Colombia Faces Its Own 'Watergate'

Campaign officials of President Samper have been accused of taking money from drug lords. Resignations and investigations lie ahead.

IN what many are calling a ''Colombian Watergate,'' the country was thrown into turmoil this week following revelations that the election campaign of President Ernesto Samper Pizano received drug money.

Defense Minister Fernando Botero Zea resigned Wednesday after the public prosecutor's office asked the Supreme Court to open an investigation into his actions as head of President Samper's campaign.

Other ministers involved in Samper's campaign look likely to fall, but observers think the the president himself will not be one of them. Speaking on national television, Samper claimed, ''If it is proved that money infiltrated [my campaign funds], it was behind my back.'' In an opinion poll conducted the following day, only 41 percent of those asked believed Samper.

But so far no concrete evidence has emerged showing Samper knew drug money entered his campaign funds. ''If only 40 million pesos [$50,000] entered the campaign, it's possible Samper didn't know,'' says Dr. Rodrigo Losada, political science professor at Javeriana University in Bogota.

''But if $3 million to $5 million entered, I'd find it hard to believe,'' he adds.

Guilty or not, it looks like Samper will survive. ''After the president, anyone else can go under,'' says William Ramirez, a political science professor at the National University in Bogota.

''But I don't think Samper will fall.''

'A matter of credibility'

But Samper has lost credibility, observers say, leaving him a lame-duck president for his remaining four years in office.

''For Samper, it's not a matter of legal proof; it's a matter of moral standing and credibility to go on governing,'' says Juan Carlos Pastrana, editor of the national daily La Prensa. His brother, Andres, ran against Samper in the elections. ''This is a serious business,'' agrees Enrique Santos Calderon, editor of the pro-Samper El Tiempo. ''This could create a disconcerting vacuum of power in the country.''

Politicians from Samper's liberal party are calling for supporters to rally around the president, but opposition party politicians are demanding that heads roll.

For the last year, Samper has been dogged by accusations that his campaign was boosted by drug money. Two days after his election victory in June 1994, audio tapes were released with the voices of Cali drug cartel bosses discussing a $3.6 million donation to Samper's campaign.

The newly elected president denied the claims, and an inquiry found his accounts to be clean. In an attempt to erase any doubts of his honesty, and under pressure from the United States, Samper ordered the hunt for the Cali cartel bosses to be stepped up. By last week, five of the seven Cali drug lords were behind bars, including the cartel's godfather, Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela.

Since January, hundreds of raids have been carried out on cartel properties, where incriminating links between politicians and the cartel were discovered. Thirteen members of Congress, the comptroller general, and the attorney general are among those under investigation.

Ironically, it was in one of these raids that security forces found a 40 million peso ($50,000) check made out to Santiago Medina, Samper's campaign treasurer, from a Cali cartel front company.

Mr. Medina was arrested last week and found himself immediately abandoned by his former bosses. Turning on the president and his government, Medina told public prosecutors he was ordered by Defense Minister Botero and Samper to accept drug money. The campaign received nearly $3 million from the Cali cartel, Medina said.

A row erupted after a copy of Medina's testimony was stolen from the highly guarded public prosecutor's building over the weekend. In a press conference Monday, Botero read out sections of Medina's statement, not yet published.

''The resemblance to Watergate is uncanny,'' editor Pastrana says. ''It all started with a second-rate robbery.'' ''The defense minister has to explain how a copy of the document ended up in his hands,'' adds Enrique Parejo, a former justice minister. With Medina claiming to have written proof that Botero knew about the dirty money, Botero had no choice but to resign.

Colombia now anxiously awaits the scandal's next victim. Among those mentioned by Medina are the interior minister, the vice president, the minister of communications, the head of the secret police, and the former public prosecutor.

Crisis may be an opportunity

Many say Colombia's deep political crisis could provide an opportunity to rid the country of corruption caused by drug trafficking. ''Colombia really needs this shock treatment.... We need to clean the system out from the top down,'' says Mr. Pastrana, whose brother was also named by Medina.

Samper's future will be decided by a congressional committee, but observers are skeptical that he will be found guilty. ''This committee has never, ever worked in this country,'' Professor Ramirez says. It is known as the ''absolutions committee'' because in its history only one person has been found guilty.

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