Colombia

New ‘hacker’ scandal rattles Colombian presidential race

 

A video that emerged over the weekend seems to show front-running presidential candidate Oscar Iván Zuluaga relying on classified information purportedly extracted from military intelligence and the U.S. Southern Command.

jwyss@MiamiHerald.com

In a jerky five-minute video, a man sitting in front of a bank of computer screens offers one of Colombia’s leading presidential candidates privileged information that he says comes from Colombian military intelligence and the U.S. Southern Command.

The candidate, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who has pulled ahead in some polls for the May 25 race against President Juan Manuel Santos, doesn’t seem worried about the source of the information.

"So what is Santos going to hit us with before May 25 to provide him a life raft?" he asks.

Zuluaga’s critics say the the video proves his campaign has been relying on classified and illicit information in its efforts to unseat Santos.

On Sunday, Zuluaga said he was the "victim of a vile forgery" and accused Santos and his former campaign strategist J.J. Rendón of setting him up.

"This video-montage is a trap and it’s no coincidence that it’s released when we’re rising in the polls and the candidate-president is falling," he said.

The video was released by Semana magazine Saturday night and seems to show alleged hacker Andrés Sepúlveda meeting with Zuluaga in April. Sepúlveda was detained earlier this month amid accusations that he had been peddling classified documents and communication intercepts from negotiators in Cuba who are trying to hammer out a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas.

His capture forced one of Zuluaga’s campaign heads, Luis Alfonso Hoyos, to step down and Zuluaga said he had never met with the man whom he described as being part of his social-media campaign. A few days later he admitted he had passed briefly through Sepúlveda’s office to greet staffers.

Saturday’s video, however, appears to show that Zuluaga knew about the nature of Sepúlveda’s work.

In its article, Semana said the video was secretly taken by one of Sepúlveda’s employees who was aware of his boss’ illicit activities. In the clip, Sepúlveda claims to have deep insight into the FARC’s operations.

At one point, he says that FARC leader Timoleón "Timochenko" Jiménez has tuberculosis.

"We have corroborated the information with two sources. The access I have to [U.S.] Southern Command, their AWAC airplanes, which monitor [guerrilla] communications," he says.

Col. Gregory Julian, a spokesman at U.S. Southern Command, which is in Doral, said it was “highly unlikely” that Sepúlveda could have access to any U.S. surveillance data because of the “security encryption of our communications.”

On Sunday, presidential candidate Enrique Peñalosa, who is running far behind in the race, called on Zuluaga to step down.

"He lied to the country and in a very serious way, because the lie was covering up a crime," he said in a statement. Zuluaga could face charges for wire-tapping and criminal conspiracy, Peñalosa said.

"We shouldn’t even consider the possibility of electing a president who will spend his time defending himself from going to jail, where he will probably end up anyway," Peñaolsa added.

Former President Alvaro Uribe, who is backing Zuluaga, came out in defense of his candidate. In a series of Tweets, he said Sepúlveda was a Santos’ agent who had "infiltrated" the campaign and that the intelligence he was peddling was simply "rumors from the Internet."

Zuluaga and Uribe have been vocal critics of Colombia’s peace process with the FARC, which is one of Santos’ signature achievements. Zuluaga has said that if he were elected, the FARC would have to cease all hostilities for talks to continue.

Santos, for his part, has accused Zuluaga and his handlers of resorting to dirty tricks to try to derail the talks and win the presidency.

The fresh scandal comes amid an increasingly tight race.

A poll released Saturday by Ipsos-Napoleón Franco gives Zuluaga 29.5 percent of the vote versus Santos’ 28.5 percent — setting the stage for a June 15 runoff.

The other three candidates lag far behind, according to the poll. Former Bogotá Mayor Clara López has 10.1 percent, former Defense Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez has 9.7 percent, and former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa has 9.4 percent.

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