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Colombia: Hacking Scandal Rocks Presidential Election

By: María Gabriela Díaz - May 8, 2014, 1:44 pm

EspañolIn what initially seemed like a smooth election, Colombia’s presidential race has taken a new spin over the last few days. On the heels of President Juan Manuel Santos’s campaign adviser JJ Rendón’s resignation over alleged links to drug traffickers, yet another scandal has surfaced and shaken the other side of the campaign.

On Tuesday, Colombia’s Technical Investigation Team arrested Andrés Fernando Sepúlveda, accused of tracing Santos’s personal email, and spying on the peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that, until now, had been carried out behind closed doors. Sepúlveda worked as a social media manager for Oscar Ivan Zuluaga’s campaign, Santos’s main electoral rival and an open opponent of the FARC peace negotiations.

Andres Sepúlveda faces charges of espionage
Andres Sepúlveda was detained last Tuesday and now faces charges of espionage. Source: RCNradio.

According to Attorney General Luis Eduardo Montealegre, Sepúlveda received COL$100 million (approximately US$500,000) as payment for hacking the president’s email and sabotaging Colombia’s peace negotiations that are taking place in La Habana. Aside from hacking Santos’s electronic correspondence, authorities also discovered intercepted emails from the FARC’s head of press in Cuba, two Cuban journalists, FARC chief negotiator Ivan Marquez, and former Senator Piedad Cordoba. While Sepúlveda has pled not guilty on charges of espionage, illegal violation of communications, wrongful use of software, and interception of computer data, the court remanded him to prison while he awaits trial.

Zuluaga, a candidate for the Democratic Center Party founded by former president Alvaro Uribe, immediately distanced himself from the hacker and his team, and condemned their actions.

“Any illegal activity they have carried out … they will have to be judged [for]…. they should be subject to the full force of the law,” stated the aspiring presidential candidate.

After Sepulveda was detained, President Santos requested a full investigation to find the head of the operation: “I think it’s very serious, very serious that anyone or any organization is purposely trying to sabotage the peace process, through illegal wiretapping,” he asserted. “This is why I’m asking the attorney general to please get to the bottom of this matter. We can’t allow these kind of illegal actions under any circumstances, and we will find out who is behind this and why.”

The Plot Thickens

As soon as the scandal became public, the Colombian television network RCN reported that on April 8, Luis Alfonso Hoyos, Zuluaga’s campaign director, visited their headquarters along with Sepúlveda and offered news director Rodrigo Pardo information related to the confidential peace negotiations and Santos’s campaign.

RCN revealed a video caught by security cameras of Zuluaga’s campaign director arriving at the network with the hacker. However, Hoyos’s involvement was further complicated when Pardo said Hoyos hid the hacker’s identity by using an alias, and introduced him as “an intelligence expert” who had previously worked with the government, the military, and international organizations.

According to the RCN news director, the hacker assured him that he had serious accusations to levy against Santos’s campaign.

“He said he would give me very sensitive information related to the way the FARC was threatening those who did not vote for President Santos.”

After several investigations, however, the director decided to drop the article after concluding the hacker’s claims were not sufficiently substantiated.

On Wednesday, following the report by RCN, Hoyos acknowledged that he did bring Sepúlveda to the network to ask the director to evaluate the information the hacker allegedly possessed, but had no knowledge of his illegal activities.

Hoyos then resigned as Zuluaga’s campaign director hours later. During a press conference, Hoyos announced, “I will retire from my post as a spiritual director for this campaign, and work from the streets. We don’t want this [scandal] to be used as cover for the serious allegations of the official [Santos] campaign,” referring to JJ Rendón’s narco scandal.

Zuluaga expressed his sadness with Hoyos’s resignation: “Mr. Hoyos’s resignation hurts me. He is an upright Colombian, and an upstanding man who always acted transparently.”

Sepúlveda is not a novice to working in electoral campaigns. According to his lawyer, the hacker has previously worked with other high-profile politicians and political advisers.

“He’s worked previously not only on a national level, but on an international level as well; in Peña Nieto’s campaign in Mexico, for example, and in Honduras too. He also worked with JJ Rendón and German Chica, President Santos, and former President Uribe.”

María Gabriela Díaz María Gabriela Díaz

María Gabriela Díaz reported from Caracas, Venezuela, and led the PanAm Post internship program. She has a Bachelor of Arts in political science with a focus in international affairs.