Samper defies clamour for his 'dignified exit'

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The Independent Online
Colombia's Congress went into emergency session yesterday to tackle a growing crisis over allegations that President Ernesto Samper took millions of dollars of the Cali cocaine cartel's money to finance his 1994 election campaign.

Amid increasing calls for Mr Samper's resignation, and even arrest, members of the Senate and House of Representatives interrupted their holidays in an attempt to find "a dignified exit" for the President. Mr Samper denies knowledge of drug money and refuses to resign.

In an emotional 26-minute address inaugurating the extraordinary session of Congress the President called for the immediate reopening of an official investigation into charges he accepted drug money to finance his 1994 election campaign. "I ask the Congress to investigate me quickly in order to reach a definitive end of this crisis," Mr Samper said.

"The only thing I ask is due process," he added, saying he would serve as his own defence attorney since death threats had forced his lawyer to take refuge at a military base in the capital last week. "Let me be judged quickly, but with the guarantees that the constitution and the law provide me."

If the investigation cleared him, Mr Samper would reportedly call for a national referendum on whether he should remain in power.

"We have to give Samper a way out," said Senator Eduardo Pizano of the opposition Conservative Party before the session. His remark appeared to reflect the views of most of the country's political establishment, which is not so much shocked by the allegations against the President as concerned over a power vacuum in a country where drug lords wield widespread influence and guerrillas control large areas.

Some Colombian political commentators fear Mr Samper will retreat into a new populism, appealing to the masses and blaming the United States for his demise. It is an open secret in Bogota that the administration of President Bill Clinton has been trying to undermine Mr Samper for the past year, convinced he had ties with the Cali cartel.

Many Colombians fear such a move by the President could return the country to the political polarisation of the 1950s, a period known as La Violencia (The Violence) in which at least 200,000 people were killed in feuding between Conservative and Liberal Party supporters. Mr Samper is a Liberal. Even his own party has failed to rally behind him. Its eight national leaders issued a statement on Monday saying he should be investigated.

The latest attack on Mr Samper's credibility came yesterday when a newspaper published a letter, apparently signed by cocaine barons, saying they had given Mr Samper cardboard boxes full of cash during his election campaign. The letter was signed "The Extraditables", a name formerly used by the Medellin cocaine cartel in its communications with the authorities.

The drug lords coined the term at a time when Washington was pushing for their extradition to face drug- smuggling charges in the United States. The drugs cartels' influence, and, no doubt, money, won the day and extradition was banned under a change in the Colombian constitution.

Some Colombians expressed doubt that the Cali cartel would use the same term used by its former Medellin rivals. The Medellin cartel has faded since police killed its leader, Pablo Escobar, in 1993. But editors of the influential daily El Tiempo said they believed the letter had been written by the jailed Cali bosses, the brothers Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela. "We declare that we turned over to Mr Ernesto Samper cardboard boxes of money to finance his campaign," it said.

The latest crisis began last summer when Mr Samper's former campaign treasurer, Santiago Medina, said millions of dollars had been handed over in gift-wrapped cartons to the campaign. When Medina was jailed - since reduced to house arrest - it was a question of his word against the President's.