BOGOTA, Colombia -- Allegations that President Ernesto Samper accepted nearly $6 million in campaign contributions from drug dealers in exchange for promises of leniency in the courts are plunging this country into its most grave political crisis in decades.
With grainy images of Richard M. Nixon appearing on Colombian television and references to Watergate abounding in political circles, Mr. Samper's possible resignation has become a matter of open debate.
While Colombians give the president high marks for dismantling the leadership of the Cali drug cartel, with six of its top seven leaders now in jail, the arrests have done little to divert attention from questions regarding his ties to drug traffickers.
Rather, documents seized by the police in recent raids against drug traffickers seem to be providing much of the evidence that has shaken the Samper administration.
Since the raids began in June, more than a dozen congressmen, the comptroller, the attorney general and other political figures close to the president have been indicted, in addition to his campaign treasurer.
Last week, Mr. Samper's defense minister, Fernando Botero, resigned after the campaign treasurer, Santiago Medina Serna, told the police that as campaign manager, Mr. Botero had ordered him to solicit money from leaders of the Cali drug group.
In one raid Aug. 6, in which the Cali cartel's most powerful fugitive was arrested, the police reported that they had discovered a suitcase whose contents hinted at how thoroughly the traffickers' influence had penetrated Colombian society. They included files showing over $25 million in payments to about 2,000 politicians, journalists, policemen, soldiers, athletes and entertainers.
"Political parties are losing credibility, and the political system is in the midst of uncertainties," said Francisco Thoumi, who heads the Center for International Studies at Los Andes University here.
The president has said that if his campaign collected money from drug dealers, it was done behind his back.
The arrests and raids have been ordered by Alfonso Valdivieso, Colombia's chief prosecutor, whose office operates independently of the executive branch. Mr. Valdivieso can forward his findings only to Congress, which can weigh the evidence and forward any recommendation for prosecution of the president to the Supreme Court.
Fear appears to play a sizable role in attempts by the president's supporters to quell the agitation for answers: fear of guerrillas' gaining the legitimacy the president stands to lose; fear that Mr. Samper's downfall could open the way for a populist priest and former mayor of Barranquilla, Bernardo Hoyos, to come to power; fear that a serious inquiry into the influence of drug traffickers would taint figures of all political parties.