BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The chief strategist of President Juan Manuel Santos' re-election campaign has resigned amid allegations that he took $12 million from some of Colombia's top drug lords in exchange for helping negotiate their surrender.
Appearing three weeks before the election, the allegations against J.J. Rendon were published over the weekend by the Colombian newspaper El Espectador and newsmagazine Semana. The reports cited testimony from a U.S. jail by Javier Antonio Calle, who was one of the country's most-hunted drug traffickers until he turned himself into the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2012.
Rendon acknowledged on Monday that he was approached by intermediaries of Calle and other drug bosses after Santos' 2010 election, but he denied taking any money for communicating to the president their offer to disarm in exchange for concessions such as protection from extradition to the U.S.
Police and prosecutors also acknowledged discussing the initiative with Rendon but said they rejected it out of hand. Calle ended up turning himself in to the U.S. drug agents on the Caribbean island of Aruba a year later.
Rendon's resignation comes as Santos is struggling to fend off rivals ahead of the May 25 election. Rendon, a Venezuelan national, is one of Latin America's most prominent campaign consultants and credited with spreading underground attacks that helped Santos come from behind in a 2010 runoff to defeat Antanas Mockus.
Santos called Rendon's resignation a "gallant" gesture to avoid distracting from the campaign in its final stretch. The president said he didn't know whether Rendon received payments for his mediation efforts but said he believed in his former aide's good word.
The office of Colombia's chief federal prosecutor said it was looking into the matter and would send prosecutors to New York to interview Calle before deciding whether to open a probe into the actions of Rendon and another Santos aide implicated in the media reports, former political adviser German Chica.
Before his surrender, Calle and his brother, who also is in U.S. custody, ran a criminal gang known as "Los Rastrojos," or The Leftovers, a violent paramilitary force that dominated the cocaine trade along Colombia's border with Venezuela and other parts of the country.
Associated Press writers Cesar Garcia and Camilo Hernandez contributed to this report.