The Colombian government assigned armored vehicles to hundreds of individuals who could be targeted, to increase their security. But when a reporter learns they are equipped with satellite trackers, she feels even more vulnerable. And furious.
No one had informed Claudia Juliette Duque – nor apparently the more than 3,700 journalists, human rights activists, indigenous leaders and trade unions using those vehicles – that this team was following in their footsteps. In Duke’s case, he did it every 30 seconds. The system can also shut down the engine of the truck.
Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders. More than 500 social leaders have been killed since 2016. It is also a country where right-wing extremists have operated within security organisations.
For Duke, the revelation that his movements were being tracked was chilling: people already at risk of being killed for their political activism were being tracked with technology that could be used against them .
“This is a super-invasive and very serious pod,” said the duke, who has been harassed by agents of the security apparatus for years. “And the state doesn’t care.”
The government agency responsible for the program says the trackers are installed to prevent theft, track the bodyguards who frequently drive those vehicles, and facilitate response to dangerous situations.
For a decade, the government has been placing trackers on armored vehicles used by endangered persons and high-profile celebrities, including presidents, ministers and senators. The agency’s director confirmed this last year after Duke learned that the system was recording the location of his truck an average of five times an hour.
The official downplayed the privacy issue, saying it was a “fundamental” exercise to ensure people’s safety.
Duke believes that tracking her movements is a danger to him and his sources, and asks for details about the team’s capabilities. However, the National Protection Unit (UNP) did not give further details. He then demanded that this instrument be taken back, which was refused. As a result, in February he returned the vehicle, left the country and went to court.
Now back in Colombia, they hope their concerns will be addressed when Petro, the first leftist president in Colombian history, takes office on August 7.
Petro’s transition team did not respond to questions from The Associated Press on the matter.
Petro’s decision on the matter could reveal how committed he is to human rights and how far he can reform a national security apparatus dominated by his bitter political rivals.
UNP is a pillar of the security system. It employs dozens of former agents from the former DAS (Department of Administrative Security), which was disbanded in 2011, when it emerged that Álvaro Uribe’s government had targeted Supreme Court judges, notably bodyguards, journalists and political rivals. It was used as a spy.
Among them are Petro and the Duke himself.
She was watched, threatened and harassed by DAS elements after she found evidence of the 1999 murder of Jaime Garzón, a beloved humorist and pacifist, which was a state crime.
Duke’s investigation convicted a former DAS deputy director of murder and convicted three other former DAS agents of psychological torture after threatening Duke and his daughter.
Eight other defendants have pending trials.
In total, the duke had to go into temporary exile about a dozen times for his work.
The satellite tracking added to a series of concerns about a body that was once one of the most effective in Latin America when it comes to defending human rights. Adam Isaacson, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America, said the UNP had become politicized over time and penetrated by criminals under the outgoing conservative government.
“Social leaders have been murdered practically every two days during the last four years. This was the worst moment for this unit to break up,” he said.
Right-wing death squad activity increased after a historic peace deal was signed in 2016 between the government and left-wing rebels.
Duke says he learned about the GPS satellite trackers in early 2020, when he learned they were planning to kill them, and when asked about it, the government avoided answering for a year.
When she finally got corroborating documents with the help of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, she found that her location had been recorded 25,183 times over 209 days, between February and August last year. A manual for the software used describes many of the available functions, such as remotely operated cameras and doors that can be locked remotely using the vehicles’ computers.
The Duke asked whether these functions were capable of government vehicles, but he said they did not answer him. The general manager of a company that supplies the GPS satellite tracking software told the Associated Press that it only tracks the vehicle’s position and speed and can even shut off the engine.
A 2021 contract with the vehicle rental company obtained by Duke stipulates that an UNP official must approve engine shutdowns and that the information collected must be preserved for at least two years. Nothing in the contract supports the UNP’s claim that the system follows in the footsteps of bodyguards and facilitates quick response in case of dangerous situations.
UNP officials declined to answer questions from the Associated Press. There is no indication that GPS satellite tracking has harmed people under government protection.
Unit officers took offense last year when the Duke questioned their motives.
“We do not condone or do illegal stalking,” unit director Alfonso Campos said in a tweet in October. “This information collected by GPS is private and reserved, and is only distributed to a judge or judicial authority if it is required in a particular case and for security reasons.”
The Associated Press asked the attorney general’s office whether it had made any requests, but did not receive a response.
Privacy experts say the surveillance by the Colombian government is illegal and disproportionate, and creates an unnecessary risk of hacking.
Under privacy legislation passed in 2012, affected individuals must agree to retain that information. But according to Emmanuel Vargas, a privacy law expert who advised the duke, he was never consulted.
There is no indication that the GPS helped save indigenous leader Miller Coria, who was abducted and killed while driving alone on a rural road in mid-March. The tracking team later allowed the recovery of their official vehicle, which was not armoured.
A June 2021 letter from the government to the IACHR stated that the UNP had taken “all necessary measures” to guarantee that unit officials did not have access to information on people under protection. But in a letter sent to Duke in December, the unit said it does not directly control data security. He said it was in the hands of an administrator.
When Duke released the results of his investigation, many other students expressed their disbelief in the service provided by the government security apparatus.
One of them is journalist Julian Martinez, whose book about the infiltration of the DAS by corrupt narco-paramilitaries won the National Journalism Award in 2017.
The bodyguards assigned to Martinez may not have limited themselves to spying on her after she published articles about alleged corruption in the outgoing government due to drug trafficking. He accuses them of also collecting material for a defamation campaign run by his boss, a contractor who worked for DAS.
In February, Martínez’s armored vehicle was attacked in Bogotá by armed men who were reportedly chased by his bodyguards. He was in the vicinity at the time and no one was hurt. Martinez does not believe it was an attempted robbery, as investigators suspect.
“In effect, the security plan becomes a control plan,” she declared from Argentina, where she moved last month, after denouncing an alleged plot to withdraw her security under the pretext that she would abuse her. Was staying
Alberto Yepes, a prominent human rights activist who helps relatives of victims of extrajudicial killings by the armed forces, is convinced that the UNP is being used to spy on him. He suspects that a cell phone he discovered in September on the dashboard of the vehicle, which was supplied to him by the government, may have been used to listen in on his conversations.
Yepes says he doesn’t know whether Petro will be able to improve the security unit because of the heavy involvement of contractors with military backgrounds.
“It is difficult to change with the new government,” he said. “They’re going to negotiate.”
Astrid Suárez contributed to this office from Bogotá.