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Colombian Congress May Try President on Charges

By Juanita Darling
Los Angeles Times
BOGOTA, Colombia

President Ernesto Samper on Tuesday opened a special session of the Colombian Congress convened to decide whether there is enough evidence to try him on charges that he knew his 1994 campaign was financed with drug money.

"I come here to ask Congress for justice," Samper said during a speech inaugurating the session. "I ask that Congress judge me quickly and with the guarantees of the constitution and the law -- nothing more, but also nothing less."

Sen. Maria Izquierdo told the Congress immediately after the president's speech that during the campaign candidate Samper sent her to the home of campaign treasurer Santiago Medina to pick up 30 million pesos, worth about $30,000. Covered in white and gold gift wrap, she said, the money matched the description of one installment of funds that Medina said he received from drug traffickers. Medina has previously stated that Samper knew campaign funds were donated by drug lords.

Izquierdo said she gave the same information to Supreme Court investigators 10 days ago during closed-door testimony. She was notified as she left the Congress that because of those statements, a warrant had been issued for her arrest on charges of drug-related corruption. She turned herself in and was in custody late Tuesday.

Samper faces a procedure similar to the U.S. impeachment process as calls for his resignation and evidence linking him to drug barons mounts. The process began last year but halted when a congressional committee decided there was not enough evidence to proceed.

As the crisis deepened last week, with new accusations against Samper, former presidents pressed for a reopening of the congressional procedure as a way of averting a possible outbreak of violence. Graffiti demanding Samper's resignation is painted on walls all over the capital, while presidential supporters, particularly labor unions, are said to be planning marches to demand that he stay.

"Samper still has 40 percent support," noted political analyst Eduardo Pizarro, referring to the latest political polls. "He could send workers out to the streets" to defend him.

He has kept that support -- based on his populist economic programs -- despite persistent accusations that he knew millions of dollars in drug money was used in his campaign and daily revelations from those who say they were involved.

A letter believed to be from drug lords published Tuesday in the daily newspaper El Tiempo, which is usually aligned with Samper's Liberal Party, acknowledged that they contributed to the president's campaign. The letter was signed by "The Extraditables," an apparent reference to Colombia's decision to halt extraditions of drug dealers to the United States.

Samper's defense lawyer resigned Monday, citing death threats that prevent him from making public appearances necessary to the case and his longtime friendship with Fernando Botero, Samper's campaign manager, who set off the latest crisis last week by supporting Medina's accusations.

"The systematic violations of my rights has been chilling," Samper said. "Slander turned into testimony has turned rascals into saints."

Analysts are divided over whether the mounting evidence has privately convinced the president he must resign.

"Samper understands the ungovernability of the situation," said Enrique Santos Calderon, managing editor of the newspaper El Tiempo and an outspoken critic of the drug lords. "He is is stalling, trying to avoid leaving by the back door and, above all, judicial vulnerability," he added.

However, political analyst Alejandro Reyes said Samper is not likely to resign. "He is stupid," Reyes said. "He does not understand the gravity of the situation. He is like a kid who is caught stealing candy and says, `It wasn't me.' "