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The judicial suffering of Colombia’s Petro begins

The president is hoping to relaunch his flagging projects this year, but first he will have to contend with high-profile trials involving his son, his brother and his former chief of staff. Nicolás Petro is to be arraigned on Thursday

Nicolas Petro
Gustavo Petro with his son Nicolás, on the night of his election, May 29, 2022.Fernando Vergara (AP)
Juan Diego Quesada

The president of Colombia has pledged that 2024 will be the year of his government’s comeback. Gustavo Petro has given instructions for projects that were left half-finished last year to finally come to fruition. Inside Nariño Palace, the presidential residence, there is talk of a Cabinet reshuffle in late January — two or three changes that would lay the foundations for this rebirth, after a 2023 with many ups and downs. Petro and his entourage do not buy into the catastrophic rhetoric of the opposition and the odd renowned international media outlet, but they are still aware that the successes they promised at the beginning of the president’s term have not been achieved. However, this resurgence is going to be overshadowed by the person who has done the most damage to the president: his first-born son, Nicolás Petro, the product of the first of his three marriages, will be arraigned on Thursday and called to trial by prosecutors on charges of money laundering and illicit enrichment.

This moment had to come sooner or later. It was a planned crisis, a controlled explosion. President Petro, at the time, was magnanimous when he said that he hoped that the full weight of justice would fall on his son and even on his brother, who is entangled in a different legal process. But there is no doubt that it will have a political cost. Inside Nariño Palace, work has been done on damage control, and whether this has any effect will soon become evident. At first, Nicolás Petro collaborated with the Prosecutor’s Office and spoke of alleged irregular campaign financing — a matter that was also and resentfully brought up by Petro’s former top aide Armando Benedetti, who was involved in a different scandal. Alarms went off in presidential circles.

In August, Petro tried to visit his son following some of his statements to the Prosecutor’s Office. When he was on his way, Nicolás told him not to show up, as he didn’t want to see him. Days earlier, the president had said in an interview that he had not raised Nicolás, which is true. When he was born, his father was in prison and when he was let out he met another woman and started another family. Nicolás felt betrayed, according to those who know him. The relationship was broken. It had to be the birth of a baby, Nicolás’s own son, that helped rebuild the difficult relationship. The president, happy to be a grandfather for the third time, approached Nicolás again, coinciding with his decision not to cooperate with prosecutors.

That leaves Nicolás’s ex-wife, Daysuris “Day” Vásquez, alone in a corner. She is the one who uncovered this case when she found out that Nicolás was cheating on her with her best friend, Laura Ojeda, with whom he just had the baby. Vásquez still stands by the story she told prosecutors: that as a couple they received money from businessmen, some of dubious origin, for Petro’s campaign, but that the funds never reached their intended destination because the couple kept it for themselves. Investigators have pored over a tale of excesses by Day Vásquez that seems exaggerated considering the amounts the couple handled, but which at least demonstrates that they lived beyond their means.

Nicolás Petro y Day Vásquez
Nicolás Petro Burgos with his then-wife Day Vásquez, in Plaza Bolívar in Bogotá (Colombia), on August 7, 2022.Mauricio Dueñas Castañeda (EFE)

Soap opera aside, the Nicolás Petro case is going to be one of the trials of the year in Colombia. Those who cannot wait to watch the president crash and burn now have the possibility of discrediting him. Many things can be said about Petro, his enemies concede, but being corrupt is not one of them. The president has demonstrated a firmness in politics that some consider dangerous. But the question marks around his son, regardless of the fact that Petro played no role in his upbringing, is a blow whose consequences are not yet known.

It is not the first time that the son of a president takes advantage of his father’s position to get rich, and it surely will not be the last, but it falls on Petro like a biblical curse. His political career has been built on the idea of someone who is incorruptible. But leading by example, it seems, has not inspired everyone around him. Friendly fire is what the president has suffered from the most in his year and a half at the helm of the country. Once this trial is over, another one involving his brother awaits him; the latter has been accused of promising inmates prison reductions thanks to his ties to the president. And then there is the case of his former chief of staff, Laura Sarabia, who was fired by Petro in June following a scandal involving a nanny and wiretapped conversations. This year, the president of Colombia is hoping to send his presidential achievements into orbit, but first he has dark clouds to clear.

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