Colombia's military chief vows to root out army officials linked to spy scandal

BOGOTA (Reuters) - The chief of Colombia’s armed forces vowed on Sunday to get to the bottom of an ongoing scandal over spying on journalists, politicians and judges by what he described as rogue elements within the country’s army.

FILE PHOTO: Commander of the Colombian Military Forces, General Luis Fernando Navarro speaks during a news conference about Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's support for illegal Colombian armed groups operating from Venezuelan territory, in Bogota, Colombia, September 30, 2019. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez/File Photo

In an interview with Reuters, General Luis Fernando Navarro said he was committed to finding and punishing those responsible for any hacking, which came to light in a January report by magazine Semana.

The defense ministry on Friday announced the ouster of 11 unnamed military officials and the resignation of a general related to the scandal.

There have been repeated hacking scandals involving the Colombian military in recent years, including accusations negotiators at peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels were spied on.

Previous investigations have not yet led to convictions.

“Colombia’s intelligence system is under total and absolute control,” Navarro said in a phone interview. Changes had been made to command structures and strict security protocols were implemented after the scandal came to light, he said.

Illegal spying is not an institutional policy but reflects the individual actions of a few officials who have not just lost their jobs but could face jail time, Navarro said.

Semana published more details on Friday including the names of some alleged victims. It said more than 130 people, among them foreign and domestic journalists, had been hacked and information about their contacts, families and addresses collected.

Semana said it had dozens of documents connected to the case and some of the units involved had received funding and equipment from a foreign intelligence agency.

Navarro would not confirm the alleged illegal use of foreign resources, saying only he was confident Colombia would continue receiving help to fight drug trafficking and armed groups.

“The investigations have to move forward and find those responsible,” he said.

“Our cooperation has to continue to be strong, we need it to combat transnational organized crime and we guarantee to our strategic allies that we are investigating, making decisions and any person who has gone outside the law will have to answer for it.”

The United States has long been Colombia’s principal ally in the battle against guerrillas and drug trafficking gangs and intelligence has been key to attacks on rebel leadership and cocaine confiscations.

One of the alleged hacking victims is a former secretary of the presidency who worked closely with President Ivan Duque.

Duque and his defense minister have rejected the alleged spying and said illegal conduct within the military will not be tolerated.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Tom Brown