HACK EC­TION

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Focus On / Agriculture -

It was just be­fore mid­night when En­rique Peña Ni­eto de­clared vic­tory as the newly elected pres­i­dent of Mex­ico. Peña Ni­eto was a lawyer and a mil­lion­aire, from a fam­ily of may­ors and gov­er­nors. His wife was a te­len­ov­ela star. He beamed as he was show­ered with red, green, and white con­fetti at the Mex­ico City head­quar­ters of the In­sti­tu­tional Revo­lu­tion­ary Party, or PRI, which had ruled for more than 70 years be­fore be­ing forced out in 2000. Re­turn­ing the party to power on that night in July 2012, Peña Ni­eto vowed to tame drug vi­o­lence, fight cor­rup­tion, and open a more trans­par­ent era in Mex­i­can pol­i­tics.

Two thou­sand miles away, in an apart­ment in Bo­gotá’s up­scale Chicó Navarra neigh­bor­hood, An­drés Sepúlveda sat be­fore six com­puter screens. Sepúlveda is Colom­bian, brick­like, with a shaved head, goa­tee, and a tat­too of a QR code con­tain­ing an en­cryp­tion key on the back of his head. On his nape are the words “</head>” and “<body>” stacked atop each other, dark riffs on cod­ing. He was watch­ing a live feed of Peña Ni­eto’s vic­tory party, wait­ing for an of­fi­cial dec­la­ra­tion of the re­sults.

When Peña Ni­eto won, Sepúlveda be­gan de­stroy­ing ev­i­dence. He drilled holes in flash drives, hard drives, and cell phones, fried their cir­cuits in a mi­crowave, then broke them to shards with a ham­mer. He shred­ded doc­u­ments and flushed them down the toi­let and erased servers in Rus­sia and Ukraine rented anony­mously with Bit­coins. He was dis­man­tling what he says was a se­cret his­tory of one of the dirt­i­est Latin Amer­i­can cam­paigns in re­cent mem­ory.

For eight years, Sepúlveda, now 31, says he trav­eled the con­ti­nent rig­ging ma­jor po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. With a bud­get of $600,000, the Peña Ni­eto job was by far his most com­plex. He led a team of hack­ers that stole cam­paign strate­gies, ma­nip­u­lated so­cial me­dia to cre­ate false waves of en­thu­si­asm and de­ri­sion, and in­stalled spy­ware in op­po­si­tion of­fices, all to help Peña Ni­eto, a right-of­cen­ter can­di­date, eke out a vic­tory. On that July night, he cracked bot­tle af­ter bot­tle of Colón Ne­gra beer in cel­e­bra­tion. As usual on elec­tion night, he was alone.

Sepúlveda’s ca­reer be­gan in 2005, and his first jobs were small— mostly de­fac­ing cam­paign web­sites and break­ing into op­po­nents’ donor data­bases. Within a few years he was as­sem­bling teams that spied, stole, and smeared on be­half of pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns across Latin Amer­ica. He wasn’t cheap, but his ser­vices were ex­ten­sive. For $12,000 a month, a cus­tomer hired a crew that could hack smart­phones, spoof and clone Web pages, and send mass e-mails and texts. The premium pack­age, at $20,000 a month, also in­cluded a full range of dig­i­tal in­ter­cep­tion, at­tack, de­cryp­tion, and de­fense. The jobs were care­fully laun­dered through lay­ers of mid­dle­men and con­sul­tants. Sepúlveda says many of the can­di­dates he helped might not even have known about his role; he says he met only a few.

His teams worked on pres­i­den­tial elec­tions in Nicaragua, Panama, Hon­duras, El Sal­vador, Colom­bia, Mex­ico, Costa Rica, Gu­atemala, and Venezuela. Cam­paigns men­tioned in this story were con­tacted through for­mer and cur­rent spokes­peo­ple; none but Mex­ico’s PRI and the cam­paign of Gu­atemala’s Na­tional Ad­vance­ment Party would com­ment.

As a child, he wit­nessed the vi­o­lence of Colom­bia’s Marx­ist guer­ril­las. As an adult, he al­lied with a right wing emerg­ing across Latin Amer­ica. He be­lieved his hack­ing was no more di­a­bol­i­cal than the tac­tics of those he op­posed, such as Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega.

