Samper Digs in Heels Over Drug-Money Flap

But Colombian president may settle for 'dignified exit'

THE embattled president of Colombia has decided to hang tough - at least for public consumption.

Ernesto Samper Pizano is accused by former close associates of orchestrating the use of more than $6 million in drug-cartel contributions in his 1994 campaign.

President Samper has refused to resign, which is what polls show a majority of Colombians want. But two days after Samper went before Congress to request a ''rapid'' trial that would cast full light on any part he had in the drug-money scandal, government officials and political analysts are saying the president already has negotiated a ''dignified exit'' from office.

According to widespread assumptions, the president will go, but perhaps not before the end of a respectably long trial of several months. Even Samper realizes, these observers say, that were he to survive the crisis swirling around him, he could never reestablish legitimacy for a presidency tarnished both at home and abroad.

Samper went before a special session of Congress Tuesday night to maintain his innocence. He called himself the ''primary victim'' of the crisis. With the kind of fervor Colombians love, he implored Congress to establish who contaminated his campaign and to determine a way to ''relegitimize'' his mandate.

The charismatic leader reiterated his proposal for a referendum to determine whether he stays in office, in the event the Congress finds him innocent.

That may sound good, but reestablishing legitimacy will not come easily. A growing number of analysts say Cali cartel drug money not only entered the presidential campaign, but likely bought the result.

''The underlying fact we now have is that drug money infiltrated the presidential election and was very likely decisive in it,'' says Enrique Santos Calderon, the assistant director of the Bogota daily El Tiempo. ''That leaves Colombia with a sad future because it says the president needed drug money to be elected.''

Recent revelations show that huge amounts of drug money were flown to several ''departments,'' or districts, of Colombia, between the tight first round of the presidential race and the second round on June 19, 1994, which Samper won.

In each region where the drug money was distributed, Samper's votes increased significantly. In Cordoba, for example, votes for Samper jumped by more than 50,000 between the first and second rounds. Samper won the final by only 156,000 votes, or less than 2 percent of the total votes cast. ''Where the votes went up most is where most of the money was spent,'' El Tiempo's Mr. Santos says.

Many Colombians say it would be even worse if Samper didn't know how deeply indebted his campaign was to the drug lords. ''A president who doesn't know what's going on in his own campaign?'' asks Mauricio, a night cab driver in Bogota. ''What kind of president is that?''

Samper already was exonerated in December by the ''commission of accusations'' in the lower house of Congress. The commission said it found no evidence against the president in the drug scandal.

But since then former Defense Minister Fernando Botero, who served as Samper's campaign manager, has said that the president knew everything, a development that has created the current crisis. Mr. Botero is in jail on charges he solicited the drug-cartel contributions. Feeding the scandal are fresh details about the campaign financing. They include a colorful tale of bundles of cash in fuchsia gift wrap arriving by private airplane in rural areas where Samper needed votes.

Despite the new accusations, many Colombians doubt a second congressional investigation will come to a different conclusion. ''Short of someone producing a letter where Samper wrote to [Cali drug lord] Orejuela and said, 'Please send me money for my campaign,' he won't be found guilty,'' says a business leader.

Still, many observers insist Samper already has agreed to leave office. ''The man is packing his bags,'' says political scientist Sergio Uribe of the University of the Andes here. Samper cannot survive rejection by the business class, Mr. Uribe says. That rejection became apparent last week when business leaders asked Samper to withdraw temporarily from office.

An uptick in the stock market Wednesday and a recovering Colombian peso are signs that financial circles are assuming Samper will make a ''dignified exit,'' says a well-placed government source.

The possible negotiated deal includes a guarantee that Samper does not face prison, the source says, plus safe passage out of the country, probably to Spain.

The lower house of Congress began deliberations yesterday over whether to formally open an investigation of Samper. If that investigation is opened, it would then be up to the Senate to carry it out.

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