On July 29, 2023, the Colombian Prosecutor General’s Office (FGN) arrested Gustavo Petro’s son Nicolás Petro on money-laundering and illicit-enrichment charges during the 2022 electoral campaign. Despite Gustavo Petro’s vow to have a “heavy-handed approach” against corruption in his administration, his family is already mired in a major corruption scandal, and after just one year in office.
The Colombian president announced his son’s detention in July, even before the media. He affirmed that he would not intervene nor pressure the judicial system and that the FGN would have all the guarantees to proceed within the law. Despite wishing his son “strength and good luck,” the president said that he did not raise Nicolás. During Nicolás’s childhood, the incumbent president was then living isolated as a member of the far-left guerrilla April 19 Movement (M-19). He spent 16 months in jail for illegally carrying a weapon during his time in the M-19.
The FGN started investigating Petro’s campaign funding after a Semana Magazine interview with Daysuris Vásquez, Nicolás’s ex-wife. Vásquez asserted that Nicolás received money from state contractors and a former narco to, in exchange for political favors, fund his father’s electoral campaign. On August 4, Judge Ómar Beltrán granted Vásquez and Nicolás conditional freedom after an agreement to cooperate with the judicial system.
After one year in office, the president has faced multiple setbacks, including insufficient congressional support for his labor reform and the collapse of his political coalition. These failures are undermining Petro’s credibility and approval rate. According to pollster Datexco, 59 percent of Colombians disapprove of the incumbent administration. Colombians are realizing Petro does not represent the change they craved in the 2022 electoral election. Further, the president appears to be more deeply embedded in corruption than his predecessors.
El tal cambio es el continuismo más radical y violento de la corrupción al servicio de las narcoguerrillas y los paramilitares del país. En octubre tenemos una obligación: Salvar a Colombia de esa alianza macabra de Santos y Petro. #NoMásIzquierdaEnColombia pic.twitter.com/myjuABSfDV
— Enrique Gómez (@Enrique_GomezM) August 18, 2023
Nicolás Petro’s Dark Past
This latest corruption scandal is historic for Colombia since it is the first time the judicial system is prosecuting an incumbent president’s son. Akin to the script of a Colombian telenovela, Vásquez revealed the information out of spite after Nicolás’s infidelity with Vásquez’s best friend.
According to the FGN, Nicolás’s 2022 expenses were around $400,000 while his annual income as congressman was around $56,000. Nicolás annual expenses are nowhere near his income, which supports Vásquez’s statement that he received funds from illicit sources such as a former smuggler and narco.
Vásquez asserted that Nicolás received money from multiple people, including $100,000 from Alfonso Hilsaca and Samuel Lopesierra, for his father’s electoral campaign. While Hilsaca—known as El Turco—is accused of homicide, Lopesierra—known as Marlboro Man—is a former narco and a smuggler, who spent 18 years in US prisons on narcotrafficking charges.
This is not the first time Nicolás has been involved in irregularities during electoral campaigns. In December 2022 the National Electoral Tribunal fined Nicolás $3,800 for his 2019 local-government electoral campaign in the Atlantic province in Colombia. He ended the election in second place with 19 percent of the votes.
According to Prosecutor Mario Burgos, if Nicolás is found guilty in this case he could face a sentence of 14 years in prison. This could be reduced to seven years for good behavior.
Nicolás’s political career, which has developed thanks to his father’s trajectory, has allowed him to live a luxurious lifestyle with fancy clothing and expensive cars. Ironically, the far-left ideas that the Petro family promotes reject the lifestyle Nicolás and his family enjoys, akin to other millionaire socialist leaders in the region.
The Scandal that Reaches the President
The president is caught between a rock and a hard place regarding the alleged irregularities during his campaign. Nicolás affirmed before Prosecutor Burgos that the illegal funds were part of Gustavo’s electoral campaign. Gustavo, however, has denied that any mafia helped fund his electoral campaign. The president even said that if the authorities proved that illegal funds were part of his campaign, he would resign.
Two months ago, a high-ranking official also revealed alleged illicit funding, which led to a cabinet crisis. Petro fired two prominent figures from his government: Laura Sarabia, the president’s right hand and chief of staff, and Armando Benedetti, former Colombian ambassador to Venezuela and member of the president’s inner circle. On June 5, Semana Magazine unveiled Benedetti’s voice notes in which he threatened Sarabia with revealing the people behind the president’s campaign.
Benedetti, in the voice notes, said that he “is not someone to be messed with” and that if he speaks up “everyone is going down,” including President Petro. The former ambassador affirmed he obtained $3 million for the campaign that led to Petro’s victory. However, Benedetti tweeted that he said everything under the effects of alcohol. He wanted a more powerful position than an embassy in Caracas.
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—through his son and other allies—appears to have gotten into office with the help of illegal funding. Although the judiciary still needs to confirm the funding’s origins, media and members of the president’s inner circle are unveiling more indications that this is true. For instance, local news outlet Caracol revealed on August 13 that Juan Carlos López—a drug lord from the Casanare province—participated in Petro’s campaign with funding and logistical support.
#NCInvestiga | El capo y la campaña: Noticias Caracol revela cómo un narcotraficante extraditado y reincidente, junto con su esposa, apoyaron la campaña de Gustavo Petro en Yopal, Casanare. Videos, audios e interceptaciones hacen parte de las evidencias que abrirían una nueva… pic.twitter.com/AoLvlJNbDo
— Noticias Caracol (@NoticiasCaracol) August 14, 2023
Petro—who got to office as a fighter against corruption—is being cornered by the judicial system and the allegations of illicit funding of his electoral campaign. The president’s allies are starting to reveal their own irregularities, which involve Petro—who is being left alone, for now. The only hope left for Colombians is that the judiciary is independent enough to get to the bottom of these scandals.
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily the views of the Impunity Observer.
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