SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – The Attorney General’s Office is completing the last stages of testing for its Telecommunications Intervention Center, a tool that allows law enforcement agents to monitor communications among suspected criminals.
Attorney General Romeo Barahona did not announce a starting date for the system, but he said several telephone companies are adapting their technological platforms to those of the center.
“Intervention is a technique that will strengthen the investigative process, along with other evidentiary elements such as gathering scientific proof,” he said. “But perhaps what is most important is that it can help prevent a crime by allowing authorities to tap into communications while suspects are planning their crimes.”
The center’s cutting-edge technology, which will allow for the tapping of landline phones, cellphones and text messaging, was donated a few weeks ago by the United States.
Eventually, the center will be able to tap into email, radio, optical and other electromagnetic systems, as stipulated in Article 4 of the Special Law on Telecommunications Interventions, passed on Feb. 18, 2010.
The government has invested US$2.228 million in the center, which is being integrated into the video monitoring system installed in 2011. Authorities have yet to say whether the Telecommunications Intervention Center will also be adapted to the 911 Emergency System.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) will assist Salvadoran authorities in the installation of the technology and training of prosecutors and police agents on how to use the system, Barahona said.
“Once the tests we are carrying out with operators have been fine-tuned, we will be able to make interventions,” he added. “We are wrapping some up now and testing others [systems].”
The Attorney General and Telecommunications Intervention Center’s director are the only officials authorized to request an intervention, which must be authorized via a court order, according to Article 7 of the Special Law on Telecommunications Interventions.
“It is important for [authorities] to know how [an intervention] is managed because it is a technique never used before in this country,” Barahona said. “There is a lot of speculation about how it will be managed and one of the guiding principles is its legality. A telecommunication may only be tapped by written legal authorization.”
The National Civil Police registered 3,185 cases of extortion and 25 kidnappings in 2011. From January to May of this year there have been 1,068 extortions and a kidnapping.
There also have been 397 missing persons reports this year after 790 were filed in 2011, according to the National Civil Police.
Ramón Villalta, executive director of NGO Iniciativa Social para la Democracia, approves of the use of tapping communications in kidnapping, organized crime, homicide, extortion and human trafficking cases.
“One of the weaknesses of criminal indictment is not enough of an investigation is carried out by the Attorney General’s Office and the National Civil Police,” he said. “Most cases lack solid evidence to incriminate the accused without doubt. Charges are based on the word of witnesses, which gets dismissed in court due to deficiencies. This new investigative tool will allow the Attorney General’s Office to back up the charges and strengthen the investigation by offering technical or scientific proof. It will result in better evidence to effectively identify the accused.”
Minister of Justice and Public Safety David Munguía Payés is also confident the center will make strides in the fight against extortion and kidnapping.
“The ability to intercept phone calls is going to give us lots of leads when we record calls on phones belonging to known criminals, or we obtain telephone numbers citizens claim are being used for extortions or to demand ransoms for kidnappings,” he said.
On May 27, the Counter Narcotics Division of the National Civil Police arrested José Misael Cisneros Rodríguez – known as “Medio Millón” – who had been sought for the aggravated homicides of four individuals. He’s also charged with conspiring to commit aggravated homicide and [involvement with] criminal organizations, among other charges.
The next day, President Mauricio Funes called the Attorney General’s Office to fast-track the implementation of the Telecommunications Intervention Center, allowing the government to intercept telephone calls, which could lead to the dismantling of Cisneros’ alleged criminal organization.
“We can’t let criminals who are arrested by police be freed by the judicial system,” Funes said during the inauguration of the National Civil Police’s new 911 Emergency System, adding it will be able to intercept, in real time, the location of a 911 call. “We have before us one of the biggest criminals and we must carry out an exemplary trial for ourselves and for the international community.”