In March 2011, I became the first member of the Spanish-language media in the Americas to conduct and publish a full interview with Julian Assange. Readers of my weekly magazine, Semana, had a natural interest in the enigmatic blond Australian who was creating such an enormous international commotion by distributing secret US cables around the world. And Assange, much to my surprise, had an advanced awareness of Colombia.
“Colombia is a very interesting country for us,” he told me, citing the insurgency by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the military and paramilitary counterinsurgency, and the border conflict with Venezuela, among other issues. Even more important for him was the US role in Colombia: its counternarcotics operations, its massive economic aid program, and its corporate investments and business interests.
“The United States has invested more money in Colombia than in any other Latin American nation,” Assange said, adding that military contractors were “taking advantage of the situation” and contributing to the destabilization of Colombian democracy. This relationship, he told me, was “key to understanding the relations between the United States and Latin America.”
After such a dramatic introduction, we expected explosive revelations in the cables Semana obtained from Assange. The documents did provide considerable detail on Colombia’s tense border issues with Venezuela and Ecuador, on former President Álvaro Uribe’s secret operations against the FARC—including US support for counterinsurgency and counternarcotics operations—and on the delicate dance surrounding the extradition of paramilitary leaders to the US on drug-trafficking charges. But relative to the major scandals Colombia has endured in the past several years—Uribe’s illegal domestic surveillance programs against opponents, human rights crimes by the military, and the alliances between key politicians and violent paramilitary groups—they were hardly the atomic bomb we’d been expecting.
The majority of the State Department cables disclosed how the US diplomatic corps tends to official business. That business could be trivial. One cable discussed the marriage of the son of an influential Colombian judge to an Ecuadorean businesswoman; the diplomat approved because the bride had “strong ties to the United States.” We had to remind ourselves that these were communications from State Department diplomats, not from the agencies (for example, the CIA or the Defense Intelligence Agency) that are assuredly responsible for far more sensitive information—and far more intrigue.
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Semana’s WikiLeaks experience began with an e-mail from London. In February 2011, I received an invitation to travel to England to “review relevant documents regarding Colombian politics.” When I arrived, a member of the WikiLeaks team met me and escorted me to a small office, the location of which was to be kept secret. I was given an encrypted memory card containing 2,400 documents sent between Washington and the US missions in Colombia, as well as the entire collection of cable traffic to and from Venezuela. I returned to Bogotá with a cache of more than 9,000 pages of still secret US records.
With a team of journalists, we organized the cables into a database according to classification—Secret, NO FORN (No Foreign Distribution), Confidential, Limited Distribution—and looked for key dates and common themes. Identifying stories was like gluing together a ceramic pot that had been broken into a hundred pieces. Dozens of cables would make brief references to a single issue. Piecing together those loose phrases with contextual analyses, we were able to produce fifty-two stories, published between March and July 2011, under the title “Los Secretos de Wikileaks.”