Many of Sepúlveda’s ef­forts were un­suc­cess­ful, but he has enough wins that he might be able to claim as much in­flu­ence over the po­lit­i­cal di­rec­tion of mod­ern Latin Amer­ica as any­one in the 21st cen­tury. “My job was to do ac­tions of dirty war and psy­cho­log­i­cal op­er­a­tions, black pro­pa­ganda, ru­mors—the whole dark side of pol­i­tics that no­body knows ex­ists but ev­ery­one can see,” he says in Span­ish, while sit­ting at a small plas­tic ta­ble in an out­door court­yard deep within the heav­ily for­ti­fied of­fices of Colom­bia’s at­tor­ney general’s of­fice. He’s serv­ing 10 years in prison for charges in­clud­ing use of ma­li­cious soft­ware, con­spir­acy to com­mit crime, vi­o­la­tion of per­sonal data, and es­pi­onage, re­lated to hack­ing dur­ing Colom­bia’s 2014 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. He has agreed

to tell his full story for the first time, hop­ing to con­vince the pub­lic that he’s re­ha­bil­i­tated—and gather sup­port for a re­duced sen­tence.

Usu­ally, he says, he was on the pay­roll of Juan José Rendón, a Mi­ami-based po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant who’s been called the Karl Rove of Latin Amer­ica. Rendón de­nies us­ing Sepúlveda for any­thing il­le­gal, and cat­e­gor­i­cally dis­putes the ac­count Sepúlveda gave Bloomberg Businessweek of their re­la­tion­ship, but ad­mits know­ing him and us­ing him to do web­site de­sign. “If I talked to him maybe once or twice, it was in a group ses­sion about that, about the Web,” he says. “I don’t do il­le­gal stuff at all. There is neg­a­tive cam­paign­ing. They don’t like it—ok. But if it’s le­gal, I’m gonna do it. I’m not a saint, but I’m not a crim­i­nal.” While Sepúlveda’s pol­icy was to de­stroy all data at the com­ple­tion of a job, he left some doc­u­ments with mem­bers of his hack­ing teams and other trusted third par­ties as a se­cret “in­surance pol­icy.”

Sepúlveda pro­vided Bloomberg Businessweek with what he says are e-mails show­ing con­ver­sa­tions be­tween him, Rendón, and Rendón’s con­sult­ing firm con­cern­ing hack­ing and the progress of cam­paign-re­lated cy­ber at­tacks. Rendón says the e-mails are fake. An anal­y­sis by an in­de­pen­dent com­puter se­cu­rity firm said a sam­ple of the e-mails they ex­am­ined ap­peared authen­tic. Some of Sepúlveda’s de­scrip­tions of his ac­tions match pub­lished ac­counts of events dur­ing var­i­ous elec­tion cam­paigns, but other de­tails couldn’t be in­de­pen­dently ver­i­fied. One per­son work­ing on the cam­paign in Mex­ico, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied out of fear for his safety, sub­stan­tially con­firmed Sepúlveda’s ac­counts of his and Rendón’s roles in that elec­tion.

Sepúlveda says he was of­fered sev­eral po­lit­i­cal jobs in Spain, which he says he turned down be­cause he was too busy. On the ques­tion of whether the U.S. pres­i­den­tial cam­paign is be­ing tam­pered with, he is un­equiv­o­cal. “I’m 100 per­cent sure it is,” he says.

Sepúlveda grew up poor in Bu­cara­manga, eight hours north of Bo­gotá by car. His mother was a sec­re­tary. His fa­ther was an ac­tivist, help­ing farm­ers find bet­ter crops to grow than coca plants, and the fam­ily moved con­stantly be­cause of death threats from drug traf­fick­ers. His par­ents di­vorced, and by the age of 15, af­ter fail­ing school, he went to live with his fa­ther in Bo­gotá and used a com­puter for the first time. He later en­rolled in a lo­cal tech­nol­ogy school and, through a friend there, learned to code.

