Bid to Show US That Colombia Fights Drug Trade Looks Too Little, Too Late

Earlier this month President Ernesto Samper Pizano stood surrounded by coca plants in the southern province of Guaviare - the cocaine-processing capital of Colombia - and congratulated his police on their latest victory in the war on drugs.

The Colombian government was touting the seizure of a huge illegal drug lab in San Jose, Guaviare, the largest such facility ever uncovered, capable of producing 1-1/2 tons of cocaine per day.

On Thursday the United States State Department will decide whether to "certify" Colombia as a country that is taking sufficient steps to fight its illegal trade in cocaine and heroin. Colombia has undertaken a slew of recent steps to convince the US that it is doing enough, including intense lobbying in the US and new crackdowns and antidrug laws at home.

But "decertification" seems to be a foregone conclusion after Robert Gelbard, the US assistant secretary of state for narcotics, said earlier this month that the US considers Mr. Samper himself to be linked to drug traffickers. Now Colombians are just hoping that the unfavorable ruling will come unaccompanied by damaging economic sanctions.

Samper was cleared last year by Colombia's Congress of charges that he had accepted a $6-million campaign contribution in 1993 from the Cali cocaine cartel. But the US showed its conviction that Samper was corrupt by revoking his US visa. As long as Samper is in office, it will be difficult for Washington to consider Colombia an ally in the drug war.

"I don't think Colombia will be fully certified in 1997, nor in 1998," says Juan Tokatlian, director of the Institute of Political Studies and International relations at National University in Bogota. "It would be really surprising to fully certify a country whose leader they have 'decertified.' "

Despite the allegations of corruption hanging over Samper, his administration has won several clear victories against narcotics.

Besides the laboratories and tons of pure cocaine seized, the Samper administration oversaw the dismantling of the Cali cartel and shepherded several important antinarcotics laws through Congress, including an asset-forfeiture bill that will allow the government to seize millions in drug-traffickers' land and goods.

In record time last week Colombia also approved a new agreement to cooperate with the US Coast Guard in the Caribbean, a law fighting money-laundering, and most importantly, a higher maximum prison sentence for drug trafficking: 60 years.

"Clearly in some areas there has been considerable progress," says US ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette. "However, the fact is they actually seized less cocaine this year than they did last year. They passed a strong law on asset forfeiture, that's an important plus, but on corruption they didn't do very well."

Corruption in Colombian institutions, especially the judicial system, may be strong enough to unravel any gains made by the government. In the view of the US, a perfect example was the Jan. 17 sentencing of the leaders of the Cali cartel. An anonymous judge condemned Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela to 12 and 10 years in prison. (Colombia's judicial system hides the identity of judges to protect them against retribution. But the system also makes it difficult to tell if a judge is impartial and incorrupt.)

Almost every high-ranking member of Samper's government protested the short sentences. "The sentences were a huge shock in the US," Mr. Frechette says.

On Sunday, Colombian officials announced that Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela would receive a 23-year sentence for another drug-related crime, the stiffest penalty handed down in years.

The US has alleged that the Colombian prison system is so corrupt that the Cali cartel bosses continued to traffic in drugs from inside prison walls. Colombian police raided La Picota prison in December and hope they have put a stop to the operations. Meanwhile, drug bosses have set their teams of lawyers to work finding ways to shelter their wealth from the new forfeiture bill. With reductions for good behavior, the Cali kingpins will be free men in less than six years.

For the US, this perceived lack of justice is the main reason to change Colombia's Constitution to allow international extradition. Samper failed to push an extradition amendment through Congress last year. He says he will try again this spring.

But laws alone may not be enough. "Yes we have the law, but who will apply the law? You need a powerful, legitimate government. Do we have that in Colombia? I doubt it very much," Professor Tokatlian says.

Samper's speeches of late have focused on the gains his administration has made against the cocaine and heroin trade based in Colombia. (Colombia has become a major source of heroin in the US, especially on the East Coast.) A procession of high-ranking, high-credibility Colombian officials have visited Washington in the last several weeks, hoping if nothing else to persuade the US Congress not to punish Colombia with damaging economic sanctions.

The 11th-hour reforms made last week are officially too late to be considered in the Clinton administration's evaluation of 1996. But US Embassy officials have indicated that the moves will still receive some consideration, and that there is little appetite for economic sanctions in Washington.

"You can't ignore something as important as [the latest antidrug laws], even though they missed the deadline," Frechette says.

While Colombia appears to have escaped damaging sanctions, it may not win certification until it can elect a new president in 1998.

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