Colombia Calls State of Emergency As Drug Probe Approaches President
His campaign manager arrested for allegedly accepting cartel money
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — COLOMBIA'S drug scandal moved one step closer to President Ernesto Samper Pizano this week. Former Defense Minister Fernando Botero Zea was arrested Tuesday under suspicion that he received money from drug lords while head of President Samper's campaign team.
On Wednesday, Samper called for a national state of emergency to wage a battle against a wave of violence in the country. Some here say it is only a move to deflect attention from the drug investigation.
Although there remains no concrete evidence that the president himself is involved in the drug-money scandal, for many observers the weight of circumstantial evidence now is overwhelming.
The scandal broke July 26 when Samper's campaign treasurer, Santiago Medina, was arrested and later testified the campaign received $6 million from the Cali cocaine cartel. According to Mr. Medina, Samper's campaign was desperate for funds in the final stages of the election race and so turned to the Cali cartel for help.
Medina testified that Samper and Mr. Botero instructed him to receive money from cartel bosses. Both men denied the charges. After the public prosecutor's office opened an investigation Aug. 1 into his handling of the campaign's finances, Botero resigned from his cabinet post.
Botero's arrest indicates that the judges attribute at least some credibility to Medina's testimony.
Samper received a further blow last week when a cassette was released to the media with him talking to the wife of an alleged drug trafficker. Although the conversation itself may not be incriminating, the fact that the president was talking, on familiar terms, to a suspected drug trafficker increased suspicions of Samper.
The steady mounting of evidence has left some calling for the president to step down. "Already there is extremely serious proof which implicates the president ... he should resign," said Enrique Parejo, a former justice minister who was shot five times in the face by drug traffickers in 1987.
In a lively debate in Colombia's normally tranquil congress, some independent politicians also demanded the president's resignation.
But Interior Minister, Horacio Serpa, in a rousing speech declared, "the president is not going to resign."
Bogota is buzzing with rumors of further revelations about the president's involvement. Many observers are giving Samper less than a 50 percent chance of surviving the crisis. They feel that a solid piece of evidence is all that is needed to topple him.
"At the beginning of the crisis, I thought it would take years, minister by minister would fall, but Samper would stay," said a prominent analyst. "But as I see things right now, he has to fall very soon or else the country will be paralyzed."
But some say Samper will wriggle free of the crisis. On Wednesday, he called for a "national accord against violence" in an attempt to garner political support. Samper met with leading interest groups including church leaders, industrialists, and trade unions. He said that 19,450 Colombians have died violently in the last six months.
The president granted each group their particular wishes, in exchange for their backing.
In an attempt to bolster the national accord, Samper declared a state of emergency Wednesday enabling the government to go on the offensive against the perpetrators of violence - from guerrillas to common criminals. The president announced a series of measures including increases in prison sentences for violent crimes.
But most observers dismiss the move as a smokescreen intended to divert attention away from the drug scandal.
"The national accord is a noble cause ... but its intention is no more than to give political oxygen at a time of asphyxiation," wrote Enrique Santos Calderon, columnist at pro-Samper daily newspaper, El Tiempo.
After much deliberation, the opposition Conservative Party voted Wednesday to keep its three ministers in Samper's cabinet.
Worried the crisis might erode the power of the establishment in general, most Conservatives rallied around the president.
"In Colombia, there is a horror of instability," said Eduardo Pizarro, a political science professor at National University in Bogota.
Several observers are skeptical justice will be used effectively against the president.
Samper has invited a congressional committee to investigate the funding of his campaign. Eleven of the committee's 15 members belong to Samper's Liberal Party. And observers point out congress itself is deeply tainted with drug links.