Two of Gustavo Petro’s closest political allies have resigned as the Colombian president’s office was embroiled in a bizarre scandal involving a nanny, illegal wiretaps and a missing briefcase full of cash.

Petro’s closest adviser, Laura Sarabia, and his key political power broker, Armando Benedetti, stepped down on Friday after an investigation by the general attorney into allegations made by Marelbys Meza, the nanny to Sarabia’s son.

Meza told local media last Monday that she had been taken to a basement next to the presidential palace in January, accused of stealing a briefcase containing $7,000 from Sarabia’s apartment and forced to take a polygraph test.

On Thursday, Colombia’s general attorney office said investigations had revealed that intelligence services tapped the phones of Meza and another domestic worker contracted at Sarabia’s home.

Meza’s phone calls were listened to for 10 days in a “grotesque” abuse of power in which the police wrongly labelled the women as members of Colombia’s largest drug cartel, the Gulf Clan, said the general attorney, Francisco Barbosa.

“It is a regrettable day for the rule of law, illegal wiretapping has returned to Colombia,” Barbosa said.

Four police officials were questioned on Friday as to who gave the order to surveil the women despite them not being a risk to national security, the attorney’s office said on Friday. Investigators searched the basement where Meza took the lie test.

Petro, who was elected last year as Colombia’s first leftist president, has denied that government officials ordered illegal wiretaps, and pledged at a military event on Friday to support the inquiry.

“The doors of the palace are open to any investigation, we don’t have any fear,” he told a crowd of senior naval officials in Cartagena.

Local reports suggest Meza is at the centre of a bitter power struggle between Benedetti, 55, a key conservative power broker who allied with Petro to help bring him to office, and 29-year-old Sarabia, who worked under Benedetti before leading Petro’s campaign.

According to a report in the weekly Semana magazine, Benedetti and Sarabia clashed over Benedetti’s request for a new posting.

Among the more peculiar details of the intrigue, Benedetti flew Meza to Caracas on a charter plane to work at his residence after Sarabia sacked her. But the nanny was employed by Petro’s right-hand woman only after Benedetti himself had fired her for suspected theft.

Benedetti says Sarabia asked him for help to stop Meza going to the press while Sarabia alleges Benedetti leaked the story. Sarabia has denied wrongdoing in relation to what she said were reimbursed travel expenses.

Petro denied that any administration official gave wiretapping orders but said he sympathised with Sarabia for carrying out the polygraph and that Meza consented to the test.

The scandal is the first to break the trust of Petro’s innermost circle and has dented the president’s popularity, which has slid from 50% in November last year to 34% now. The former guerrilla has struggled to secure peace deals with armed rebels and deliver sweeping reforms, and has been embarrassed by a series of Twitter gaffes and public spats.

Petro called for his entire cabinet to resign in April after his health reform proposal was shot down and in May he incorrectly tweeted that four children lost deep in the Amazon jungle had been rescued.

The Colombian right capitalised on the Sarabia scandal to accuse Petro of hypocrisy after he campaigned for decades against state spying on the political opposition, journalists and judges.

“Who gave the order?” tweeted the far-right congresswoman Maria Fernanda Cabal, mocking the phrase used to protest against systematic extrajudicial killings under the former conservative president Alvaro Uribe.

Unfortunately for Petro, the man leading the investigation is Francisco Barbosa, one of the president’s growing list of enemies. Petro was drawn into a public spat with the rightwing attorney last month after wrongly asserting that he was the independent investigator’s boss.

To stem the crisis, Petro could appoint more leftwing loyalists to office but the move would further break his cross-party alliances and constrict his ability to bring political reform, said Sergio Guzman, the director of Colombia Risk Analysis.

“Petro is trapped between his huge ambitions for change and Colombia’s rigid legal structure and institutions who have few incentives to move forward reforms that affect them,” Guzman said.

2023-06-04T15:49:53Z dg43tfdfdgfd