In 2005, Sepúlveda’s older brother, a pub­li­cist, was help­ing with the con­gres­sional cam­paigns of a party aligned with thenColom­bian Pres­i­dent Al­varo Uribe. Uribe was a hero of the brothers, a U.S. ally who strength­ened the mil­i­tary to fight the Revo­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia (FARC). Dur­ing a visit to party head­quar­ters, Sepúlveda took out his lap­top and be­gan scan­ning the of­fice’s wire­less net­work. He eas­ily tapped into the com­puter of Rendón, the party’s strate­gist, and down­loaded Uribe’s work sched­ule and up­com­ing speeches. Sepúlveda says Rendón was fu­ri­ous—then hired him on the spot. Rendón says this never hap­pened.

For decades, Latin Amer­i­can elec­tions were rigged, not won, and the meth­ods were pretty straight­for­ward. Lo­cal fix­ers would hand out ev­ery­thing from small ap­pli­ances to cash in ex­change for votes. But in the 1990s, elec­toral re­forms swept the re­gion. Vot­ers were is­sued tam­per-proof ID cards, and non­par­ti­san in­sti­tutes ran the elec­tions in sev­eral coun­tries. The mod­ern cam­paign, at least a ver­sion North Amer­i­cans might rec­og­nize, had ar­rived in Latin Amer­ica.

Rendón had al­ready be­gun a suc­cess­ful ca­reer based partly, ac­cord­ing to his crit­ics—and more than one law­suit—on a mas­tery of dirty tricks and ru­mor­mon­ger­ing. (In 2014, El Sal­vador’s then­Pres­i­dent Car­los Mauri­cio Funes ac­cused Rendón of or­ches­trat­ing dirty war cam­paigns through­out Latin Amer­ica. Rendón sued in Florida for defama­tion, but the court dis­missed the case on the grounds that Funes couldn’t be sued for his of­fi­cial acts.) The son of democ­racy ac­tivists, he stud­ied psy­chol­ogy and worked in ad­ver­tis­ing be­fore ad­vis­ing pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates in his na­tive Venezuela. Af­ter ac­cus­ing then-pres­i­dent Chávez of vote rig­ging in 2004, he left and never went back.

Sepúlveda’s first hack­ing job, he says, was break­ing into an Uribe ri­val’s web­site, steal­ing a data­base of e-mail ad­dresses, and spam­ming the ac­counts with dis­in­for­ma­tion. He was paid $15,000 in cash for a month’s work, five times as much as he made in his pre­vi­ous job designing web­sites.

Sepúlveda was daz­zled by Rendón, who owned a fleet of lux­ury cars, wore big flashy watches, and spent thou­sands on tai­lored coats. Like Sepúlveda, he was a per­fec­tion­ist. His staff was ex­pected to ar­rive early and work late. “I was very young,” Sepúlveda says. “I did what I liked, I was paid well and trav­eled. It was the per­fect job.” But more than any­thing, their right-wing pol­i­tics aligned. Sepúlveda says he saw Rendón as a ge­nius and a men­tor. A de­vout Bud­dhist and prac­ti­tioner of mar­tial arts, ac­cord­ing to his own web­site, Rendón cul­ti­vated an im­age of mys­tery and men­ace, wear­ing only all-black in pub­lic, in­clud­ing the oc­ca­sional sa­mu­rai robe. On his web­site he calls him­self the po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant who is the “best paid, feared the most, at­tacked the most, and also the most de­manded and most ef­fi­cient.” Sepúlveda would have a hand in that.

Rendón, says Sepúlveda, saw that hack­ers could be com­pletely in­te­grated into a mod­ern po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tion, run­ning at­tack ads, re­search­ing the op­po­si­tion, and find­ing ways to sup­press a foe’s turnout. As for Sepúlveda, his in­sight was to un­der­stand that vot­ers trusted what they thought were spon­ta­neous ex­pres­sions of real peo­ple on so­cial me­dia more than they did ex­perts on tele­vi­sion and in news­pa­pers. He knew that ac­counts could be faked and so­cial me­dia trends fab­ri­cated, all rel­a­tively cheaply. He wrote a soft­ware pro­gram, now called So­cial Me­dia Preda­tor, to man­age and di­rect a vir­tual army of fake Twit­ter ac­counts. The soft­ware let him quickly change names, pro­file pic­tures, and bi­ogra­phies to fit any need. Even­tu­ally, he dis­cov­ered, he could ma­nip­u­late the pub­lic de­bate as eas­ily as mov­ing pieces on a chess­board— or, as he puts it, “When I re­al­ized that peo­ple be­lieve what the In­ter­net says more than re­al­ity, I dis­cov­ered that I had the power to make peo­ple be­lieve al­most any­thing.”

