Drug Diplomacy: US to Judge Colombia's `War'

Displeased with the antidrug efforts of this major cocaine-producing nation, the US may soon deny aid

COLOMBIA, which produces more than 80 percent of the cocaine entering the US, very much wants to avoid being ``certified'' as one of the world's black sheep by Washington.

Many Colombians are fretting over that possibility as the United States government, in an annual debate, decides whether to deny their country a seal of approval for efforts to combat the illegal narcotics trade.

The Clinton administration is expected to make a recommendation to Congress by March 1, and Congress will then decide whether or not to give the country the approval sometime in March or April.

Last week, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said the US was ``disappointed'' in the actions Colombia took against drug trafficking in 1994.

And earlier this year, US Ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette gave a speech in which he outlined some progress in Colombia's antidrug activity, but concluded that full certification would be ``difficult.''

``Certification'' is a bureaucratic term used when Congress approves aid to countries and uses US influence in international financial institutions. Loss of certification would deal a major blow to both the finances and national image of a country.

Colombia has already seen its international stock plummet after a decade of booming drug exports and drug-related violence.

Rather than giving an approval or denial, most officials here and in Washington believe President Clinton will grant a ``national security'' certification. It would express reservations about a country's antidrug action without setting back binational cooperation deemed essential to the US antinarcotic fight.

The issue has prompted some self-appraisal - and reaction to it - from Colombians. ``The certification issue has led to what some people are calling, with some exaggeration, `narconationalism,' '' says Enrique Santos Calderon, assistant director of the Bogota daily El Tiempo. ``But at the same time, it's causing people to say, `Look in the mirror, look at what we've come to.' ''

It also has led to a fair amount of sour feelings toward the US in a country that, as Mr. Santos points out, does not have a strong anti-Yankee tradition. Noting that the US is the world's largest consumer of illicit drugs, one newspaper columnist last week quipped, ``The customer is always right,'' before developing the frequently made point here that Colombia shouldn't be forced to wage a drug war when the US is not doing the same at home.

US misgivings over Colombia appear to focus on three areas: the country's narcotic crops-eradication campaign, corruption, and its judicial system.

Shortly after the certification issue surfaced, Colombian President Ernesto Samper Pizano outlined an ambitious program that calls for destroying all of Colombia's coca and poppy fields in two years. Colombian observers scoffed at the plan, noting that last year's crop destruction would have to be multiplied several times to destroy 175,000 acres of drug crops in 24 months.

Informants threatened

US officials also worry about the extent to which traffickers have infiltrated Colombia's drug-fighting apparatus. In a number of instances where the US supplied evidence to Colombian officials investigating trafficking cases, for example, the families of individuals providing the information soon received threats - indicating that someone with access to the Colombian investigations was working for the wrong side. The US has since stopped providing information in new investigations.

In addition, the US is critical of Colombia's plea-bargaining system, which has allowed the lawyers of important traffickers to negotiate extremely brief sentences for their bosses.

President Samper's drug-eradication program and comments by other Colombian officials indicate that the Colombian government doesn't disagree with the US observations.

At the same time, Ambassador Frechette has expressed more confidence in the Colombian drug-eradication plan than have some Colombians. And the US is watching Colombia's attempts to try Cali drug-cartel leader Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela on drug trafficking charges. A successful conviction would constitute an important first.

The problem now is that the issue has ballooned for many Colombians into a standard Latin American sovereignty-from-Uncle-Sam controversy.

Playing to the home audience, Colombian Foreign Minister Rodrigo Pardo - just home from a lobbying trip to Washington where he said Colombia could do more in the battle - won kudos from Bogots lunch-booth crowds last week when he mimmicked Mr. Christopher's words, saying ``We, too, are disappointed'' that the US hasn't done more to control drug consumption.

Observers cite the new US ``aggressiveness'' as a warning to Colombia - which depends on the US as a market for nearly half its legitimate exports - to diversify its markets to Europe and Asia. Right on cue, French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur sent a letter to Samper last week assuring him of France's support of Colombia in its battle against drugs. At the same time, Britain called for closer commercial links to Colombia and announced a $16 million grant to the Samper government to help in the antidrug battle - about the same amount Colombia risks losing from a US decertification.

Colombian bravado

Like jilted lovers, some Colombians point to these new suitors and insist that their country can do without the US and its certification. Their most consistent complaint is that they see the US doing very little about the consumption that drives the narcotics industry. ``If the US didn't provide this huge market,'' says a milk-products processor at a Bogota restaurant, ``our cartels would have no reason to exist.''

But perhaps the greatest source of agitation over the current squall in US-Colombian relations is a fear that certain US officials, led by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, want Colombia to wage an all-out war on the powerful Cali cartel.

Most Colombians look back to the years of ``narcoterrorism'' in the early 1990s, when a US-inspired war on the Medellin cartel led to terrible bombings in the cities. Hundreds of innocent people, journalists, judges, politicians, and four presidential candidates were killed. ``Why should we face the bombs and assassinations again for the Americans, when they can't solve their own drug problem?'' says the Bogota milk processor.

``We can't afford to get lost in recriminations with another country, we have to take seriously what the drug trade is doing to us, to our youth, to our work ethic and our moral fiber,'' says El Tiempo's Santos.

``We have to fight this battle against the drug trade not for the US or anyone else, but for ourselves,'' he says.

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