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Fallout from leaked audios paralyzes Gustavo Petro’s government

Colombia’s political crisis is growing, as questions surround the president’s former chief-of-staff and ambassador to Venezuela in a case involving wiretaps and a dead member of Petro’s security detail

Inés Santaeulalia
Gustavo Petro
Colombian President Gustavo Petro in the German Bundestag last Thursday.CLEMENS BILAN (EFE)

So much has happened in Colombia in the last two weeks that reality is hard to swallow. The body of a police colonel — who was linked to a robbery at the house belonging to President Gustavo Petro’s former chief-of-staff, Laura Sarabia — was recently found. Almost a week later, it hasn’t been confirmed if his death was a suicide, as the government claims, or if some criminal activity is hidden behind it, as others have alleged.

Anonymous sources are stoking the flames of the case with each passing day. One now says that, in the briefcases stolen from Sarabia’s home, there wasn’t just $7,000 (as Sarabia claimed), but rather, over $500,000… and that it belonged to the president. Both Sarabia, who resigned on June 4, and Petro deny this. They claim that, like most Colombians, they have never even seen such a large amount of money.

Amid all of this are a hundred other questions, all of which are being asked following the release of disturbing audio recordings involving Armando Benedetti, Colombia’s former ambassador to Venezuela, appointed by Petro in August of last year. In the tapes, Benedetti spoke of corruption in the incumbent president’s 2022 presidential campaign, although he later claimed that he was speaking under the influence of alcohol and anger.

Meanwhile, the story of four Indigenous Colombian children, who survived in the jungle for 40 days after the small plane they were flying in crashed, has been dominating international news. The story also moved a country that is still trying to understand itself. Some media outlets and anonymous sources say that even the colonel — hours before he died — called his brother to tell him about the miracle in the jungle. Maybe this is true. But maybe not.

With all these half-truths floating around, it’s yet to be discovered if the so-called Benedetti case — which cost the former ambassador and the president’s chief-of-staff their jobs — has plunged the Colombian government into a state of total paralysis, a worrisome reality as the new administration has been in power for just 10 months. The so-called “government of change” is now being cornered by the same issues that have hindered so many previous administrations: the shadow of corruption, the fierce war between state institutions, and the dirty games played by career politicians. The first victim of this crisis — along with the police colonel — is the package of reforms that Petro promised to implement to transform the country.

The president, rather than governing, now seems more absorbed in defending his role as the victim of what he alleges is a coordinated attack from the economic, political and media elites. Two months ago, he decided to break the legislative majorities that he had forged at the beginning of his mandate with conservative and traditional parties, but no new agreements are in sight. The health, labor and pension reforms are advancing at a snail’s pace in Congress, while the project to legalize the purchase and sale of cannabis has been stuck for weeks.

Some observers say that this is due to the lack of a quorum being present in the chamber — others say it’s because the government doesn’t have the votes. The end of the legislative session is already knocking on the door of Congress, which could soon go on break without anything substantial having been passed. This would be the first major failure of the government, which came to power with such force that, just four months following Petro’s inauguration, it had approved its tax reform and was fantasizing about rolling out several more reforms in its first year, including three related to social security.

However, the reality of politics has played out in the last few weeks. The origin of this crisis does not lie beyond the walls of the Palace of Nariño (the executive headquarters); rather, it can be located in its corridors, offices and telephones. The story wasn’t written by the supposed enemies of change — as Petro claims — but by two of the president’s closest allies. For years, Benedetti and Sarabia worked together, as boss and personal assistant. They joined Petro’s presidential campaign despite not being from the left, but they became essential operators for an improbable electoral victory, she as personal secretary and he as campaign manager both earned Petro’s trust. He rewarded them by making Sarabia his chief-of-staff and appointing Benedetti as his ambassador to Venezuela — a position Benedetti always despised, considering it to be too far from the center of power. The growing enmity between the two — and Benedetti’s eagerness to blame Sarabia, his former secretary, for his fate — resulted in all of this dirty laundry being aired.

Sarabia had reported the theft of money from her home several months ago. Her security team at the presidential palace decided to give her son’s nanny a polygraph test. The woman talked about the incident in a cover story for Semana magazine. As the days went by, the same magazine published some leaked audios of the then-ambassador, in which he verbally attacks Sarabia, belittling and insulting her, while threatening to release details about the alleged illegal financing of Petro’s presidential campaign. He yells that he wants to take everyone down: Sarabia, Petro, even himself.

Benedetti has since defended himself following the release of these tape recordings, slamming the publication and alleging that perhaps Sarabia had ordered the tapping of his phone. Colombia’s Attorney General Francisco Barbosa — known for his opposition to the government — enthusiastically began an investigation, which confirmed that the nanny’s phone had indeed been tapped for a period of 10 days.

On June 2, Petro announced the departure of Sarabia and Benedetti from the government to try to stop the crisis, but the spigot that Benedetti opened up was too powerful to contain.

A week later, Colonel Dávila was found dead in a car near his home in Bogotá. The president assured the public that the policeman — who was assigned to the presidential security detail — had committed suicide. “Hopefully, the judicial investigation will look for the causes of his suicide. What made you feel so cornered that you came to such a terrible decision?” the president lamented on Twitter.

As confirmed by his lawyer, Dávila was included in the investigation by the attorney general’s office and he participated in giving Sarabia’s domestic employee a polygraph test. Dávila also belonged to the section of the presidential security detail that was set to be investigated for wire-tapping the nanny’s phone. Before he died, he had made himself available to prosecutors to give a statement. He even hired a lawyer — to whom he paid 50 million pesos ($12,000) — for his legal defense. Speculations about his death abounded, while the absence of a forensic report continues to fuel them.

Investigations, polygraphs, briefcases filled with money, irregular financing, mysterious deaths and more are piling up on the desk of a questionable prosecutor… who only has seven months left in office. At the moment, President Petro is on an official trip to Germany, while back at home, the congresspeople in his party are trying to push through the cannabis reform before the first legislative period of this government comes to an end. In the midst of the ongoing political storm, it’s no longer a question of changing the country, but of avoiding embarrassment. Or, like the kids in the jungle, waiting for another miracle.

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