SEMANA, May 3, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
This is the story of a group of soldiers who for more than a decade have been the central characters in the principal cases of illegal wiretapping, illegal tracking, and espionage, including what was recently revealed in SEMANA.
On Friday, May 1, the Minister of Defense, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, together with the military high command, announced in a press conference that 11 officers had been retired because of the investigations resulting from SEMANA’s revelations. He did not reveal their names at that time.
The number of officers being discharged is undoubtedly significant, but knowing who they are is not a minor matter. The reason is simple: as long as the names are not known, there will not be the total clarity that permits us to establish whether those who were just separated from the ranks are indeed the same ones that were involved in the cases of illegal tracking, illegal wiretapping, and profiling of dozens of people as revealed by SEMANA.
During the last 10 years there has existed a group of 12 soldiers, including officers and non-commissioned officers, who have been involved in the greatest scandals that have shaken up the Colombian Army. They are not the only ones, but they are the ones in charge of carrying out those not-very-transparent tasks for their superiors in power. “They are the ones we in the Army call the ‘suicide bombers’. People who for what they did, for what they know, and for what they could tell become untouchable, because if they were touched they could blow up, and the consequences for the institution would be disastrous,” a general in the high command told SEMANA.
The situation so crudely described by the general has turned the members of this group into a kind of untouchables that are above the law. The problem is that, just because of the activities of this group of soldiers, the Army has had to endure some serious scandals. They have all been involved, directly or indirectly, in questionable operations. When those operations are revealed, the scandal breaks, and the same thing always happens: the members are transferred to administrative positions by their superiors while the tide of the scandal recedes, and a few months later they go back to start another assignment. Here are five of those scandals, and the investigations uncovered by SEMANA at the time, and in which this group of the so-called “suicide bombers” has taken part.
February 1, 2014—The gray room
When it was supposed that the illegal wiretapping chapter was a thing of the past, the ghost of illegal interceptions returned to haunt the country. And this time it was not just because of the existence of an office with a false front that was wiretapping the government’s negotiators in Havana, among other things.
Five months earlier, on the previous August 1, there was an extremely unusual event that up to then had been managed with a lot of secrecy. By the order of the Attorney General’s Office, one of the rooms where the Army’s wiretapping was going on, known as the “gray room”, was closed down, its equipment dismantled, and transferred to the “bunker” installations. The reason for that decision must have had to do with the fact that in that installation, among others, they had carried out illegal wiretaps on a large variety of people, including civilians, members of the Armed Forces, including high-ranking officers of the Army itself, and other military entities.
For several years and up to the five preceding months, the “gray room” functioned in the installations of the Center for Military Intelligence and Counterintelligence, known as CIME, and located in the northern part of Bogotá. The “gray room” formed part of the so-called Esperanza system. This was the matrix system for legal interceptions by the Colombian Attorney General’s Office (FGN in Spanish), a system undertaken in the middle of the ‘90’s under the auspices and financing of the British and United States governments. The system, administered and controlled by FGN, had 18 rooms in all, taking up the majority of the installations in the “bunker”.
Others, such as the Army’s “gray room”, are outside. Since the Army has no Judicial Police functions to carry out any interceptions, they have to count on the presence and supervision of officials of the CTI and prosecutors to guarantee the legality of the interceptions.
In the past, the Army’s “gray room” had been the basis for some of the most powerful blows by the Armed Forces against terrorism. That’s where they carried out the interceptions that were keys to operations that resulted in military successes against the big fish of the insurgents, like “Alfonso Cano” and “Mono Jojoy”. The room also played an important role in counterintelligence actions that allowed, for example, detecting a group of active and retired military that were working for the extradited boss of the Norte del Valle cartel, Diego León Montoya, alias “Don Diego”.
More recently the room also played a leading role in the investigations against some soldiers that took part in the so-called “false positives”. The room’s importance in some areas of Army intelligence and counter-intelligence cannot be disputed. For those very reasons, the untimely closing and dismantling of the “gray room” is a signal that something was going on there.
“You don’t take down something that important to the Army and the government unless it’s for something serious. In the past there were problems and it still kept on functioning. But now they’re taking it down. The “room” isn’t just gray. At the door you enter a black world, very complicated , that goes way beyond, and it’s better not to check. Somebody spied on the negotiators in Havana? It’s like the story of the blood sausage: everybody likes it, but nobody wants to know how it’s made. In this case, that’s what they’re doing,” a military intelligence officer told SEMANA.
“In theory they take every possible precaution, so that nobody scores on them. When they (the soldiers) are going to go into a number, they call for all the support that’s necessary, and before they issue that interception order, sign and seal it, it has to be authorized by the prosecutor and supported by a judge,” one of the CTI officials that works there explained to SEMANA.
