Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA: Interpol Notes Improper Initial Handling of FARC Laptops

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTÁ, May 15 2008 (IPS) - Interpol reported Thursday that the files found on computers that Colombia seized from a FARC guerrilla camp in March were not tampered with and did belong to the rebel group.

But it also said the handling of the laptops and hard drives in the first 48 hours after they were discovered “may complicate validating this evidence for purposes of its introduction in a judicial proceeding”.

The computers were found in a FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) camp two kilometres inside the Ecuadorean border, which was targeted in a Mar. 1 aerial bombing by the Colombian armed forces that prompted Ecuador to break off diplomatic ties with that country.

The rebel group’s international spokesman Raúl Reyes and 25 other people – guerrillas as well as Mexican students – were killed in the late-night attack.

The three laptop computers, two external hard drives and three USB memory sticks were not damaged in the bombing.

Interpol (the international police) said it reviewed 610 gigabytes of data, including 37,872 written documents, 452 spreadsheets, 210,888 images, 22,481 web pages, 10,537 sound and video files, and 7,989 email addresses. It also decrypted 983 files, which it handed over to Colombia.

Because of doubts raised when the Colombian Defence Ministry leaked bits and pieces of information from the FARC laptops to the media, the government of Álvaro Uribe handed them over to Interpol on Mar. 10, to have them authenticated.

The Interpol commission was only tasked with verifying whether Colombia modified the files and handled them properly. It did not analyse the content of the documents.

In fact, the commission was made up of forensic experts from Australia and Singapore who do not speak or read Spanish, “which helped to eliminate the possibility that they might be influenced by the content of any data they were examining,” according to the report.

Interpol Secretary-General Ronald Noble spoke to the press about the agency’s findings Thursday at the Colombian Foreign Ministry, and handed Colombia a confidential report.


The public report, which is available over the Internet and was distributed to the press, states that “no data were created, added, modified or deleted on any of these exhibits between 3 March 2008 at 11:45 a.m. and 10 March 2008, when the exhibits were handed over to Interpol’s experts to make their image disks.”

During those few days, the files were examined by forensic computer experts in the Colombian National Police force, the report says.

“Colombian law enforcement authorities have openly stated to Interpol’s computer forensic experts that an officer in their anti-terrorist unit directly accessed the eight seized FARC computer exhibits under exigent and time-sensitive circumstances between 1 March 2008, when they were seized by Colombian authorities, and 3 March 2008,” the report adds.

“Using their forensic tools, they (the Interpol experts) found a total of 48,055 files for which the timestamps indicated that they had either been created, accessed, modified or deleted as a result of the direct access to the eight seized exhibits by Colombian authorities between the time of their seizure on 1 March 2008 and 3 March 2008 at 11:45 a.m.

“The actual seizure of the eight computer exhibits occurred between 5:50 a.m. and 7:50 a.m. (local time at the place of seizure, GMT -5:00) on Saturday, 1 March. However, it was not until more than 48 hours later that the eight seized exhibits were given to the computer forensic specialists of the Colombian Judicial Police,” the report goes on to say.

“Access to the data contained in the eight FARC computer exhibits between 1 March 2008, when they were seized by Colombian authorities, and 3 March 2008 at 11:45 a.m., when they were turned over to…the Colombian Judicial Police, did not conform to internationally recognised principles for handling electronic evidence by law enforcement.

“When law enforcement directly accesses seized electronic evidence without first making physical images of the data, such access leaves traces of the relevant law enforcement officer’s accessing and viewing of the evidence.

“Direct access may complicate validating this evidence for purposes of its introduction in a judicial proceeding, because law enforcement is then required to demonstrate or prove that the direct access did not have a material impact on the purpose for which the evidence is intended,” the report adds.

After Noble spoke to the press, Colombian Attorney General Mario Iguarán, who along with Foreign Minister Fernando Araújo was summoned by Interpol as a witness to the delivery of the report, said Colombia had respected the chain of custody of the evidence, implying that it would be valid in a court of law.


The information leaked to the press by Colombian authorities includes internal FARC correspondence that shows that the guerrillas obtained weapons on the black market, apparently through corrupt Venezuelan military personnel or officials – something that has been occurring at least since the mid-1990s.

The documents also reveal intense diplomatic and political activity by the FARC, considered a “terrorist” group by Colombia, Interpol, the European Union and the United States.

The exchanges of letters and emails between insurgents show that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the FARC hushed up a Sept. 23, 2004 guerrilla attack on Venezuelan troops around 20 km inside Venezuelan territory. Five soldiers and a 23-year-old woman engineer who worked for the state oil monopoly PDVSA were killed in the attack.

According to the Colombian government, the documents show that Chávez has provided financial and logistical support for the FARC.

National Police chief Óscar Naranjo said on Mar. 2 that the documents “not only show close ties, but imply an armed alliance between the FARC and the Venezuelan government.”

But Adam Isaacson, a Colombia specialist at the Washington-based Centre for International Policy (CIP), pointed out that “…the documents in question are communications between guerrilla leaders. Several offer accounts of meetings with officials of the Venezuelan government, some of them high-ranking. No documents or writings from the Venezuelans themselves appear; the FARC communications only reflect the guerrillas’ version of events.”

The Uribe administration also alleges that the documents show ties between the FARC and the Ecuadorean government, whose president, Rafael Correa, reiterated this week on a European tour that his country “does not border Colombia; it borders the FARC.”

The FARC controls an estimated 35 percent of Colombian territory, mainly in rural, sparsely populated areas in the south.

When Organisation of American States (OAS) Secretary General José Miguel Insulza testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Western Hemispheric Affairs in mid-April, he clearly stated that there is “no evidence” linking Venezuela to the Colombian guerrillas.

In an open letter issued to the press on Apr. 26, 21 U.S. and British academics who criticised media coverage of the laptop documents, said that “there is no evidence that the publicly available documents support any of the extreme claims by the Colombian government that Venezuela and Ecuador had any sort of financial relationship with the rebels.”

“The authentication of the laptops does not mean the validation of the Colombian interpretation of their contents,” they stated, adding that there is a “gap between Colombia’s exaggerations and what the documents actually say.”

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