Ac­cord­ing to Sepúlveda, his pay­ments were made in cash, half up­front. When he trav­eled, he used a fake pass­port and stayed alone in a ho­tel, far from cam­paign staff. No one could bring a smart­phone or cam­era into his room.

Most jobs were ini­ti­ated in per­son. Sepúlveda says Rendón would give him a piece of pa­per with tar­get names, e-mail ad­dresses, and phone num­bers. Sepúlveda would take the note to his ho­tel, en­ter the data into an en­crypted file, then burn the page or flush it down the toi­let. If Rendón needed to send an e-mail, he used coded lan­guage. To “ca­ress” meant to at­tack; to “lis­ten to mu­sic” meant to in­ter­cept a tar­get’s phone calls.

Rendón and Sepúlveda took pains not to be seen to­gether. They com­mu­ni­cated over en­crypted phones, which they re­placed ev­ery two months. Sepúlveda says he sent daily progress re­ports and in­tel­li­gence brief­ings from throw­away e-mail ac­counts to a go-be­tween in Rendón’s con­sult­ing firm.

Each job ended with a spe­cific, color-coded de­struct se­quence. On elec­tion day, Sepúlveda would purge all data clas­si­fied as “red.” Those were files that could send him and his han­dlers to prison: in­ter­cepted phone calls and e-mails, lists of hack­ing vic­tims, and con­fi­den­tial brief­ings he pre­pared for the cam­paigns. All phones, hard drives, flash drives, and com­puter servers were phys­i­cally de­stroyed. Less-sen­si­tive “yel­low” data—travel sched­ules, salary spread­sheets, fundrais­ing plans—were saved to an en­crypted thumb drive and given to the cam­paigns for one fi­nal re­view. A week later it, too, would be de­stroyed.

For most jobs, Sepúlveda as­sem­bled a crew and op­er­ated out of rental homes and apart­ments in Bo­gotá. He had a ro­tat­ing group of 7 to 15 hack­ers brought in from across Latin Amer­ica, draw­ing on the var­i­ous re­gions’ spe­cial­ties. Brazil­ians, in his view, de­velop the best mal­ware. Venezue­lans and Ecuadore­ans are su­perb at scan­ning sys­tems and soft­ware for vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. Ar­gen­tines are mo­bile in­ter­cept artists. Mex­i­cans are mas­terly hack­ers in general but talk too much. Sepúlveda used them only in emer­gen­cies.

The as­sign­ments lasted any­where from a few days to sev­eral months. In Hon­duras, Sepúlveda de­fended the com­mu­ni­ca­tions and com­puter sys­tems of pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Por­firio Lobo Sosa from hack­ers em­ployed by his com­peti­tors. In Gu­atemala, he dig­i­tally eaves­dropped on six po­lit­i­cal and busi­ness fig­ures, and says he de­liv­ered the data to Rendón on en­crypted flash drives at dead drops. (Sepúlveda says it was a small job for a client of Rendón’s who has ties to the right-wing Na­tional Ad­vance­ment Party, or PAN. The PAN says it never hired Rendón and has no knowl­edge of any of his claimed ac­tiv­i­ties.) In Nicaragua in 2011, Sepúlveda at­tacked Ortega, who was run­ning for his third pres­i­den­tial term. In one of the rare jobs in which he was work­ing for a client other than Rendón, he broke into the e-mail ac­count of Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s wife and the gov­ern­ment’s chief spokes­woman, and stole a trove of per­sonal and gov­ern­ment se­crets.

