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Three Ministers Linked to Drug Corruption Scandal

May 21, 1996

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Three ministers helped President Ernesto Samper cover up taking drug money, prosecutors ruled Tuesday in a finding that further damaged Colombia’s scandal-ridden government but fell short of the harsher action expected.

The ruling against Samper’s closest aides left the beleaguered president even more isolated, his credibility crumbling amid a congressional investigation of his 1994 campaign.

However, it could have been far worse. Prosecutors chose not to jail the ministers, as had been widely expected. The ruling requires that the men remain available for questioning.

``It is simply a warning (prosecutors) have made that we continue cooperating with the investigation,″ said Communications Minister Juan Manuel Turbay, one of the three Cabinet members under investigation.

Turbay told Caracol radio his lawyer had informed him of the prosecutor’s office decision.

The prosecutor’s office confirmed the decision. The ministers could still be arrested or jailed at a later date if evidence warrants harsher action.

Foreign Minister Rodrigo Pardo, Interior Minister Horacio Serpa and Turbay are suspected of covering up the solicitation of about $6 million from the Cali cartel, the world’s largest cocaine syndicate.

Prosecutors did not charge the ministers with illegal enrichment, falsifying documents, or electoral fraud _ which would have mandated incarceration.

The three men were key advisers in Samper’s campaign.

The president’s lawyer, Luis Guillermo Nieto, welcomed the prosecutors’ decision, saying it would ``clear the way even more for President Samper’s absolution″ by Congress.

For months, Samper has endured dwindling political support, sporadic street protests and warnings from business leaders that the crisis is hurting Colombia’s usually robust economy. A recent poll by a business group shows industrial sales and growth at their lowest in five years.

Allegations about the campaign simmered until Fernando Botero, the jailed campaign chief and ex-defense minister, testified this year that Samper and the ministers handled illegal donations and attempted a coverup after the election.

Nieto, the president’s lawyer, has suggested Botero and treasurer Santiago Medina, who also implicated Samper after his arrest last year, solicited drug money and then stole it.

Samper got a boost when a top court struck down a campaign overspending rule on a technicality earlier this month. Samper and the ministers now cannot be investigated for allegedly spending more than three times the legal limit of $4 million.

Medina said Turbay concealed funds donated by multinational companies to dodge campaign spending limits. Turbay said he was sick in bed during the last days of the election and wasn’t involved in major campaign decisions.

Prosecutors apparently found the testimony by Medina and Botero was not enough to link the men to more serious crimes.

The political scandal contributed to a U.S. decision in March to decertify Colombia as an ally in the war on drugs, further damaging its international image and depriving it of hundreds of millions of dollars in loans.

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