Thu, May 29, 2008 - Page 7 News List

Authorities fail to secure warlords' laptops, phones

AP , BOGOTA

Laptop computers have proven evidentiary treasure troves of late for Colombian investigators probing far-right militias and leftist rebels.

So it amazed many to learn that authorities didn’t immediately secure laptops and cellphones belonging to most of the 14 paramilitary warlords they yanked out of prison on May 12 and extradited to the US to stand trial for drug trafficking.

The hard drive in warlord Ramiro Vanoy’s laptop and three cellphone SIM cards went missing from Itagui prison outside Medellin, where half of the extradited warlords were held.

And prosecutors are not yet able to say whether any of 10 seized computers were tampered with during the more than 48 hours that lapsed before prison officials handed them over to judicial investigators. They must first await clearance from a special tribunal.

The apparent neglect — or worse — was especially striking given officials’ recent handling of evidence found on other laptops.

Computer files found in a rebel camp in March implicated Venezuela as a guerrilla ally and have prompted criminal investigations. And a paramilitary boss’s laptop seized two years ago has helped win convictions against political allies of outlawed far-right militias.

The failure to secure the extradited paramilitaries’ laptops is “outrageous,” said independent political analyst Claudia Lopez, who helped uncover a scandal linking warlords with politicians that has so far landed 33 members of Congress in prison.

“It’s sabotage of important evidence, though you don’t know whether it’s ineptitude or done deliberately,” Lopez said in a telephone interview.

After an uproar in Colombian media about the mishandled equipment, Vanoy’s lawyer turned over on Friday what he said was the errant hard drive, “its seals of guarantee perfectly intact,” the national prisons authority said.

The judicial police officers who removed the warlords from prisons in Medellin, Barranquilla and Bogota had no court orders to seize property, their boss Colonel Cesar Pinzon said. He said the officers weren’t allowed to enter the inmates’ cells.

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