In Venezuela in 2012, the team aban­doned its usual cau­tion, an­i­mated by dis­gust with Chávez. With Chávez run­ning for his fourth term, Sepúlveda posted an anonymized Youtube clip of him­self ri­fling through the e-mail of one of the most pow­er­ful peo­ple in Venezuela, Dios­dado Ca­bello, then pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Assem­bly. He also went out­side his tight cir­cle of trusted hack­ers and ral­lied Anony­mous, the hack­tivist group, to at­tack Chávez’s web­site.

Af­ter Sepúlveda hacked Ca­bello’s Twit­ter ac­count, Rendón seemed to con­grat­u­late him. “Eres noti­cia :)”—you’re news—he wrote in a Sept. 9, 2012, e-mail, link­ing to a story about the breach. (Rendón says he never sent such an e-mail.) Sepúlveda pro­vided screen shots of a dozen e-mails, and many of the orig­i­nal e-mails, show­ing that from Novem­ber 2011 to Septem­ber 2012 Sepúlveda sent long lists of gov­ern­ment web­sites he hacked for var­i­ous cam­paigns to a se­nior mem­ber of Rendón’s con­sult­ing firm, lac­ing them with hacker slang (“Owned!” read one). Two weeks be­fore Venezuela’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Sepúlveda sent screen shots show­ing how he’d hacked Chávez’s web­site and could turn it on and off at will.

Chávez won but died five months later of cancer, trig­ger­ing an emer­gency elec­tion, won by Ni­colás Maduro. The day be­fore Maduro claimed vic­tory, Sepúlveda hacked his Twit­ter ac­count and posted al­le­ga­tions of elec­tion fraud. Blam­ing “con­spir­acy hack­ings from abroad,” the gov­ern­ment of Venezuela dis­abled the In­ter­net across the en­tire coun­try for 20 min­utes.

In Mex­ico, Sepúlveda’s tech­ni­cal mas­tery and Rendón’s grand vision for a ruth­less po­lit­i­cal ma­chine fully came to­gether, fu­eled by the huge re­sources of the PRI. The years un­der Pres­i­dent Felipe Calderón and the Na­tional Ac­tion Party (also, as in Par­tido Ac­ción Nacional, PAN) were plagued by a grind­ing war against the drug car­tels, which made kid­nap­pings, street as­sas­si­na­tions, and be­head­ings or­di­nary. As 2012 ap­proached, the PRI

of­fered the youth­ful en­ergy of Peña Ni­eto, who’d just fin­ished a suc­cess­ful term as gover­nor.

Sepúlveda didn’t like the idea of work­ing in Mex­ico, a dan­ger­ous coun­try for in­volve­ment in pub­lic life. But Rendón per­suaded him to travel there for short trips, start­ing in 2008, of­ten fly­ing him in on his pri­vate jet. Work­ing at one point in Tabasco, on the swel­ter­ing Caribbean coast, Sepúlveda hacked a po­lit­i­cal boss who turned out to have con­nec­tions to a drug cartel. Af­ter Rendón’s se­cu­rity team learned of a plan to kill Sepúlveda, he spent a night in an ar­mored Chevy Sub­ur­ban be­fore re­turn­ing to Mex­ico City.

Mex­ico is ef­fec­tively a three-party sys­tem, and Peña Ni­eto faced op­po­nents from both right and left. On the right, the rul­ing PAN nom­i­nated Jose­fina Vázquez Mota, its first fe­male pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. On the left, the Demo­cratic Rev­o­lu­tion Party, or PRD, chose An­drés Manuel López Obrador, a for­mer Mex­ico City mayor.

Early polls showed Peña Ni­eto 20 points ahead, but his sup­port­ers weren’t tak­ing chances. Sepúlveda’s team in­stalled mal­ware in routers in the head­quar­ters of the PRD can­di­date, which let him tap the phones and com­put­ers of any­one us­ing the net­work, in­clud­ing the can­di­date. He took sim­i­lar steps against PAN’S Vázquez Mota. When the can­di­dates’ teams pre­pared pol­icy speeches, Sepúlveda had the de­tails as soon as a speech­writer’s fin­gers hit the key­board. Sepúlveda saw the op­po­nents’ up­com­ing meet­ings and cam­paign sched­ules be­fore their own teams did.

