In Colombia, Leader's Rule In Balance

Congress debates if Samper knowingly took drug money

Colombia's worst political crisis in decades - one that has kept President Ernesto Samper Pizano fighting for his political career - is now coming to a head.

For the past year, President Samper has struggled to remain in office amid charges that he knew his 1994 election campaign received funding from drug traffickers.

Colombia's Chamber of Representatives was to have begun debate May 28 to decide whether to absolve Samper of the criminal charges. The debate is expected to end early next month with a secret vote.

Samper has come under heavy pressure to resign since January, when a former aide accused him of accepting millions of dollars from the Cali drug cartel.

The scandal has cut a wide swath through Colombia's ruling class, with three top campaign officials, the attorney general, and seven members of Congress now behind bars. Seventeen other members of Congress are under investigation.

Samper's fortunes were boosted May 21 when three close aides were not arrested. Since March, public prosecutors have investigated the role played by Interior Minister Horacio Serpa Uribe, Foreign Minister Rodrigo Pardo Garca-Pea, and Communications Minister Juan Manuel Turbay Marulanda.

Prosecutors decided there was not enough evidence to prove the ministers accepted the money. They did find that the ministers tried to cover up the donations once Samper was elected. The ministers aren't off scot-free; their freedom of movement is curtailed while the investigation continues.

The ruling was seen as a triumph for the government, however. "The three ministers were expected to go to prison, so this [curtailing of movement] is a minor sanction," explained Alejandro Reyes, political scientist at Bogot's National University.

A ruling May 9 by a top administrative tribunal also eased the ministers' legal position. In a decision many believed was a deliberate attempt to help Samper and his aides, the Council of State ruled that it was illegal to fix limits on election spending.

As a result of the ruling, public prosecutors had to drop charges that the ministers altered the campaign accounts to hide overspending. Fernando Botero Zea, Samper's former defense minister who is currently in jail for the part he played in the scandal, says he has evidence the government interfered in the Council of State's decision.

Meanwhile, the Congress continues to investigate the president's role. In the light of the Council of State's ruling, it is likely the legislature will also clear Samper of similar charges of altering the accounts.

Despite overwhelming evidence that drug money entered the campaign, few Colombians believe the Congress will find the president guilty. Several members of Samper's party in Congress also benefited from the central campaign funds.

Last week, two of the three congressmen in charge of investigating Samper reported to a broader congressional committee there was no proof the president was involved.

The other investigator concluded Samper was guilty of taking the money and of covering it up.

Some analysts say that Samper may resign once his name is cleared by Congress. "It's premature to say that because things are a little smoother now, they will get better in the long term, because there will still be the problem of governability," said Francisco Robles, professor of political science at Javeriana University in Bogot.

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