Colombians at high risk say GPS devices only amplify dangers

The bulletproof vehicles the Colombian government hands over to hundreds of high-risk individuals are expected to make them safer. But when an investigative reporter discovered that they all had GPS trackers, she only felt more insecure – and annoyed.

Claudia Juliet Duke – or apparently none of the more than 3,700 journalists, rights activists and Labor and Indigenous leaders – was informed that the equipment was constantly monitoring their whereabouts. In Duke’s case, this happened as often as every 30 seconds. The system can also remotely disconnect the engine of the SUV.

Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders – more than 500 have been killed since 2016. It is also a country where right-wing extremists have a track record of infiltrating national security bodies. For Duke, the GPS revelation was chilling: The movements of people already at risk of political assassination were being tracked with technology that bad actors could weaponize against them.

“It’s something super invasive,” said Duke, who has been a frequent target of rogue security agents. “And the state doesn’t care.”

The responsible government agency has said that the trackers were installed to help prevent theft, often to help track down bodyguards driving vehicles and respond to dangerous situations.

For a decade, Colombia had been installing trackers in armored vehicles of at-risk individuals, as well as VIPs, including the president, government ministers and senators. The agency’s director made the revelations after Duke learned last year through a public records request that the system was recording the location of his SUV an average of five times an hour.

The director dismissed privacy concerns and called the practice “fundamental” to guarantee security.

Deeming the tracker a threat to him and his sources, Duke pressed for details of its exact characteristics. But the National Protection Unit, known in Spanish as UNP, offered little. He then demanded the agency to remove the equipment. It refused. So in February, Duke returned the vehicle, left the country and filed a legal challenge.

Now back in Bogota, she is hoping for satisfaction when Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first leftist president, takes office on August 7.

Petro’s home security transition team did not respond to questions from the Associated Press on the matter.

Whatever action the new administration takes will reflect its commitment to human rights and its ability to reform the national security establishment long run by bitter political foes.

UNP is a pillar of that establishment. It employs mostly bodyguards, dozens of former agents of the discredited DAS domestic security agency, which was disbanded in 2011 by the government of former President lvaro Uribe after being abused to spy on Supreme Court justices, journalists and political opponents. went.

Chief among them were Petro – and the duke himself.

He was surveyed, threatened and intimidated by DAS activists after uncovering evidence that the 1999 murder of beloved comedian and peace activist Jaime Garzon was a state crime. Duke’s reporting eventually helped to convict a former DAS deputy director in the murder, and three other ex-DAS officers have been convicted of psychological torture for endangering the lives of Duke and his daughter.

Eight others are facing trial. Through it all, threats forced her into temporary exile about a dozen times.

Questions about GPS devices added to growing concerns about an agency once most effective in the protection of human rights in Latin America. Adam Isaacson, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America, said the UNP has become less reactive, more political and more criminal under the outgoing conservative government.

“It was the worst time for the unit to be in disarray, with social leaders being killed almost every other day during the last four years,” he said. Right-wing death squad activity increased after a historic 2016 peace deal with left-wing rebels.

Duke says he became aware of GPS trackers in early 2020 when he learned of a planned attempt on his life, but when he asked about them, the government rocked for a year.

When she finally got documents with the help of the InterAmerican Human Rights Commission, they showed her location was recorded 25,183 times in 209 days from February to August last year alone. A software manual described other control options, including remotely operating cameras and door locks managed via vehicles’ computers.

Duke asked if any such features were activated in government-leased vehicles, but he said he had received no response. The general manager of the company that provided the GPS software told the AP that it only tracks location and speed and enables engine cutoff.

A 2021 contract with the vehicle-leasing company obtained by Duke stipulates that a UNP official must approve any engine cutoffs and that the data collected must be kept for at least two years. Nothing in the contract supports UNP’s claim that the system tracks bodyguards and enables quick response in hazardous situations.

UNP officials declined to answer questions from the AP. There is no evidence that GPS tracking has caused any harm to any person under protection.

Agency officials took offense last year when Duke questioned their motives.

Director Alfonso Campo tweeted in October, “We do not harass or follow anyone illegally.” “The information collected by GPS is private” and is handed over to a judge or judicial authority only when necessary in a case or for security reasons. The AP asked the chief prosecutor’s office if it had made any requests, but it did not respond.

Privacy experts consider the Colombian government’s tracking illegal and disproportionate and say it poses an unnecessary hacking risk.

Under the country’s 2012 privacy law, affected individuals must consent to the retention of such data. But he was never asked, said Emmanuel Vargas, a privacy law expert who helped Duke.

There is no indication that the GPS helped protect indigenous leader Miller Correa, who was kidnapped and killed while driving alone on a rural highway in mid-March. Tracker later worked to retrieve his government-issued car, which was not armor-plated.

A June 2021 letter from the government to the InterAmerican Commission said the UNP took “all necessary measures” to ensure that data on protected individuals “was not accessible to (agency) office bearers.” But in a letter to Duke in December, the agency indicated that it does not directly administer data-protection efforts. A contractor is responsible.

After the Duke made his findings public, many other high-risk Colombians publicly expressed distrust of the security details provided by the government.

One was investigative journalist Julian Martinez, whose book about the DAS infiltration by corrupt narco-paramilitaries won the 2017 National Journalism Award.

Martinez’s government-appointed bodyguards did not spy on him after publishing articles on alleged drug corruption involving the outgoing government. He accuses them of collecting materials for a discredited campaign organized by their boss – an outside contractor and former DAS officer.

In February, Martinez’s armored vehicle in Bogota was attacked by armed men who were allegedly driven away by his bodyguards. He was nearby at the time, and no one was hurt. Martinez does not believe it was an attempted robbery, as investigators have said they suspect.

“The security plan has become a scheme of control,” he told Argentina, where he fled last month, after condemning an alleged conspiracy to snatch security, claiming he was abusing it.

Alberto Yepes, a prominent rights activist who assists victims of nonjudicial killings by the Colombian military, is certain that the UNP is being used to spy on him. He suspects that cellphone circuitry discovered in his government-provided vehicle in September may have been used to monitor conversations.

Yes, it is not sure that Petro can be successful in overhauling the security unit due to heavy involvement of contractors with military background.

“It will be difficult for the new government to make changes. “They have to negotiate.”

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Associated Press Writer Astrid Suarez in Bogota contributed to this report.

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