Colombian President Leaves Office
Aug. 05, 1998
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Nothing could unseat President Ernesto Samper _ not close campaign aides testifying that he took millions of dollars from drug traffickers, Washington stripping him of his visa or even marchers in Bogota shouting ``Samper Resign!''
Samper will leave office Friday after completing his scandal-plagued four-year term. By most accounts, Colombia is worse off than it was four years ago.
The decades-old guerrilla war, which killed at least 125 people this week, is as violent as ever. Human rights abuses by state agents and right-wing paramilitary squads are up, along with inflation, unemployment and the fiscal deficit.
Colombia, once admired for the heroism of its judges and policemen who fought the likes of Medellin cartel bosses Pablo Escobar and Carlos Lehder, is now often viewed as a place where drug lords have infiltrated the highest levels of power.
``It's going to take a whole generation to repair the damage Samper did to our international image,'' said Rodrigo Losada, a political scientist at Bogota's Javeriana University.
During his farewell address to Congress last month, the president was unrepentant, calling himself a ``victim of one of the most cruel and unjust opposition campaigns in history.''
``I was the object of a feeling of national expiation for a fault that we all share,'' he said.
Not all of Colombia's ills can be blamed on Samper. The country was strife-torn long before he took office.
But the Samper years changed the way Colombians view their highest office and introduced ``a new level of cynicism into politics,'' said journalist Maria Jimena Dusan.
The drug-money scandal that crippled Samper's presidency also spurred a discussion about ethics in public life.
Legal proceedings that resulted in more than two dozen congressmen and top officials behind bars for receiving cartel money entered a new phase last week when prosecutors announced the investigation of another $500 million in alleged cartel payouts to public figures.
Suspicion that Samper himself accepted $6 million from the Cali cartel was first raised by the man who will replace him Friday, former Bogota mayor Andres Pastrana.
A few days after losing to Samper in 1994 presidential elections, Pastrana played for reporters taped phone conversations of Cali drug kingpins discussing campaign contributions to Samper.
Pastrana, who met Monday in Washington with President Clinton, has pledged to negotiate with both the 5,000-member National Liberation Army and the 15,000-member Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country's largest rebel group. The guerrillas have been fighting since the 1960s.
Samper said he didn't know about the donations he now admits entered the campaign, but two of his top campaign aides testified publicly that he did know. And 110 congressmen who voted not to try the president in 1996 are themselves being investigated by the Supreme Court for criminal irregularities in that controversial decision.
``If he didn't know what was happening in his own campaign, then we've been governed the past four years by a fool,'' Santiago Medina, Samper's former campaign treasurer, told The Associated Press at his lavish Bogota home. He is serving a five-year sentence under house arrest for his role in the scandal.
Samper survived by cutting deals with powerful interests and dishing out favors that critics say plundered the national treasury.
He even tried to cozy up to the United States, which goaded Samper to prove his anti-drug credentials. The result was the greatest paradox of his presidency: The man who came to power with money from the Cali cartel was the one who ended the era of the big cartels by jailing their leaders.
The 700 metric tons of cocaine leaving Colombia each year, however, has not decreased. Cocaine is now smuggled by smaller, more discreet organizations.
``Samper leaves a tragic legacy,'' said Enrique Parejo, a former justice minister who survived after a Medellin cartel hitman shot him five times in the head in 1987. ``The political class who should have judged him instead mounted a farce to absolve him.''