Colombia’s Magic Laptops

Three laptops supposedly belonging to the Colombian FRC guerillas are the gift that keeps on giving. In May,
Colombian prosecutor-general Mario Iguarán announced that he was
formally investigating several people, including Liberal Party senator
Piedad Córdoba, U.S. development consultant Jim Jones, and Telesur
reporter William Parra, of FARC ties.

By Daniel Denvir - NACLA.org
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In September, the U.S. Treasury
Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that it
was designating one former and two current high-ranking Venezuelan
government officials as collaborators with the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia (FARC). Hugo Carvajal, in charge of Venezuela’s
Military Intelligence Directorate, and Henry de Jesús Rangel Silva,
head of the Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services
(DISIP), were both said to have aided the FARC’s drug-trafficking
operations, while Ramón Rodríguez, former minister of interior and
justice, was accused of being “the Venezuelan government’s main weapons
contact for the FARC” and trying “to facilitate a $250 million loan
from the Venezuelan government to the FARC in late 2007.”

These assertions came a day after Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez
announced that he was expelling the U.S. ambassador in solidarity with
Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who had done the same a day earlier. While OFAC
did not specify its sources, an anonymous Bush administration official
told The New York Times that the allegations were partly based
on evidence from laptops recovered from a FARC camp in Ecuadoran
territory bombed and raided by the Colombian military on March 1.


Raúl
Reyes works on his "magic laptop" at a jungle camp in a photo taken
eight months before the attack in Ecuador. (By Garry Leech/
ColombiaJournal.org)

This sequence of events was a familiar one: the expulsion of an
ambassador, closely followed by charges of FARC collaboration based on
evidence from the laptops. On March 2, Ecuadoran president Rafael
Correa expelled the Colombian ambassador, charging that Colombia had
knowingly violated Ecuador’s sovereignty, despite the doublespeak
coming from Colombian officials, including President Álvaro Uribe, that
Colombia had bombed Ecuador without violating its airspace. Hours
later, Uribe’s press secretary told reporters that computers belonging
to Raúl Reyes, the FARC’s second in command who was killed in the raid,
had been recovered and that they revealed disturbing links between the
Correa government and the FARC. Colombian National Police general Óscar
Naranjo then held a press conference in which he accused Ecuadoran
security minister Gustavo Larrea of having met Reyes in January and
agreeing to place Ecuadoran military units less hostile to the FARC
along the border. Larrea denied this but did say he met with Reyes, the
FARC’s de facto ambassador, as part of approved hostage negotiations
that were known to the Colombian government.

Colombia claimed to have found eight “computer exhibits”—consisting
of three laptops, two external hard disks, and three USB thumb
drives—that luckily survived the bombing, which killed 25 people. At
first, Colombia variously claimed that the laptops contained 10,000 or
16,000 documents (as reported by The New York Times and The Washington Post,
respectively). An Interpol report on the computer exhibits released in
May found that they collectively contained almost 38,000 written
documents (like Word files and PDFs), more than 10,000 sound and video
files, and almost 211,000 images. Despite the massive volume of
files—equivalent to almost 40 million pages in a Microsoft Word file,
according to Interpol—the Colombians claimed to have culled from them
specific, strategic information on the Correa and Chávez
administrations within 24 hours.

These “magic laptops,” which seem to supply evidence of FARC
collaboration at opportune moments for the Colombian and U.S.
governments, have formed the centerpiece of a propaganda campaign
launched by the Colombian government and security forces, abetted by
the media in Colombia, the United States, and Spain. This campaign
follows a well-established technique: Allegations of FARC ties have
long been used in Colombia to defame human rights activists and
dissident politicians, often leading to death threats or assassinations
by the army or paramilitary forces. The laptop-based allegations have
been made through press conferences and intelligence leaks, as new
charges have been rolled out to counter Ecuador’s consistent diplomatic
victories at the Organization of American States (OAS) and other
international bodies. It has also served to distract attention at home
from a growing scandal connecting the Uribe administration to
narco-paramilitaries, as well as to justify the government’s policy of
total war against the FARC.

The media campaign was launched as countries around the
region—including Argentina, Chile, and Brazil—announced their support
for Ecuador’s position, criticizing the violation of the country’s
national sovereignty. The Colombian government, seeing its diplomatic
fortunes wane, made more accusations, not just at Ecuador but
increasingly at Venezuela, which also broke diplomatic relations with
Colombia and deployed tanks to its border. Especially in the United
States, the accusations against Venezuela soon eclipsed those against
Ecuador.

