Former Chief of Staff Laura Sanabria and Former Ambassador to Venezuela and Petro Presidential Campaign Manager Armando Benedetti (above right)were both sacked last week as an exploding wiretapping scandal threatens to upend the presidency of Gustavo Petro (above, left) less than a year into Petro’s four-year term.
Breaking news: As of 5pm today, Armando Benedetti was spotted on a commercial flight leaving Panamá for Istanbul Turkey.
Colombian newsmagazine Semana last month first broke the news of Sanabria having accused her nanny, Marelbys Meza earlier in the year of stealing the equivalent of $7,000 cash (others report the number as $4,000-accounts conflict) from Sanabria’s apartment. Morphing from the victim to the perpetrator, Sanabria is accused of then having Meza subjected to a polygraph test, and arranging wiretaps, something that as presidential chief of staff, she would have no authority to do under Colombian law.
Colombia’s Attorney General Francisco Barbosa, appointed by the previous president, and independent of President Gustavo Petro, has already opened a criminal investigation. Petro and Barbosa have a contentious, hostile relationship.
Now, the same nanny, Meza, used to work for Armando Benedetti, as did Sanabria as his secretary, but Sanabria and Benedetti drifted apart once Sanabria dedicated herself to being Petro’s right hand as his chief of staff. Benedetti says that Sanabria sought his help in covering up the emerging “chicharron” as the press began to get wind of the story, but Sanabria accused Benedetti of leaking the story in a tantrum over his negated demand for government positions.
It seems Meza wasn’t the only one being wiretapped. Last weekend, Semana published damning, vulgar recordings of audio messages between Benedetti and Sarabia. These are where the scandal metastasizes from a staffer abusing power to something that directly implicates President Petro himself.
Benedetti is clearly heard threatening to expose evidence incriminating Petro’s campaign for criminal funding and ties—though Benedetti himself was the campaign manager. Benedetti references a $3.4 million USD equivalent contribution, which is not accounted for in campaign finance filings. If true, that would be a criminal offense with a mandatory prison sentence in Colombia.
“I wasn’t threatening you, but I am threatening you now you son of a bitch, you and the president, do you understand? 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, we’ll all go down. We’ll all be done. We’ll go to jail,” Bendetti is heard saying in one of the messages to Sanabria.
Once he was busted by Semana, he at first claimed that the audios were manipulated, though hours later he sort of confessed, saying that he had acted out of “weakness and sadness,” was angry, and drunk.
He sido parte fundamental del actual proyecto político del presidente Petro. Sin embargo, no satisfecho con lo que me correspondió políticamente, en un acto de debilidad y tristeza me dejé llevar por la rabia y el trago.
— Armando Benedetti (@AABenedetti) June 5, 2023
Petro was now sucked into the scandal, derailing his struggle to push through controversial legislative reforms that would remake the health, pension and labor infrastructure of the country. Petro is already struggling with a 34% approval rating and a congressional coalition that was fracturing before this. Monday, Congress tabled debates on Petro’s reforms, essentially freezing legislative progress and dissipating whatever momentum he may have had.
The scandal is already sprouting branches and shoots, too many to contain in one article. For example, Colombia’s CTI, analogous to the FBI in the US or MI5 in the UK just this morning conducted a search of offices of Colombia’s tax authority: the DIAN. However, according to news daily El Tiempo, though the building was a DIAN facility, the offices raided actually were occupied by a security organ that reported directly to the presidency, and that they would have had possession of a mirror copy of the nanny’s telephone—illegal if obtained without a proper search warrant and law enforcement involvement. The Office of the Presidency simply cannot order wiretaps, polygraphs, or detain people.
In 2008 under the administration of Alvaro Uribe, his chief of now-disbanded secret police and domestic intelligence unit the “Department of Administrative Security” (DAS), Maria del Pilar Hurtado was jailed for 14 years—ironically for wiretapping and spying on, among others, now President Gustavo Petro! Now his own administration is in jeopardy for similar accusations.
A career politician, Benedetti is not a consistent ideologue, but has a history of aligning himself with whoever is on the way up in Colombian politics. He opposed center-right Mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa, but then became a close supporter of former President Alvaro Uribe after the star of Horacio Serpa fell and it became apparent that Serpa would never obtain the presidency.
Benedetti became President of the Senate during the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos, and the two forged a close working relationship, even as the bond between Santos and his political patron Uribe collapsed. During the deeply unpopular presidency of Ivan Duque, Benedetti distanced himself from Duque’s allies, and his criticism of the president facilitated his growing close to far left Senator, ex guerilla, and now President Gustavo Petro. When they say “politics makes strange bedfellows,” arrangements like these are exactly what they mean!
A quickly evolving story
Today, June 7th, Petro called on his supporters to take to the streets and protest in support of him and his initiatives. As of 5pm most marches have been reported as peaceful, though the Medellín branch of the National University has been evacuated as a small explosive device was detonated. Several major thoroughfares have been blocked in different parts of Colombia. In Barranquilla, the Defensoría del Pueblo, which is a government body charged with defending human rights, has confirmed that it is protecting journalists who were intimidated by marchers in the city.
The scandal has already caught Washington’s attention as Congresswoman Maria Salazar grilled the US State Department’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols on the Biden administrations response, asking Nichols to facilitate Benedetti’s admission to the US to testify on the hinted campaign irregularities that Benedetti mentioned in the recordings. Of course, no one from the US has asked or summoned Benedetti, and he has not said anything at all about going to the US for anything. In fact, he was spotted on a commercial flight this very afternoon leaving Panamá headed to Istanbul Turkey. Salazar, a representative from Miami, has been a vocal critic of Gustavo Petro.
— EL TIEMPO (@ELTIEMPO) June 7, 2023
Benedetti has an appointment with Colombia’s National Electoral Commission next Tuesday to explain his accusation about the $3.4 million USD / $15 billion COP that he bragged illegally entered the Petro Campaign that he managed. This has echoes of the $3.75 million in illegal money that went into the campaign of former Colombian President Ernesto Samper (1994-1998), sponsored by the Cali Cartel cocaine traffickers. Samper was so tainted that the US revoked his visa and temporarily cut off economic aid to Colombia while he was president. Despite his reputation, less than a decade later, President Alvaro Uribe offered Samper the ambassadorship to France, which amidst the ensuing uproar, Samper did not accept.
One unanswered question: Who recorded the audio? Who released the audio? Why was Sanabria’s voice left out?
¿Qué Sigue? (What comes next?)
If it turns out that Sarabia ordered or “encouraged” the police or presidential security operatives to wiretap, polygraph, detain, or seize the telephone data of Marelbys Meza, she would be in serious violation of Colombian criminal law, even if it turns out that Meza was in fact guilty of theft.
If the Petro campaign, managed by Benedetti, did in fact receive massive illicit revenues, it will have grave consequences for Benedetti, as well as Petro.