BOGOTA, Colombia - President Alvaro Uribe, the top ally of the United States in Latin America, is enmeshed in a scandal over growing evidence that his main intelligence agency carried out an extensive illegal spying operation focused on his leading critics, including members of Colombia's Supreme Court, opposition politicians, human rights workers and journalists.
The scandal, which has unfolded over months, intensified in recent weeks with the disclosure of an audio intercept of a top official at the U.S. Embassy. Semana, a respected news magazine, obtained an intercept of a routine phone conversation between James Faulkner, the embassy's legal attache, and a Supreme Court justice investigating ties of Uribe's political supporters to paramilitary death squads.
Other recordings obtained in investigations by journalists and prosecutors point to resilient multiyear efforts to spy on Uribe's major critics by the Department of Administrative Security, a vast 6,500-employee intelligence agency that operates directly under the authority of the president's office.
The agency, known as DAS, has been the focus of accusations of illegal spying before. But this case is sowing fear among Uribe's critics in the political elite, coming as the president, a conservative populist, presses ahead with a project to secure a third term.
While Uribe is ideologically isolated on a continent that has shifted to the left, he is following the example of neighbors who have changed their constitutions to remain in office, like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Ecuador's President Rafael Correa.
"Uribe is seriously weakening Colombia's democracy," said Ramiro Bejarano, a lawyer and opposition leader who was a director of DAS in the 1990s.
For the United States, the scandal complicates relations with Uribe's government, the recipient of more than $5 billion in aid this decade.