The use of IMSI catchers to arrest individuals is rarely documented — as IMSI catchers are used secretively in most countries. The arrest of Colombian drug lord Henry López Londoño in Argentina is therefore a rare opportunity to understand both how IMSI catchers are used, and also the complexity of their extraterritorial use.
In October 2012, Londoño — also known as Mi Sangre (“My Blood”) — was arrested in Argentina. His arrest was the result of cooperation between the Dirección de Investigación Criminal e Interpol (DIJIN, the criminal investigation division of the Colombian police), the Argentinian intelligence services (Secretaría de Inteligencia del Estado, also known as SIDE, at the time) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a US law enforcement agency. While fighting extradition to the US, Londoño made the case that an IMSI catcher had been used illegally as part of his arrest.
Hunting down Londoño
After six months of being hunted down, Londoño was arrested on 20 October 2012 in a restaurant in Buenos Aires, the city where he had been hiding since December 2011. What eventually betrayed him was a phone call to his wife, during which he told her not to wait for him as he was having a business lunch at the restaurant Fettucine Mario. The police were there to greet him.
Immediately after his arrest, the US requested his extradition, where he was wanted on drug smuggling and conspiracy charges. But the request was followed by four years of legal proceedings, as Londoño’s lawyers argued their client would not be safe in the US, and Londoño was only extradited on 17 November 2016.
During those four years, Londoño’s lawyers also argued an IMSI catcher was used illegally as part of his arrest.
There is currently no explicit legal framework regulating the use of IMSI catchers in Argentina. While journalists who have reported on the case have referred to IMSI catchers as being prohibited in the country, there is no law that explicitly prohibits the use of these devices.
The smuggling of an IMSI catcher
On 27 April 2012, Argentinian judge Norberto Oyarbide authorised a team of Colombian police officers to enter the country and track Londoño. According to Argentinian publication Diario Veloz, the Colombian police asked for permission to use equipment that would allow them to locate Londoño’s phone but indicated that the equipment could in no way be used to hear or record phone conversations or messages.
On 30 May 2012, Oyarbide received a phone call from Jaime Stiuso, who was at the time the head of the powerful Argentinian intelligence service SIDE (dismantled in February 2015 after a political scandal that took place 2 months earlier). Stiuso informed Oyarbide that an IMSI catcher was being used by the Colombians and clarified that the tool could intercept the data and calls of anyone in its vicinity. The day after, Oyarbide ordered the expulsion of the Colombian policemen. The IMSI catcher, on the other hand, did not leave Argentina.
According to documents obtained by Diaro Veloz, the IMSI catcher had in fact been brought to Argentina by two Colombian spies, Diego Hernán Rosero Giraldo and César Gonzalo Triana Amaya, on 10 April 2012. That date precedes the date Colombian police even requested permission to enter Argentina. Documents available online reveal that in June 2012 the two spies received an honourable decoration for “distinguished service to the country and to society, outstanding for their sacrifice, perseverance and dedication in the fight against crime.”