The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.60/No.7           February 19, 1996 
Colombia President Facing Fire Over Drug Scandal  


Besieged by the threat of a possible impeachment, Colombian president Ernesto Samper has so far refused to resign in face of charges that he knowingly accepted millions of dollars in drug money for his 1994 election campaign. There is growing pressure against Samper, both inside Colombia and from Washington.

In a special session of Congress that he called recently to weigh the accusations of his implication in the drug money, Samper received a standing ovation. The president's Liberal Party holds a majority in Congress. Samper has also taken to posturing as a friend of the workers who is under attack for his "social commitment."

In a nationally televised 10-minute speech January 24, Samper stated, "I will not resign...because quitting under present circumstances would be an act of cowardice." He added, "I will not leave the country adrift. My conscience is tranquil." In his appeal for his innocence, the president proposed a referendum to gauge public support for his government. He had also called his accuser a "liar" and said he would leave the presidency only "with my head held high, or dead."

The political turmoil exploded when Fernando Botero, who was Samper's campaign manager and later his defense minister, said in a televised interview January 21 that president Samper had been "very seriously compromised" in accepting drug money from the top heads of the Cali cocaine organization.

Botero, the son of Colombia's most famous artist - also named Fernando - resigned in August after being formally accused of accepting drug money for his campaign. This was followed by the arrest of a number of well-known figures implicated in the scandal. As the scandal spiraled, public debate broke out in Congress and in the media over whether Samper should be forced to resign.

The president has been under the allegation that his campaign accepted millions of dollars from drug smugglers ever since he narrowly won the elections in May 1994. His opponent Andrés Pastrana released what was known as the "narco-cassettes" right after the elections, where campaign members can be heard discussing money received from Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez-Orejuela, reputed to be major drug traffickers.

Prosecutor General Alfonso Valdivieso ordered the arrest of Samper's campaign treasurer, Santiago Medina, in July. In public testimony on August 3, Medina described that the campaign had received $5.9 million from the Cali drug organizations, and that Botero ordered opening secret bank accounts and double bookkeeping to hide the money.

Scandal continues to mushroom
The political scandal increased when Medina, who is now under house arrest, gave further information to the general prosecutor's office January 26 that president Samper met last year in Quito, Ecuador, with a contact from the Cali drug cartel. Medina turned in a letter signed by the president as evidence. A statement from Samper's government denied the allegation, calling it "slanderous and infamous." As a result of these developments, a growing number of his cabinet members, and diplomats have stepped down.

Several thousand university students marched to Plaza Bolivar, in front of the Presidential Palace, in January calling for Samper's resignation while the cabinet met. Some of the leading politicians from all parties have called for the president's resignation, showing their lack of confidence in the government. Others have been ambivalent, saying they fear political instability.

"The political situation is unsustainable," said an editorial in El País, a Cali newspaper. "Samper must resign," demanded El Tiempo, an influential national daily. A poll released by the news magazine Semana, found that Samper's popularity was no greater among poor Colombians than among the middle class and wealthy, according to Edgar Tellez, an editor at the magazine.

Shortly after Botero's confession, the National Council of Guilds - representing mining, banking, agricultural and other business interests - urged Samper to consider stepping down temporarily.

Working-class Colombians have varying opinions about the allegations. Oliva Marín, 72, who sells lottery tickets for a living, told the New York Times, "In my opinion, with the little that I understand, he's guilty. If he resigns, it's bad. And if he doesn't, it's worse."

Others, such as 38-year-old parking lot attendant Julian Arterhortu'a. "I don't believe the president's with the people," he said, but he feared the possibility of a coup more than the scandal.

Washington threatens `decertification'
Relations between Washington and the Samper government have been strained. While the Clinton administration called Botero's accusations an "internal" matter, Republican Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, demanded that Colombia be "decertified" as a collaborator in the so-called war on drugs. In December, Robert Gelbard, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and crime, had criticized an earlier investigation by the Colombian legislature that decided not to pursue the accusations against Samper. "It is evident that this was not a serious investigation," the U.S. official told CNN.

U.S. president Bill Clinton will make his annual assessment March 1 of whether Colombia meets Washington's standards in cooperating with the antidrug campaign. The loss of "certification" would leave Colombia without trade and credit preferences in millions of dollars.

Washington has used its "war on drugs" as a pretext to beef up the U.S. military presence in many Latin American countries. In Colombia and Peru, for instance, the U.S. military began in March 1995 using ground-based and aircraft radar to help shoot or force down civilian planes accused of carrying drugs.

Samper has shown less than total subservience to U.S. dictates. Washington complained that his government was backing off of using "faceless judges," whose identities are kept secret, from trying most drug cases. In October, a Colombian congressman allied with the government released wiretap recordings of conversations between U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agents in Colombia and their headquarters in Washington. U.S. officials were outraged, saying the illegal wiretaps must have been authorized at a high level.

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