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New 'hacker' scandal rattles Colombian presidential race

BOGOTA, — In a jerky five-minute video, a man sitting in front of a bank of computer screens tells one of Colombia’s leading presidential candidates that he has access to privileged information that comes from Colombian military intelligence and the U.S. Southern Command.

The candidate, Oscar Iván Zuluaga, who has pulled ahead in some polls for the May 25 race against President Juan Manuel Santos, doesn’t seem worried about the source of the information.

"So what is Santos going to hit us with before May 25 to provide him a life raft?" he asks.

If the video proves legitimate, it suggests that Zuluaga and his campaign were knowingly resorting to classified and illicit information in their efforts to unseat Santos.

The hacker in the video, released by Semana magazine Saturday night, is said to be Andrés Sepulveda, the Zuluaga staffer who was detained earlier this month on accusations of spying on negotiators in Cuba who are trying to hammer out a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas.

When Sepulveda was initially detained, Zuluaga first said he had never met with the man who he described as being part of his social media campaign. A few days later he said he had passed briefly through Sepulveda’s office to greet staffers.

The video, however, appears to show that Zuluaga knew about the nature of Sepulveda’s work.

On Sunday, presidential candidate Enrique Peñalosa, who is running far behind in the race, called on Zuluaga to step down.

"He lied to the country and in a very serious way, because the lie was covering up a crime," he said in a statement. Not only could Zuluaga face charges for wire-tapping but criminal conspiracy, because there were more than two people in the room, Peñalosa said.

"We shouldn’t even consider the possibility of electing a president who will spend his time defending himself from going to jail, where he will probably end up anyway," Peñaolsa added.

Former President Alvaro Uribe, who is backing Zuluaga, came out in defense of his candidate. In a series of Tweets, he said Zuluaga had been set up — that Sepulveda had been "infiltrated" into the campaign and that the intelligence he was peddling was simply "rumors from the Internet."

In its article, Semana said the video was secretly taken by one of Sepulveda’s employees who was aware of his boss’ illicit activities. In the clip, Sepulveda claims to have deep insight into the FARC’s operations.

At one point he says that FARC leader Timoleón "Timochenko" Jiménez is "on the border with tuberculosis."

"We have corroborated the information with two sources. The access I have to [U.S.] Southern Command, their AWAC airplanes, which monitor [guerrilla] communications," he says.

The U.S. Southern Command did not immediately respond to interview requests.

Zuluaga and Uribe have been vocal critics of Colombia’s peace process with the FARC, which is one of Santos’ signature achievements. Zuluaga has said that if he were elected, the FARC would have to cease all hostilities for talks to continue.

Santos has accused Zuluaga and Uribe of resorting to dirty tricks to try to derail the talks and win the presidency.

The fresh scandal comes amid an increasingly tight race.

A poll released Saturday by Ipsos-Napoleón Franco gives Zuluaga 29.5 percent of the vote versus Santos’ 28.5 percent – setting the stage for a June 15 runoff.

The other three candidates lag far behind, according to the poll. Former Bogotá Mayor Clara López has 10.1 percent, former Defense Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez has 9.7 percent and former Bogotá Mayor and presidential candidate Enrique Peñalosa has 9.4 percent.

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