By FRANK BAJAK
August 1, 2022
The bulletproof vehicles that Colombia’s government assigns to hundreds of high-risk individuals are supposed to make them safer. But when an investigative reporter discovered they all had GPS trackers, she only felt more vulnerable — and outraged.
No one had informed Claudia Julieta Duque — or apparently any of the 3,700-plus journalists, rights activists and labor and indigenous leaders who use the vehicles — that the devices were keeping constant tabs on their whereabouts. In Duque’s case, it happened as often as every 30 seconds. The system could also remotely cut off the SUV’s engine.
Colombia is among the world’s most dangerous countries for human rights defenders — with more than 500 killed since 2016. It is also a country where right-wing extremists have a track record of infiltrating national security bodies. For Duque, the GPS revelation was chilling: Movements of people already at risk of political assassination were being tracked with technology that bad actors could weaponize against them.
“It’s something super invasive,” said Duque, who has been a persistent target of rogue security agents. “And the state doesn’t seem to care.”
The government agency responsible has said the trackers were installed to help prevent theft, to track the bodyguards who often drive the vehicles and to help respond to dangerous situations.
For a decade, Colombia had been installing trackers in the armored vehicles of at-risk individuals as well as VIPs, including presidents, government ministers and senators. The agency’s director made that disclosure after Duque learned last year through a public records request that the system was recording her SUV’s location an average of five times an hour.
The director dismissed privacy concerns and called the practice “fundamental” to guaranteeing security.
Considering the tracker a danger to her and her sources, Duque pressed for details on its exact features. But the National Protection Unit, known as UNP in Spanish, offered little. She then demanded the agency remove the device. It refused. So in February, Duque returned the vehicle, left the country and filed a legal challenge.
Now back in Bogotá, she is hoping for satisfaction when Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first leftist president, takes office Aug. 7.