Sun, Jan 28, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Hunt for former Colombian defense minister begins

GLOBAL SEARCH The once high-ranking official has been found guilty of stealing almost US$500,000 from a 1994 presidential campaign

AP , BOGOTA

Colombian authorities said on Friday they have launched an international hunt for a former defense minister after the Supreme Court upheld his conviction for stealing almost US$500,000 from a presidential campaign.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday ratified a lower court's conviction of aggravated theft for Fernando Botero Zea -- son of famed painter Fernando Botero -- saying the former Cabinet minister must serve a 30-month jail sentence for pocketing almost US$500,000 from the 1994 campaign of Ernesto Samper, whose drug-tainted election bid he ran.

Samper was Colombia's president from 1994-1998, a period of tense relations with the US, which repeatedly denounced the president for taking money from the Cali drug cartel, then the world's largest cocaine smuggling organization, based in Colombia's third-largest city.

"We've issued a notice through Interpol to 189 countries to locate Botero," said Oscar Galvis, a spokesman for the DAS intelligence agency. "If he steps foot in the country he'll be immediately arrested."

Botero, who is believed to be residing outside the country, already served a five-year sentence last decade for his involvement in the Andean nation's worst drug-corruption scandal.

In August 1996, he was forced to resign as defense minister and was immediately jailed when it was revealed he accepted millions of dollars in donations on behalf of Samper's campaign from the Cali drug cartel, which at the time was the world's largest cocaine-smuggling organization.

Although the scandal prompted the US to revoke Samper's visa, the former president has long maintained he had no knowledge of what his campaign manager was doing behind his back.

In a statement on Wednesday he applauded the Supreme Court decision, saying it "closed a chapter" in the investigation into the illegal financing of his campaign.

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