Time runs out for Colombia's leader

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Ernesto Samper's days in power in Colombia appear numbered after new allegations linking him with cocaine druglords. The allegations led to further street protests and defections from disillusioned diplomatic staff and the military, writes Phil Davison, Latin America Correspondent.

The President's former campaign treasurer, Santiago Medina - the man who first broke the story of his boss's alleged links with cocaine barons - said on Friday that Mr Samper had personally organised campaign contributions from the Cali cartel. Mr Medina, currently under house arrest during investigation of the campaign's funding, said the President had also met a Cali druglord while in office, during a Latin American summit in Ecuador last September.

President Samper denied the allegations as "absurd and libellous" and gave no hint that he would bow to increasing pressure to resign. In a rowdy street protest, 2,000 students marched to the presidential palace in Bogota on Friday, with stickers carrying the word "Resign!" stuck to their clothing. Office workers gave them a ticker-tape welcome, showering them with confetti from surrounding buildings. Elsewhere, housewives sporting similar stickers banged saucepans in a noisy protest in the affluent northern suburbs of the capital.

Even the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez joined in the fray, advising Mr Samper to "calm down" but predicting that he may fall from power as a result of the scandal.

Mr Medina was jailed, then placed under house arrest last year after saying that Mr Samper had accepted cocaine money to fund a 1994 presidential campaign which led to a narrow victory. The President toughed it out and a congressional commission ruled there was insufficient evidence to impeach him.

But last week his former campaign director and Defence Minister Fernando Botero, also in jail, broke a long silence and said Mr Samper had known cocaine money was funding his campaign. The President Mr Botero was lying to save his own skin. While most Colombians agreed about the motivation, they appeared to believe his story more than the denial.

Meanwhile, a senior military commander, General Ricardo Emilio Cifuentes, announced he was resigning because he felt Mr Samper was "not worthy of the presidency". The ambassadors to Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, the Netherlands and New Zealand also resigned during the week, saying they could no longer support the President.

Even his lawyer, Antonio Jose Cancino, was reportedly leaving the country after receiving anonymous death threats. Mr Cancino narrowly escaped with his life in an assassination attempt last September in which two of his police bodyguards were killed.

Many Colombians fear the military may intervene if the scandal deepens but the generals have dismissed the notion. If Mr Samper is forced out, Humberto de la Calle, his Vice President (and envoy to Spain) is widely tipped to succeed him. But the President's recent remarks have suggested he could bring Mr de la Calle down with him.