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How to hack an election

Andrés Sepúlveda rigged elections throughout Latin America for almost a decade. He tells his story for the first time.

PART 5

In 2012, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s successor, unexpectedly restarted peace talks with the FARC, hoping to end a 50-year war. Furious, Uribe, whose father was killed by FARC guerrillas, created a party and backed an alternative candidate, Oscar Iván Zuluaga, who opposed the talks.

Rendón, who was working for Santos, wanted Sepúlveda to join his team, but Sepúlveda turned him down. He considered Rendón’s willingness to work for a candidate supporting peace with the FARC a betrayal and suspected the consultant was going soft, choosing money over principles. Sepúlveda says he was motivated by ideology first and money second, and that if he wanted to get rich he could have made a lot more hacking financial systems than elections. For the first time, he decided to oppose his mentor.

Sepúlveda went to work for the opposition, reporting directly to Zuluaga’s campaign manager, Luis Alfonso Hoyos. (Zuluaga denies any knowledge of hacking; Hoyos couldn’t be reached for comment.) Together, Sepúlveda says, they came up with a plan to discredit the president by showing that the guerrillas continued to traffic in drugs and violence even as they talked about peace. Within months, Sepúlveda hacked the phones and e-mail accounts of more than 100 militants, including the FARC’s leader, Rodrigo Londoño, also known as Timochenko. After assembling a thick file on the FARC, including evidence of the group’s suppression of peasant votes in the countryside, Sepúlveda agreed to accompany Hoyos to the offices of a Bogotá TV news program and present the evidence.

It may not have been wise to work so doggedly and publicly against a party in power. A month later, Sepúlveda was smoking on the terrace of his Bogotá office when he saw a caravan of police vehicles pull up. Forty black-clad commandos raided the office to arrest him. Sepúlveda blamed his carelessness at the TV station for the arrest. He believes someone there turned him in. In court, he wore a bulletproof vest and sat surrounded by guards with bomb shields. In the back of the courtroom, men held up pictures of his family, making a slashing gesture across their throats or holding a hand over their mouths—stay silent or else. Abandoned by former allies, he eventually pleaded guilty to espionage, hacking, and other crimes in exchange for a 10-year sentence.

Three days after arriving at Bogotá’s La Picota prison, he went to the dentist and was ambushed by men with knives and razors, but was saved by guards. A week later, guards woke him and rushed him from his cell, saying they had heard about a plot to shoot him with a silenced pistol as he slept. After national police intercepted phone calls revealing yet another plot, he’s now in solitary confinement at a maximum-security facility in a rundown area of central Bogotá. He sleeps with a bulletproof blanket and vest at his bedside, behind bombproof doors. Guards check on him every hour. As part of his plea deal, he says, he’s turned government witness, helping investigators assess possible cases against the former candidate, Zuluaga, and his strategist, Hoyos. Authorities issued an indictment for the arrest of Hoyos, but according to Colombian press reports he’s fled to Miami.

When Sepúlveda leaves for meetings with prosecutors at the Bunker, the attorney general’s Bogotá headquarters, he travels in an armed caravan including six motorcycles speeding through the capital at 60 mph, jamming cell phone signals as they go to block tracking of his movements or detonation of roadside bombs.

In July 2015, Sepúlveda sat in the small courtyard of the Bunker, poured himself a cup of coffee from a thermos, and took out a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. He says he wants to tell his story because the public doesn’t grasp the power hackers exert over modern elections or the specialized skills needed to stop them. “I worked with presidents, public figures with great power, and did many things with absolutely no regrets because I did it with full conviction and under a clear objective, to end dictatorship and socialist governments in Latin America,” he says. “I have always said that there are two types of politics—what people see and what really makes things happen. I worked in politics that are not seen.

Sepúlveda says he’s allowed a computer and a monitored Internet connection as part of an agreement to help the attorney general’s office track and disrupt drug cartels using a version of his Social Media Predator software. The government will not confirm or deny that he has access to a computer, or what he’s using it for. He says he has modified Social Media Predator to counteract the kind of sabotage he used to specialize in, including jamming candidates’ Facebook walls and Twitter feeds. He’s used it to scan 700,000 tweets from pro-Islamic State accounts to learn what makes a good terror recruiter. Sepúlveda says the program has been able to identify ISIS recruiters minutes after they create Twitter accounts and start posting, and he hopes to share the information with the U.S. or other countries fighting the Islamist group. Samples of Sepúlveda’s code evaluated by an independent company found it authentic and substantially original.

Sepúlveda’s contention that operations like his happen on every continent is plausible, says David Maynor, who runs a security testing company in Atlanta called Errata Security. Maynor says he occasionally gets inquiries for campaign-related jobs. His company has been asked to obtain e-mails and other documents from candidates’ computers and phones, though the ultimate client is never disclosed. “Those activities do happen in the U.S., and they happen all the time,” he says.

In one case, Maynor was asked to steal data as a security test, but the individual couldn’t show an actual connection to the campaign whose security he wanted to test. In another, a potential client asked for a detailed briefing on how a candidate’s movements could be tracked by switching out the user’s iPhone for a bugged clone. “For obvious reasons, we always turned them down,” says Maynor, who declines to name the candidates involved.

Three weeks before Sepúlveda’s arrest, Rendón was forced to resign from Santos’s campaign amid allegations in the press that he took $12 million from drug traffickers and passed part of it on to the candidate, something he denies.

According to Rendón, Colombian officials interviewed him shortly afterward in Miami, where he keeps a home. Rendón says that Colombian investigators asked him about Sepúlveda and that he told them Sepúlveda’s role was limited to Web development.

Rendón denies working with Sepúlveda in any meaningful capacity. “He says he worked with me in 20 places, and the truth is he didn’t,” Rendón says. “I never paid Andrés Sepúlveda a peso.

Last year, based on anonymous sources, the Colombian media reported that Rendón was working for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Rendón calls the reports untrue. The campaign did approach him, he says, but he turned them down because he dislikes Trump. “To my knowledge we are not familiar with this individual,” says Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks. “I have never heard of him, and the same goes for other senior staff members.” But Rendón says he’s in talks with another leading U.S. presidential campaign—he wouldn’t say which—to begin working for it once the primaries wrap up and the general election begins.

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