US Casts Eye on Bogota's Drug Fight

Colombian growers concerned that US will pull plug on certification because of scandal

JOS CRILLO is all smiles. Like 75,000 other Colombians, he lives by growing flowers, and sales of the country's carnations, roses, and chrysanthemums continue an impressive bloom - especially in the United States.

But that smile may be in for a droop. Mr. Criollo, who figures in ads for the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters (ASOCOLFLORES), could find his livelihood seriously threatened if on March 1 the Clinton administration declares Colombia an unworthy partner in the international war on drugs.

If the US decides Colombia has not taken sufficient measures over the previous year against the cocaine trade, the consequences would be harsh.

Preferential tariffs that have helped Criollo's roses reach Cleveland could be dropped, and the US would be required to vote against Colombia in multilateral lending and development institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank.

More disastrous still, in the eyes of many Colombians, would be the dark stain such a blow would have on the country's image. ''It would place us among pariah countries, such as for example Iran and Libya,'' says Carlos Lleras de la Fuente, Colombia's ambassador to Washington.

The annual process through which the administration and Congress evaluate countries that supply illegal drugs to the US is called ''certification'' - a term for the seal of approval the US either awards or denies. Most Americans don't know the term; virtually every Colombian does, from juice vendors to cab drivers.

The process already caused a brouhaha here last year, when the Clinton administration finally decided to award Colombia a conditional certification for ''national security'' concerns.

The reasoning was that a full decertification would mean a less cooperative relationship with Colombia, which could leave the US vulnerable to more illegal drugs arriving on its market. It would have also wasted the $1 billion, 10-year investment the US has made here in antidrug actions that US and even Colombian officials acknowledge has been key to recent victories against the drug trade.

Topping the list of 1995's advances are increased drug seizures by a new, effective antinarcotics police, imprisonment of five of the top seven Cali cartel drug lords, and an ambitious drug-crop eradication program.

''International pressure and particularly pressure from the US is what has produced the results here in Colombia,'' says US Ambassador to Colombia Miles Frechette.

Sentences still weak

Despite the progress, Colombia's antidrug-trade effort still leaves much to be desired, US officials say. Sentences for drug kingpins are still weak, they say, with evidence strong that the dons find ways to run their businesses from inside prison. The US also doesn't like Colombia's refusal to extradite its international drug traders despite an extradition treaty with the US.

This year's process is further complicated by the deepening scandal dragging down Colombian President Ernesto Samper Pizano over accusations his 1994 campaign was financed with millions of dollars in Cali cartel contributions. Even though certification is supposed to reflect a country's performance over the last calendar year, US officials and Colombian analysts say it is difficult to imagine the scandal - which blew up Jan. 22 over allegations from Samper's jailed campaign director that the president approved the cartel contributions - won't affect the process.

The US has long suspected Samper's role in the scandal. The timing of the certification process in the heat of the Samper scandal has led some analysts here to speculate the Clinton administration may recommend Colombia's decertification to Congress, on the assumption that it might precipitate Samper's fall.

''The fact is that most Colombians would interpret certification as a support for Samper'' in his struggle to stay in power, says Javier Fernandez Riva, president of the National Association of Financial Institutions here. ''But decertification would feed a nationalist wave and ultimately deliver its hardest blow to people who are working hard against the drug trade.''

The US presidential campaign also makes Colombia's certification a trickier decision for the Clinton administration this year. Clinton is under pressure from some Republican members of Congress to be tougher on Colombia and other ''narco-democracies.''

On the other hand, decertification and the row it would cause risk leaving the US looking like there is little to its Latin American policy beyond drugs, according to some analysts. The US already dropped the ball on its commitment to bring Chile into NAFTA by the end of 1995, says Bruce Bagley, a Colombia expert at the University of Miami.

Colombian economists and business leaders say decertification would deliver the country's economy a forceful hit, but not a disastrous one. About one-third of Colombia's exports went to the US in 1994, and 18 percent of those fell under a US preferential tariff program with Andean countries. That program, designed as an incentive for antidrug cooperation, is worth about $60 million a year to Colombia.

Flowers take the heat

But the brunt of the initial blow would be felt by certain sectors, like flowers, that benefit most from the reduced tariffs. Colombia's $360 million in flower sales to the US would face fresh competition from Ecuador or Mexico, whose products would suddenly be cheaper than Colombia's by 8 percent. ''We are very worried about this,'' says ASOCOLFLORES President Maria Isabel Patino.

Business leaders also don't believe decertification would have the effect the US wants. ''This really puts the pressure on the good while trying to get at the bad, and that hurts many,'' Mrs. Patino says. The 75,000 Colombians raising flowers keep their land from falling into drug-crop production, she notes.

They also say that through their private-sector organizations the vast majority of Colombian businesses have already put their own heavy pressure on the Samper government by asking the president to resign temporarily while his fate is determined in the nation's Congress.

''That was a forceful step while remaining respectful of our democratic institutions,'' says Jorge Ramirez Ocampo, president of the National Association of Exporters. He will join other business leaders in Washington next week to argue Colombia's case against decertification.

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