Colombian Drug Battle: Challenge for US

IN its desire to help Colombia fight the drug barons, the United States faces a delicate diplomatic challenge. The government of President Virgilio Barco Vargas wants US help - and is showing it means business by starting the extradition process for Eduardo Mart'inez Romero, the Medell'in drug cartel's reputed ``finance manager,'' who was indicted in Atlanta in March. Colombian police arrested him in a sweeping weekend crackdown on the drug underground.

The US has to be careful to offer its assistance discreetly, so as not to raise nationalist hackles. Colombian officials react with annoyance to any suggestions that the US would be willing to send troops to their country. But there are other ways the US can help, say experts on the narcotics trade.

President Barco's decision over the weekend to revive a US-Colombian extradition treaty, taken following the assassination of the top presidential candidate, presents a renewed opportunity to try Colombian drug leaders in US courts. The last Colombian extradition to the US was in 1987, when cartel leader Carlos Lehder Rivas was captured in Colombia, flown to Florida for trial, and sentenced to life in a federal prison without parole.

In June 1987, the Colombian Supreme Court declared the treaty unconstitutional after death threats by drug dealers. Now, under the new powers invoked by Barco, the Colombian government can send to the US reputed drug operatives who are wanted there without getting judicial clearance in Colombia. On Aug. 22, the US Justice Department released a ``12 most wanted list'' of alleged Colombian drug traffickers. All told, about 80 Colombians are wanted in the US on drug charges.

Experts on the drug trade say the US should do all it can to support Colombian efforts to track down drug fugitives. That means providing logistical support, such as manpower, intelligence, computers, communications equipment, and having planes ready to whisk captured suspects to the US, says Doug Payne of Freedom House.

The task gets more complicated when the drug dealers flee to third countries, as it is suspected some of the top cartel leaders have now done. Because of the multinational nature of the problem, says Robert Merkle, the former US attorney in Tampa who prosecuted Carlos Lehder, the US ``should be mounting an intense diplomatic effort in which we marshal multilateral support.''

``The Colombian statement this morning was quite accurate: This is not just Colombia's problem,'' Mr. Merkle said Aug. 22. ``The US should be making it clear, first of all, that the success of Colombia is a top priority in this administration. And it should make sure that whatever procedures can be put in place are in fact put in place to prevent safe refuge in neighboring countries.''

Some analysts say Colombia may have turned a corner in its drug battle, that at last the drug barons - suspected in the murder of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Gal'an - have pushed the government too far. But it remains to be seen whether Barco can press on once the emotion and international attention have subsided.

``If they don't handle it this time,'' Merkle says, ``it may well be the end of the line for the credibility of the executive branch of Colombia.''

There is also talk in Colombia that if the government is unable to crack the drug leadership now, the nation could be heading for a ``narcocracy.'' The death of the popular Mr. Gal'an opens the way for the possibility of a compromise presidential candidate in league with the drug lords.

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