In addition, “when the line is authorized and in the bunker they allow the signal to be heard in the ‘room’, we try to listen to what the analyst is hearing so as to verify that the voice and what they’re talking about matches what was authorized in the case that’s being investigated. As a system it has all of the security that’s possible. But its weakness is the people, because any system that relies on the participation of human beings, is one where someone can screw up and you get scored on,” said the official.
“When we started hearing about irregularities we opted to take measures. We took it down and moved the military intelligence ‘gray room’ and took it to the bunker, where it was possible to have more control,” Colombia’s Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre explained to SEMANA at that time. He said that same decision was adopted with other rooms, including two that were functioning at the headquarters of the now-defunct DAS. Curiously, that agency, the one that everybody thinks has been liquidated, still has some 300 officials and continues relatively alive and well.
The decision by Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre was bold and without precedent. SEMANA established with various military sources that the decision generated controversy and complaints, not just by the soldiers themselves, but even by high-ranking government officials, like the Minister of Defense, Juan Carlos Pinzón; there were people who respected, but didn’t agree with the determination. Not a few members of the military consulted by this paper expressed their disagreement with the measure, while pointing out that, as a result of dismantling the ‘gray room’, some ongoing operations could have been affected.
In spite of those scandals of the past that received little public attention at the time, the “gray room” continued to operate for years without major problems until a few months ago. What happened then to require a decision to close it down?
The shadow of the CIA
Located at the corner of Calle 100 and Carrera Octava, in the northern part of Bogotá, is a complex in which a brick building stands out. It’s CIME. That’s where the “gray room” operated. Ever since that room started to operate, it could count on a very relevant godfather: the CIA. “They (the CIA) furnished economic and technical support so that the room could function. They know everything, absolutely everything that went on there. They know who, what, and why for every interception in that room. In practical terms, they were the real bosses of that room,” one of the soldiers who worked there told SEMANA.
That information was verified by several of the analysts from the “room” and by officials in the United States Embassy. In official documents in SEMANA’s possession, the relationship of the CIA with the “gray room” is documented, not with the official acronym of that agency, but under the designation ORA, which is the acronym of the Office of Regional Affairs. In theory, the CIA’s presence, which is nothing new or surprising, is supposed to be focused on cooperation in the fight against terrorism, especially opposing the FARC. The matter is not without controversy though, if you consider that they had access to information over all 440 lines that that room had the capacity to intercept.
“In theory it’s the CTI analysts who by law are required to be listening to the lines as part of the controls that guarantee the legality of the monitoring. The problem with the “gray room” is that the military was also doing that. In theory that is not permitted, and it’s impossible to know what they were listening to. You would suppose that people with no business in the “room” would not be allowed to enter it, but that also happened. They were allowed to be there all the time, because they were inside a military installation and they had people there all the time. We, although we tried, could not be inside there for 24 hours. They could. We tried to avoid being scored on, but it could happen. The system (Esperanza) could not avoid a corrupt individual,” another CTI official told SEMANA. And they did score some goals.
Of the 440 lines that were authorized for the room in October of last year, we found that more than 100 did not have appropriate authorization. That means in simple terms that they did not comply with the legality protocols. Or that they were illegal wiretaps. “If the investigation there is carried out carefully they are going to end up finding out about the whole business. They will find leftist politicians, NGO’s suspected of being with the guerrillas, as well as others,” said one of the soldiers that worked there.
Finally, on August 1, 2013, from one moment to another and without more delay, the “gray room” was transferred to the bunker. At that time they hadn’t been able to determine with any clarity exactly who in the Army chain of command could have known about the irregularities in the “room’. What’s clear is that only one week later, on August 8, President Santos announced a shake-up of the whole Armed Forces command staff, Army and Police, including General Sergio Mantilla.
The announcement was surprising, because in theory those changes would have been made several months later. It aroused all kinds of speculations at the time. It isn’t clear if what happened in the “gray room” may have influenced that decision by the head of State.
2. March 2014—Did somebody spy on the negotiators in Havana?
It’s kind of a small place, near the Galerías shopping center, in the western part of Bogotá. Now it doesn’t have the sign on the outside that used to identify it. The sign was above the two windows with glass that no one could see through. On a little terrace, under a black tent, there are eight tables and 24 chairs. Inside there are seven more tables and you can see a curved stairway that leads to a second floor where there is a room with a gigantic TV and modules for computers.
Executive lunches are for sale at that place. On Monday there is plantain soup and spaghetti with meat. The modest place has a web page where courses in web design, information security, and publications about how to spy on WhatsApp, how to create and detect web attacks, and many others are offered.
Something that attracts attention very strongly is that, in spite of being an apparently very ordinary place, it has two private security guards, one of whom never takes his eyes off strangers who try to move around in the place. Even in the areas of the workers like the cooks and the waiters, who are not part of what’s really going on there.
