Drug barons' scourge wins people's hearts

LOCAL HEROES No 20: Alfonso Valdivieso
Click to follow
The Independent Online
To look at, he is a kind of Colombian Colombo. Alfonso Valdivieso, Colombia's Prosecutor-General, stands 5ft 4in, usually looks as though he forgot to comb his hair and has the same terrier-like approach as the dishevelled television detective.

Like Inspector Colombo, Mr Valdivieso is popular for his relentless pursuit of the bad guys and a tendency to come up with "just one more thing". Unlike the television character, his enemies are larger than life, powerful and dangerous. He is actually more of a Colombian Eliot Ness.

After two years of investigating the extent of cocaine cartel-money in Colombian politics, even charging the President, Ernesto Samper, with involvement, Mr Valdivieso, 46, has become a national hero.

Colombians say he would be a shoo-in for president in the 1998 elections if he could stay alive. That is not an easy task. As Mr Valdivieso once remarked, there is only one good thing about being a Colombian state prosecutor: you don't get bothered by many life-insurance salesmen.

In the last 15 years, since cocaine took over from coffee as Colombia's leading export, hundreds of lawyers and judges have been killed or bought off. Others have fled the country. You might recall one of Mr Valdivieso's predecessors as Prosecutor-General, Monika Greiff, in the late Eighties. After a brief stint as a world famous hero, Mrs Greiff was forced to flee amid death threats and now lives incognito in the United States.

Death threats have become such a part of Mr Valdivieso's life that he probably couldn't sleep without them. Recently he whisked his family to Florida for a few days after a particularly detailed plot against him was uncovered by the police.

Mr Valdivieso, a lawyer from the city of Bucaramanga, served as a congressman for the Liberal Party for 10 years and was Education Minister in the government of Cesar Gaviria in the early Nineties. When he was appointed Prosecutor-General in 1994, Colombians expected a traditional "grey man", either bought off by the cocaine cartels, or not about to commit suicide by chasing them. The prediction could not have been more wrong.

Some say it was the assassination of his cousin, Luis Carlos Galan, in 1989, which first pushed Mr Valdivieso to go after the drug lords. Mr Galan almost certainly would have become president, but was gunned down while he was campaigning. The word was that Mr Galan had refused to take the drug barons' shilling.

Mr Valdivieso was little-known until late last year. That was when President Samper's former campaign managers, Santiago Medina and Fernando Botero, announced that the President's 1994 election campaign had solicited and received funds from the Cali cocaine cartel. Few Colombians were shocked and few expected anything to be done.

They were wrong. Mr Valdivieso realised that what the Medellin cartel had tried to do in the 1980s - to control politicians through violence - the Cali cartel was doing more subtly through multi-million pay-offs.

After a stubborn investigation, he walked into the Bogota offices of Congress's so-called Accusations Committee on 14 February with a Valentine's Day present: a pile of documents and video tapes which he said contained enough to charge the President.

Mr Samper was charged with illegal enrichment (taking around pounds 4m from the Cali cartel), electoral fraud and a cover-up. He is facing possible impeachment proceedings in Congress but refuses to resign.

"Valdivieso is the most popular person in Colombia right now, because he represents integrity, honesty and justice," said Noemi Sanin, a leading member of the opposition Conservative Party.