Colombia’s leading presidential candidates engaged in a sharp verbal exchange during a nationally televised debate on Thursday night.
President Juan Manuel Santos and his main rival, hardliner Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, engaged in verbal fisticuffs regarding the latter’s alleged ties to the primary suspect arrested in Colombia’s most recent spying scandal.
After Zuluaga attempted to clarify his relationship with the arrested “hacker” — a relationship which has resulted in calls for his resignation — Santo’s lashed out at his rival ordering him to stop telling lies to the country.
“Doctor Oscar Ivan, asides from the video, which is a part of his scandal, Colombians want to know why he lied to them, why he initially said that he did not know the suspect, and then said that he met him once during his campaign,” Santos stated.
“After it was discovered that they had met in the suspects headquarters, they appeared together in a video, which should require Zuluaga to explain himself before the authorities,” the incumbent president added.
Zuluaga was embroiled in controversy recently after it was discovered that his campaign had recently employed, Andres Sepulveda, who was accused of spying on the ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the rebel group FARC, as well as possessing illegally obtained military intelligence.
Though Zuluaga initially denied having met Sepulveda, a secretly recorded video emerged last week, which shows the two discussing campaign strategy and alleged illegally obtained intelligence.
Zuluaga responded to Santos’ verbal assault by reiterating his ignorance about Sepulveda’s secret dealings, “I do not need to resort to anything but the law to obtain my position, I do not need to resort to illegal acts to land public positions.”
“I have always told the truth, I said that I knew him [Sepulveda], in a moment of imprecision I said that I had never been to his office, but then I explained to the country the truth. This video is a fraud made to undermine my campaign,” the candidate added.
Santos proceeded to mock the candidate’s close ties to the former president and Zuluga’s main political supporter, Alvaro Uribe.
“You are learning the tricks of your boss, calm down,” Santos chided.
The video, released by Semana news magazine, emerged last week showing Sepulveda informing Zuluaga about what appears to be illegally obtained military intelligence information.
The presidential candidate initially denied knowing the suspect but then changed his story.
“On one occasion, at the beginning of my campaign, I visited the office of whom today is accused of acting illegally. I went to greet the people who were doing social support work,” Zuluaga confirmed, adding, “I want to speak frankly, with all truth while always acting in good faith” he originally said.
Since the release of the video, Zuluaga has maintained the position that the video is a fraud.
Sepulveda was arrested on May 6 after agents from the Prosecutor General’s technical investigation team (CTI) raided an apartment in northern Bogota, where they discovered surveillance equipment used to intercept electronic communications.
The suspect was allegedly in possession of classified military intelligence including information about the government’s ongoing peace negotiations in Havana, and lists of demobilized guerrilla combatants.
A key witness to emerge in the case has alleged that the pair were ordered engage in cyber-attacks against the Santos campaign.
The first nationally televised debate which was scheduled for Wednesday was cancelled as both Santos and Zuluaga failed to appear.
According to newspaper El Pais, Santos had failed to confirm his publicly promised assistance while agency Colprensa reported that Zuluaga canceled his assistance at the last moment.
Colombia’s presidential elections are this Sunday, May 25, and were preceded by what political analysts have referred to as one of the dirtiest political campaign races in recent history.