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Colombia’s Authoritarian Spell

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The year was 2004. I was contacted by Colombian human rights activists. Would I please come to Colombia to join them in a book launch of the second edition of The Authoritarian Spell? They were worried that the book, a collectively written critique of what they saw as authoritarian tendencies by the administration of President Alvaro Uribe, would provoke a reaction, and wanted international accompaniment. I said yes, and went to one of the book launches in Medellín, where a professor at the local university spoke and introduced me and several of the book’s coauthors, and we had a genteel, scholarly discussion of current events, in an auditorium filled mainly with students and professors. 

Little did we know that the book, criticized by the government as exaggerated, was in fact far too light a critique of the government’s authoritarian tendencies.

Because, it turned out, as we reveal in our new report Far Worse Than Watergate, the Colombian government’s DAS intelligence agency was obsessively tracking the creation and launching of The Authoritarian Spell. Without any shame or even irony, they detailed how these book launches were organized, who spoke and attended, monitored the presence of international human rights activists, and launched an investigation of the publisher who printed the book. A DAS memo suggests figuring out the security systems of the publisher and the daily routines of all those who work there, with the intention of  “accessing physically the equipment so as to be able to take out, sabotage or alter the content of the publication.” We don’t think they ever managed to change the book. But the fact that they thought it was the right thing to do…

A still-unfolding scandal in Colombia is revealing that the government’s intelligence agency not only spied upon major players in Colombia’s democracy—from Supreme Court and Constitutional Court judges to presidential candidates, from journalists and publishers to human rights defenders, from international organizations to U.S. and European human rights groups—but also carried out dirty tricks, and even death threats, to undermine their legitimate, democratic activities. And it may have carried out its illegal surveillance with orders from top presidential advisors. Whichever candidate takes the presidency in Colombia on Sunday will have a major clean up on his hands.

Read our just-released report, with our partners US Office on Colombia, Center for International Policy, and WOLA, about the DAS intelligence agency. Click here to see our press release. While this detective story is a page-turner, unfortunately it is all too real, with real consequences for Colombia’s heroic human rights defenders, judges and journalists. And for Colombia’s democracy.

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