Computer Evidence Helps Crack Criminal Cases

With American support, Colombian cybercops sharpen their technical skills.

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American trainer Don Smith shows how to secure a suspect.

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BOGOTÁ—Colombian police received a tantalizing tip last summer about a key fundraiser for the Black Eagles, a dangerous criminal enterprise that has grown out of the largely disbanded right-wing paramilitaries. Accused of extortion and killing several policemen, the man led two gangs based near the borders of Peru and Ecuador. Police put him under surveillance, but the gangster was so careful—avoiding cellphones and corresponding only through Internet cafes—that they couldn't find a shred of evidence.

Only a few years ago, Colombian security forces would most likely have been stumped. But authorities were able to call in the computer forensics unit of the Judicial Police, and an investigator trailed the Black Eagles figure around Colombia for a month as he moved from cybercafe to cybercafe. "We were able to reconstitute all of his activities, get enough information to locate people who cooperated with him, and make the arrests," says a senior supervisor in the computer forensics unit. "It was the case of the year for us." Four leaders were taken into custody.

For Colombia, computer forensics is a booming law enforcement tool, thanks mostly to the Anti-Terrorism Assistance program run by the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Bureau. All 36 of the Judicial Police's cyberinvestigators have completed U.S. training courses. Along with tutoring investigators and prosecutors, the ATA program has also equipped six computer forensics laboratories.

Perhaps the most unexpected benefit is that Colombian authorities have used their new skills against the remnants of the dangerous paramilitaries (known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia or by the Spanish acronym AUC). Originally created by the wealthy establishment to defend against left-wing FARC guerrillas, the paramilitaries evolved into some of the country's biggest drug traffickers. Under intense international pressure, Colombia has been demobilizing the paramilitaries, but the government has been engulfed by a "parapolitics" scandal over links between leading Colombian politicians and former paramilitary leaders—links exposed in large part by the work of these U.S.-trained computer forensics experts.

Encryption. One of the early cases involved a paramilitary leader known as Jorge 40. In the spring of 2006, even as Jorge 40 and 2,500 of his followers were promising to demobilize, authorities were examining some of their laptop computers. "We did not have the tools yet," says Monica Camargo, the coordinator of cybercrimes at the Fiscalia, Colombia's corps of prosecutors, "but we did have some training." After borrowing equipment from the U.S. Embassy, her newly trained experts tried to break the encryption and reconstruct files that had been deleted.

Their findings were stunning—cocaine smuggling routes, names of allied Colombian politicians, even a list of 558 people slated to be killed. "They did talk about massacres," she says. "There were lists of jobs to be done." Today, a dozen Colombian congressmen are in prison, a former senator remains a fugitive, and hearings continue. "With the new training, they could get beyond the encryption that had been a stone wall," says Victor DeWindt, ATA program manager in Colombia.

Camargo's office was created to provide tech support but was transformed five years ago into a cybercrimes unit. At first, the unit downloaded free forensic software. The ATA program came along in 2005, offering training and specialized forensic equipment. The most important innovation was a special protective device to read, but not modify, hard drives, which insulates investigators from allegations of evidence tampering.

Even with U.S. assistance, Colombia's courts remain overwhelmed by the high crime rate and politically sensitive prosecutions, including the thorny parapolitics cases. Colombian officials say the prosecutions of prominent politicians are proof of their determination to root out corruption. But the scandal has also raised suspicions about just how high that corruption reaches—and whether the government and the courts can truly dismantle the paramilitaries. Says Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Center for International Policy, "Justice continues to be Colombia's Achilles' heel."