In spite of the exotic combination of cheap restaurant and information learning center, a secret is hiding there: behind the façade, there is a Colombian Army wiretapping center. According to an exhaustive investigation by SEMANA, they have monitored from there the private communications of some of the members of the government’s negotiating team in the peace process going on in Havana, among other things.
When they got it going, they left nothing to chance. The facade even has a certificate from the Chamber of Commerce for the “retail sale of prepared food and sale of alcoholic drinks to be consumed inside the establishment”. And in the documents we see that it was created with capital amounting to 1,113,400 pesos (about USD280). The registration was approved on September 12, 2012.
Curiously, the country was surprised by the announcement that the Santos government was pursuing dialogs with the FARC before there was an official declaration by the head of State. On September 4 Santos confirmed the existence of the dialogs in a statement to the country, and he verified that they would be commenced formally on October 18. Just one month before that, the Army’s façade had already been in operation.
SEMANA has investigated this for 15 months, and the result raises some serious questions. Because this is such a sensitive matter, at that time more than 25 sources were consulted, including United States intelligence agencies, high-ranking Colombian Army officers, soldiers working in intelligence and counter-intelligence, and high-ranking government officials, among others.
The results of this investigation, including documents and photos, is a complicated framework that puts into evidence a series of illegal wiretaps carried out by sectors of the Colombian Army that were part of this façade, and the existence of a room for wiretapping in a military installation, the “gray room”.
“Andrómeda and Havana
SEMANA.com will not reveal the name of the business under which the façade operated, for reasons of security for the neighbors living in that area. The code name that the military gave to that façade was “Andrómeda”. The site was commanded by a Captain, whose name SEMANA will keep confidential. The Captain belongs to the Army Technical Intelligence Battalion, number 1 (Bitec-1).
These units exist in different areas of the country and structurally, they make up part of the Army’s Center for Technical Intelligence (CITEC). This Center is one of the backbones of Military Intelligence Management (DINTE). “They are the best there is in this country, and their specialty is everything that has to do with communications and computer science,” stated a colonel in the intelligence arm, referring to CITEC.
The technical capacity of CITEC and its units is outstanding. A large part of Operation Jaque was planned and carried out there, because through the infiltration and impersonation of the guerrillas, they were able to fool Mono Jojoy and the FARC, and that resulted in the liberation of Íngrid Betancourt and a dozen more kidnap victims.
All of the intelligence agencies, both foreign and in Colombia, have used and still use facades for their undercover work. The ones in BITEC, theoretically, are supposed to be focused on actions against terrorism and especially against the FARC. Part of the work of Bitec-1 consisted in working on urban networks and guerrilla collaborators.
“That was one part of the work that was done. But that was really to justify the very existence of the façade,” explains one of those that worked there. The situation is not very different from some of the old facades that the now-defunct DAS used. Theoretically, they were to combat Islamic terrorism and other external threats, but they ended up spying on politicians, activists, and Justices.
The “Andrómeda” façade had two kinds of people working there. Some of them, active military, and the others, civilian hackers. “Some of those boys were recruited at ‘campus parties’, that were technology fairs held every year. Others were known hackers who had helped in the past” one of them told SEMANA.
The idea of hiring civilians was intended to eventually be able to deny any connection with the Army. They were assigned to missions according to the principle of compartmentalization. “Hacker X might be assigned to mail. Another hacker, obtain the conversations of X or Y, the PIN of his/her Blackberry; and to another, download conversations on WhatsApp. They only had one part in the movie. But all of the information went to the chiefs; they were the ones that received the complete information,” one of the “Andrómeda” workers confirmed to SEMANA. “Having a place where they offer and carry out activities related to hacking and computer science is obviously a perfect façade,” the source commented.
The civilian hackers are one part of CGFM)
. But active members of Bitec-1 also worked there. Joany, Manuel, Samir, Diomedes, Yessid, Daniel, Néstor, and Andrés are some of them, and SEMANA knows their real identities. Most of them come to the site and pretend to work there also. On several occasions SEMANA witnessed the arrival of the Bitec-1 Captain, the head of the façade, in a small blue four-door Daihatsu.
“What was going on there was very simple. You couldn’t control voices there, but you could take control of daros, which are mail, essentially, PINs, etc. The targets are people related to the NGO’s: Piedad, Cepeda, the usual. But also, principally, some of the plenipotentiary and assistants,” recounted another one. “Andrómeda”, obviously, had to do with the commencement of the dialogs. Do you think that the dates between the opening of “Andrómeda” and the opening of Havana are coincidental?” said Juan Pablo, a pseudonym used by an Army First Sergeant whose name SEMANA is protecting, and who was also part of the façade. That information was corroborated by two other people who worked there.
