Detained Colombia hacker outlines alleged political plot against peace process

President Juan Manuel Santos on Monday called for a thorough investigation into allegations that the political party of former President Alvaro Uribe was using classified intelligence to derail ongoing peace talks with the country’s largest guerrilla group.

Santos called the allegations published by Semana magazine Sunday “chilling” and said they needed to be cleared up “for the good of democracy and the good of justice.”

The reaction comes after Andrés Sepúlveda, an alleged hacker who has been in custody since May, told Semana in a jailhouse interview that he had been hired by Uribe’s Centro Democrático party to help undermine the talks and support the presidential bid of the party’s candidate Oscar Iván Zuluaga.

In the interview, Sepúlveda said he was ordered to use his skills to turn the armed forces and public opinion against the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas in Havana. To do that, he said he purchased classified information from military intelligence and other groups that he fed to party officials.

“The goal of the strategic plan against the peace process was to end the process by any means possible, regardless of the consequences,” he said.

Sepúlveda said that he provided members of Zuluaga’s campaign information about the FARC’s negotiating team, including private emails. But he said the Centro Democrático party was also receiving classified information gleaned from the hacked communications of government negotiators in Cuba.

On Monday, Zuluaga called the allegations “completely false.”

“Our campaign never asked for, requested or received that type of information,” he told local television.

Uribe, who led the country from 2002-2010 and is currently a senator, turned to Twitter to deny the charges and accuse the Santos administration of leading a vendetta against his nascent political party. He also accused the government of trying to hide its own misdeeds.

“They invented the hacker to cover up the drug money that went to advisers of Santos and his campaign,” he wrote in one of more than a dozen tweets.

Santos didn’t refer to Zuluaga or Uribe directly on Monday, but said the allegations were troubling.

“I read [the article] and it worried me greatly, it seemed scandalous,” he said. “And what it demonstrates is the existence of a criminal enterprise.”

The hacker scandal first emerged in May soon after Zuluaga won the first round of a heated presidential race against Santos. At the time, Semana published a surreptitious video that seemed to show Sepúlveda sharing what he claimed was classified information with Zuluaga.

Initially, Zuluaga said the video was fake but has since accused Sepúlveda of “infiltrating” his election team as part of a dirty tricks campaign. Santos won the June 15 race with 51 percent of the vote versus Zuluaga’s 45 percent, thanks in part to the scandal.

Shortly after his detention, Sepúlveda told the inspector general’s office that he was being pressured by the attorney general to provide damning evidence against Zuluaga and Uribe. In Sunday’s interview, however, Sepúlveda retracted the statement, saying that it had been prompted by the inspector general, a staunch Uribe ally.

In a statement Sunday, Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez said Sepúlveda’s new claims were false and that Sepulveda’s own brother had backed the story about the hacker being offered leniency by the attorney general in exchange for testifying against Zuluaga and Uribe.

In Sunday’s interview, Sepúlveda said he was going public with the allegations because he felt “abandoned” by his one-time allies in the Centro Democrático party and is facing death threats. Semana said that Sepulveda often sleeps with a bullet proof jacket and a bullet proof blanket despite being in the attorney general’s bunker-like detention facility.

The interview comes as the government and FARC negotiators are, perhaps, closer than ever to finding a negotiated solution to the country’s 50-year civil conflict. This month, victims of the violence joined the talks, which have been going on for 21 months. In addition, a delegation of military officers traveled to the island to begin designing a ceasefire strategy that would take place if the deal is clenched.

Santos staked his reelection on the peace process even as his critics, including Uribe, accused him of turning a blind-eye to FARC atrocities in the interest of clenching a deal.

Santos was Uribe’s former minister of defense and the two were longtime allies. However, since Santos took the presidency in 2010 Uribe has emerged as his most powerful critic, taking him to task over the peace talks and his rapprochement with neighboring Venezuela.

On Monday, Uribe suggested that the new scandal was designed to cover up what he sees as the failure of the talks.

“You have to recognize that [Santos] got the country talking about the ‘hacker’ and forget about the messy Cuban farce,” he wrote Monday.