The armored vehicles that the Colombian government hands over to hundreds of individuals who may be targeted by attacks are believed to enhance their security. But when a journalist learned that they were equipped with satellite trackers, she felt even more insecure. and furious.
Claudia Juliet Duke was not informed by anyone – nor apparently the more than 3,700 journalists, human rights activists, indigenous leaders and trade unions who use those vehicles – that this team was following in her footsteps. In Duke’s case, he did it every 30 seconds. The system can also shut down the engine of the truck.
Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders. More than 500 social leaders have been murdered since 2016. It is also a country where right-wing extremists have worked within security agencies.
For Duke, the revelation that his movements were being followed step by step was cool: people already in danger of being killed for their political activism were being tracked down with technology that was being used against them. could have been done.
“It’s a super-invasive and very serious pod,” said Duke, who has been tormented by agents of the security apparatus for years. “And the state doesn’t care.”
The government agency responsible for the program says the trackers are installed to prevent robbery, follow in the footsteps of the bodyguards who often drive these vehicles and facilitate response to dangerous situations.
For a decade, the government has been installing trackers on armored vehicles used by endangered individuals and VIPs, including the president, ministers and senators. The unit director confirmed this when Duke learned last year that the system was recording the location of his truck on average five times per hour.
The official underestimated the issue of privacy, calling it an “important” exercise to ensure the safety of people.
Duke believes tracking his activities is a threat to him and his sources, and he asks for details about the team’s capabilities. However, the National Security Unit (UNP) did not contribute much. He then demanded that the device be removed, something that was denied. As a result, in February he returned the vehicle, left the country and went to court.
Now back in Colombia, he hopes his concerns will be met when Petro, the first leftist president in Colombian history, takes office on August 7.
Petro’s transition team did not respond to questions from the Associated Press on the matter.
Petro’s decision on the matter could show how committed he is to human rights and how much he can reform a national security system dominated by his bitter political rivals.
UNP is a pillar of the security system. He serves as a bodyguard above all, dozens of former agents of the former DAS (Department of Administrative Security), disbanded in 2011 after it emerged that the government of lvaro Uribe had used it to spy on Supreme Court justices, journalists and political rivals. had to do.
Among them are Petro and Duke himself.
He was viewed, intimidated and harassed by elements of the DAS, after uncovering evidence that the 1999 murder of Jaime Garzón, a renowned comedian and pacifist, was a state crime.
Duke’s investigation found a former deputy director of DAS guilty of murder and three other former DAS agents guilty of psychological torture after threatening Duke and his daughter.
The cases of eight other defendants are pending.
In total, the duke had to go into temporary exile about a dozen times for his work.
Satellite tracking added to a series of concerns about a body that was once one of the most effective in Latin America when it comes to protecting human rights. Adam Isaacson, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America, said that over time the UNP became politicized and penetrated by criminals under the outgoing Conservative government.
“Social leaders have been killed practically every two days for the last four years. This was the worst time to break this unity,” he said.
Right-wing death squad activity increased after a historic peace deal was signed in 2016 between the government and left-wing rebels.
Duke says he received information about GPS-enabled satellite trackers in early 2020, when he learned they were planning to kill him, and when asked about it, the government responded by a year. Saved from giving
When he finally found verifiable documents, with the help of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, he found that his location had been searched 25,183 times in 209 days between February and August last year. A manual for the software used describes several available features, such as remotely operated cameras and doors that can be locked remotely using the vehicles computers.
The duke asked if those functions were enabled in government vehicles, but he said they did not answer him. The general manager of the company that supplies the GPS satellite tracking software told the Associated Press that it only tracks the location and speed of the vehicle, and it can even shut down the engine.
A 2021 contract with the vehicle rental company obtained by Duke stipulates that a UNP official must approve the engine shutdown and that the information collected must be preserved for at least two years. Nothing in the contract supports UNP’s claim that the system follows in the footsteps of bodyguards and facilitates quick response in the event of dangerous situations.
UNP officials declined to answer questions from the Associated Press. There is no indication that GPS satellite tracking may have caused harm to people under government protection.
Unit officials took offense last year when Duke questioned their motives.
“We do not conduct harassment or illegal surveillance,” the unit’s director, Alfonso Campos, said in a tweet in October. “This information collected by GPS is private and reserved, and is only given to a judge or judicial authority if it is required in a particular case and for security reasons.”
The Associated Press asked the attorney general’s office if it had made a request, but received no response.
Privacy experts say the Colombian government’s surveillance is illegal and disproportionate, and represents an unnecessary risk of hacking.
Under a privacy law passed in 2012, affected individuals must consent to retain that information. But according to Emmanuel Vargas, a privacy law expert who advised the Duke, he was never consulted.
There is no indication that the GPS helped save indigenous leader Miller Correa, who was kidnapped and killed while driving alone on a rural highway in mid-March. Tracking equipment later allowed the recovery of his government vehicle, which was not armored.
A June 2021 letter from the government to the IACHR stated that the UNP has taken “all necessary measures” to ensure that unit officials do not have access to the information of persons under protection. But in a December letter sent to Duke, the unit indicated that it does not directly control the security of information. He said it was in the hands of an administrator.
When the Duke released the results of his investigation, several other opponents expressed distrust in the service provided by the government’s security apparatus.
One of them is journalist Julian Martinez, whose book about the infiltration of corrupt narco-paramilitaries into DAS won the National Journalism Award in 2017.
The bodyguards assigned to Martinez by the government do not limit themselves to spying on Martinez after publishing articles about alleged corruption in the outgoing government due to drug trafficking. They accused him of collecting material for a smear campaign set up by his boss, a contractor who worked for DAS.
In February, Martinez’s armored vehicle in Bogota was attacked by armed men who were allegedly chased by his bodyguards. He was in the vicinity at that time and no one was injured. Martinez does not believe it was an attempted robbery, as investigators say they suspect.
“Indeed, the security plan becomes a containment plan,” he declared from Argentina, where he left last month, after condemning the alleged plot to withdraw his security on the pretext that he was abusing her.
Alberto Yepes, a prominent human rights activist who helps relatives of victims of extrajudicial killings by the armed forces, is convinced that the UNP is being used to spy on him. They suspect that a cell phone they discovered in the dashboard of a government-provided vehicle in September may have been used to listen in on their conversations.
Yepps says he does not know whether Petro will be able to improve the security unit due to the heavy participation of contractors with military backgrounds.
“It is difficult to change this with the new government,” he declared. “They have to negotiate.”
Astrid Suarez assisted in this office from Bogota.