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 cell phones belonging to most of the 14 paramilitary warlords they yanked out of prison on May 12 and extradited to the United States to stand trial for drug trafficking.
The hard drive in warlord Ramiro Vanoy's laptop and three cell phone SIM cards — which store phone numbers and text messages — 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 — Interpol made a mirror image at the government's request and found no evidence of tampering. 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," according to the national prisons authority.
The judical police officers who removed the warlords from prisons in Medellin, Barranquilla and Bogota had no court orders to seize property, their boss Col. Cesar Pinzon told The Associated Press. He said the officers weren't allowed to enter the inmates' cells.
It was up to prison officials to secure the laptops and cell phones — officials many Colombians believe are unduly influenced by their wealthier inmates, which would include the warlords.
In several cases, those officials turned over devices to relatives of the warlords, prisons director Eduardo Morales told the AP.
"I did not receive any judicial order to place any materials under a chain of custody," Morales said. "Later on, it was authorized that some materials leave with relatives, which is normal."
The laptops' presence in prison owe to their owners' unusual situation: the warlords surrendered under a 2003 peace pact that offered them reduced prison terms in exchange for their full cooperation in confessing to crimes. Many were using the machines to compile details of their transgressions.
One of the missing SIM cards belonged to Salvatore Mancuso, the most senior paramilitary commander extradited. Curiously, Mancuso's laptop left Medellin's Itagui prison on May 10 for repairs, its exit authorized by corrections officials.
"The computer had a virus and was blocked," said Morales.
Mancuso has implicated more politicians and military officers than any other paramilitary boss as criminal accomplices of the warlords, who seized control of Colombia's Caribbean coast beginning in the late 1990s, killing thousands and stealing millions of acres of land.
Many believe Mancuso had information in his laptop that could have incriminated more of his partners in crime and correctly suspected his extradition could be imminent when President Alvaro Uribe extradited a first paramilitary warlord on May 7 after receiving a court's go-ahead.
Human rights activists complain that the warlords' extradition will help them avoid punishment for some of modern Colombia's worst atrocities. Now that the men are outside Colombia, the activists also argue, they will be less apt to implicate accomplices.
Meanwhile, Mancuso's laptop remains unaccounted for, as do SIM cards from his cell phone and those of Ramiro Vanoy and Juan Carlos Sierra, the chief prosecutor's office says.
A list it provided to the AP of items secured from the extradited warlords' jail cells includes:
- 10 laptops
- 7 cell phones
- 1 Blackberry wireless messaging device
- At least 6 USB memory sticks
- 72 CDs belonging to Diego Fernando Murillo, alias Don Berna, that are "labeled with (mass) graves by region and other situations of the organization."
Chief Prosecutor Mario Iguaran's office provided the following update Tuesday on the paramilitaries' legacy: 1,492 bodies of victims have been recovered from common graves and demobilized fighters have confessed to 5,841 crimes.
It said it believes another 4,000 common graves remain to be unearthed.