Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has emerged as a significant presence in this year’s presidential elections, accusing current President Juan Manuel Santos of accepting potentially millions of dollars from drug traffickers to pay off his campaign debt.
Uribe’s claim is based on an accusation that Santos’ former campaign manager, Juan José Rendón, accepted $12 million from Javier Antonio Calle Serna, a former drug trafficker currently imprisoned in the United States, to make the terms of his arrest as favorable to Calle as possible. Rendón quit the Santos campaign last week so as not to “become a distraction,” but he denies any wrongdoing, alleging that his negotiations with Calle and his cohorts were fully transparent.
Uribe, who supports Santos’ opponent Oscar Iván Zuluaga, insists that some of the money that Rendón allegedly accepted has trickled into the Santos 2010 campaign chest, and has called for the attorney general to investigate Santos. The attorney general’s office responded by asking Uribe to hand over any evidence that may corroborate his claims, but he has refused. On Thursday, reporters who asked Uribe why he had not divulged the proof he claimed to possess received only the ominous response, “Tomorrow will be another day.” He later told the press that he had not publicly given the information “due to lack of guarantees.” The attorney general has scheduled a meeting with Uribe for June 4, which will be the fourth time Uribe presents himself to provide evidence and, many hope, the first time he will deliver.
The episode is one in a larger narrative of an election that has become increasingly marred by outrageous accusations of impropriety and colored by the looming presence of Uribe over the candidates, both of whom served in Uribe’s cabinet. One former cabinet minister is quoted in The New York Times as describing the election as “the most embarrassing presidential campaign that we have seen in recent history.”
At the center of the debate is the issue of eradicating the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist guerrilla group that has terrorized the Colombian countryside for decades. Uribe was the first president since their inception to achieve notable success in combating the threat, using counterterrorism help from the CIA to target FARC leaders and, by many accounts, saving Colombia from the fate of a failed state. Uribe is also under investigation for allegedly having used illegal militias himself to fight the FARC.
Uribe virulently opposes any negotiation with the FARC, and he has turned against his former minister for establishing peace talks with FARC leaders from their safe haven in Havana. Those peace talks have been marred by the discovery of a criminal network spying on the talks and possibly selling sensitive information.
The general election is scheduled for May 25, and President Santos appears to be fighting a surge in support for Zuluaga. A Gallup survey released this week shows Santos and Zuluaga in a virtual tie at 29% during the first round of voting, but with Zuluaga soundly defeating Santos in the second run-off voting round, 42.5% to 35.1%.