noguera had worked together in 2002, when Noguera promoted Uribe’s 2002 presidential campaign. The two men maintained their relationship as Noguera took the helm at the DAS, and Albarracin continued his work with Giraldo, according to Semana.


Noguera’s connections with paramilitary forces have crystallized and it is clear that from 2002 to 2005, paramilitary chieftains had direct access to the DAS director’s office. But it is less clear what effect those facts have had on President Uribe or his relationship with Washington.


Inside Colombia, Uribe maintains high popularity for one simple reason: He makes most Colombians feel safe. Well before these relationships became public, most Colombians had grown comfortable with the reality of connections between the country’s politicians, police, military and the paramilitaries. Many still consider these relationships a necessary evil.


Uribe is largely viewed at home as a workaholic with an exceptionally high level of integrity. This very public image, coupled with his well established position that these revelations are for the good of the country, keep his numbers high even as it appears those around him have continued to fall. Uribe’s focus now is on his country, keeping his people safe, and making sure his image and that of his administration does not wither in Washington.


US President George W Bush will visit Colombia on 10 March, and many suspect Uribe will have a hard time putting a veil on the bubbling political crisis underway in Bogota - but no one is sure about Bush’s reaction.


Democrat senators, including Patrick J Leahy, have already voiced concern. And even one Republican Senator, Richard Luger, is worried. They are concerned about the lack of oversight in the US-Colombia relationship, which since 2000 has spent over US$4 billion in US tax payer funds to combat the FARC, the paramilitaries and the drug trade in Colombia.


On 10 March, it is likely that Bush and Uribe will talk about the Noguera case. It will be hard to avoid. Harder still, however, might be defending Uribe in Washington when Bush returns.