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Samper Charged, But Clinging to Presidency; Escaped Cali Leader Killed by Police


April 1996

On February 14, Colombian President Ernesto Samper was formally charged with illicit enrichment, fraud, covering up a crime, falsifying documents, and other crimes stemming from a prosecutor general's 14-month investigation of the president's links to drug trafficking organizations (Sam Dillon, "Colombian President Is Charged With Fraud," New York Times, February 15, 1996, p. A12; Sam Dillon, "Colombia's Chief Is Charged But a Tangled Inquiry Looms," New York Times, February 16, 1996, p. A2; News Services, "Corruption Charges Filed Against Colombian Leader," Washington Post, February 15, 1996, p. A19).

Prosecutor General Alfonso Valdivieso presented the charges to the Colombian Congress, which must decide within 60 days of February 14 if the investigation should proceed. The charges go before the Accusations Committee, made up of 15 members of Congress, which will decide whether to send it to the full House of Representatives. [Should the House decide to impeach the President, Samper would be forced to leave office. The Senate would then take up the matter.]

The charges stem from allegations that Samper knowingly accepted a $6.1 million campaign contribution from leaders of the Cali cartel. Rumors of drug cartel contributions to Samper's election campaign arose soon after he took office in 1994. The investigation took shape in July 1994 when Samper's former campaign treasurer accused the president of knowing about the cartel contributions. The $6.1 million contribution would have represented roughly half of Samper's entire campaign budget.

Responding to the charges, Samper likened himself to Abraham Lincoln, vowing to restore his good name. "I won't rest until I clear the good name of a man who has dedicated his entire life to public service, without ever obtaining any benefit for himself or his family other than the admiration of his co-citizens," he said. "I'm going to face these new threats against my honor with my head held high."

"The confusion of the moment can only be clarified through a debate in which all who want to can participate. Let the students speak, the housewives, the teachers, the shepherds, the workers, Colombia's country people. Let my detractors as well as my defenders come and speak their opinions, for or against. The credibility of the decision will depend on the openness of the trial, and I'm committed to openness," he said. The Congress has yet to decide if their deliberations will be secret.

Samper acknowledged during a March 7 interview what he called "serious evidence" that the election campaign took money from the Cali cartel, but said he had no knowledge of it. Although he had resisted suggestions that he resign, he said during that interview that he might consider stepping down after Congress finishes its investigation (Douglas Farah, "Criticizing U.S., Samper Concedes 'Serious Evidence' of Drug Money," Washington Post, March 8, 1996, p. A25).

In addition to the Congressional probe into charges against Samper, the Colombian Supreme Court initiated an investigation of the campaign contribution allegations. Valdivieso said three of Samper's Cabinet members are targets of that investigation. Interior Minister Horacio Serpa, Foreign Minister Rodrigo Pardo, and Communications Minister Juan Manuel Turbay all worked in the Samper campaign and are accused of knowing about the illegal contribution ("Colombia's President Suffers New Setback," Washington Times, March 16, 1996, p. A9).

Samper's Allies

Even though Samper is now under fire and under investigation, he has powerful friends who may be able to help him keep the office of the President. Julio Mario Santo Domingo, Colombia's wealthiest businessmen, contributed $3.7 million to the president's election campaigns and continues to be one of his greatest supporters. "When Santo Domingo tells [Samper] to go, he is toast," said an anonymous diplomat quoted by theWashington Post. "But unless and until that happens, Samper can probably hang on" (Douglas Farah, "Samper Clings to Presidency In Colombia," Washington Post, March 5, 1996, p. A16).

The Colombian Congress also continues to back Samper. Samper's former campaign manager and defense minister Fernando Botero, whose allegations against the president reignited the corruption controversy, claimed that Samper is buying Congress' support. According to Botero, Samper has been giving away or promising to grant regional offices or radio and television frequencies to Congressional allies.

Colombian Congress Members Facing Charges

As has been reported in previous issues of NewsBriefs, thirteen members of the Colombian Congress have been charged with drug-related corruption. The number of current, pending, or probable charges is so great that some Colombians are suggesting the cases not be pursued. Legislation is currently being debated to exempt members of Congress from prosecution if they exit public life. Supporters of the legislation say if prosecutors follow up on all of the charges, the Colombian criminal justice system would be gridlocked (Sam Dillon, "Colombia Legislators Talk of Amnesty, for Themselves," New York Times, February 20, 1996).

"This is an extraordinary situation of social contamination that requires an extraordinary solution," said Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian Nobel prize winning novelist and supporter of the legislation. "This should not be a form of impunity with a free amnesty ... but an exchange of prison time for a punishment that would be harder on them and more healthy for the country: their retirement always and forever from public life."

Military Commander Resigns

On March 11, Colombia's military commander, often linked to drug cartels and corruption, resigned. U.S. government officials have said Gen. Camilo Zuniga has close relations with cartel leaders, and the Associated Press reports that the resignation may have been a way for Samper to start to restore relations with the U.S. after decertification. In January, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director John M. Deutsch refused to meet with Zuniga, citing the commander's drug cartel ties (see "One Cali Drug Cartel Leader Escapes Prison ..." NewsBriefs, February 1996). The former Navy commander, Adm. Holdan Delgado Villamil, took over as director of the military (Associated Press, "Colombian General Linked to Drugs Quits," New York Times, March 12, 1996, p. A9).

Cali Leader Killed By Police

On March 5, Colombian police killed Jose Santacruz Londono, a leader of the Cali cartel who has been on the run since his escape from prison in January (Diana Jean Schemo, "Colombian Police Kill a Top Drug Trafficker Near Medellin," New York Times, March 7, 1996, p. A7; Douglas Farah, "The Men Who Would Be Kingpins in Colombian Drugs," Washington Post, March 7, 1996, p. A23).

Colombian police say Santacruz had dyed his hair black and travelled to Medellin, where they say he was working with underground military groups and drug smugglers on a plan of terrorist violence.

Santacruz was known as "Mil Rostros" ("Thousand Faces") for his attempts to hide from police by altering his appearance through plastic surgery. He was arrested last July in a police effort that captured six of the seven leaders of the Cali cartel.

Thomas Constantine, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, called Santacruz "one of the most violent members of the Cali mafia." In addition to charges against him in Colombia, Santacruz had been indicted four times in the U.S. He is suspected of ordering the murder of Manuel de Dios Unanue, the editor of the New York Spanish-language El Diario.