Colombia's Leader In Jeopardy as Aide Alleges Ties to Drugs

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE future of Colombia's President Ernesto Samper looks bleak after his former campaign director testified Jan. 22 that the president accepted money from drug traffickers to fund his election campaign.

Mr. Samper immediately denied the allegations on national television, and said that Fernando Botero Zea, who managed his campaign in 1994, was ''lying to save himself.''

Despite calls from opposition politicians that he resign, Samper refused, saying, ''I will not leave the country adrift.''

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The president was reacting to a bombshell television interview by Mr. Botero. Botero, who was also defense minister in Samper's government, was arrested last August and accused of receiving $6 million for the campaign from the Cali drug cartel. Until now, Botero has testified that neither he nor Samper were aware of any drug money going into the campaign coffers. But in an interview with CM& television news, Botero said, ''It is with great sadness ... I have to respond that, yes, he [Samper] knew.''

The issue flared last July when the campaign treasurer testified that he was instructed by Samper and Botero to accept money from the cartel.

In December, however, a congressional committee ruled there was insufficient evidence to open an investigation into Samper's links with the drug traffickers. But in recent days, Bogota has been rife with rumors that Botero's resolve was failing as the prospect of a long jail sentence loomed larger.

Recently, several top politicians from Samper's Liberal Party called on Botero to tell the truth and made it clear his confession would be seen as an act of patriotism.

''Botero should speak,'' said Juan Manuel Santos, who is expected to be the next Liberal Party candidate. ''If he tells what we all know he knows, he will allow the people to believe in the justice system,'' he said.

Botero made it clear that he was unaware of the drug money until after the campaign was over. ''I want to ask for forgiveness from all Colombians, and my family, for the negligence I showed,'' he said in the interview. Samper called the statements ''defamatory'' and repeated that any drug money in the campaign funds entered behind his back.

But pressure was growing Jan. 23 for the president to resign. If Samper did go, it is unclear who would take his place. According to the constitution, the vice president should take over if the president resigns. Botero made it clear in his interview that Vice President Humberto de la Calle knew nothing of the drug money.

If Samper does resign, it will signal the end of an era for drug traffickers and their links to politics. Only 18 months ago, the Cali cartel was openly dealing in drugs and giving funds to politicians with impunity.

Early on Jan. 23, Samper announced an emergency meeting of the Cabinet, the head of the Armed Forces, and the police to ''study measures which would ensure that Colombia is governable at this time of crisis.''

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