How Stiffing a Drug-Exporting Country Can Backfire

Before Congress votes to override President Clinton's certification of Mexico, it may want to look farther south.

Colombians were outraged by Mr. Clinton's decision Feb. 28 to decertify Colombia as a drug-fighting partner for the second year in a row. But rather than vowing to step up the war on drugs, last week Colombia announced it was temporarily suspending its drug crop-eradication program.

Colombia's reaction led observers to wonder: Does the certification process really work? If its only result is the suspension of drug-eradication programs and foot-dragging on the part of Colombia, is it helping to stem the flow of drugs to the US?

"The [Colombian] government is wondering why, if we worked together during the entire year, the American government didn't recognize the special efforts made by the Colombian government," said Joaquin Polo, director of Colombia's national drug policy, last week.

On Monday, an agreement that the United States would provide $22 million for Colombia's antidrug effort helped get drug crop-dusting planes back off the ground. But the money likely won't compensate for decertification, which President Ernesto Samper Pizano said last week had "poisoned" US-Colombian relations.

Colombian politicians have branded decertification hypocritical because the US remains the world's largest drug consumer. "The decision to decertify Colombia is arbitrary and unjust and discredits a mechanism which has been severely criticized even in the United States," Colombian Vice President Carlos Lemos Simmonds said.

Colombians point to their successes over the past year, including the seizure of the largest illegal drug lab in history. In addition, Bogot oversaw the dismantling of the Cali cartel and shepherded several important antidrug laws through Congress.

Last week's suspension of crop-eradication flights appeared to be the first concrete demonstration of Colombia's anger and unleashed a tense exchange between Colombia and the US, with US State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns hinting at sanctions.

The crop-eradication program is jointly operated by the US and Colombia and was one of the areas Frechette praised. This fueled speculation that suspension was a retaliation by Bogota.

In an interview with the Miami Herald Friday, Mr. Samper said he wouldn't retaliate against the US. But in the same interview, he said he doubted, in light of US pressure, that Colombia's Congress would be inclined to pass an extradition treaty with the US. Extradition remains a key US demand.

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