Spy claims raised in Uruguay probe of ex-presidential guard

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — Two months into an investigation of alleged passport forgery involving the former security chief for Uruguay’s president, questions are expanding after a newspaper’s reports that prosecutors have also found evidence of political spying and blackmail against opposition politicians.

Uruguay’s secretary of the presidency, Álvaro Delgado, and the deputy secretary, Rodrigo Ferrés, testified Tuesday to prosecutors in the forgery investigation of Alejandro Astesiano, who headed security for President Luis Lacalle Pou.

That session came after 10 days of stories in La Diaria outlining details on the purported espionage that the newspaper says are contained in a cellphone and other digital devices obtained by prosecutors in the forgery probe.

La Diaria said the information about the political spying turned up in an analysis of Astesiano’s devices by prosecutor Gabriela Fossati’s office as part of the passport probe. It said the Prosecutor’s Office has not opened a separate investigation into that issue.

The newspaper says the political espionage allegedly included interceptions of telephone calls to individuals using spy software of the Ministry of the Interior and the selling of such information by Astesiano. Interior Minister Luis Alberto Heber denied that happened during a Senate Securirty Committee hearing last week.

In one report, La Diaria said Astesiano allegedly sold state intelligence services to an Argentine soybean businessman, who accessed data involving a shipment of wheat and corn.

Both Astesiano and the company that made the Interior Department’s Guardian spy software have denied that he had access to the software. Astesiano has said he lied to his clients about the use of spy software.

The company Vertical Skies is a security consultancy run by several former Uruguayan military officers based in Miami, Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

La Diaria says the company asked Astesiano for personal information about Sen. Mario Bergara and Sen. Charles Carrera, both opponents of the government.

The newspaper says the objective was to pressure the senators into dropping a criminal complaint they filed against a decree giving a monopoly on operations in the port of Montevideo to the operator Katoen Natie until 2081.

“The info I need is everything personal. They want to tie them up so that they withdraw the complaint,” Marcelo Acuña, manager of the company and a former military officer, wrote to Astesiano in a cellphone chat in March, according to La Diaria. “I need all the personal data and ties.”

The paper says that in August, Astesiano received a money transfer — the amount of which has not come to light in the messages — via Western Union from Boca Raton, Florida, where Vertical Skies has its headquarters.

La Diaria says Acuña also asked Astesiano to arrange a meeting with the president and to provide information on bidding to seel oceanic patrol boats to the Uruguayan navy and about the air force’s interest in buying aircraft.

The two senators who allegedly were spied on also testified to prosecutors Tuesday.

They called on the Interior Ministry to provide accountability. Carrera said the alleged operation had a “mafia character.”

“If we who have a special status were subdued, all Uruguayans have to worry,” Carrera said.

Delgado, the presidency secretary, declined to answer questions from reporters after appearing before prosecutors, but he said it would be “very serious” if the investigation confirms what La Diaria has published.

Astesiano is in prison pending his trial for his alleged role in a criminal association that provided fake birth certificates for Russians so they could get Uruguayan passports.

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