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Colombia’s National Security: For Whom?

By: Javier Garay - @Crittiko - Feb 14, 2014, 9:10 am

Español A scandal has erupted in Colombia after the discovery of a hidden intelligence center where the military occasionally intercepted private communications. Apparently, among the intercepted devices were the cell phones of government negotiators currently involved in peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

This outrage is similar to the recent spying scandals in the United States and other countries. However, there are unique aspects to the situation in Colombia that deserve to be highlighted.

For starters, these intercepts were not carried out by a civilian intelligence agency, like the CIA or FBI, but by the country’s own military. This brings into question the supposed subordinate nature of the military to the civilian authority. Secondly, the fact that members of the government itself were the ones being spied on shows a clear division within the organization.

The response given by President Juan Manuel Santos only deepened public concerns. In light of the scandal, the President assured the country that the matter would be investigated, and in fact, two senior military officers were dismissed later that same day. However, only a day after the announcement, President Santos changed his tone and instead affirmed that all actions conducted by the military had been approved by the national government.

Why the sudden shift in position? Did the military have something to do with it? If so, then we are now potentially facing a situation in Colombia where the military has superseded the authority of our own representatives in government.

There are some people that have attempted to justify this spying operation simply because the victims were members of the government itself. Apparently one of the recepients of the information collected by the military was former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, a well known critic of the peace process. His supporters have downplayed the allegations, and claim that if the negotiators are concerned about being under surveillance, they must have something to hide.

This argument, however, overlooks the fact that if we are to accept this case of “irregular espionage,” we must then accept without question all other similar cases. What would the opponents of President Juan Manuel Santos have to say if it turns out they have been spied on as well?

This case illustrates one of the reasons why successful peace negotiations with the FARC would be good news for Colombia. Without the constant threat of the guerillas, the military and defense apparatus will not be able to justify these sort of actions in order to “fight the enemy.” They would be forced to recognize their role as subordinate to the will of the people and civilian government.

Whatever may come of the investigations—should one actually take place—or the reasons for the President’s shift in position, this is a perfect example of how the state has increasingly sought to control the very citizens it claims to protect.

In a way, this is symptomatic of the permissive attitude that exists within different societies in the way they define their relationship with the state. This organization is considered to be the most important within society — and in some societies, it’s not even considered a separate entity, but the origin of society itself. Therefore, we have avoided limiting the state’s actions, and instead given it more and more functions of all kinds to perform without thinking about the consequences for individual liberty.

The “security” provided by the state appears less and less to effectively preserve the life, liberty, and property of the individual. Instead, we have created artificial slogans that not only justify, but increase the state’s functions. Language like “human safety” and “food safety” cloud the true purpose — eliminating the limits placed on the functions of the state.

In fact, the introduction of such concepts has caused the meaning of “safety” and “security” to become so twisted that we now combat all types of “threats” (economic, technological, cultural, etc.) and “enemies” (foreigners or political opponents and dissenters).

The state must ensure the safety of its citizens, and that is the only reason it exists. However, while doing so, strict limits must be well in place so that rights of the individual are not compromised. Without those limits, then who is security really for?

Translated by Estefania Uribe.

Javier Garay Javier Garay

Javier Garay is a professor at the Externado University of Colombia. He has written two books on international issues, such as development, after his doctoral dissertation focused on the same topic. Follow him on Twitter @crittiko and through his personal blog, Crittiko.