“Jaramillo (Sergio Jaramillo), Éder (Alejandro Éder) or De la Calle (Humberto de la Calle) were some of those that I remember. The idea was to try to get the largest amount of data on what they were talking about and how it was going. Some of the information collected turned out to be not entirely relevant, because it was clear how important it was not to use mail or PIN because they knew that over there the Cubans could grab that data if they sent it from the island,” the source told SEMANA.com.
The majority of those involved in the facade and who were interviewed on condition of anonymity agreed in stating they did not know the final destination of all the information they collected. The only thing they knew was that the data were given to the Captain, who also had to turn it over to his BITEC commander. From there on up it was not known who gave the orders and who received the material. According to the sources, the highest government officials had no idea what was going on with this façade.
For more than a year “Andrómeda” operated normally. However, at the end of October 2013 a number of incidents altered the tranquility. On October 30, the Captain who managed “Andrómeda” sent Samir, one of his men, to a meeting for coordination on other topics with members of the Military Intelligence Center (CIME).
“The Captain was very worried because the CIME told us that we had to get everybody out because everything was really hot,” said one of the men who was at the meeting. At that time, the wiretapping room in the CIME had been closed because of irregularities, and they were going ahead with investigations to find out if any illegal wiretapping had gone on there like in the “gray room”.
“After that, the Captain told Manuel that the guy from the coast had seen strange cars around the ‘Andromeda’ location. Before 1:00 in the afternoon on that October 30, the Captain ordered Manuel to get rid of all the cyber war stuff he had, and he said he had already gotten rid of his own. He also ordered the guy from the coast to start doing a secure erase of everything we had. Maicol and Yesica were there. We thought that the prosecutors were coming to search us,” the soldier told SEMANA.
The day before that order the alarms about security in the façade had started lighting up over another incident. “Néstor, who was our man in ‘Andrómeda’, was taking a basic course and was wearing his uniform. It was bad luck when an engineer who was a supplier for ‘Andrómeda’ was there that day with General Salgado on other matters. But he saw Néstor and greeted him. Néstor said he was ‘caught in the act’. The order was to inform the superiors and carry out a ‘secure erase” of everything in ‘Andrómeda’.”
It’s possible that in a search that Tuesday the authorities didn’t find anything much in ‘Andrómeda’. That happened with some DAS teams when the scandal of their illegal wiretaps broke, and they changed the hard disks and erased the information before the members of the CTI and the Attorney General’s Office could get there. “We aren’t as dumb as the DAS guys were, and they nailed them with everything in writing,” said one of them. Because of that, they took down the sign on the front so that now you only see it when you get inside.
It will be up to the legal system to determine why and for whom ‘Andrómeda’ was operating and if it’s just some loose cannons in the Army. “When all of this is known, two things will happen. The first is that they will deny it, like they did with the DAS when it first came out. And the second is, different from the DAS, where with the passage of time we found out what had happened. This is the Army and the standard is very different. If this is the time in which they still haven’t told who gave the coordinates to President Uribe, imagine if there exists any possibility of finding out who ordered this and who received all the data from ‘Andrómeda’,” concluded one of the soldiers consulted by SEMANA.com.
3. November 2017—Spies and betrayal in the Armed Forces command staff
The subject was a secret that everybody knew about for years in the corridors at General Command of the Military Forces (CGFM). “This is the tip of the pyramid of a military career, and the summit of national defense strategy. But unfortunately for a long time, some of those that manage to get here are not the best. In certain cases it’s the officers, the noncoms, or civilians, the ones that their own forces would like to peel off, because they’re corrupt, inefficient, etc. But they have a godfather, they aren’t let go, but rather they’re accommodated in the CGFM,” a high Navy official that works at that office told SEMANA.
A lot of people there talk in low voices, but there’s indignation about what’s been going on for years Even though they can prove serious complaints, very few would dare to say it in public, and only some complaints have reached the Attorney General’s Office, the Inspector General, or the Comptroller. The law of fear walks those halls and that’s no small thing. Everybody is afraid of reprisals that can go from transfer to inhospitable parts of the country, opening of unjustified investigations based on anonymous tips, up to immediate discharge. Others have even been threatened with death. It’s a heavy atmosphere, one that guarantees silence and impunity.
The majority of Colombians hardly ever hear about the CGFM. They don’t understand the function of the structure that directs the three forces and is frequently confused with the Army.
Because of that, many people were misled two weeks ago when the national government announced that the Commander of the entity, General Alberto Mejía, would replace another General, General Juan Pablo Rodríguez, as its head. As a result of that decision, eight generals, the majority attached to the General Command itself, resigned and leaked to the media that they had done it because they disagreed with that measure. This created a sensation of crisis. However, without any doubt, the government immediately accepted their resignations, largely because the President’s Office had also received some disturbing information about the CGFM.
