February 11, 2019

In August 2004, the Attorney General’s Office and the Technical Investigation Unit (CTI, in Spanish) discovered a series of official documents that detailed aspects of Operation Dragon, an illegal surveillance plan carried out against 170 people, with the alleged aim to assassinate human rights defenders, union leaders, and members of the political opposition in Colombia who opposed the privatization of the Empresas Públicas de Cali, EmCali. After a long court case, on January 22, 2019, the Fourth Specialized Court of Cali convicted three retired military members of simple and aggravated criminal conspiracy in the framework of this Operation.

The victims of Operation Dragon include Berenice Celeita, a human rights defender, forensic anthropologist, president of the organization Nomadesc, which is currently accompanied by PBI. Coraline Ricard talked with her about the case.

Coraline (PBI): Berenice, what was “Operation Dragon” and how did it function?

Berenice Celeita: Operation Dragon was an extermination plan against human rights defenders, social leaders, and the political opposition, which was designed by the Colombian State. This extermination plan was executed with the objective of privatizing the public companies of Cali: 14 years later the investigation demonstrated that there was a strategy to carry out surveillance on members of the SintraEmcali union, as well as leaders and human rights defenders, organizations, journalists, media outlets, etc. that had spoken out against the companies’ privatization.

In 2004, we received information from someone who worked for Julián Villate Leal--a member of the military, who had been the director of the War College, professor at the School of the Americas, and had studied in Israel--that in the last week of September 2004 three crimes were to be carried out: one against Luis Hernandez, president of SintraEmcali at the time, one against Alexander López (previously president of SintraEmcali), member of the House of Representatives, and another against Berenice Celeita--myself--director of Nomadesc and I was advising the union. This person had documents that were handed over to the National Attorney General’s Office, and a list was found of over 100 people who were under surveillance.

The participation of several structures with the State Security Forces, such as the III Division, the Third Brigade, SIPOL, DAS, DIJIN was shown…and the State participated directly, in some way, from the Superintendency of Public Services, the company EmCali, and front organizations like the company Consultoría Integral Latinoamericana and SERACIS--a security company that continues operating today, and provides services to public companies.

This front was used to make the operation look legal and it was very directly organized and oriented from the Superintendency of Public Services by Maria Eva Uribe. The conviction of these four military members established that they were in fact involved in criminal conspiracy.

PBI: What does this ruling represent for you and the people who were victims of Operation Dragon, after 14 years fighting for the truth to come out and for justice to be carried out?

BC: Our impression is that this ruling is very important and historic for Colombia. The ruling clearly shows the relationship between the State entities and the groups that participated--there is a connection with para-state bodies like paramilitary groups.

However, we believe that for criminal actions of this nature, this is a very light punishment. For us it is a crime against humanity: Operation Dragon is related to incidents that took place years earlier, when there were extrajudicial killings of SintraEmcali union leaders, disappearance attempts, mass and arbitrary detentions--that is to say, a systematic physical elimination and a delegitimization of the activities carried out by SintraEmcali and organizations that opposed these companies’ privatization.

On the other hand, the masterminds behind Operation Dragon were not investigated: it is still unclear who gave the order. We do not think that Julian Villate Arandano and the other named military members acted alone, because they were hired to do this job and had an onerous contract.

We want an investigation of the role of the President of the Republic at that time, Alvaro Uribe Vélez, as well as those in charge of the Superintendency of Public Services, Eva María Uribe, the manager of EmCali, Carlos Alfonso Potes, and EmCali’s head of security, Germán Orchards. The mission of public employees is not to generate surveillance and elimination actions, it is the opposite. It is the State’s responsibility to prove the Operation Dragon ruling. We learned of this Operation before the DAS case of wire tappings and surveillance, where we were also mentioned. The DAS actions created a high level of vulnerability for human rights defenders.

PBI: What can the international community do in relation to this ruling?

BC: For us, the only way for guarantees of non-repetition to be applied is through justice. Those who led these elimination strategies are the people who benefit from complete impunity, and they will continue to act in the same way. This case contributes important elements of truth, both in the context of national and international tribunals. However, it is necessary to go further: who is behind these crimes? Are there multinational companies that approved, supported, and financed Operation Dragon? We have elements that allow to say that this is the case, but this has already been a 14 year process, and a lot is still needed to prove that.

We also think that it is essential for the international community and human rights defenders around the world, as well as organizations that work in prevention and protection, to accompany and make visible rulings of this kind. This will make it possible for us to carry out advocacy to prevent future actions of a similar nature.

PBI: And now?

BC: We think that it is very important to make the ruling visible, to share it so that other organizations who are currently facing a situation of vulnerability and threats can have information about the modus operandi of this extermination plan’s creators. So that history is not repeated.

Six days after the Operation Dragon ruling, Ricardo Muñoz, president of SintraEmcali suffered an alleged assassination attempt in his home. Even though there are still no results from the investigation to determine what happened, there is fear regarding the safety of those involved. In January 2019, 17 social leaders and human rights defenders have already been assassinated.