Colombian Drug Arrest Takes Heat Off President

THE capture of Miguel Angel Rodriguez Orejuela, second in command of the Cali drug cartel, is welcome news for Colombia's beleaguered president.

Revelations last week that President Ernesto Samper Pizano's election campaign received Cali drug money forced defense minister and campaign chief Fernando Botero Zea to resign and left a cloud of suspicion hanging over President Samper.

Mr. Rodriguez's capture on Sunday, government officials say, proves that Samper is committed to stamping out drug trafficking.

''This is just one more piece of irrefutable ... proof of the unbreakable determination of President Ernesto Samper to defeat the drug trade,'' says Ramiro Bejarano, the head of Colombia's secret police.

In a bizarre twist, while on show to the press, Rodriguez shouted to reporters, ''I didn't give any money to the campaign; the president is an honest man.

''Medina invented everything,'' he said, referring to Santiago Medina, treasurer of Samper's presidential campaign, who testified last week that the campaign received $6 million from the Cali cartel.

Samper, speaking on national television Sunday night, proclaimed his innocence and asked Colombians to judge his government by its record against drug trafficking.

The first and arguably biggest triumph for the government was the capture two months ago of Rodriguez's older brother, Gilberto, believed to be head of the cartel. Since then, four other cartel bosses have either been captured or have surrendered, leaving at large only Helmer Herrera, the No. 4 leader.

The Cali mafia's money-laundering network has been partly dismantled after front company accounts were discovered in hundreds of raids on cartel properties.

''The Cali cartel is finished,'' proclaimed Samper after the capture.

Ironically for the president, it is precisely the success of these raids that has produced evidence against his campaign. In a recent search, the police found a check for 40 million pesos ($50,000) made out to Medina from a front company.

Checks and deposit receipts for money given to other politicians and public officials have also been found in these raids.

Disowned by the government, Medina began to spill the beans and implicated a plethora of top public figures, including the vice president, the defense minister, the communications minister, and the head of the secret police.

During the campaign, Samper offered the Rodriguez brothers lenient jail sentences in return for their financial support in the election, Medina says.

When Samper changed course and increased pressure on the cartel, the Rodriguez brothers were furious, he says. Two plots to assassinate Samper were recently uncovered by the Colombian police.

Some observers suggest Rodriguez deliberately left behind him a trail of incriminating evidence to pressure the government to stop chasing him.

Colombia has been stunned by the scandal. ''A good part of the country was suspicious that drug money had entered political campaigns, but we didn't think people of such importance and with such responsibilities would be involved,'' says William Ramirez, a political science professor at the National University in Bogota.

As the congress opened an investigation last week into Samper's knowledge of drug money in his campaign, many observers thought the expose might bring down the president. ''This is a process that's like a domino effect heading toward the president,'' predicts Juan Carlos Pastrana, editor of opposition newspaper, La Prensa.

''Colombia sold its soul to the devil, and the devil has started to cash in,'' warned Carlos Lemos Simmonds, in a column in the national daily El Tiempo.

But Rodriguez's denial after his capture casts some doubt over Medina's testimony.

Why would Rodriguez lie to protect a president who has pursued him for the last seven months, intent on dismantling his empire?

''It looks like a setup to me,'' comments Enrique Parejo, a former justice minister who survived an assassination attempt by drug traffickers in the 1980s.

''Rodriguez wants to make a deal with the chief prosecutor, and he needs the support of the government for this,'' he says.

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