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Colombia Update: Prison Guards Arrested, U.S. Certification Questionable, Samper Asks Colombian Congress for Investigation, Key Witness Murdered


March 1996

Colombian citizens continue to urge President Ernesto Samper to resign, and U.S. officials are warning that the controversy over charges that he accepted drug money for his political campaigns may have an impact on U.S. anti-drug assistance.

Guards Arrested

Seven prison guards have been arrested and Norberto Pelaez, the national prison director, has resigned in connection with the escape of Cali cartel leader Jose Santacruz Londono from La Picota prison on January 11 (Chris Torchia, "Cali Drug Chief's Escape Angers U.S.; Search On," Boston Globe, January 13, 1996, p. 2; Reuters, "7 Guards Held in Escape of Colombian Drug Figure," Philadelphia Inquirer, January 18, 1996, p. A16; for background, see "One Cali Drug Cartel Leader Escapes Prison ..." NewsBriefs, February 1996).

U.S. Certification Unlikely

"It is a very sad and depressing show of the power of drug corruption, which will hurt Colombia internationally, especially in the U.S. Congress and the executive," the United States embassy said in a statement. The statement may be a veiled reference to U.S. certification decisions to be released by the White House on March 1. Outright decertification would mean that Colombia would still be eligible for U.S. anti-drug funding but that the U.S. would vote against Colombia's requests for loans from international lending institutions.

Decertification would also mean the U.S. would end offering low tariffs for Colombia's imported flowers, costing Colombia an estimated $60 million and 100,000 jobs. Last year Colombia received conditional certification, which means that while the U.S. thought the country was not doing enough to stop drug trafficking, it was deemed in the interests of national security to continue aid. Colombian business leaders, citing fear of decertification and lack of faith in President Samper, traveled to Washington in early February to persuade Congressional leaders to support recertification (Douglas Farah, "Colombians Fear Crisis Will Damage Economy," Washington Post, February 2, 1996, p. A22; Diana Jean Schemo, "The Fate of Colombia's Leader," New York Times, February 2, 1996, p. A6).

U.S. sources cited by the Washington Post said certification of Colombia this year is politically unacceptable and unlikely. "I would hate to have to defend any certification decision in front of Helms," said one source, referring to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a vocal critic of U.S. support of Colombia. Helms introduced a bill last spring to cut off all economic and military assistance to Colombia if Samper could not demonstrate progress in an anti-drug strategy (see "Sen. Helms' Bill Aims to Shut Off Aid to Colombia," NewsBriefs, September 1995, p. 7).

Samper Speaks to Colombian Congress

In a special session of the Colombian Congress on January 30, Samper tried to deflect criticism about his alleged acceptance of a $6.1 million campaign contribution from the Cali drug cartel in 1994. "The day that we accept that judgments can be resolved outside of the judicial paths, we will re-establish lynching, without the right to be heard," he told the Congress. "That is the sensation I have felt several times in these last months, when my honor and that of my family have been attacked with unprecedented cruelty." The speech was well-received by members of Congress (Diana Jean Schemo, "Besieged Colombian Leader Hints He Might Quit," New York Times, January 31, 1996, p. A3; Douglas Farah, "Samper Asks Probe, Trial By Colombian Legislature," Washington Post, January 31, 1996, p. A11).

Just after Samper's speech, Senator Maria Izquierdo addressed the Congress, claiming that Samper had ordered her to pick up drug money for him. She also charged that Samper told her to accept $300,000 in drug money from Samper's Liberal Party campaign fund, which she used to pay for a rally. She is now under arrest on charges that she accepted Cali cartel money. Mysteriously, radio and television transmission of her speech were blacked out by an unknown technical problem before she could finish. Colombian RCN radio reported that 70% of people polled by their station said they had little faith in Congress' willingness or ability to deal with the presidential controversy (Douglas Farah, "Colombian Hopes Lawmakers Will Save Him," Washington Post, February 1, 1996, p. A18).

Samper has refused to leave office despite widespread protests, although his aides say they have been discussing the option of resignation. In a speech carried on Colombian television in early February, he said he and his family have been threatened. He asked the Congress to investigate his finances, but told his audience that he is "not prepared to negotiate my innocence."

Witness Murdered

On February 2, a key witness against Samper was killed along with her bodyguard. Elizabeth Montoya de Sarria, the wife of a former policeman and drug trafficking suspect, had agreed to testify the next day about tape-recorded conversations with Samper about drug cartel funds. Sarria was shot 12 times. Her bodyguard, Humberto Vargas Rojas, was also killed. The former campaign treasurer of Samper's Liberal political party, Santiago Medina, has told prosecutors that Sarria acted as a go-between for Samper to the Cali cartel in the president's effort to solicit contributions.

Soon after Sarria was murdered, her children fled to the U.S. and were reportedly placed in the government witness protection program. From jail, Sarria's husband Jesus Amado Sarria Agredo told local newspapers that he would help the U.S. investigate drug trafficking if his children could have refuge and be protected in the U.S.

A group calling itself "Dignity for Colombia" claimed responsibility for the two murders. Similarly named groups, "National Dignity" and "Movement for the Dignity of Colombia," claimed responsibility for the murders of two other key figures in the Samper campaign scandal (see "Colombia Update," NewsBriefs, December 1995, p. 16; for information about Sarria's killing, see Douglas Farah, "Officials Say U.S. Long Ago Mistrusted Colombia's Samper," Washington Post, February 4, 1996, p. A24; Chris Torchia, "A Samper Associate is Murdered," Philadelphia Inquirer, February 3, 1996, p. A10; "Witness' Slaying Complicates Colombia Probe," USA Today, February 5, 1996, p. 5A; Reuters, "Alleged Colombian Drug Trafficker Offers Deal to U.S.," Boston Globe, February 4, 1996, p. 20; "Colombians Flee," USA Today, February 6, 1996, p. 4A).