Far-left Columbian President Gustavo Petro became embroiled in a series of complex scandals erupting this week, dubbed Niñeragate (“Nannygate”), stemming from accusations of abuse of power and illegal wiretapping involving two of Petro’s inner circle allies.
The original scandal, which saw the departure of the allies involved from the Colombian government, gave birth to a secondary embarrassment for the Petro administration after now-former Colombian Ambassador to Venezuela Armando Benedetti burst into several profanity-laced tirades, which prompted the nation’s top electoral authority to open a probe into potential finance irregularities by Petro’s presidential campaign.
The origin of the sensational series of events occurred last week, when 51-year old Marelbys Meza, who worked as a nanny for Petro chief of staff Laura Sarabia, told the Colombian magazine Semana that Sarabia forced her to take a polygraph test in the basement of a building adjacent to the Colombian presidential palace in late January. Meza said Sarabia accused her of stealing a briefcase from her apartment that contained $4,000. Sarabia later updated her police report, claiming that the allegedly stolen amount totaled $7,000 instead.
“I felt that they were going to leave me there, that I was not going to go out again,” Meza told Semana. “They gave me a polygraph and told me ‘you can make fun of that device, but not of us. Tonight you are not going home, from here you are going to jail, and we are going to search all your siblings and you.'”
Meza, who denied any wrongdoing, also denounced that the Colombian National Police had allegedly wiretapped her phone. In a different interview, Meza told Semana on Friday that she worked in Petro’s presidential campaign — and had even starred in one of the campaign’s tv spots that aired in June, hours before Petro was elected as Colombia’s first leftist president in the nation’s history.
Her statements prompted the office of the Colombian Attorney General to carry out an investigation. The Attorney General’s office determined that the wiretapping of Meza’s phone had been illegally justified through a forged report that falsely linked the nanny with the Clan del Golfo drug cartel. In addition to Meza, another woman that worked as Sarabia’s cleaning lady, only identified as “Fabiola,” also had her phone wiretapped using the same false justification.
“They turned two people into members of the Clan del Golfo to illegally listen to them in Colombia,” Colombian attorney general Francisco Barbosa said. “Can you imagine these practices in Colombia with any citizen in the national territory? To solve a problem of Mrs. Laura Sarabia of a robbery in her house.”
The Attorney General also opened a probe into Colombia’s Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Interpol (DIJIN) for the illegal wiretapping of both women.
Shortly after her firing, Benedetti, the ambassador, hired Meza to take care of his children in Caracas. Benedetti took over the Caracas embassy in August after Petro restored diplomatic ties with the neighboring socialist regime of Venezuela and its dictator Nicolás Maduro.
Colombian media revealed shortly after the news of her hiring that Benedetti — another member of Petro’s inner circle and Sarabia’s boss during his time as Senator — had also accused Meza of stealing roughly $1,100 from him and forced her to take a polygraph test. Meza also denied having stolen anything from Benedetti during the time she worked as a nanny for him.
Sources close to Sarabia told Colombia’s W Radio on Wednesday that Bedenetti had been allegedly blackmailing Sarabia since April with revealing Meza’s story to discredit the former chief of staff. Benedetti had Meza briefly fly to Caracas on a charter plane in May shortly before being interviewed by Semana.
On Thursday, Benedetti involved Petro in the domestic worker affair with a leaked WhatsApp conversation in which the president appeared to order him to remain silent on the scandal. Benedetti claimed through his Twitter account that Sarabia asked him for help in stopping Meza from going to the press. Petro had both Sarabia and Benedetti removed from their positions on Friday.
“No one here has ordered a single illegal wiretap, neither on illustrious and powerful ex-officials, nor on humble people,” Petro said on Friday during an official event, adding that his government does not have anything against Meza, describing the nanny as “our friend.”
The scandal took another turn on Sunday after Semana published a series of leaked profanity-laced audio messages that Benedetti sent to Sarabia, in which the now-former ambassador threatened her with revealing the “truth” about the financing of Petro’s presidential campaign.
“With so much shit that I know, well, we’re all fucked,” Benedetti is heard saying in the audio.
“What I am telling you, Laura, is that this treatment — I made 100 meetings — 15 billion pesos [roughly $3.5 million], moreover, if it wasn’t for me they do not win,” Benedetti is heard saying in another of the leaked audio files.
Benedetti, in a now-deleted tweet, explained the content and tone of the leaked audio messages on Monday as an “act of weakness and sadness” fueled by “rage and drink.”
Colombia’s foreign minister, Álvaro Leyva, downplayed the leaked audio on Monday, questioning the former ambassador’s credibility because he is a “drug addict.”
“I find it very amusing. In the middle of all this movement of news, how can you believe Benedetti? He himself says ‘I am a drug addict’ … Does that sound like a good source to you?” Leyva told local media.
The published leaked audio messages prompted the Colombian National Electoral Center (CNE) to open a probe into Petro’s 2022 presidential campaign for possible irregularities in its financing. CNE called both Benedetti and Sarabia to testify on June 13.
CNE also opened a separate probe into Petro’s presidential campaign on Monday for not having reported payments allegedly made to electoral witnesses affiliated with Petro’s Historic Pact leftist political coalition.
Sarabia, through her personal attorney, announced on Monday that she “will attend each of the calls of justice and the agencies in control to give clarity and [an] explanation on the facts of his competence and knowledge.”
Petro has seen his approval ratings continuously decline since he took office in August. Polls released last week before the Nannygate scandal blew up revealed that Petro’s approval ratings had dropped down to 33.8 percent.
Christian K. Caruzo is a Venezuelan writer and documents life under socialism. You can follow him on Twitter here.