The most serious accusation against the Venezuelan government was
that it had promised the FARC a $300 million payment or loan and that
Chávez had maintained a financial relationship with the FARC since
1992. It was first reported as a payment that had already been made,
perhaps in exchange for the FARC’s February hostage release mediated by
Chávez. But on March 30, The New York Times, relying on
information leaked by the Colombian government, claimed that there was
evidence of a $250 million loan “to be paid when we take power.”
Mirroring Ecuador’s appeal to international law, Colombia announced
that it would take its charges of FARC ties to the OAS, and Uribe
threatened to bring charges against Chávez before the UN International
Criminal Court for “aiding genocide.”

On March 4, the Colombian vice president also said the Reyes
computers revealed that the FARC was seeking to acquire uranium in
order to construct a “dirty bomb.” But this claim was soon
discredited—uranium, which is weakly radioactive, would be a poor
choice for such a bomb, according to the Federation of American
Scientists. Moreover, the e-mail message the accusation was based on,
published in a Colombian magazine, seems to indicate only that the FARC
was interested in acquiring and then selling the material for profit.

*

Media outlets, particularly in Colombia, the United States, and
Spain, were complicit in the Colombian propaganda campaign, embedding
themselves in a perceived fight against the FARC and its supposed
allies in the Ecuadoran and Venezuelan governments. As an unnamed U.S.
intelligence official told the Los Angeles Times in March: “I
think you have to take at face value what the Colombians are saying.”
The mainstream media have done just that—particularly in Colombia. For
example, on March 3, the website of the Colombian daily El Tiempo
published a gallery of 26 photos, purportedly from the laptops, leaked
to the paper by an unidentified Colombian intelligence official. The
low-quality, surveillance-style photos center on people attending the
international conference of the Continental Bolivarian Coordinating
Committee (CCB), a small left-wing organization with chapters
throughout Latin America,- held the week before in Quito.

Purportedly taken clandestinely by the FARC, the photos were said to
demonstrate contacts between Venezuelan Communist Party secretary
general Óscar Figuera—a distant ally of Chávez—and the FARC, as well as
members of Batasuna, the political wing of the armed Basque separatist
group ETA. The paper ran a March 7 story based on the photos, as well
as documents provided by the same intelligence source, titled “Trace of
ETA in Reyes’ PC.”


Photo
from inside the CCB conference. The three bearded men from left to
right: Walter Wendelin, Askapena representative; Iñaki Gil, Batasuna's
representative to Latin America; and Carlos Casanueva, member of the
Partido Comunista de Chile's Central Committee and a CCB leader. (Photo
from ElTiempo.com)

Besides Figueroa, the people photographed included two Basque
separatists, a member of the Chilean Communist Party’s Central
Committee, a visiting Mexican student (four other Mexican students were
killed in the attack), a member of the Chilean Communist Youth (who,
along with another Chilean, visited the FARC camp just before it was
bombed), an unnamed Italian CCB delegate, and at least five other
unidentified people. (NACLA identified the people in the photographs
through comparisons with other publicly available photos and interviews
with CCB members.) All of the people photographed were ostensible FARC
allies, leading this reporter to ask himself: Why would the FARC spy on
its friends? Spying on friends is not unheard of among nations, but all
the same, the photos seemed more likely to have been taken by Colombian
intelligence or allied intelligence or police agency.

The photos remained online for about a week until they were abruptly
taken down without notice. Contacted over the phone by NACLA, El Tiempo
reporters said the photos were from the FARC laptops but were unsure
why they were removed from the website. Later, Jhon Torres, the paper’s
Justice section editor, said they were taken down because of credible
doubts that the photos were not in fact from the laptop. A retraction
had been issued, he said, but there seemed to be no such thing in any
of El Tiempo’s online archives.

Torres maintained that the intelligence source insists the photos
were genuine, and that all of the people captured in the CCB photos
were also in photos found on Reyes’s laptops, but this could not be
confirmed. Although Torres agreed that the photos appeared to have been
taken by foreign intelligence operatives, he played down the notion
that the Colombian government purposely leaked false information,
speculating that the photos’ arrival at the El Tiempo offices
was an accidental “infection” of the laptop evidence with material from
Colombian intelligence. He characterized his intelligence source as
acting alone rather than as part of an orchestrated campaign. During a
second interview, Torres confirmed that El Tiempo had in fact not issued any retractions regarding the photos.

“Perhaps we could have done a better job clarifying our opinions of the photos,” he said.


