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PERU: Prosecutors Investigate Wiretapping Operation

Ángel Páez

LIMA, Oct 30 2008 (IPS) - Prosecutors in Peru are investigating illegal wiretapping allegedly committed by private security companies or police and military intelligence bodies.

Attorney General Gladys Echaíz put the inquiry in the hands of prosecutor Walter Milla Tuesday, three weeks after the media broadcast telephone conversations between the then director of the state agency Perupetro, Alberto Químper, and Rómulo León, a local representative of the Norwegian oil company Discover Petroleum.

The tapes, dubbed “petroaudios”, triggered a major scandal that led the entire cabinet to step down on Oct. 10, although 10 of the 17 ministers were later reinstated. One of the cabinet members who were replaced was then prime minister Jorge del Castillo.

The recordings revealed an apparent conspiracy between Alan García administration officials and Discover Petroleum representatives to grant the company five oil contracts. But the evidence was obtained by a wiretapping operation, whose perpetrators and aims remain unknown.

In Peru telephones can only be bugged with specific authorisation from judicial authorities in investigations on drug trafficking, terrorism, kidnapping or extortion, and possession of wiretapping equipment is a crime.

Former prime minister del Castillo had met several times with a Discover Petroleum lobbyist and with León, a former cabinet minister and legislator for the governing APRA party.

After 14 former and active officials and others implicated in the corruption scandal were prosecuted on Oct. 21, Echaíz found grounds to investigate the broad wiretapping operation that brought the scandal to light, which eavesdropped on the telephone conversations of government officials, lawyers and local and foreign businesspersons for eight months.

Daniel Saba, president of Perupetro – the government licensing body that grants contracts to oil companies doing business in Peru – and the former head of the state-run oil company Petroperú, César Gutiérrez, implied that the wiretapping could have been carried out by a competitor company affected by the actions of the two corporations.

The Petro Tech Peruana company, which had paid the state nearly 37 million dollars in back taxes and other debts after an audit by Perupetro, immediately denied any involvement with the bugging of telephones.

Sources at the Attorney General’s Office told IPS that the investigation would not be limited to identifying who taped the “petroaudios,” but would also focus on all organisations involved in unauthorised wiretapping activities.

One of the targets of the “petroaudios”, former prime minister del Castillo, complained that the media were releasing the recordings bit by bit, without first verifying their authenticity.

It is not clear whether the courts will accept the recordings as evidence in the case involving the oil contracts granted to Discover Petroleum, allegedly by means of kickbacks. Several of the defendants have insisted that they be thrown out, because they are illegal.

Wiretapping is not new to Peruvians. The government of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) used the technique extensively to intimidate and blackmail opponents, including members of the business community, politicians and journalists.

At that time, the armed forces and the police had sophisticated surveillance equipment, mainly purchased from Israeli companies. The National Intelligence Service, run by Fujimori’s security adviser Vladimiro Montesinos also had its own wiretapping equipment.

Montesinos, who was sentenced to six years in prison for wiretapping, said during his trial that Fujimori – who is also in jail – had given him authorisation to record the private phone conversations of government opponents.

Military and police wiretapping experts who studied the “petroaudios” told IPS that the eight-month operation would have required a team of 15 people at the very least, as well as substantial financing.

They also said it was unlikely that military and police equipment was used, because the security forces use devices designed solely to intercept cell-phone conversations.

“To judge by the clarity of the recordings, it’s clear that they tapped the fixed telephone lines, in both homes and offices, of their chosen targets,” one of the agents told IPS.

At any rate, whoever ordered the eavesdropping recruited active or retired military or police specialists, to set up a team to tape the conversations of Químper and León, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

There is “a market of wiretapping spies in Peru, who all know each other,” and private security companies turn to them when they need someone to carry out “special jobs,” said one of the sources.

“No one in their right mind would turn down an eight-month job,” he said. “But they didn’t just recruit wiretapping spies, but also specialists to edit, transcribe and analyse the recordings, as well as experts in surveillance. We’re talking about an organisation that was set up specifically to spy on Alberto Químper and Rómulo León.”

The prosecutors’ investigation will also study the wiretapping equipment in the hands of military and police agencies.

A navy source told IPS that his branch of the armed forces only has radio eavesdropping devices, which are used in the fight against active remnants of the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas and against drug trafficking.

The army and air force denied having any such equipment.

Officially, the state has not purchased bugging and eavesdropping equipment since 2000. However, a former agent of the Interior Ministry’s General Intelligence Directorate (DIGIMIN) told IPS that in 2005, purchases were made from Nice Systems Ltd, an Israeli company, and that the new equipment was employed by the “Odessa Group” under the command of General Jorge Cárdenas.

Cárdenas denied using such equipment when he was head of DIGIMIN, from 2005 (under the administration of Alejandro Toledo) until this month.

Recently named Interior Minister Remigio Hernani told IPS that he had ordered an audit of DIGIMIN to verify this.

The equipment acquired from Nice Systems is only designed to eavesdrop on cell phone conversations. Nevertheless, the Attorney General’s Office will also include DIGIMIN in its inquiries.

Also under scrutiny are private security companies – most of which are owned or run by retired navy intelligence officers – like Andrick Service and Business Track, which offered their services to Petro Tech Peruana.

The manager of Petro Tech, Alberto Varillas, told IPS that the services provided by the two security firms did not at any time include espionage or wiretapping.

The market for private security firms is booming in Peru, providing services to the mining, oil and natural gas industries, which have drawn heavy flows of foreign and national investment due to soaring minerals prices.

Some of these companies have been caught spying on local activists and environmental groups that have opposed mining or oil projects carried out without consulting the affected local communities, as stipulated by the constitution.

In addition, private security firms have leaked information to the press to discredit activists fighting mining or oil initiatives, accusing them in some cases of “terrorism.”

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