Santos denies that his former political strategist was paid by drug traffickers

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, whose Miami-based reelection campaign strategist resigned Monday over allegations that he received $12 million from drug lords, says he is not aware whether his former aide received “one peso” from the narco-traffickers.

But Santos, who polls show is in a technical tie with his main rival in next month’s second-round elections, tacitly suggested in an interview that he may have asked for strategist J.J. Rendón’s resignation after the political scandal exploded Saturday.

At the time, Rendón said that he was resigning to avoid hurting Santos, while denying he had received any money from drug traffickers. Santos, in turn, had praised Rendón’s decision as a “gallant” gesture to avoid distracting attention from his reelection campaign.

The media frenzy over allegations that Santos’ former campaign strategist received money from drug barons, alongside a separate scandal involving reports that a key aide to opposition candidate Óscar Ivan Zuluaga had illegally wiretapped Colombia’s negotiators in peace talks with the FARC guerrillas, have turned Colombia’s presidential race into one of the dirtiest in recent history.

According to the latest polls, Santos will not get enough votes to win reelection outright in the May 25 first-round vote, and is in a technical tie with Zuluaga in the second round, scheduled for next month. Since most major polls were conducted before the allegations against Rendón were made public, it is not clear whether — or how much —they will hurt the president.

When asked in the interview whether he had asked Rendón to resign, or had suggested him to do that, Santos responded curtly, “Rendón is no longer in the campaign. Period.”

Rendón, a Venezuelan who lives in Miami, is one of Latin America’s best-known political advisers, and the outcome of the allegations against him could have regional repercussions.

Rendón helped Santos get elected in 2010, and most recently advised Mexico’s ruling party in the 2012 elections and Venezuela’s opposition in the 2013 presidential elections. He always dresses in black, in what he says is a sign of mourning that he will keep until democracy returns to his native Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who last year had banned Rendón from entering his country, is making the most of the latest allegations against the Miami-based consultant. Maduro, whose country has become a major drug trafficking route, claimed last week that Rendón is an “international criminal” tied to drug traffickers who is “the main adviser to the Venezuelan right.”

Rendón says he was approached by several crime bosses who were seeking to turn themselves in if they could negotiate lighter sentences, but that he only relayed their message and never took any money from them. The Colombian weekly Semana had quoted jailed drug trafficker Javier Antonio Calle Serna as saying that he had given Rendón $12 million.

But Santos told the Miami Herald that he is skeptical of that report. Rendón “says he didn’t receive one peso, and I don’t have reason not to believe him,” the president said, adding that the drug lords’ negotiated surrender “never materialized.”

“The famous offer that these people made to turn themselves in was never accepted,” Santos said. “That’s why it seems to me quite curious that the drug traffickers would pay such a high amount of money for something that didn’t even take place. It’s all very dubious.”

During the interview, Santos sought repeatedly to deflect the conversation toward the political scandal involving top rival Zuluaga, whose campaign’s head of social media was allegedly spying on Colombia’s peace negotiators with the FARC rebels.

Santos said he finds the spying of the peace negotiators “something that is terrifying, that bothers me a lot, because that’s not the way to do politics.” According to the president, his political rivals were seeking information about the peace talks because they want to sabotage the process.

“They are planting all kinds of lies,” he said in an apparent reference to Zuluaga and former President Alvaro Uribe, who is Zuluaga’s most important backer. “My critics are obsessed with hampering the peace process, because they would be left without a reason of being, because they live from the war, they live from manipulating fears.”

Santos added, “They say that I am turning over the country to Castro-Chavismo. Where do they get that from? That doesn’t make any sense at all.”

Santos also denied his opponents claims that he has offered the FARC seats in Colombia’s Congress, a reduction of the country’s armed forces or restrictions on private property.

“They lie shamelessly,” Santos said of his political rivals. “They want people to be skeptical about the possibility that we will succeed in a peace process that is increasingly closer to achieving peace. And that would be the greatest thing in the world for Colombia, because we have been at war for 50 years, and a society that gets used to war cannot have a future.”

Andres Oppenheimer will comment on the interview in his Sunday column.