Surveillance
photo of the Continental Bolivarian Coordinating Committee (CCB) in
Quito a week before the bombing of the FARC camp. (Photo from
ElTiempo.com)

A more high-profile misrepresentation came on March 17, when El Tiempo
published a photo in its print edition of Reyes together with a man it
claimed to be Ecuadoran security minister Larrea, which would fortify
the Colombian government’s claim of Ecuador-FARC links. The man in
question turned out to be Patricio Echegaray, secretary-general of the
Argentine Communist Party. El Tiempo claimed that Colombian
government sources provided the photo, saying that it was from the
laptop. The photo was released the same day that Ecuador conducted a
tour of its Colombian border for the international press, in an attempt
to rebut a March 12 report in Spain’s El País. The report cited
evidence from the laptops and testimony from former FARC members
indicating that Ecuador was home to at least eight FARC camps. The
FARC’s access to Ecuadoran territory, the paper asserted, was due to
“networks of corruption tied to local and military authorities.” This
allegation, now relying on the statements of former FARC members in
Colombian government custody, have resurfaced in recent media coverage.

Such accusations often seemed perfectly timed to Ecuador’s
successful regional diplomacy. As early as March 5, four days after the
Colombian incursion, the OAS resolved that Colombia had violated
Ecuador’s sovereignty and affirmed that the attack violated the OAS
charter (although the regional body stopped short of condemning
Colombia). The Rio Group Summit, held March 7, began with denunciations
of the Colombian attack on all sides and ended with what the media
widely considered a success—hugs. Colombia apologized, and pundits
prematurely declared an end to the crisis. Uribe ceased threatening to
take Chávez to the ICC, but Colombia had never planned on stopping its
allegations.

The same day as the summit, The Washington Post published an
article titled “Colombian Rebels’ Ties to Chávez Come Into Focus:
Computer Files Found in Raid Detail Efforts to Gain Arms, Money.” The
article was based on “30 documents, provided on two CDs to the Post by
senior government officials,” including FARC e-mails, some of them
addressed to Chávez, about relationships with the Venezuelan
government. They supposedly revealed Venezuelan financial support for
the FARC along with a money-laundering scheme involving selling
Venezuelan oil in Colombia. The next day, the OAS again disapproved of
the attack at a meeting of the region’s foreign ministers; a week
later, at a Jacksonville, Florida speech, President Bush repeated the
charges against Venezuela.

“Recently when Colombian forces killed one of the FARC’s most senior
leaders,” Bush said, “they discovered computer files that suggest even
closer ties between Venezuela’s regime and FARC terrorists than we
previously knew. Colombia officials are investigating the ties, but
this much should be clear: The United States strongly supports,
strongly stands with Colombia in its fight against the terrorists and
drug lords.” He added that ratifying the Colombia Free Trade Agreement
would be “the way to help [Colombia] develop more momentum toward
peace.”


Two unidentified men leaving the CCB conference. El Tiempo published at least one other photo of the man on the right. (Photo from ElTiempo.com)

On March 30, The New York Times ran an article on 20 files
provided by Colombian officials that allegedly demonstrated Venezuela’s
efforts to arm the FARC as well as contributions from the guerrillas to
Correa’s 2006 presidential campaign. “If verified,” the Times
noted, “the files would offer rare insight into the cloak-and-dagger
nature of Latin America’s longest-running guerrilla conflict.” The
files “contained touches that suggested authenticity,” the Times
reported, like “revolutionary jargon, passages in numerical code,
missives about American policy in Latin America and even brief personal
reflections like one by a senior rebel commander on the joy of becoming
a grandfather.”

In the same article, the Times twice quoted the files used to
accuse Venezuela’s Carvajal of having helped the FARC acquire weapons.
Both quotations included references to Carvajal by name, for example:
“Today I met with General Hugo Carvajal.” This is not language one
would expect from a “cloak and dagger” message, which would presumably
have used codenames. Investigative journalist Greg Palast made this
point early on after reading the e-mail message that formed the basis
for the accusation of a $300 million Venezuela-FARC financing scheme.
The note, which was mostly about hostage negotiations, made only one
reference to a “300”: “With relation to the 300, which from now on we
will call ‘dossier,’ efforts are now going forward at the instructions
of the boss to the cripple, which I will explain in a separate note.
Let’s call the boss Ángel, and the cripple Ernesto.”

Not only was it unclear what the “300” actually referred to, but the
Colombians claimed that the “Ángel” referred to in the note was a
codename for Chávez. Yet the next sentence in the note refers to the
Venezuelan president by name. “No one would begin an important letter
by identifying someone in relation to his or her pseudonym,” Forrest
Hylton, author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), told Venezuelanalysis.com. “That is not how clandestine organization works.”

