Illegal phone tapping in Peru: 13 ongoing investigations

Peru’s Public Prosecution Office is investigating 13 cases of illegal wiretapping, including the now famous “petroaudios” that recently led to an oil concession kickback scandal, allegedly carried out by private security firms, or police and military intelligence groups.

Attorney General Gladys Echaíz assigned prosecutor Walter Milla the wiretapping investigation last Tuesday, three weeks after TV news program Cuarto Poder broadcast audio recordings purportedly of Perupetro Vice President Alberto Quimper and Romulo Leon Alegría, a prominent member of Garcia’s ruling Aprista party, discussing under-the-table payments conditioned on Norwegian Discover Petroleum obtaining oil concessions.

The scandal led the government to suspend five joint exploration and development contracts recently awarded to state-owned oil company Petroperu and Discover Petroleum of Norway, and in a few days decimated Peru President Alan García’s administration, forcing all of his government ministers to turn in their resignations on October 10.

Congress rapidly set up a special commission to investigate the León-Quimper case, as well as other illegal wiretapping operations. Individuals and heads of private security firms will be called in for questioning.

According to daily El Comercio, Ancash regional President César Álvarez Aguilar, El Comercio journalist Juan Paredes Castro, former Foreign Affairs Minister Francisco Tudela, and the President of Congress’ special commission on the León-Quimper case, Daniel Abugattas, are some of the alleged 13 victims listed by Peru’s Public Prosecution Office.

But just as it remains unknown who carried out the eight-month “petroaudios” wiretapping operation, no potential suspects — with the exception of Andrick Service S.R.L. — have been tied to the 13 listed cases. Managed by frigate Captain Erick del Águila Villar as well as retired officers from the Peruvian Navy, the private security firm has been accused of illegal phone tapping and spying by Tudela.

In Peru, phone conversations can only be surreptitiously recorded by an outside third party with a judicial authorization for investigations on drug trafficking, terrorism, kidnapping or extortion.  Possessing wiretapping equipment is a crime.

In July 2000, a Computer Crimes Act prohibiting unlawful access, use, interference or damage to a system, database, or network of computers was adopted and codified in the Penal Code.

And, the Peruvian Constitution sets out extensive privacy, data protection and freedom of information rights. Article 2, for example, states that “every person has the right… to secrecy and the inviolability of communications and private documents.”

Nevertheless, President García said he is not too concerned about the violation of law that occurred with the illegal phone tappings that led to the oil kickback scandal, known as “Petrogate.”

Though it may be a preoccupying issue, because peoples’ privacy and intimacy are made more vulnerable, García told reporters Sunday, it has allowed us to discover “crimes and monstrosities.”

“I personally won’t complain about the phone tapping because without it, we wouldn’t have discovered on time that something was moving underfoot,” added García. “In this case it was useful, and I prefer to sanction those responsible for state corruption.”

Peruvians are all too familiar with illegal wiretapping. The “petroaudio” scandal is just the latest reminder of the 1990s, when surveillance by the government against citizens was rampant during the authoritarian regime of President Alberto Fujimori.

His spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos’ National Intelligence Service, or SIN, conducted widespread surveillance and illegal phone tapping of rival politicians, journalists, business executives, government ministers, and even judges.

Montesinos, who controlled a vast web of corruption, has testified before Peruvian courts that Fujimori ordered the surveillance, and stated that the equipment was purchased with funds from each of the armed forces, as well as the SIN, with Fujimori’s authorization. Sophisticated Israeli phone-tapping equipment was used to monitor telephone conversations, and copies of the conversations were delivered to Montesinos.

Today, the market for private security firms is booming in Peru. Companies, such as Andrick Service S.R.L., provide services mainly to the mining, oil and natural gas industries, most of which are foreign-owned.

But some firms have been caught spying on environmental activists and leaking information to the press in order to discredit them.

Father Marco Antonio Arana, a Catholic priest who heads a grassroots human rights organization in the northern department of Cajamarca, complained last year to the United Nations that he was the target of illegal surveillance by the Forza security company, allegedly contracted by the Newmont mining corporation, which operates one of the world’s biggest gold mines.

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