Colombia's Chief Ups Ante For Kingpins; US Skeptical


Pressure by the United States to make Colombia crack down on drug trafficking is beginning to pay off.

Police sweeps have closed more than 60 cocaine and heroin laboratories in southeastern Colombia over the last few months. And scandal-ridden President Ernesto Samper Pizano is preparing to introduce a bill to toughen penalties against drug trafficking.

Washington stepped up the pressure last week when it took the almost-unheard-of move of canceling Mr. Samper's visa to the US. A defiant Samper called the move an "outrageous" intervention in Colombian affairs.

"Colombia, alone or with help, will continue to wage war on drug trafficking," Samper said.

But the Clinton administration said it was time Samper's actions matched his words. The US State Department said Samper accepted millions of dollars from the Cali drug cartel to finance his 1994 presidential campaign, and then used his position to protect and help the drug lords. US pressure intensified after Colombia's Congress, stacked with Samper supporters, exonerated him in June.

"People who knowingly assist narco-traffickers are not welcome in the United States," said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, announcing the visa revocation. About 80 percent of the cocaine that enters the US is produced in Colombia.

Pressure is also coming from within Colombia, especially from a business community that worries Washington will impose economic sanctions. The economy is already suffering a slowdown, largely as a result of the year-long political crisis.

Alberto Vasquez, head of the construction industry association, said the crisis will worsen as investor confidence deteriorates. "This puts Samper alongside [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi. Colombia will be like Libya," Mr. Vasquez said.

And Sabas Pretelt, president of the National Business Council, said several foreign investors have already told him they won't invest in Colombia because of the tensions.

Samper is becoming increasingly isolated. Colombian Vice President Humberto de la Calle on Tuesday resigned as ambassador to Spain, saying he wanted to return to the country to help resolve the crisis. Mr. de la Calle is a political rival of Samper.

Last Saturday, Colombia's leading newspaper for the first time called for Samper's resignation. El Tiempo's editor in chief, Hernando Santos, who had maintained staunch support for the beleaguered president, urged Samper to quit before Colombia's relationship with the US deteriorated even more.

Samper responded by insisting that he'll remain president until his term ends in 1998.

But Samper's resignation may not be what the US is really after. Andres Franco, a political scientist at the Javeriana University in Bogota, said it is not in the US interest for Samper to quit. "President Samper is proving to be a compliant and obedient president," he said.

The recent raids in the district of Guaviare, where 60 percent of Colombia's illegal crops are grown, are proof of that, said Professor Franco. Police destroyed 64 drug labs, 10 airplane runways, and hundreds of acres of coca and poppy fields. Similar raids around the country this year have cost drug traffickers about $400 million, the government said.

In a separate operation in Cali last week, police seized property worth hundreds of millions of dollars belonging to the jailed cartel leaders.

To prove he's serious about cracking down, Samper's government is preparing a bill that would double jail terms for traffickers and make it easier for police to seize their fortunes and properties. But the bill must first make its way through Congress, where a majority of the members are themselves suspected of links to the drug lords, Franco said.

The Clinton administration was quick to praise the efforts of hundreds of Colombian law-enforcement officials in the fight against drug trafficking and carefully made the distinction that it is Samper and some members of his Cabinet and Congress that it doesn't trust.

The real prize Washington is after is extradition, so that Colombia's cocaine kingpins face trial and prison in the US. But it is prohibited by Colombia's Constitution and Colombians fear that moves to reinstate extradition could unleash a violent wave of retaliation by the cartels.

Samper has long maintained that he would not broach the subject in Congress. But in a sign that Washington's tactics may be working, Samper recently conceded that perhaps the time has come for a national debate on the issue.

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