In spite of the law of silence, after a time, at least a dozen CGFM officials starting talking to SEMANA and documenting what was going on, as well as talking to other media and to the control agencies. One of the subjects had to do with the lack of transparency in the management of millions of pesos that had been appropriated for secret expenditures. Historically, not just there, but also in the majority of entities that work with this kind of system, that management has been the object of criticism. The reason is that there was hardly ever any kind of serious external audit, with the reasonable argument that they are secret and have to do with national security. Nevertheless, in the case of CGFM, SEMANA was able to document and obtain witnesses who demonstrated the contrary.
In the CGFM, SEMANA was able to learn of one of those cases with the code name “Gourmet”. That name designated a supposed informant allegedly recruited by one of the officers closest to the j-2 (Intelligence Headquarters and Joint Military Counter-Intelligence at CGFM). He was under General Martín Nieto, who, as a matter of fact, is one of the eight that requested retirement two weeks ago.
The supposed informant was a member of the Bolivariana Guardia Naciónal (GNB) serving at Fort Tiuna in Caracas, Venezuela. In theory, the CGFM official had recruited him and he was now committed to furnish information about a Venezuelan plan called “Black Centaur”, with key data on its operations. In return, the Venezuelan would receive 30 million pesos (about USD7,500). In his reports, the CGFM officer presented photos of the supposed informant and some data on the neighboring country’s strategic plans. However, upon examination of what he furnished, it was information he got from a hacker friend of his who pretended to be a member of the GNB. And the money ended up deposited in the accounts of the Colombian officer’s family, including his girlfriend.
When the officer’s scam was discovered, a subordinate informed his superiors, including Nieto, and later General Mauricio Zúñiga, another one of the eight that asked for retirement just a few days before. Zúñiga had received reports in May of 2015 that that same officer with the “hot source” had mounted a pyramid and cheated several of his comrades in the CGFM. But nothing happened. The one who complained ended up transferred to the jungles of Guaviare and the one he complained about goes on as if nothing happened.
So, inventing nonexistent sources, some officers took home millions. “You can get anyone to make a fingerprint and sign the document as an informant. That works, in part as support for any audits, and the thing is legal,” explained a noncom about the soldiers whose superiors had told them to carry out these activities.
They also cheated the government with contracts or maintenance services. One bill for six repairs performed in just one year on vehicles in perfect condition cost 52 million pesos (about USD13,000).
Those who are implicated used several million pesos from that category to pay outside defense lawyers on proceedings on the so-called false positives. One of them was the wife of a high CGFM official. In other cases, they used the money for personal expenses and trips for high officials.
And the worst of it is that in some cases the money was used to carry out operations of information collection or intelligence for private purposes, far from the institutional objectives of benefit to the Armed Forces or the government.
In that way, for example, they performed intelligence work against officers in various forces, which would not be unusual if it were to do counterintelligence work. “They dug up everything. They looked for girlfriends, maids or whatever so as to be have something on them in case of a problem, or to have something to blackmail them with, so that, for example, they wouldn’t investigate X thing or they would support a bid on a contract, and so on. If they didn’t find anything, they could leak something anonymously. Something anonymous can be more effective than a bullet,” explained one of those in charge of that kind of unsaintlike action to SEMANA.
No less troubling is the fact that much of the secret and strategic information that they produced in the CGFM was used for political purposes. Data and reports ended up in the hands of members of the opposition to the government and, obviously they were manipulated. In September of last year, Alejandro Ordóñez, in an interview with Claudia Gurisatti, stated that “two military intelligence agents came to my office and they told me about that agenda the government has with the FARC to get rid of the Inspector General.” Even though the current presidential candidate stated that it had to do with members of military intelligence, SEMANA established that in reality, it was three members of the CGFM who, sure enough, were looking for data that would damage the government.
But Ordóñez was not the only one they had provided with intelligence information with an election-related purpose. That leak of information with the intention of influencing the campaign includes extremely sensitive subjects. The CGFM provided one of the campaigns with nothing less than a list with data and photos of a series of Venezuelan intelligence agents in Colombian territory. That information, classified as top secret, and which SEMANA has seen, had been sent to the CGFM by an intelligence agency that shared it, because of its seriousness. Nevertheless, it ended up in the hands of politicians.
And if that doesn’t disturb you, the chaos and lack of control has also resulted in episodes that affect national security. SEMANA has established that, during several months, an officer of the CGFM turned over the daily reports of all air operation by Armed Forces and Police planes to the Venezuelans in exchange for money. That, clearly, amounts to the serious crime of treason.
