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October 30, 2014
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Dirty tricks take over Colombian campaign

By Carolina Thibaud
Herald Staff
Discovery of intel centre linked to Santos’ rival comes just one day after aide’s resignation

BOGOTÁ — With presidential elections in Colombia just around the corner and the outcome still unclear, the main candidates’ campaign teams have started resorting to dirty tricks.

On Monday, it was President Juan Manuel Santos’ campaign that took a hit when his chief strategist, Juan José Rendón, was forced to resign after alleged links to drug-trafficking resurfaced in the local media.

The rumour that a group of cartels paid Rendón close to US$12 million to lobby in their favour in 2011 had circulated in Bogotá’s and Caracas’ political circles for years, so it was hard not to see the “revelation” — and its timing, with elections just three weeks away — as politically motivated, analysts observed yesterday.

Santos’ team, however, got their chance to strike back yesterday, with the timely discovery of an intelligence centre, allegedly used by a member of his main rival’s campaign to spy on both the president and members of the FARC negotiating team in Havana.

According to Colombia’s Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre his office “has elements to believe that the intelligence centre’s main goal was to sabotage, hurt or affect” the peace talks. He said he had proof that both Santos’ and FARC negotiators’ emails had been “intercepted.”

The discovery complicates life for Santos’ main rival, Oscar Iván Zuluaga, who had to admit yesterday that Andrés Sepúlveda — the alleged hacker behind the intel operation — was part of his campaign’s social media team.

Zuluaga is the hand-picked candidate of former president álvaro Uribe, who has become the biggest critic of the ongoing peace negotiations that the government is holding with the FARC in Havana, Cuba, which started in November, 2012.

Uribe, formerly Santos’ ally, has accused the president of being too soft on Colombia’s largest rebel group, which has been at war with the government for five decades.

‘High polarization’

“I don’t believe that these dirty tricks will define the outcome of the election,” the head of pollster Ipsos-Napoleón Franco’s Public Affaird department, Javier Restrepo, told the Herald yesterday. “They are evidence, however, of the campaign’s high polarization.”

“It has become a dirty war between the main candidates and that only confuses Colombians,” he added.

Recent polls show Santos is still ahead in the presidential race, though Zuluaga and former Bogotá mayor Leopoldo Peñalosa have gained significant ground of late and one will likely force a run-off.

Santos didn’t immediately comment yesterday on the new espionage scandal against him but Interior Minister Aurelio Iragorri told a group of reporters that “apparently, the czar of hacking has been found.”

“It is a very serious issue for the republic and I hope we can get to the bottom of this,” he added.

The Attorney General said that Sepúlveda will be charged with several crimes related to hacking and his office is trying to determine to whom he was selling the information he obtained illegally.

In February, television channel Univisión claimed that at least two emails from Santos’ email account had been leaked. In one of them, the president inquired about the purchase of several art works by Colombian artist Fernando Botero.

Univisión said at the time that the emails leaked went “from communications related to family affairs and personal finances to personal emails to ambassador and ministers to advice given by Santos’ image consultants.”

@carothibaud
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