Could Colombia’s Petro face a similar political fate as Samper?

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President Gustavo Petro in San Andrés on the day of the kidnapping of 79 Colombian policemen. Photo: Presidencia
President Gustavo Petro in San Andrés on the day of the kidnapping of 79 Colombian policemen. Photo: Presidencia

The start of a formal investigation by Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office into alleged cash payments received by Nicolás Petro, eldest son of President Gustavo Petro, by two well-known drug traffickers in exchange for “cupos” – privileges – as part of President Petro’s “total peace” policy, has raised suspicion that more “hot money” could have financed the election campaign of Colombia’s first leftist leader.

The preliminary investigation based on a series of chats, and voice recordings, between Nicolás Petro and his ex-wife Dayssuris “Day” Vásquez, was preempted by the president himself in a letter directed at Attorney General Francisco Barbosa. The letter, released to the public on the same day 79 policemen were being kidnapped in San Vicente del Caguán, reads: “Given the information that is circulating among the public regarding my brother Juan Fernando Petro, and eldest son Nicolas Petro Burgos, I have asked the Attorney General to proceed with all necessary investigations and determine possible responsibilities.”

The President went on to state that he would respect the decisions of the prosecutors and justice system.

The revelations by Semana that a well-known contrabandist from La Guajira, Samuel Santander “Santa” Lopesierra, and a less-known contractor Alfonso “the Turk” Hilsaca gave Nicolás Petro at least COP$1.000 million (US$260,000) in a donation to the then-candidate Gustavo Petro’s “total peace” agenda, recalls the 8,000 process in which former President Ernesto Samper allegedly received drug money from the Cali Cartel to bankroll his election campaign.

The infamous “proceso 8.000” –  the name given to the official investigation by former Attorney General Gustavo De Greiff – crippled the Samper administration and resulted in the Liberal President’s U.S visa being revoked by the Justice Department. Samper, who had run a campaign to break the grip of the cartels’ influence in Colombian politics, was viewed as a close ally of Washington. Samper, who narrowly survived an assassination attempt in 1989 by Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel, frequently admitted that the country’s most feared drug lords maintained influence in every corner of society.

In an interview with TIME (August 8, 1994), Samper was convinced that Colombia was going to win the War on Drugs. “Let’s face it. Colombian society is tired of violence, be it guerrilla or narco. We’ve been through so much that people will practically accept any formula to get out of it,” he said.

Almost three decades after Samper’s prophetic statement, Colombians voted for Gustavo Petro as the “formula” to end violence fueled by drugs trafficking, even if the leftist leader was a former combatant with the April 19 Movement (M-19), a Maoist, urban guerrilla that committed crimes against civilians, including the storming of the Palace of Justice in 1985. The Palace of Justice atrocity was backed by kingpin Pablo Escobar.

The start of the 8.000 process erupted hours after Samper’s election victory in 1994 when he won by a narrow margin against Conservative Andrés Pastrana.

The No.2 finisher released cassette recordings at a news conference in which a newspaper journalist Alberto Giraldo is talking with Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, the two brothers of Cali cartel. In the wiretap recordings, Giraldo acts as a go-between the founders of the world’s largest cocaine trafficking organization and Samper’s campaign treasurer, Santiago Medina. Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela grudgingly agrees to donate five billion pesos, the equivalent of US$3.6 million to buy leniency from the future Colombian President.

As the voices were confirmed by police technicians, and more evidence mounted that the Samper campaign received drug trafficking money, Pastrana demanded the resignation of his political rival. The two former presidents remain arch-political enemies to this day.

The similarities between the 8.000 process which Samper claims “occurred behind his back” and the growing scandal in Colombia with alleged drug money infiltrating the Petro campaign, have the potential to hit the historical “reset” button and plunge the Petro presidency into a deep political crisis. One with far-reaching repercussions inside the US administration of President Joe Biden.

The decision in 1996 by the U.S. State Department to revoke the entry visa for a democratically-elected President on evidence that the Cali Cartel bankrolled an election campaign was called an “extraordinary step” by spokesman Nicholas Burns. It was, however, a decision also grounded in the Clinton administration’s growing dissatisfaction with Colombian cooperation in the war against drugs. This, despite the fact, that Samper was viewed by Washington as a stoic partner in combating organized crime.

The current reality in Colombia has presented with the Petro government a very different set of challenges, and while manual eradication of coca plantations resumed in February with a meager 769 hectares cleared of the illegal crop, this number is hardly the capstone in the country’s decades-old fight against drug trafficking and over US$12 billion invested since 2000 in Plan Colombia.

As “Petro-Gate” makes headlines, and opposition voices decry electoral fraud, the outcome of the investigation will end with the Attorney General. Anything in between is, as Barbosa stated, “speculation.” In the meantime, despite a nation’s collective amnesia with corruption, and “total peace” agenda that appears to legalize drug money, many are now wondering if Petro is inching toward a similar political fate as that of Ernesto Samper. The true test comes mid-summer when Washington decides to certify Colombia – or not – with its drug interdiction efforts.