And that’s just part of what is doubtless a Pandora’s box full of unpleasant surprises. Because of all this and much more, the government needs to take forceful measures in the section that, one would suppose, is the heart of national defense.
4. April 2018—Camouflaged money
Everybody knows the place with the code name La Finca (The Farm). It was a small apartment near the Military University in northern Bogotá. The neighbors could see various relatively young people coming in with their knapsacks over their shoulders. Some of them could be taken for students and they never aroused any suspicion.
The inhabitants of that building had no way to know who these boys really were or what they were doing in that place. They were agents of a Company in the Regional Military Intelligence Strategic Group (Rimec) attached to the Armed Forces General Command (CGFM).
The Company, known by its code name “Huila”, was a specialized unit working on cyber defense and cyber attack. La Finca was not the only façade they used for their meetings and work efforts. For a change they also went to a house in the Municipality of Chía. The house belonged to a colonel who rented it to them. Those were not the only ones. Another three Companies operated, principally, from the capital, and these were known by their code names, Neiva, Espinal, and Villavicencio, each one with different targets and objectives.
These units, mainly Huila, were the leading players and the tip of the iceberg for a series of very serious problems of corruption, discovered between 2013 and the end of 2017 in the CGFM, the peak of the pyramid of national defense where they prepared the directives for the three Military Forces (FF.MM.): Army, Navy, and Air Force. It went from noncoms up to several generals, including a former Commanding General of the FF.MM.
Public opinion was first made aware of this topic in December of last year when SEMANA published an investigation entitled, “Money, Spies, and Betrayal”. It revealed some details, such as how millions of pesos ended up in the pockets of military officers, even generals, and other amounts were destined irregularly to purchase monitoring equipment with which they could obtain information with different objectives.
After that publication, the ones who were implicated dismantled La Finca and the other facades and a large part of what went on there simply disappeared. “After that article we had to hide the equipment, try to legalize and organize the accounts, and erase and store away in secure places some of the things we had been doing,” one of the members of Huila told SEMANA.
But even though a lot of secrets were lost during the following months, SEMANA was able to put together some of the pieces of the puzzle. To do that, we interviewed more than ten soldiers who belonged to the CGFM and to those Companies in Rimec. Beginning last year, control entities like the Comptroller’s Office—and especially the Inspector General’s Office—sent investigators to collect evidence and testimony. At the end of last February, the Inspector from the CGFM and the men from the Army’s Counter-Intelligence Battalion completed a report that demonstrate very serious findings. That report is now in the power of the control entities.
In addition, SEMANA had access to more than 14 hours of videos in which several soldiers recounted, with full particulars, how they diverted millions of pesos from operations, and how they obtained equipment to scan and monitor national defense networks that, in some cases ended up being used for other purposes. A large part of what that material contains has to do with national security and for that reason, SEMANA will not reveal the details
The general savings account
“Huila was a high level Company, endorsed by and reporting to General Nieto. People like Sergeant Henao, General Rodríguez’ right hand man and with his total confidence, were sent there. He came from the cyber defense command at CGFM. He was considered to be at the highest level of strategic intelligence,” recounted a superior officer, whose rank and name SEMANA will not reveal, for reasons of national security.
The generals mentioned here would be Martín Nieto, who until last December was in charge of j-2 (Headquarters of Joint Military Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence at CGFM). The other general would be Juan Pablo Rodríguez Barragán, who retired in November 2016 after four years as Commander of the FF.MM. and was named Colombia’s Ambassador to South Korea.
“These four Companies (Huila, Villavicencio, Neiva, and Espinal) received funds from the Joint Intelligence Command (Cconi) and from Rimec for their operations. Every commander of a Company received a monthly check with amounts averaging 120 million pesos (about USD30,300). They took a part of that for their work, but in the majority of cases, they had to return 50%-80% of it for what was called ‘savings’,” the officer explained.
What that officer called “‘savings’ was converted into a kind of petty cash fund into which those thousands of millions of pesos ended up being used for personal purposes by the generals and some of the officers. “For example, we used to take out ten million pesos (about USD2,500) every month that we were asked to provide supposedly to support General Rodríguez’ bodyguards,” said the soldier. “We also had to take out USD3,000 to support trips that General Nieto took when he was involved in the dialogs in Havana, even though you would think that that would be covered by what they called the Peace Fund,” he said.
“The calculations were more or less like this. Huila had to return 120 million pesos (about USD30,000); Villavicencio, 150 million (about USD38,000); Espinal 40 million (about USD10,000); and Neiva, between 40 and 50 million pesos (about USD10,000-USD12,600) every month,” related a noncom who was part of one those Companies.
