Colombian House Absolves President Ernesto Samper, U.S. Revokes His Visa
On June 12 the lower house of the Colombian Congress absolved President Ernesto Samper of charges that his election was financed by millions of dollars in drug money from the Cali cartel. With a 111-43 vote, the Congress cleared Samper, ending impeachment proceedings against him (Paul Haven, "Colombian president absolved," Chicago Sun Times, June 14, 1996, p. S31; Douglas Farah, "Colombian House Absolves Samper," Washington Post, June 13, 1996, p. A22; Reuters).
The charges of Samper's corruption arose from disclosure of tape recordings between Cali drug lords and Samper campaign aides, and allegations by Samper's 1994 campaign manager and treasurer. Colombia's chief prosecutor, Alfonso Valdivieso, charged Samper with illicit enrichment, falsifying documents, electoral fraud and obstruction of justice. Samper conceded that tainted money had entered the campaign, but claimed that he was unaware of it and was therefore not guilty. Colombian media have called the debate in Congress "the trial of the century" because it marked the first time a sitting president has been subjected to possible impeachment. For more background information, see the February 1996 and March 1996 issues of NewsBriefs.
Samper's absolution had been expected by most observers because Samper's Liberal Party dominates Congress, and over two dozen of the 165 House members are under investigation themselves for alleged corruption. Critics complain that the investigation was corrupted and lacked depth. The 14 days of congressional debates was called "a farce mounted to cover up the crimes committed by Mr. Samper" by Colombian business and civic leaders who oppose him. The Colombian Supreme Court had ruled earlier that members who relied on political expediency, rather than the evidence, to judge Samper could be prosecuted for "neglect of duty."
Leaders in the Roman Catholic Church, leading businessmen, the media, and political leaders are now calling for Samper's resignation. "Though it may sound surprising, the real crisis has not yet begun," wrote Fernando Cepeda, political analyst and member of the Liberal Party. The opposing Conservative Party said that Liberal Party loyalists who voted to exonerate Samper have "destroyed what little popular confidence remained in the judicial system." During "anti-Samper" meetings, Colombian business leaders said the President lacked the "conditions of governability" or political legitimacy and support.
In addition, Colombian leaders worried that the decision would sour relations with the United States even further. U.S. State Department spokesman, Nicholas Burns, said the vote "leaves unanswered many questions regarding pervasive narcotrafficker influence on Colombia's institutions," He added, "It will not resolve the resultant crisis of confidence." During the weeks leading up to the vote, U.S. officials said they were considering sanctions against Colombia such as recessions of preferential trade tariffs, revoking landing rights for planes, and canceling visas for political leaders.
In a secret cable dated June 12, hours before the Samper vote, the U.S. embassy explained its anti-Samper plans. The cable, signed by U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette, said "Samper should be kept as invisible as possible in our bilateral relationship." It recommended support for honest Colombian law enforcement to arrest money launderers and to "build murder cases against narcotraffickers." "Our objective is not to remove the president [who was democratically elected]," one senior administration official said, requesting anonymity. He added, "The options on the table are aimed at pressing the Colombian government to deliver more aggressive action." U.S. officials in Bogota added that Washington does not want to do anything that would jeopardize the work of Valdivieso, who is a strong anti-drug crusader (Thomas W. Lippman, "Ambassador's Memo Details Tricky Dance With Colombia," Washington Post, June 30, 1996, p. A20).
This follows a March 1 decision by the U.S. to decertify Colombia in the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, making it ineligible to receive any economic assistance from the U.S.. For more information on that report, see the April 1996 issue of NewsBriefs.
On July 11, the U.S. State Department revoked Samper's visa, citing the "substantial evidence" that the Samper campaign "solicited and received something over $6.5 million" from known drug traffickers. The revocation was approved by President Clinton and announced to Samper by Ambassador Frechette. "Our message today is clear and it is simple: People who knowingly assist narco-traffickers are not welcome in the United States," said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns. The Colombian government denounced the revocation as "injurious to the nation's dignity." The ban does not apply to travel by Samper to the United Nations in New York. Other prominent Colombian officials whose US visas have been revoked include Gustavo De Grieff, ambassador to Mexico and chief prosector from 1992-1994, and David Turbay, the former comptroller general (Michael Dobbs, "U.S. Revokes Visa for Head of Colombia," Washington Post, July 12, 1996, p. A1).
State Department officials say that Samper failed to show his commitment to anti-drug efforts after his absolution by Congress, particularly, the failure of Colombia to honor four U.S. extradition requests on June 24. These included the jailed brothers, Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, alleged leaders of the Cali cartel. A response letter to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno from Colombian Justice Minister Carlos Medellin said the extraditions were banned by the Colombian constitution. Medellin argued that "no other country has made as many efforts against drug trafficking as Colombia." The U.S. was also angered by the early release from jail of Jorge Luis Ochoa after serving only five and a half years. The U.S. tried to extradite Ochoa for drug and murder charges as early as 1984 (Reuters, "Colombia says it can't extradite drug lords," Philadelphia Inquirer, June 30, 1996, p. A4; Richard Bashor, "U.S. angry as Medellin cartel founder is freed from prison," Chicago Tribune, July 6, 1996, s.1 p.4).
Jorge Luis Ochoa's brother, Juan Ochoa Vasquez, was released from prison in July after serving five months of a six-year sentence. Juan Ochoa is wanted in the U.S. for the 1986 slaying of a DEA informant. A third brother, Fabio, is due to be released in August. All three brothers surrendered to authorities and were offered early release in return for aiding the Colombian government in apprehending other drug traffickers (Reuters, "Colombian Trafficker Leaves Prison," Washington Post, July 29, 1996, p. A20).