*

As the Colombian government soon realized, the public credibility of
its hastily made accusations required at least the appearance of
independent corroboration. On March 4, after most of the accusations
had been made public, Colombia contacted Interpol, the international
police agency, and requested an investigation of its evidence. But
Interpol’s report on the matter, issued in May, explicitly stated that
verifying the authenticity of the laptop user files was outside its
purview. Rather, Interpol sought to determine if any of the computers’
user files had been “created, modified or deleted” on or after March 1,
and it found “no evidence” of this.

Interpol secretary-general Ronald Noble announced the findings in
Bogotá, but his comments about the computer files’ provenance went far
beyond the actual findings of the report. “No one can ever question
whether or not the Colombian government tampered with the seized FARC
computers,” he was quoted as saying in The Washington Post. “We
are absolutely certain that the computer exhibits that our experts
examined came from a FARC terrorist camp.” Yet the Interpol report made
no such claims. Even in Noble’s officially drafted press statement
(available on Interpol’s website), he said Interpol did not “evaluate
the accuracy or the source of the exhibits’ content.” Moreover, “to
find no evidence of something is not the same as saying that it
absolutely did not happen, or that ‘no one can ever question’ whether
it happened,” as an open letter to Noble, signed by 14 U.S. academics
(including members of NACLA’s editorial committee), stated. To date,
Interpol has not replied to the letter.

Noble said Colombians had “reason to be proud of the manner in which
their police handled the evidence”—even though the report notes that
between March 1 and March 3, Colombian authorities “did not conform to
internationally recognized principles for handling electronic
evidence.” Instead of making write-protected copies of the hard drives,
which can be performed without turning the computers on, the Colombians
viewed and downloaded the computers’ contents. This was registered by
hundreds of alterations in the computers’ system files, which is a
normal occurrence when computers are turned on and off, according to
Interpol.

Despite its limitations, the Interpol report became another salvo in
the Colombian disinformation campaign, as headlines trumpeted a
checkmate for the Uribe administration: “FARC Computer Files Are
Authentic, Interpol Probe Finds” (The Washington Post, May 15), a May 25 Times
editorial said that Interpol had confirmed “Mr. Chávez’s Unsavory
Friends,” and El País ran with “Interpol Confirms Ecuador and Chávez’s
Relationship to FARC.” Meanwhile, the very day after the Interpol
report received so much news coverage, the website of the Colombian
magazine Semana reported that hard drives and mobile-phone SIM
cards belonging to high-level paramilitary leaders extradited to the
United States on drug-trafficking charges, had been lost. Hardware
belonging to three paramilitary leaders disappeared and was never
recovered. Information taken from the laptop of one of the paramilitary
bosses, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo a.k.a. Jorge 40, sparked the so-called
paramilitary-political scandal in spring 2006, eventually leading to
the jailing of more than 30 of Uribe’s parliamentary allies, including
Mario Uribe, his cousin, on charges of colluding with
narco-paramilitaries. The disappearance of these computers—possibly
containing evidence of connections between the paramilitaries and the
Uribe administration that could have been entered into court records in
the United States—received scant attention in the United States, even
though they caused a scandal in Colombia.

But it was the spectacular July 2 rescue of former Colombian
presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, held hostage by the FARC
since 2002, that served as the Colombian media campaign’s ultimate coup
de grâce. Carried off without a single shot, the rescue was a media
masterstroke, with news stories featuring photos of a smiling
Betancourt hugging the triumphant Uribe. The operation reinforced
Uribe’s political dominance at home, consolidated his policy of
“military victory” against the FARC, and undermined the positions of
his regional rivals—most significantly Chávez, who had successfully
brokered the release of four hostages in February.

Meanwhile, the laptops are the gift that keeps on giving. In May,
Colombian prosecutor-general Mario Iguarán announced that he was
formally investigating several people, including Liberal Party senator
Piedad Córdoba, U.S. development consultant Jim Jones, and Telesur
reporter William Parra, of FARC ties. The following month, Peruvian
intelligence was provided copies of e-mails supposedly exchanged
between Peruvians and the FARC. During a June visit to El Salvador,
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said he found
allegations of FMLN ties to the FARC “very troubling,” allegations that
surfaced in May based on laptop e-mails. Uribe’s war on terror, and
that of his allies, shows no signs of letting up, and the use of
unverified electronic evidence to prosecute that war seems likely to
continue.



Daniel Denvir is an independent journalist based in Quito. He is the editor in chief of CaterwaulQuarterly.com. Research support was provided by NACLA's Chavkin Investigative Journalism Fund.

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