Between 2015 and 2016 this man prepared a number of reports for the high-ranking officers at CGFM, and to the Minister of Defense, among others. In the reports he related these and many other irregularities. He did the same thing with the Attorney General’s Office. But nothing happened. “I got myself a thousand problems for reporting the corruption. One general and one colonel grabbed me and told me ‘pull yourself together and keep quiet on this’. A Major swore at me, and there were all kinds of threats,” he said. Because of his complaints, he finally ended up being discharged from the Army.
That was not an isolated case. In fact, at least 12 soldiers were fired or transferred to inhospitable areas after complaining to their superior or to the Defense Minister about the irregularities.
All of the testimony that SEMANA has seen, and others that are in the Inspector General’s Office, describe the modus operandi, and how it fed that savings account. The method was simple and very effective. They invented informants.
One of the most memorable cases is the one of Captain Harold Parra. He, according to the statements of at least ten sources, was an aide and man in General Nieto’s confidence. “He was a control agent, but he came with some astonishing stories about how he recruited informants. Once he told how he was riding on a bus and he got to know the daughter of a Venezuelan military man and he recruited her. After a short time, he starting presenting documents supposedly containing information that he got from the other side of the border. They had to give him between 10 and 15 million pesos (about USD2,500 to USD3,800) to pay this alleged informant. After a while they found out that the informant didn’t exist and he was only presenting documents that a hacker friend of his downloaded from the internet,” related one of Parra’s co-workers.
That same officer was involved in another scandal because right in the CGFM he put together a kind of pyramid, and that gave him some serious problems with a number of his co-workers and some civilians. The man threatened some of them when they demanded their money back. “Do what you want, file a complaint, but just be clear that I’ll get away with it. And go ahead and tell the generals. I don’t care. They know what I’m doing,” he was heard to say to a lieutenant. In spite of having various complaints in the Attorney General’s Office, his godfathers in the institution managed to save him for nearly two years until finally in mid-2017 he was retired from the Army after the scandal broke.
“The same thing happened with Major Silva. He was protected by General Nieto and Rodríguez. He did stuff that not even 007 would do, but they believed him here. Supposedly, he had recruited 50 informants, and they had to be paid. When they did a verification, there were only two that were real. All the others only existed on paper to make the money look legal,” declared one of the members of the Huila Company.
This was a general practice in almost all of the Companies. The recent investigations found reports signed by informants that had passed themselves off as members of the Venezuelan Navy. When the reports were compared, they found that the names and the signatures essentially matched the names of citizens of that country who were at the border and were made to sign and put a fingerprint on a blank document. They were paid 20,000 pesos (about USD5) for doing that.
Later they presented those sheets to the CGFM as supposed intelligence reports based on “informants”, whom they had had to pay up to 200 million pesos (about USD50,500) for the information they had obtained. And once again, those papers came from an internet search. Once the money had been paid out, the soldiers split the loot, including some of the high-ranking officers.
“That was just plain robbery. But to legalize all of that, you had to have a lot of collaborators, who were just false signers. Many of them were friends of the same people working in the Companies, and they would get five percent of the money for signing their names. Because of that, those units ended up being called ‘company clowns’ by insiders, because it was a clown show, what they were doing,” states one of the officers commanding the Companies.
Preliminary calculations show that with these practices they were able to collect up to 500 million pesos (about USD126,000) which would total more than 5,000 million pesos (almost USD2,000,000) diverted in this period. Where did the money go?
Las Vegas and the magic pineapples
Even though the four Companies were supposed to meet their monthly quota, in reality, very few of the members knew exactly what their superiors were doing with these thousands of millions of pesos. A large part of that money ended up in the pockets and in the bank accounts of a number of them. “If the General was invited to a foreign country, that would include his travel expenses (airfare, food, hotel, and incidental expenses). So they requested 30 (about USD7,500), 40 (aboutUSD10,000), or 50 million pesos (about USD12,600) for ‘incidental expenses’. Obviously that money was never returned and it was legalized on one bill or another,” a captain who was part of the FF.MM. command until November told SEMANA. “They did that so it would get through the Comptroller’s Office and the auditors and everything would seem to be on the up and up.”
Money also flowed from those areas to pay lawyers to defend the soldiers involved in extrajudicial executions, known as false positives. Others bought property either in Colombia or in another country, in the names of family members or third parties. However, some of the money in the “savings account” went for other purposes.
In the last week of July in 2017, the high-ranking officers of the CGFM at that time authorized three members of Huila Company to travel to Las Vegas, in the United States. On that date in that place there was an event called Defcon, known as the biggest meeting of hackers and computer experts in the world.
“General Rodríguez and General Nieto authorized us to go. To pay for the trip, the money came from three PINs of approximately 20 million pesos (about USD5,000) for each,” explained one of the members who went. The PIN referred to indicates the fund for payment of informants. That means, the money comes from an allocation for that purpose and not for trips.”
