On February 3, a large unidentified balloon floating at an altitude of 55,000, now confirmed to have originated from China, was detected in Colombia’s airspace through Colombia’s National Air Defense System.
The Colombian defense establishment insisted that the balloon represented “no threat to the sovereignty of the country, nor to the air security of the region.” The balloon was spotted near the cities of Valledupar and Cartagena, heading further toward the Southeast into Brazil.
As with the Chinese balloon that flew over the United States earlier this month, Mao Ning, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, argued that the balloon was used for “research purposes” and blamed weather conditions for the incident.
The Pentagon claimed that the balloon in Latin America was deployed by China for surveillance purposes. Joseph Humire, an expert in transnational threats in the Western Hemisphere for the Center for a Secure Free Society, argues that the two balloon incidents represented a message to the United States.
The message: “We have you surrounded in the North and in the South.”
In Bogotá, President Gustavo Petro has not yet made any statement on the matter. His representatives declared that the government “will carry out pertinent investigations in coordination with different countries and institutions to establish the origin of the object.”
Petro will soon travel to China to obtain financing for the Bogotá metro, which is being built by APCA Transmimetro, a Chinese consortium. He has not declared any intention to cancel the trip or the investment.
On February 3, after the Pentagon signaled that it had located a second balloon going through Latin America, Petro took to Twitter to announce that he would “accelerate my trip to China to look for options with the government of that country in relation to the Bogotá metro.”
Thus far, this is China’s first time getting caught in a spy scandal in Colombia. Some more aggressive critics of China in the United States, including at the Heritage Foundation and Fox News, have alleged that Chinese spies are active in Colombia, though they have not cited a specific instance.
Yet, this is not the first time a great power has violated Colombia’s airspace. In 2021, the Air Force detected a Russian Illyushin II-96-400VPU aircraft in its airspace, and scrambled fighter jets in response. The plane was intercepted and ordered to leave Colombian airspace, which it did shortly thereafter.
At the time, the Duque government in Bogotá denounced the incident, sending a formal protest to the Kremlin.
Iran, though it is often consumed by internal turmoil and lacks the resources of Russia and China, punches above its weight with its foreign intelligence operations. Iranian intelligence networks have been active in Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela, and spotted in other countries, including Colombia.
In June 2021, the Colombian National Police stopped an Iranian spy, Rahmat Asadi, from killing two Israeli businessmen in Bogotá. In October 2020, it was also revealed by the Colombian Armed Forces that the commandant of the rebel group ELN, nom de guerre Uriel, was invited by Iranian intelligence to have ELN operatives travel to Tehran and receive military training.
Gentil Duarte, one of the leaders of the FARC dissidents still fighting in the Colombian countryside, was offered a similar invitation in the summer of 2021.
Russian spy networks are also active in Colombia. In April of last year, the Colombian National Police arrested a Russian national in Suba, accusing him of “laundering millions of dollars” to “fund political unrest and anti-government riots in Colombia,” including the Paro Nacional (National Strike).
This came after the Duque government in December 2020, expelled Alexander Paristov and Alexandr Nikolayevich Belusov, believed to be Russian spies, accusing them of “recruiting agents and gathering information on Colombian natural resources, military capabilities, and the energy grid.” Both were allegedly members of Russian intelligence.
The United States, of course, is also at fault on this front. In 2019, it was revealed that a Colombian military intelligence unit was supplied with American intelligence equipment surveillance equipment to combat far-left guerrillas and drug traffickers.
The unit then used the assets to spy on civilians, including opposition figures, activists, public officials, and reporters. In response, the “rogue elements” were booted out by the Duque government. CIA counterintelligence officials also helped capture Paristov and Belusov, the two Russian spies mentioned earlier.
Similarly, Venezuelan exiles based in Colombia are active in working with the U.S. toward regime change in Caracas. In May 2020, private military contractors with Silvercorp, on a mission to kill Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, were intercepted by the Venezuelan SEBIN.
In the 2009 “falsos positivos” scandal, members of DAS, with U.S. weaponry and equipment, dressed up as guerrillas and killed protesters. They also gathered intelligence on members of the opposition, human rights groups, reporters, clergy unions, and judges.
While local and international public outrage has followed the detection of the Chinese balloon in Colombian airspace, one must remember the ample history of surveillance operations conducted by the great powers in Colombia, and by Colombia itself.
However, the lack of a response from the Petro administration to the Chinese balloon displays a change in attitude in Bogotá toward the adversaries of the U.S., which include China, Russia, and Iran.
While the balloon has been identified as a likely information-gathering tool for the Chinese government, the Petro government has not shown its intention to challenge China on the matter or to strengthen air sovereignty and security.
This is a significant departure from past governments, which tended to be more aggressive on national security matters and more aligned with U.S. interests.
In the case of Venezuela, for instance, alleged spies on both sides of the border have been detained and deported. While Colombia has repeatedly strained relations with its largest neighbor over espionage operations, it has not been as willing – at least so far – to scrutinize the surveillance operations of its largest trade partner, China.
Bilateral relations might be partly responsible for this apparent double standard.
Dr. Evan Ellis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington observes that even under recent conservative and centrist governments, Colombia and China have gotten much closer in both the economic and security realms. He noted that bilateral trade between China and Colombia grew by 35 times from 2001 until 2014.
China has provided large sums of investment in hundreds of public- and private-sector projects, including the aforementioned Bogotá metro.
Ellis told The Diplomat that Petro’s silence on the balloon issue illustrates the broader trend of the presence of benefits from the relationship between China and Latin American nations, particularly Colombia.
“Countries in the region will temper their criticism of China for fear that their criticism will jeopardize those interests,” he said. “The Petro administration’s interest in conducting business with China could help explain Petro’s reaction, or lack thereof, to the detection of the Chinese balloon in its airspace.”
Ellis also noted that Petro’s ambassador to China has ties to the Chinese Communist Party. “I’ve seen over the past 20 years that those subtle pressures distort the discourse of Latin American politicians and businesspeople regarding China’s behavior,” Ellis said.