Emergency Brings a Brief Reprieve to Colombia Leader

COLOMBIA'S President Ernesto Samper Pizano has been thrown a life vest. Floundering in the waters of a political scandal, Mr. Samper looks likely to survive, for the moment.

After the assassination of a leading conservative politician Nov. 2, Mr. Samper declared a national state of emergency.

The security forces have been given sweeping new powers to make arrests and carry out house searches without warrants. Road blocks have been set up throughout Colombia's capital city, Bogota, as police hunt the killers of three-time presidential candidate Alvaro Gomez Hurtado. The media has also been prevented from publishing information or interviews with criminals.

The state of emergency and ''the call for national unity after the death of Alvaro Gomez will strengthen Samper in the short-term,'' predicts Eduardo Pizarro, political science lecturer at the National University in Bogota.

Samper has been dogged for months by accusations his presidential campaign received $6 million from the Cali drug cartel.

A congressional committee is currently investigating the president's knowledge of dirty money in his campaign funds and is expected to make a ruling by the end of this month.

But few believe the committee - 11 of the 15 members belong to Samper's Liberal Party - will find Samper guilty.

''If he falls, it will because of political pressure, not because of the investigation,'' says Mr. Pizarro.

Samper's political credibility began to slide in July when accusations of drug money in his 1994 presidential campaign emerged.

In August, Samper chose the one course of action he knew could unite the country behind him - a National Accord Against Violence. Colombia boasts the highest violent crime rates in the world - 30,000 murders and 4,000 kidnappings a year. The president declared a state of emergency to combat Colombia's soaring crime rates.

But, two weeks ago, the Constitutional Court overruled the decree, arguing Colombia's current violence figures were not exceptional in the country's turbulent recent history.

That decision made Samper appear weaker. Although most observers say the Constitutional Court will rule in favor of Samper on this occasion, they predict the president's success will be short-lived.

''In the medium term, if there isn't any control, we're going to see a repetition of the institutional collapse of 1989 to '90,'' says Pizarro.

During this period when the Medellin cocaine cartel used terrorism to prevent the government from introducing extraditions, Colombians lived in fear of car bombs and assassinations.

Journalists, judges, politicians, and four presidential candidates were killed in these years, including Pizarro's brother.

The disconcerting twist to the assassination is that the motive remains a mystery. Gomez was a conservative who no longer participated in politics, and was a staunch opponent of Samper.

Colombia holds a bewildering array of armed groups, any one of which could have done the killing: left-wing guerrillas attacking the establishment, disgruntled drug traffickers attempting to terrorize the state, or opponents of Samper who want to force his resignation.

A group calling itself ''National Dignity'' claimed responsibility for Gomez's murder, and for the attempt on Samper's lawyer, Antonio Jose Cancino, in September. No one knows who is behind the group, and the security forces have not made any charges against suspected killers.

''The government doesn't know what these people want, and so the solutions are hard to find,'' says Andres Vasco, political science professor at the Javeriana University in Bogota.

In the country's capital Nov. 3, hundreds of students marched to the Congress where Gomez lay in state until the funeral later that day.

Some were crying. All were waving white handkerchiefs and shouting, ''We want a country, not a cemetery.''

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