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Colombian Defense Minister Charges Samper with Accepting Drug Money

By Douglas Farah
The Washington Post
BOGOTA, Colombia

New accusations that President Ernesto Samper knowingly accepted drug money for his campaign plunged Colombia into crisis Tuesday, appearing to confirm the country's worst fears about itself.

The charges leveled Monday against Samper - from a respected ex-official in a position to know - come in a country that prides itself on being one of the hemisphere's most stable democracies.

If confirmed, the allegations would mean that not only have the judicial system and Congress been polluted by drug money, as is widely reported here, but that drug traffickers also have corrupted the electoral process and presidency.

For many Colombians, after years of chafing at being portrayed abroad as a nation where drug traffickers exercise pervasive influence, it was humiliating to have a wave of corruption scandals culminate with one of their most respected political leaders publicly saying the president solicited and took drug money.

A political analyst who once was close to Samper said the most traumatic thing is "that now, after having foreigners telling us for years that we are corrupt, this crisis has forced us to look into the cesspool our political system has become and face it ourselves. It hurts."

Ramon Jimeno, another political analyst who worked in Samper's campaign, said that "after so many years of denying the reality of the power of the drug traffickers to corrupt, we are faced with evidence of drug financing of the campaign and that narcos have a great influence in our power structure."

Leading politicians across the political spectrum called on Samper to resign. But the president, whose political support already has eroded, vowed he would only leave office "with my head held high, or dead." He urged Colombians to remain calm. In a radio interview, he categorically denied the allegations and called the man making them - Fernando Botero, his erstwhile friend, campaign manager and defense minister - a "liar."

Accusations that Samper's campaign took up to $6 million from the Cali cocaine cartel surfaced in August 1994, a few days before the president was sworn in. They have been widely discussed since then here and abroad. But Botero's accusations carried particular weight.