High-risk Colombians say GPS devices only pose more dangers

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

No one had notified Claudia Julieta Duque – or apparently any of the… More than 3,700 journalists, human rights activists and workers and indigenous leaders who use the vehicles – that the devices constantly monitored where they were. In Duque’s case, it happened as often as every 30 seconds. The system can also remotely shut off the SUV’s engine.

Colombia is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for human rights defenders — with more than 500 deaths since 2016. It is also a country where right-wing extremists have a track record of infiltrating national security agencies. For Duque, the GPS revelation was horrifying: Movements of people already at risk of political assassination were being tracked with technology bad actors could use against them.

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

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

For a decade, Colombia has installed trackers in the armored vehicles of high-risk individuals and VIPs, including presidents, ministers and senators. The agency’s director made the disclosure after Duque learned through a public registry request last year that the system was recording the location of her SUV on average five times an hour.

The director dismissed privacy concerns, calling the practice “fundamental” to ensure security.

Because the tracker posed a danger to her and her resources, Duque insisted on details about its exact features. But the National Protection Unit, called UNP in Spanish, offered little. She then demanded that the agency remove the device. It refused. So in February, Duque returned the vehicle, left the country and filed a lawsuit.

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

Petro’s homeland security transition team did not respond to questions from The Associated Press about the matter.

Whatever action the new government takes, it will reflect on its open commitment to human rights and its ability to reform a national security institution long controlled by bitter political enemies.

The UNP is a mainstay of that establishment. It employs dozens of ex-agents, mainly as bodyguards, for the disgraced homeland security agency DAS, which was disbanded in 2011 after the government of former President Alvaro Uribe abused it to spy on Supreme Court judges, journalists and political opponents.

Prominent among them were Petro himselfand Duque.

She was watched, threatened and bullied by DAS agents after finding evidence that the 1999 murder of beloved humorist and peace activist Jaime Garzon was a state crime. Duque’s reporting ultimately helped convict a former deputy director of the DAS in the murder, and three other ex-DAS officials have been convicted of psychological torture for threatening the lives of Duque and her daughter.

Lawsuits against eight others are still pending. Despite all this, threats forced her into temporary exile nearly a dozen times.

Questions about the GPS devices added to growing concerns about an agency that was once among the most effective in protecting human rights in Latin America. Adam Isacson, an analyst with the Washington Office for Latin America, said the UNP became less responsive, more politicized and more permeated with crime under the outgoing conservative government.

“Being with social leaders killed almost every other day for the past four years, this was the worst time for the unit to go into disarray,” he said. The activity of right-wing death squads increased after a historic 2016 peace treaty with left-wing rebels.

Duque says she was tipped off to the GPS trackers in early 2020 when she learned of a planned attack on her life, but when asked, the government blocked it 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 as a host of other control options, including remote cameras and door locks managed through vehicle computers.

Duque asked if such features were active in the government-leased vehicles, but said she received 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 for engine shutdown.

A 2021 contract with the car leasing company that Duque has obtained stipulates that a UNP official must approve any engine shutdown and that the data collected must be kept for a minimum of two years. Nothing in the contract supports the UNP’s claim that the system follows bodyguards and can react quickly in dangerous situations.

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

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

“We are not prosecuting or following anyone illegally,” CEO Alfonso Campo tweeted in October. “The information collected by GPS is private” and will only be transferred to a judge or judicial authority when required in a case or for security reasons. The AP asked the chief prosecutor if there were any requests, but it did not respond.

Privacy experts consider tracking the Colombian government illegal and disproportionate, saying it poses an unnecessary hacking risk.

According to the country’s privacy law of 2012, affected individuals must consent to the retention of such data. But they were never asked, said Emmanuel Vargas, a privacy law expert who helps Duque.

There is no evidence that GPS helped protect the native leader Miller Correawho was kidnapped and murdered in mid-March while driving alone on a rural highway. The tracker then served to retrieve his government-issued car, which was not armored.

A June 2021 government letter to the Inter-American Commission states that the UNP has taken “all necessary measures” to ensure that data on protected persons “is not accessible to (office) officials”. But in a December letter to Duque, the agency indicated that it does not directly manage data protection efforts. A contractor is responsible.

After Duque published her findings, several other high-risk Colombians publicly expressed distrust of their government-provided security credentials.

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

Martinez’s government-appointed bodyguards weren’t just spying on him after he published articles about alleged drug corruption involving the outgoing 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 Bogota by gunmen who were allegedly repelled by his bodyguards. He was nearby at the time and no one was injured. Martinez does not believe it was a robbery attempt, as investigators suspect.

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

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

Yepes is unsure whether Petro will succeed in overhauling the protection unit due to the heavy involvement of contractors with a military background.

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

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

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