• U.S.


5 minute read
Michael S. Serrill

A year has passed since president Ernesto Samper Pizano of Colombia was first accused of taking millions of dollars for his 1994 presidential campaign from the cocaine-rich Rodriguez brothers of Cali–time enough for him to emerge as a strong and conscientious leader. A poll two weeks ago by Semana magazine gave Samper a 63% approval rating. Last week, however, all that trust came unraveled. Explosive allegations by a former close aide implicated Samper more forcefully than ever, and brought the survival of his presidency into doubt.

Media commentators made comparisons to Watergate and repeated the familiar questions from the 1970s scandal that brought down Richard Nixon: What did the President know, and when did he know it? Did he try to cover up? Will he step down?

The first victim of last week’s political storm was Defense Minister Fernando Botero Zea, 39, who resigned amid accusations that he had received almost $6 million in contributions from the Cali cartel when he was Samper’s campaign manager. Botero’s accuser was Santiago Medina, campaign treasurer, who was arrested two weeks ago after a police raid turned up a check made out to him by a cartel front company.

Medina, under questioning by investigators for Colombia’s independent chief prosecutor, Alfonso Valdivieso, not only gave up Botero but also claimed that the dirty money was raised with Samper’s full knowledge.

Samper, 45, said he would answer Medina’s charges “one by one.” Botero–whose father Fernando Botero Angulo is Colombia’s most famous painter–also denied the accusations, saying he only stepped down so he could devote time to preparing his defense. “I cannot prolong a situation in which my personal integrity and my family’s honor are questioned,” he said.

The irony of last week’s sensational disclosures was that in recent months Botero, who was in charge of both the military and the national police, had been decimating the Cali cartel’s formidable drug hierarchy. Behind bars after 15 years of activity were billionaire Cali kingpins Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela and Jose Santacruz Londono. Botero’s national police director, General Jose Rosso Serrano, is said to be on the trail of the two remaining major Cali mobsters, Rodriguez’s younger brother Miguel and Helmer “Pacho” Herrera.

Given Botero’s success, U.S. officials, who had been pressuring the Samper government to crack down on the drug mafia, greeted the Defense Minister’s resignation with mixed emotions. “This guy was pushing very, very hard for the right results,” said a ranking U.S. policy hand. “He’s been very helpful.” Other U.S. agents, however, bolstered Medina’s story when they found two Chase Manhattan Bank accounts in New York that appeared to be linked to Samper’s inner circle. Medina says that a Chase account was used to launder the Cali funds.

The document that brought Botero down and damaged Samper was the record of a July 28 interrogation of Medina that was stolen or leaked from Valdivieso’s office. In the transcript Medina says that on April 29, 1994, Botero gave him the go-ahead to seek funds from the Cali cartel to help pay for Samper’s campaign. Medina ultimately received, he said, two payments totaling $5.9 million.

On May 2, Medina alleged, “I had a chance to talk with Mr. Samper and told him Mr. Botero had asked me . to get these funds.” The future President, by Medina’s account, “told me very nervously that he wanted to be on the margin of this and that I should coordinate it with Fernando Botero.”

When Medina traveled to Cali to solicit the money from the druglords, he asserted, he repeated a message dictated to him by Botero–that “the candidate Samper appreciates the backing they offer and values their help to gain the presidency.” At one point the drug dealers demanded and were given an accounting of how some of the money was spent–signed, Medina says, by Botero. Miguel Rodriguez is said to have quipped, “This is the smallest but most expensive Botero I own.”

With the only known allegation against Samper the unsupported statements of Medina, a presidential resignation is believed unlikely. Samper has asked for a probe by Congress, but Colombian experts say so many members of the legislature itself are under investigation that they are unlikely to take any credible action against Samper. The President has more to fear from the scrupulously honest and court-appointed chief prosecutor Valdivieso.

If Valdivieso does find a smoking gun implicating Samper, it may be among the truckload of documents confiscated in recent raids against the Cali drug cartel. And should investigators turn up information that forces Samper out of office, officials are mostly concerned that the process be calm and orderly. For everyone in Colombia knows that if chaos rules, the drug mafia reigns.

–Reported by Pamela Mercer/Bogota and Elaine Shannon/Washington

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com