“Sergeant Henao went with us and he had to keep General Rodríguez informed on everything. The general wanted to be kept up to date on all of the people, inside and outside of the military, and on everything in general,” said another of those who went to Sin City.
During the seven days in Las Vegas, they went to a number of presentations, but the main goal of the trip was to acquire equipment to increase the technical capacity that we had as a cybernetics company. That way, we acquired a program that they called duplicating identity. It was a kind of Troy that would permit them to control and have remote access to any computer of any person considered to be an objective. They also bought a type of USG that when you insert it into a computer, it evades all of its security controls and infects it to obtain total control of it. The information of everything that the user keys in would arrive at their computers or at servers in the cloud, generally situated in countries in Eastern Europe.
But above all, they acquired several machines known as Wifi Pineapple. They call it “la piña”. “Before that trip General Rodríguez was angry and worried about some tweets where José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch (HRW) was talking about the generals, false positives, and the CPI (International Criminal Court). When that happened, he took along Sergeant Henao, whom he trusted, hoping he knew what he could do about Vivanco, like countering or attacking,” one of the members of Huila recounted. Indeed, on July 9, 2017, the Director of HRW for the Americas published several tweets in which he stated that Rodríguez and other generals were “on the radar of the International Criminal Court.”
The “pineapple” is basically a machine with several capacities and different reach. The operator can deceive the users of a wifi network and make them believe that they are connected to the networks in their homes or offices, when really they are using a different device that has the same name as the networks that have been supplanted. It can supervise, intercept, and even modify the incoming and outgoing traffic. It includes messaging systems such as WhatsApp, among others. “Everything that moves in the spectrum and by internet can be scanned. If you are in an office, a hotel, or at home, with ‘pineapple’ I can get all the information I want any time you are connected to the internet by wifi,” a systems engineer that works for the Armed Forces and uses these machines explained to SEMANA.
“Every one of those ‘pineapples’, one large and two small, cost between USD50 and USD100, but they invoiced them at 20 million pesos (about USD5,000),” stated another one of the members of Huila. When they got back from Las Vegas, they hired two engineers in Medellín to go to Bogotá on Saturdays and teach the members of the Company how to use the “pineapple” effectively. They paid them 2 million pesos (about USD500) for each trip and the money came out of the “savings account”, according to one of the engineers.
In the earliest statements during the investigation, almost all of the members of Huila and the other Companies stated that they never used the “pineapple” to do “jobs” inside the country or against people in public life. However, unofficially, some of them have admitted that that computer tool could indeed be used to monitor high officials in different Forces, members of the government itself, and some politicians. “It was not something institutional, nor was it included in our mission. It was something personal that could have been used to deliver data to campaigns, high officials, and private individuals,” one of the members of those Companies told SEMANA.
“They wanted to damage my good name and the good name of the Commanding General. I didn’t have contact with anyone in those Rimec Companies at the time that I was there, and I don’t think that any Commanding General had direct contact with informants or with the noncoms that managed the informants. As far as legalization of the money, I never, never gave an illegal order about that. If anything happened it’s because they were using my name and there are people that would like to damage my reputation. Besides, I wasn’t in charge of the spending. I never was aware that they were passing money to the bodyguards or anything like that,” stated a noticeably agitated General Rodríguez from South Korea.
“As to Sergeant Henao, he was the computer expert and he worked there with us with the understanding that he was part of the active reserve, and that the information was given to the Minister of Defense. I talked with the Sergeant when I had to find out a little more about certain subjects, because he was the one in charge of the most highly classified areas. He talked with me and with General Nieto about things that were purely related to service and intelligence matters that I couldn’t talk about with the noncoms,” Rodríguez added.
“This is an investigation that is based on a dangerous assumption; that there is a big intelligence organization dedicated to intelligence on prosecutors, generals, and politicians. And that’s false,” General Martín Nieto told SEMANA.
“There are missions and work orders and it’s all traceable and verified by the visits from the Army’s Inspector General and the Comptroller’s Office. Something could have happened at an operational level, but we were at the tactical and strategic level,” said Nieto. “I was in Havana more than 200 days as a representative of the government. It’s possible that somebody used my name for that, but it’s not the first time that’s happened to me, even with other matters,” Nieto commented. The case is delicate and extremely serious. What’s certain is that after the first complaint four months ago of investigations by SEMANA and then the later investigations, this scaffolding came to light. One part of this arsenal of evidence, testimony and proof is in the power of the Inspector General’s Office which, aware of the dimension of the problem, has been very diligent. It has identified at least 18 individuals related to these activities. After several months of investigation, the Inspector General is assembling important evidence that will permit his office to announce the first decisions on the case in the next few days. Without any doubt, the subject will provide a great deal to talk about.