The Colombian president’s son has admitted accepting money from known criminals to finance his father’s campaign, much of which he pocketed himself, embroiling his father’s administration in scandal and possibly sidelining its controversial security policy.
Nicolás Petro Burgos, eldest son of Colombian president, Gustavo Petro, and a local politician on the Caribbean Coast, was accused by the Colombian Attorney General’s office of asset laundering and illicit enrichment. Nicolás Petro originally denied any wrongdoing, but during a 10-hour hearing on August 3, confessed to the charges and agreed to cooperate with the authorities.
He was arrested on July 29, almost three months after his ex-wife, Daysuris Vásquez Castro — who is also being investigated — gave an interview to Colombian news outlet Semana detailing how the couple spent money large sums of money destined for the Petro campaign on personal expenses.
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In the August 3 hearing, Nicolás Petro acknowledged he had received $386,000 from individuals with criminal histories.
Among them is Samuel Santander Lopesierra, alias “El Hombre Marlboro,” a former senator and convicted drug trafficker, smuggler, and money launderer from the Caribbean department of La Guajira. Santander Lopessierra spent 18 years in prison in the United States on drug trafficking charges. He was released in 2021 and is now a mayoral candidate for the city of Maicao, in La Guajira.
Also mentioned in the court hearing was Gabriel Hilsalca, son of businessman Alfonso Hilsaca, alias “El Turco.” Colombian authorities have investigated El Turco for corruption regarding construction contracts and financing illegal paramilitary groups.
Nicolás Petro claimed the money he received was intended to finance his father’s presidential campaign, and while he kept a significant sum for himself, part of the funds were added to campaign coffers. The campaign, said the Attorney General assigned to the case, failed to report that its budget exceeded permitted regulations.
While presenting a graph of the couple’s connections, which include prominent politicians, businessmen, and other Petro family members, the Attorney General claimed that “In one way or another, every one of these people helped him obtain resources — possibly from corruption — for the presidential campaign.”
For his part, President Petro has publicly stated that he will not intervene in the investigation into his son, and asked that an ad-hoc Attorney General be assigned to the case. He has also denied knowing that any illegal or irregular contributions were made to his campaign funding.
InSight Crime Analysis
Previous scandals linking Colombian presidential campaigns to drug money have shown that the current Petro scandal will likely force the president on the defensive, pushing security issues onto the back burner.
In 1995, a case known as Proceso 8.000 ensnared former president Ernesto Samper (1994-1998). Audio tapes acquired by his opponent in the 1994 election uncovered dealings between representatives of the president’s Liberal Party and leaders of the Cali Cartel, Colombia’s most powerful drug trafficking organization at the time.
While Colombian courts never found enough evidence to implicate Samper, the United States revoked the president’s US visa. US Assistant Secretary of State Robert S. Gelbard cited “substantial evidence” that Samper “solicited and received something over $6.5 million” from drug traffickers before the 1994 election.
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The fallout from Proceso 8.000 effectively tied Samper’s hands. With his administration’s focus on weathering scandals and impeachment proceedings, guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) proliferated, gaining territory and greater control over the country’s lucrative drug trade.
“In 1997 … the guerrillas increased their military actions and kidnappings, mostly against members of the public forces, as well as selective assassinations against the civilian population,” the Truth Commission report said.
Other groups stepped in to combat insecurity as the state became increasingly impotent. The paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), started as government-backed self-defense groups, formed to protect communities from violence, kidnappings, and extortion perpetrated by the guerrillas. They eventually evolved into one of Colombia’s strongest drug trafficking forces.
As Proceso 8.000 hindered Samper’s security policy, scandals surrounding the Petro administration could jeopardize the president’s increasingly fragile “Total Peace” plan and his already shaky relationship with the armed forces. The president is negotiating with several different armed groups, looking to bring Colombia’s six-decade civil conflict to a definitive close. The policy has hampered security force operations against the different groups amid a spike in coca crop cultivation and cocaine production and accusations of ceasefire violations by some of the participants.
Previous scandals involving high-ranking government figures have already hindered the Petro government’s ability to pass reforms in Congress and have weakened his image as an anti-corruption champion.
In July, the government released a draft of its ambitious security policy, which aims to attack the brokers and high-ranking players in the country’s drug trade while promoting a new coca substitution program. However, reports from the Ministry of Defense show that forced eradication of coca crops has decreased dramatically, and cocaine interdiction results show a decrease of 12% in the first semester of 2023, calling into question the rollout and effectiveness of the government’s security reform. Additionally, the coca prices crisis has deepened rural poverty, and the administration’s ambitious plans for coca substitution could be put on hold.
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