High-risk Colombians say GPS devices only add to the dangers

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The armored vehicles that the Colombian government allocates to hundreds of high-risk individuals are supposed to make them safer. But when an investigative reporter discovered they all had GPS trackers, she only felt more vulnerable — and outraged.

No one had informed Claudia Julieta Duque – or apparently any of the more than 3,700 journalists, rights activists and labor and indigenous leaders who use the vehicles – that the devices were keeping a constant eye on their whereabouts. In Duque’s case, it happened as often as every 30 seconds. The system could also remotely shut off the SUV’s engine.

Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders – with more than 500 deaths since 2016. It is also a country where right-wing extremists have a history of infiltrating security organs national. For Duque, the GPS revelation was chilling: the movements of people already under threat of political assassination were being tracked with technology that bad actors could weaponize against them.

“It’s something super invasive,” said Duque, who has been a constant target of rogue security guards. “And the state doesn’t seem to care.”

The responsible government agency said the trackers were installed to help prevent theft, to track bodyguards who often drive the vehicles and to help respond to dangerous situations.

For a decade, Colombia had installed trackers in the armored vehicles of people at risk as well as public figures, including presidents, ministers and senators. The agency director made the disclosure after Duque learned last year through a public record request that the system was logging the location of his SUV an average of five times per hour.

The director dismissed privacy concerns and called the practice “fundamental” to ensure safety.

Seeing the tracker as a danger to her and her sources, Duque insisted on getting details on her exact characteristics. But the National Protection Unit, known as the UNP in Spanish, offered little. She then asked the agency to remove the device. He refused. So, in February, Duque returned the vehicle, left the country and filed a lawsuit.

Now back in Bogotá, she hopes to be satisfied when Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first left-wing president, takes office on August 7.

Petro’s Homeland Security transition team did not respond to questions from The Associated Press about this.

Whatever action the new administration takes will reflect its declared commitment to human rights and its ability to reform a national security system long ruled by bitter political enemies.

The UNP is a pillar of this establishment. It employs, mainly as bodyguards, dozens of former agents of the DAS internal security agency, which was disbanded in 2011 after the government of former President Alvaro Uribe misused it to spy on the judges of the Supreme Court, journalists and political opponents.

Prominent among them were Petro himself – and Duque.

She was watched, threatened and intimidated by DAS agents after uncovering evidence that the 1999 murder of beloved comedian and peace activist Jaime Garzon was a state crime. Duque’s reporting eventually helped convict a former deputy DAS director in the murder, and three other former DAS officials were convicted of psychological torture for threatening the lives of Duque and his daughter.

The trials of eight other people are ongoing. Through it all, threats have forced her into temporary exile nearly a dozen times.

Questions about GPS devices have added to growing concerns about an agency that once ranked among Latin America’s most effective in protecting human rights. Adam Isacson, an analyst with the Washington Bureau for Latin America, said the UNP had become less reactive, more politicized and more criminally ingrained under the outgoing conservative government.

“With social leaders killed almost every other day for the past four years, this was the worst time for the unit to fall into disarray,” he said. Right-wing death squad activity has increased following a historic 2016 peace pact with left-wing rebels.

Duque says she was tipped off about GPS trackers in early 2020 when she learned an assassination attempt had been planned, but when she asked about it the government stalled for a year .

When she finally obtained documents with the help of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, they showed her location had been recorded 25,183 times over 209 days from February to August last year alone. A software manual describes a host of other control options, including remote operation of cameras and door locks managed by vehicle computers.

Duque asked if such features were active in government-leased vehicles, but said she got no response. The chief executive of the company that provides the GPS software told the AP that it only tracks location and speed and allows engine shutoff.

A 2021 contract with the vehicle leasing company obtained by Duque stipulates that a UNP official must approve any engine cuts and that data collected is kept for a minimum of two years. Nothing in the contract supports the UNP’s claim that the system tracks bodyguards and enables quick reactions in dangerous situations.

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

Agency officials took offense last year when Duque questioned their intentions.

“We do not persecute or follow anyone illegally,” director Alfonso Campo tweeted in October.. “Information compiled by GPS is private” and is only given to a judge or judicial authority when required in a case or for security reasons. The AP asked the attorney general’s office if it had made any requests, but it did not respond.

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

Under the National Privacy Act 2012, data subjects must consent to the retention of such data. But they were never asked, said Emmanuel Vargas, a privacy law expert helping Duque.

There is no evidence GPS helped protect indigenous leader Miller Correa, who was abducted and killed in mid-March while driving alone on a rural road. The tracker was then used to retrieve his government-issued car, which was unarmored.

A June 2021 letter from the government to the Inter-American Commission said the UNP had taken “all necessary steps” to ensure that data on protected persons is “not accessible to (agency) officials.” But in a December letter to Duque, the agency said it does not directly administer data protection efforts. An entrepreneur is responsible.

After Duque went public with his findings, several other high-risk Colombians publicly expressed distrust of their government-provided security information.

One was investigative journalist Julian Martinez, whose book about the infiltration of the DAS by corrupt narco-paramilitaries won a national journalism award in 2017.

Martinez’s government-assigned bodyguards didn’t just spy on him after he published about drug-related corruption allegations involving the incumbent government. He accuses them of collecting material for a smear campaign organized by their boss – an outside contractor and former DAS official.

In February, Martinez’s armored vehicle was attacked in Bogotá by gunmen who were reportedly repelled by his bodyguards. He was nearby at the time and no one was injured. Martinez does not believe it was an attempted robbery, as investigators have suspected.

“The protection system has become a control system,” he said from Argentina, where he fled last month after exposing an alleged plot to deprive him of protection by claiming that he was abusing it.

Alberto Yepes, a human rights activist who helps victims of extrajudicial executions by the Colombian army, is certain that the UNP is being used to spy on him. He suspects cell phone circuits he discovered in September in his government-provided vehicle could be used to eavesdrop on conversations.

Yepes is unsure if Petro can succeed in revamping the protection unit due to the heavy involvement of contractors with military backgrounds.

“It will be difficult for the new government to change,” he said. “They’re going to have to negotiate.”

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

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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