Money was no prob­lem. At one point, Sepúlveda spent $50,000 on high-end Rus­sian soft­ware that made quick work of tap­ping Ap­ple, Black­berry, and An­droid phones. He also splurged on the very best fake Twit­ter pro­files; they’d been main­tained for at least a year, giv­ing them a patina of be­liev­abil­ity.

Sepúlveda man­aged thou­sands of such fake pro­files and used the ac­counts to shape dis­cus­sion around top­ics such as Peña Ni­eto’s plan to end drug vi­o­lence, prim­ing the so­cial me­dia pump with views that real users would mimic. For less nu­anced work, he had a larger army of 30,000 Twit­ter bots, au­to­matic posters that could cre­ate trends. One con­ver­sa­tion he started stoked fear that the more López Obrador rose in the polls, the lower the peso would sink. Sepúlveda knew the cur­rency is­sue was a ma­jor vul­ner­a­bil­ity; he’d read it in the can­di­date’s own in­ter­nal staff me­mos.

Just about any­thing the dig­i­tal dark arts could of­fer to Peña Ni­eto’s cam­paign or im­por­tant lo­cal al­lies, Sepúlveda and his team pro­vided. On elec­tion night, he had com­put­ers call tens of thou­sands of vot­ers with pre­re­corded phone mes­sages at 3 a.m. in the crit­i­cal swing state of Jalisco. The calls ap­peared to come from the cam­paign of pop­u­lar left-wing gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date En­rique Al­faro Ramírez. That an­gered vot­ers—that was the point—and Al­faro lost by a slim mar­gin. In an­other gover­nor’s race, in Tabasco, Sepúlveda set up fake Face­book ac­counts of gay men claim­ing to back a con­ser­va­tive Catholic can­di­date rep­re­sent­ing the PAN, a stunt de­signed to alien­ate his base. “I al­ways sus­pected some­thing was off,” the can­di­date, Ger­ardo Priego, said re­cently when told how Sepúlveda’s team ma­nip­u­lated so­cial me­dia in the cam­paign.

In May, Peña Ni­eto vis­ited Mex­ico City’s Ibero-amer­i­can Univer­sity and was bom­barded by an­gry chants and boos from stu­dents. The rat­tled can­di­date re­treated with his body­guards into an ad­ja­cent build­ing, hid­ing, ac­cord­ing to some so­cial me­dia posts, in a bath­room. The images were a dis­as­ter. López Obrador soared.

The PRI was able to re­cover af­ter one of López Obrador’s con­sul­tants was caught on tape ask­ing busi­ness­men for $6 mil­lion to fund his can­di­date’s broke cam­paign, in pos­si­ble vi­o­la­tion of Mex­i­can laws. Al­though the hacker says he doesn’t know the ori­gin of that par­tic­u­lar record­ing, Sepúlveda and his team had been in­ter­cept­ing the com­mu­ni­ca­tions of the con­sul­tant, Luis Costa Bonino, for months. (On Feb. 2, 2012, Rendón ap­pears to have sent him three e-mail ad­dresses and a cell phone num­ber be­long­ing to Costa Bonino in an e-mail called “Job.”) Sepúlveda’s team dis­abled the con­sul­tant’s per­sonal web­site and di­rected jour­nal­ists to a clone site. There they posted what looked like a long de­fense writ­ten by Costa Bonino, which ca­su­ally raised ques­tions about whether his Uruguayan roots vi­o­lated Mex­i­can re­stric­tions on for­eign­ers in elec­tions. Costa Bonino left the cam­paign a few days later. He in­di­cated re­cently that he knew he was be­ing spied on, he just didn’t know how. It goes with the trade in Latin Amer­ica: “Hav­ing a phone hacked by the op­po­si­tion is not a nov­elty. When I work on a cam­paign, the as­sump­tion is that ev­ery­thing I talk about on the phone will be heard by the op­po­nents.”

The press of­fice for Peña Ni­eto de­clined to com­ment. A spokesman for the PRI said the party has no knowl­edge of Rendón work­ing for Peña Ni­eto’s or any other PRI cam­paign. Rendón says he has worked on be­half of PRI can­di­dates in Mex­ico for 16 years, from Au­gust 2000 un­til today.

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. <BW> � With Car­los Manuel Ro­dríguez and Matthew Bris­tow

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