CRIME

Data-stealing ring had regular contacts with spy service, court records show

Arrested hacker says he performed "sensitive work" for CNI intelligence agency

Some of the suspects arrested last May when police broke up a criminal ring that stole personal information and sold it to third parties had apparent ties to members of Spain's National Intelligence Center (CNI), according to the voluminous court record detailing the so-called Pitiusa Operation.

In the 16,000 pages that outline the allegations in the case, the suspects referred to CNI agents who they were working with as "the frogs."

In late May, authorities arrested more than 150 individuals, including police officers, tax and social security workers, cellphone company executives, private detectives and lawyers from some big law firms in Madrid and Barcelona on charges that they stole and sold personal information. Among their targets, according to investigators, was Telma Ortiz, Princess Letizia's sister, whose employment history was sold to a private detective. Ignacio López del Hierro, the husband of Popular Party (PP) secretary general María Dolores de Cospedal, was another victim.

The links between CNI spies and the suspects were further confirmed when the intelligence agents contacted the police to find out more about the indictments of their friends who had been arrested. What isn't clear, however, is the precise nature of the relationship between the suspects and the CNI. Nevertheless, there are indications that CNI agents used the suspects to confirm information they had gathered.

Princess Letizia's sister had her employment history sold to a private detective

In one telephone conversation that was recorded by the police, a private detective named Aitor Gómez of the Winterman agency in Bilbao speaks to another person named Tino about a possible undercover operation against a tobacco-smuggling ring.

Referring to a mole who was trying to infiltrate the gang, Tino, a cooperating source from Ourense, says he fears that the person "will be able to manipulate all of us." Worried that he may find himself in "a big fix," Tino reveals to Gómez that he has a past criminal record and would prefer not to ask for "a second favor" from his "cousin" -- the codename of his CNI contact in Galicia, according to police.

From the phone taps, investigators found that the Civil Guard and the CNI were able to crack down on the contrabandists though contacts with private detectives, who were tailing a person named "Songo" and his wife. The husband and wife team would haul in about 20 containers of Marlboro cigarettes each month through the port of Valencia. Philip Morris, which owns the Marlboro brand as well as Chesterfield and L&M, wanted to put a stop to the smuggling ring and hired a group of private eyes.

Aitor and Tino held a meeting in Madrid with a group of Civil Guard officers, referred to as "the greens" in the judicial record, and several CNI agents who were assigned to Vigo. In one surveillance recording, Aitor discusses with an unidentified man the date of an upcoming meeting. "Wait, let me check it out with the Civil Guard to see if it is safe because, dude, I really don't know," says the unidentified voice.

Another suspect who allegedly had contacts with the frogs was Matías Bevilacqua-Brechbuhler, a 36-year-old computer hacker, who authorities say played an important role in the criminal ring. When he was arrested in Barcelona, the Argentinean-born Bevilacqua told police that he did "sensitive work" for Spain's intelligence services. He gave investigators a number for a so-called "Don Aquiles," who later confirmed Bevilacqua's claim.

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