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PERU: Navy Intelligence Agents Arrested for Moonlighting as Private Spies

Ángel Páez

LIMA, Jan 12 2009 (IPS) - Peruvian prosecutors and police have busted a ring of active and retired Peruvian navy intelligence agents who moonlighted as telephone tapping experts allegedly engaged in spying.

The spies worked for a front company, Business Track (BTR), which ostensibly exists to provide anti-surveillance protection services to private companies and state institutions, including parliament, the national audit office and the Lima city government. BTR is owned by retired Rear Admiral Elías Ponce, a former Navy Intelligence Directorate (DINTEMAR) officer, known to be a close friend of Vice President Luis Giampietri Rojas, a retired vice-admiral. Ponce is implicated in the forced disappearance of two university students in 1993.

On Nov. 8, police arrested Ponce along with Carlos Tomasio, a retired captain and electronic surveillance expert, and Jesús Tirado, a retired naval technician and phone-tapping expert, for their involvement in alleged telephone spying.

They also arrested Jesús Ojeda and Martín Fernández, both DINTEMAR technicians in active service, and BTR sales executive Giselle Gianotti, on the same charges.

According to the arrest warrants issued by Judge Edwin Yalico, a former navy intelligence agent who had been fired by BTR came forward to give the organised crime prosecution unit information about the company’s illegal activities, in exchange for protection and leniency.

The informer, whose identity is being kept secret, admitted that he had participated in wiretapping, and also revealed that BTR organised the illegal bugging of phone calls received by Rómulo León, a former minister in the first administration of current President Alan García (1985-1990), between March and September 2008.

In early October last year, the press in Lima reported tape-recorded conversations, including discussions of kickbacks, that León held with government ministers and authorities in order to secure the allocation of oil concessions to Discover Petroleum, a Norwegian company which León represented as a lobbyist.

Discover Petroleum was, in fact, granted concessions for five oil blocks, but just a few days before contracts were signed the recordings, locally dubbed “petroaudios”, were released, and the deal was called off.

The airing of the telephone conversations caused the departure from the government of then Prime Minister Jorge del Castillo, the resignation of the entire cabinet (although many ministers were reinstated), and a political scandal that seriously undermined the credibility of the García administration.

According to the protected witness’s testimony as described in Judge Yalico’s order, a copy of which was obtained by IPS, it was the head of BTR, Elías Ponce, who accepted telephone numbers of persons his customers wanted wiretapped.

Ponce gave León’s telephone numbers to the active DINTEMAR agents, Ojeda and Fernández, who were simultaneously employed by BTR and navy intelligence, and they used DINTEMAR wiretapping equipment to bug the telephones, the informer said.

Armed forces intelligence agents are prohibited by law to work for private companies, and in Peru telephones can only be bugged with specific authorisation from judicial authorities in investigations on drug trafficking, terrorism, kidnapping or extortion. Possession of wiretapping equipment is a crime.

When they had completed recordings, Ojeda and Fernández would hand them over to Ponce, who would give them to Tirado for transcription, after which they would be analysed by Tomasio. According to the informer, the edited transcripts were then leaked to the press by Giannotti.

The protected witness supported his claims by delivering illicit wiretap recordings and their transcripts to the authorities as evidence.

This is the first time that a phone-tapping network has been discovered in which active and retired DINTEMAR agents are involved.

Prosecution sources who participated in the arrest and search operations said that the investigation is currently focused on identifying the persons who paid BTR to tap León’s phones.

The informer’s account indicates that the illegal bugging of León’s conversations may have been paid for by a competing company that wanted to prevent Discover Petroleum from being awarded the oil concessions.

“They wanted to know what members of the government León was lobbying to get the concessions,” sources linked to the investigation told IPS. “Once they had discovered who they were, they decided to leak the conversations to the press, to keep the contracts from being signed. But they weren’t counting on the ‘petroaudios’ having such a devastating effect on the government.”

Three former ministers are now under investigation: ex Prime Minister Jorge del Castillo, former Housing Minister Hernán Garrido, and former Health Minister Carlos Vallejos, in addition to a dozen top executives of Petroperú, the state oil company, and Perupetro, the body in charge of promoting and licensing foreign investment in the oil industry.

A police surveillance team tracked the movements of BTR employees for nearly four weeks, and recorded video footage of Ojeda and Fernández leaving the premises used by DINTELMAR as a counterintelligence operations centre and going to their illegal BTR workplace. Sometimes they would go to BTR first and then to DINTELMAR.

Defence Minister Antero Flores Aráoz denied that the navy possesses phone-tapping equipment, and even more vigorously rejected the idea that it has intelligence agents trained to listen in illegally on telephone conversations.

However, sources in the navy itself told IPS that the equipment does indeed exist, and is being used at present in the battle against Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas in the coca-growing valleys of the Apurimac and Ene rivers, where the armed forces are engaged in “Operation Excellence” to wipe out the surviving remnant of the Maoist rebel group.

BTR issued a communiqué denying any phone-tapping activities and stating it has no involvement whatsoever with the “petroaudio” recordings.

BTR sources, shown the protected witness’s statements as they appeared in the judge’s order, admitted that this person must have had access to the company, because he has detailed knowledge about most of the employees and what they do.

“We have no idea what his motives are in claiming that BTR was responsible,” the sources said.

According to IPS sources in the prosecutor’s office, Giannotti, among the six people under arrest, is expected to make a “sincere confession” – that is to say, she would voluntarily confess to any illegal acts she has committed and provide key information about the wiretapping organisation. Depending on the value of her information, she would be eligible for a reduced sentence.

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