Uruguay’s Foreign Minister Francisco Bustillo has resigned after leaked phone calls to the local press suggested he tried to obstruct an investigation into the issuance of a passport to a convicted drug-trafficker, triggering a political crisis for conservative President Luis Lacalle Pou.
Local newspaper Busqueda published a November 2022 phone call in which Bustillo appeared to suggest that ex-deputy foreign minister Carolina Ache, hide evidence. The Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a request seeking comment.
Ache, who resigned last year, was questioned Wednesday by a public prosecutor investigating the case.
The opposition has criticised the government for fast tracking a passport for Sebastián Marset — an Uruguayan citizen who served time for drug-trafficking — that allowed him to leave the United Arab Emirates in late 2021 where he was detained for traveling with a fake Paraguayan passport.
Marset is wanted on drug charges in his native Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and the United States. Authorities accuse him of being one of the most powerful drug-traffickers in the Southern Cone region, transporting multi-ton shipments of cocaine through Uruguay.
In late 2021, he was detained in the UAE for using forged documents, but managed to ultimately receive an authentic Uruguayan passport.
Lacalle Pou and his ministers have denied wrongdoing, saying they acted within the law.
'Not as presented'
"Things are not as they have been presented," Bustillo claimed in a statement obtained by the AFP news agency.
He nonetheless said the situation was "sufficiently sensitive" that he offered his immediate resignation to the president.
Marset, 32, is wanted by Paraguay for alleged drug-trafficking and money-laundering, according to Interpol. He narrowly escaped capture in Bolivia earlier this year where he reportedly was living with his wife and children.
In late 2021, he was detained in the United Arab Emirates on charges of using forged documents, but managed to ultimately receive an authentic Uruguayan passport.
Ache resigned in December 2022 amid a scandal over the dissemination of a WhatsApp chat from November 2021, in which an Interior Ministry official described Marset as "a very dangerous and weighty narco."
Ache told reporters that she had testified Wednesday "to collaborate with the investigation so that once and for all the facts are clarified and the whole truth is known."
The WhatsApp message contradicted Bustillo, who, when testifying before the Senate in August 2022, had said that "In November [of 2021], who among all of us knew who Marset was?"
Ache reiterated Wednesday that she had no involvement or interference in the processing of Marset's passport, but said she warned the issuing office "that it was someone dangerous" as soon as she was told.
"What I realised later is that everyone already knew what it was about long before I did," she told a press conference Wednesday, without providing details of her testimony.
'Lose your phone'
Later in the day, audio recordings of telephone conversations and chat messages that she had presented as evidence were published and confirmed by several media outlets.
"Lose your phone," Bustillo recommends to Ache in one of the calls, which according to the outlet Busqueda was recorded on November 14, 2022.
In another clip, Bustillo calls the Interior Ministry official who messaged Ache a "moron," noting that if he were to disclose the chats "he would shoot himself in the foot."
In his resignation statement, Bustillo denies any illegality in the processing of Marset's passport.
"Of course, neither did I lie or deviate from the truth in the parliamentary questioning," he said, accusing Ache of taking "conversations out of context and acting in bad faith."
He is set to give testimony to investigators on Friday and promised to "shed light on the veracity of what has been done and on the distorted account that has been given."
President in US
The resignation comes as Lacalle Pou is in Washington this week to attend a meeting between Latin American leaders and US President Joe Biden.
Bustillo’s abrupt exit in the so-called 'Marset case' adds to the growing list of government scandals in a country with a reputation for low levels of corruption. Transparency International’s most recent corruption index ranked Uruguay among the least corrupt nations in the Americas on a par with Canada.
Since taking office in March 2020, Lacalle Pou has fired his housing minister for allegedly giving homes to party members and accepted the resignation of his tourism minister for questionable procurement practices.
Earlier this year, the president’s personal security chief was sentenced to four-and-a-half years of prison for influence-trafficking and other crimes including the use of government surveillance systems for personal gain.
The scandals have yet to cause lasting damage to Lacalle Pou approval ratings, which rose to 48 percent in a survey last month by pollster Equipos Consultores.
Uruguay holds general elections in October 2024 in which Lacalle Pou is constitutionally prevented from seeking a second consecutive term.