Colombia's Leader Testifies in Drug Probe : Narcotics: Samper appears before investigator looking into charges that cartel financed campaign.


Struggling to save his floundering administration from a growing drug scandal, President Ernesto Samper on Tuesday became the first Colombian president formally called to account by the country's Congress on accusations of corruption.

Samper testified before the House of Representatives' chief investigator about allegations that his 1994 presidential campaign received $6 million in financing from the Cali drug cartel, at that time the world's largest exporter of cocaine. In his secret testimony, Samper was expected to repeat assertions that if illegal money entered the campaign, it happened "behind my back."

His appearance could be the first step in a full impeachment process. However, most analysts here believe the investigations will be a whitewash. The chief investigator himself is under suspicion of electoral fraud. In addition, some members of the congressional committee that will recommend whether a further investigation of Samper is warranted are themselves under investigation for corruption.

"The whole political machinery behind Samper makes me very pessimistic about what can come out of these investigations," said Sen. Eduardo Pizano of the New Democratic Force, a key conservative party. "If Samper falls, he will be taking a lot of people with him."

A lot of people have already fallen:

In April, the public prosecutor's office opened investigations into cartel funding of dozens of politicians and artists based on documents seized from cartel properties. Nine members of Congress, the attorney general and the comptroller general have been investigated.

Suspicions moved closer to Samper as his former campaign treasurer, campaign manager and campaign administrator have been jailed. Santiago Medina, the former treasurer, accused the president of having organized campaign financing at a secret meeting with cartel representatives in Spain.

Officials here have sought to save the president by distancing him from the campaign's financial decisions. They have made especially strong efforts to put the blame on Medina, calling him a liar and an agent of the Cali cartel, six of whose leaders have been jailed since Samper took office.

But many people here believe that Samper could eventually be forced to resign as influential national figures stop backing him and business stagnates amid growing political uncertainty.

Open opposition of the nation's biggest economic groups and media leaders would be particularly devastating, analysts say.

"Businessmen are waiting to see what kind of evidence emerges in the following months," said Rodrigo Losada, a political scientist at the Javeriana University in Bogota.

"But if they feel that the president has become too weak and too willing to make concessions to stay in power," he added, "they could explode and say 'no more.' "

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