Petro backs investigation into Colombia’s wiretap scandal

President Petro addresses cadets in Medellín after resignations of Benedetti and Sarabia. Photo: Presidencia.

It was a turbulent week in Colombia’s politics after a crisis erupted within Petro’s inner circle involving an illegally conducted polygraph test by his chief of staff, Laura Sarabia, in a basement near the Presidential Palace in Bogotá.

Sarabia has allegedly ordered her domestic help, a nanny by the name of Marelbys Meza to be interrogated by the members of the judicial police after a briefcase in her apartment with an estimated US$4,000 in cash went missing. Even though the amount of cash that was supposedly stolen on January 29 has yet to be confirmed by the Attorney General’s office, many news outlets in Colombia claim that the missing funds amount to COP$150 million (US$35,000).

A statement by Meza in which she claims to have been “kidnapped” during the lie detector test, and subsequent revelations that her cellphone had been wiretapped by members of the National Police’s judicial intelligence – DIJIN – has raised fears from government opposition leaders and journalists that they also could victims of illegal wiretapping. Colombia’s Attorney General, Francisco Barbosa, stated at a press briefing on the Sarabia investigation that “it’s grotesque that wiretapping has returned to Colombia.” Barbosa also highlighted by the only state entity authorized to conduct a lie detector test is the Fiscalia General de la Nación.

President Petro’s chief of staff was considered among his closest confidants. Sarabia has maintained her innocence claiming that she wanted to contribute private information to the authorities reading the theft.

The scandal, however, also implicated Colombia’s Ambassador to Venezuela, Armando Benedetti, who happened to be Meza’s former employer, as well as Sarabia’s boss when Senator. According to local sources, Benedetti had allegedly leaked information on the illegal polygraph test to discredit Sarabia’s reputation.

As the crisis focused on the role of the country’s intelligence service, Barbosa confirmed that another member of Sarabia’s household help, Fabiola, had also been intercepted. For DIJIN to access their calls, the two women were associated with the country’s largest criminal organization and drugs cartel – Gulf Clan.  “Over 72 hours, starting January 30, the two cellphone lines were added to an investigation against a criminal organization,” noted Barbosa. “The only reason why these two women became members of the Gulf Clan was to get information as to what happened to the missing money,” he said.

With the presidency engulfed in a widening scandal, Petro asked for the resignation of Sarabia and Benedetti. “The Attorney General’s Office can investigate as far as it wants, and we will help,” said Petro at a military ceremony on Friday in Medellín. “The investigations that have been carried out give me confidence because it would be terrible if there were indications from my government that contradict the objectives for which we have fought for decades,” he said.

Having lost two of his most trusted government officials on the same day, President Petro tried to defuse criticism of his administration. After just 10 months in office, Petro emphasized that “this government respects Human Rights, does not illegally intercept communications from magistrates, judges, journalists, opponents. We take care of them (…) nothing can happen to them, because they are also under our responsibility.”