Wiretapping scandal thrusts Colombian government into crisis

Leaked audio messages from a key aide to the Colombian president have raised concerns of irregular campaign financing.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro giving a speech
Colombian President Gustavo Petro was elected on an ambitious platform of social and economic reform but now contends with a stalled agenda and questions about campaign finance irregularities [File: Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

Bogota, Colombia Illegal wiretapping, stolen cash, expletive-laden leaked audio messages, allegations of campaign finance violations and two of his closest political allies sacked — the past week has been a rough one for Colombian President Gustavo Petro.

The Petro administration is engulfed in a complex political crisis, sparked by a scandal involving two key members of the president’s inner circle: his chief of staff, Laura Sarabia, and the Colombian ambassador to Venezuela, Armando Benedetti, who formerly served as Petro’s presidential campaign manager.

On Friday, both Sarabia and Benedetti were dismissed from Petro’s administration after the attorney general’s office had launched an investigation into their actions on Thursday. Both parties deny any wrongdoing.

The scandal began with reports in Semana magazine last month that Sarabia accused her child’s nanny of stealing $7,000 in cash from her home, so she allegedly subjected the nanny to a polygraph test.

Colombia’s attorney general also indicated that the nanny’s phone had been wiretapped by Colombian police, with Sarabia suspected of orchestrating the illegal monitoring.

Benedetti, who employed the same nanny, alleged that Sarabia sought his help to keep the story from reaching the press. Sarabia, meanwhile, accused Benedetti of leaking the story, following a confrontation over his request for a new government position.

But the scandal only escalated from there.

Colombian ambassador in Venezuela, smiles on the tarmac after a Satena airline plane arrived from Bogota, Colombia to Simon Bolivar International Airport in La Guaira, Venezuela, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022.
Colombia’s former ambassador to Venezuela, Armando Benedetti, centre, has been embroiled in a scandal involving leaked audio messages [File: Matias Delacroix/AP Photo]

Explosive leaked audio messages

On Sunday evening, Semana published a series of expletive-laden audio messages that Benedetti allegedly sent Sarabia, who spent years serving as Benedetti’s personal secretary prior to joining the Petro administration. Semana did not reveal how it acquired the leaked messages.

In the tirade, the former ambassador threatens to reveal incriminating evidence about Petro’s presidential campaign — which he led last year. Benedetti is heard making reference to an alleged $3.4m that he claims Petro’s campaign received under questionable circumstances.

“It’s a reality of Colombian politics that elections, particularly in the coastal region, have traditionally been plagued by corruption of the sort that is mentioned in the tapes,” Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst for Colombia at the International Crisis Group think tank, told Al Jazeera.

“It would not be a surprise to anyone if those allegations, or some version of them, turn out to be correct.”

So far, no evidence has either corroborated nor discredited Benedetti’s claims. Colombian authorities, however, announced they will launch an investigation into the funding of Petro’s presidential campaign.

In the leaked audio, Benedetti complains of being politically sidelined by Petro. He insults both Sarabia and the president, issues threats and likens the government to the Titanic.

“I wasn’t threatening you, but I am threatening you now, son of a bitch, both you and the president, understood? If you want me to threaten you, I will come out and reveal everything that I know, which is enough to end your world and mine,” Benedetti allegedly says in one of the messages.

“We’ll all go down. We’ll all be done. We’ll go to jail.”

Political disarray

Shortly after Semana revealed the leaked messages, Benedetti claimed the audio had been “manipulated”. On Monday afternoon, he wrote in a since-deleted tweet that “it was evident that there is a campaign to discredit” him.

By the evening though, he changed his story, posting on Twitter that he had acted out of “weakness and sadness”. He added that he had gotten “carried away by rage and drink”.

Petro responded in a tweet that Benedetti “must explain himself before the attorney general and the country”. He denied any members of his administration ordered illegal wiretapping or accepted campaign funds from illicit sources.

But Benedetti’s leaked audio messages have thrust Petro’s government into a crisis.

“This scandal comes at the worst possible time for the government,” Sergio Guzman, a political analyst and director of the Colombia Risk Analysis consultancy group, told Al Jazeera.

“The greatest damage that this scandal has on the government is reputational. This will make traditional political parties and elites hesitant to engage in deal-making with the government.”

Supporters, carrying signs and cellphones, crowd to see a rally for Gustavo Petro.
Supporters attend a rally for President Gustavo Petro in Bogota, Colombia, on June 7 [Fernando Vergara/AP Photo]

On Monday, Congress halted its scheduled debates on the administration’s proposed social reforms while evidence was collected about Benedetti’s claims of campaign finance irregularities.

It was yet another setback for Petro’s ambitious domestic agenda. The health, labour and tax reforms he has proposed have been stalled for months in Congress.

And his government — less than a year old — has attracted scrutiny for other signs of instability. So far this year, Petro has asked his entire cabinet to resign, lost key ministerial figures and struggled to secure peace deals with the country’s armed groups.

“Petro is going to have to spend a lot of political capital that he doesn’t have in order to fix this,” Dickinson said.

“That’s going to take away from the agenda on the reforms he’s trying to pass, on peace — which is already facing a lot of questions.”

In response to the heavy criticism he received as a result of the scandal, Petro tweeted on Monday evening that his “political opponents” were trying to carry out a “soft coup” against his administration.

Petro’s popularity has drastically slumped from 50 percent in November to 34 percent, according to a recent poll.

‘Silly crisis’

Both Dickinson and Guzman believe Petro is now on thin ice, and with much of his four-year term still ahead of him, they speculate his broad ambitions for political change will be harder to achieve because of the scandal.

“It’s going to increase the [country’s] ungovernability because it’s caught up in this silly crisis when in fact there are real problems that it should be focusing on,” Dickinson said.

“This is not about two individuals or about Petro. It’s about the fact that this is going to have a dramatic impact on the actual lives of Colombians who are waiting for solutions from this government,” she added.

Those Colombians include Cristian Gil, a public servant from the province of Santander. When Petro assumed power in August, Gil was sceptical of the new president’s ability to deliver on his campaign promises.

Yet, Gil hoped that Petro could help bridge the political divide with the coalition government he formed upon inauguration.

“At one point, I did hope that he could help reconcile some differences, but what I now fear is that he’ll start to close his circle and start to remove those people who might help him see some of the mistakes he can commit,” Gil said.

“It could end up being a government without much change.”

Source: Al Jazeera