March 02, 2008
Colombia's leftist guerrilla group bought satellite phones and other equipment from businesses in Miami, federal authorities said.
Colombia's largest leftist guerrilla group purchased satellite phones and other communications equipment at shops in Miami and later used it to coordinate kidnappings, cocaine and armed deals, according to charges revealed last week in Washington.
Calls made with the equipment -- used by the rebels over a five-year period -- were intercepted by U.S. and Colombian law enforcement authorities, according to the indictment.
The surveillance allowed authorities to strike the hardest blow so far against the rebels' logistical network: 39 arrested last week in Colombia, nine of them requested in extradition to the U.S.
The Federal indictment charges 11 commanders and collaborators of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, with supporting a terrorist group. It does not identify the contact that cooperated from Miami with the purchase of satellite phones and SIM cards.
The businesses that sold these items have not been named in the injunction.
There was enough trust between the FARC and their Miami contact that some of the orders were placed directly by the logistics coordinator for the Frente Uno division of the FARC, Nancy Conde Rubio. Conde, who was arrested on Feb. 2 in Colombia, even made calls to the Miami contact requesting technical support for some of the equipment.
The FARC's Frente Uno is in charge of a group of high-profile hostages, among them the three American contractors that were kidnapped in February 2003, Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves.
Satellite phones seem to be the Achilles heel of the FARC. In 2001, a DEA informant managed to sell four such devices to members of the FARC. The devices were previously rigged by the DEA, before being delivered in Panama, allowing federal agents to listen in on conversations and compile evidence to back up charges of drug trafficking brought against seven high-ranking FARC officials and 43 FARC commanders.
The first transaction between the FARC and Miami, according to the indictment, took place in March of 2005, when Conde Rubio bought two broadband radios.
A month later, Conde Rubio purchased a satellite phone and several SIM cards (a device used to store information in cellphones). In May the FARC received another satellite phone purchased in Miami. The FARC also bought GPS locators, compasses, transmitters and antennas.
Almost all the deals were made through a clandestine telephone hub in Colombia that was run by two women identified as Ana Isabel Peña Arévalo and Luz Mery Gutiérrez. Both have been charged in the indictment.
The busy clandestine communications hub was located in Villavicencio, Colombia's gateway to the eastern Amazon jungles and the capital of the province of Meta, which borders Venezuela.
The indictment cites conversations obtained through wiretappings of satellite phones, leading to the assumption that the devices may have been manipulated by law enforcement authorities before being sold to the FARC.