Elections: ‘Hacker-Gate’

Illustration for election hacker scandal.
Illustration for election hacker scandal.

On Saturday May 17, Colombia’s leading news magazine Semana released an obtuse 5-minute video of the Centro Democratico’s presidential candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga allegedly discussing with Andrés Sepúlveda the value of classified information garnered from military intelligence and U.S. Southern Command radar aircrafts.

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Just a week earlier, Sepúlveda, 31, had been arrested following the Attorney General’s accusations that he was illegally gathering information in order to derail the ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. The “hacker” was discovered to have provided information security and social networking services to the Zuluaga campaign and which was widely regarded as a suspicious coincidence.

Zuluaga initially claimed to have never met with Mr.Sepúlveda, although several days later he admitted to “passing briefly” through the hacker’s office in order to greet staffers. Luis Alfonso Hoyos, Zuluaga’s campaign manager, was moreover forced resign after the head of the RCN television news network revealed that Hoyos had falsely introduced Sepúlveda as a government intelligence expert looking to sell unfavorable information about the peace talks.

The contentious video, and extended audio released by El Tiempo newspaper, reveals that the relationship between Zuluaga and the alleged hacker went deeper than initially thought. The video also offers a glimpse at the state of health of two senior FARC commanders: FARC chief Timoleón “Timochenko” Jiménez is suffering from tuberculosis and field marshal, alias “Romaña,” is stricken with cirrhosis.

Neither Zuluaga nor Hoyos, who can be heard but not witnessed in the video, show any surprise as Sepúlveda describes his illicit sources, including members of the Colombian Armed Forces.

Moreover, Sepúlveda explains to Zuluaga the classified information involving FARC commanders in response to the candidate’s request to “hit” Santos before May 25 elections.

On Sunday, Green Party candidate Enrique Peñalosa called on Zuluaga to resign. Demands for Zuluaga to step down from the race went viral with hash-tag #RenuncieOIZ. Mr.Peñalosa went so far as to demand Zuluaga be tried before the courts. Peñalosa is running a distant third  in the campaign according to recent polls.

The outrage has been equally pegged to former President Álvaro Uribe, Zuluaga’s key political ally, and whose own presidency was marred by illegal wiretapping scandals.

Zuluaga is the official candidate of a party established by former two-time president Alvaro Uribe Vélez. In yet another blow to the anything but a clean campaign, Uribe signaled J.J Rendón as the beneficiary of  USD$ 12 million from cocaine kingpins,  in return for presenting to Colombian government their ultimately rejected proposal to receive immunity in exchange for dismantling the drug trade in Colombia. Mr.Uribe went even further to claim that USD$ 2 million of  J.J Rendon’s drug-tainted money ended up in Santos’ 2010 campaign.

Santos was swift to oust J.J Rendon replacing the Venezuelan with former Colombian President César Gaviria. The Attorney General, Mr.Montealegre summoned Uribe to bring forth the evidence.

Óscar Iván Zuluaga has maintained his innocence with a variety of narratives. Supporters of the right-wing candidate have claimed that the national media is biased towards Santos; that Sepúlveda had once worked with J.J. Rendón and “set up” Zuluaga; that Zuluaga is a patriot for spying on a terrorist organization which despite the peace talks in Havana, Cuba, continues to target civilians. And that the video was shot out of context and/or manipulated.

Recent advances in the peace process have acerbated tension over the most recent scandals. On Friday May 16, the nation’s two largest guerrillas groups – FARC and ELN – announced a unilateral ceasefire lasting for eight days. The opposition ridiculed the gesture as “opportunistic” given its coincidence with presidential elections, and as “cynical” given the death of two children in Tumaco the day before, after FARC allegedly instructed them to set off explosives aimed to kill police officers. The FARC denied Monday using children as “bombers” in the Tumaco attack.

That same evening, the government and FARC representatives in Havana announced a new deal on the agenda point regarding illicit crops and drug trafficking. The preliminary agreement pledges to create a new system to substitute illicit crops like coca; a new program that targets drug use from a public health standpoint; and a new strategy to attack drug trafficking and its associated money laundering and corruption.

With three of five substantive agenda points agreed upon, the United Nations hailed the peace process as unstoppable, and President Santos could reap the political benefits May 25. Nevertheless, Zuluaga has not suffered in the polls after the initial ties to the hacker were revealed. As all official campaigning ended Sunday, it remains to be seen in the final six days whether or not the video has eroded or rallied Zuluaga’s base.


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