Colombia Stays in US Disfavor

Proposed antidrug laws may not be enough to end 'decertification' by US

When the Clinton administration "decertified" Colombia last March, it was the first time this annual drug-war seal of approval was denied to a democracy and a close trade partner of the United States.

Colombians held their breath, anticipating that the action - aimed at punishing what the US considered to be deficiencies in Colombia's antinarcotics trade effort - would deliver a blow to their country's economy. Since Colombia depends on the US for 40 percent of its trade, the prospect of sanctions, denied international loans, and other economic measures was alarming.

As it turns out, the last seven months have revealed what relieved Colombians say is a suave decertification - what might be called "decertification lite." Colombian President Ernesto Samper Pizano lost his US visa on strong evidence that his 1994 election campaign was heavily financed with money from the Cali drug cartel, and other high officials are also officially unwelcome in the US. But there have been no economic sanctions, nor US vetoes of loans to Colombia from international lending institutions.

Next year, however, things could be different. The determining factor will be legislation submitted to Colombia's congress by President Samper designed to deliver a severe blow to drug-trafficking. Measures include sharply increased prison terms for convicted drug lords, asset forfeitures from convicted drug traffickers, and stiffened anti-money-laundering laws.

Many Colombian analysts say the US will almost certainly decertify Colombia again in 1997, but they say this legislation will tip the balance on economic sanctions. Some observers go even farther.

"We could even see severe economic sanctions before March 1 [the annual date by which the administration must report to Congress on which narcotic-producing countries are certified and which are decertified]," says Sergio Uribe, a Colombian drug-policy expert.

"It would be the Americans' way of saying, 'You're not going to be certified, don't worry about it,' " Mr. Uribe says.

While US officials here won't speculate on Colombia's prospects for the next certification process, they are direct about what the US wants. "We have made very clear ... the things we expect them to do as part of the certification goals for calendar 1996," says US Ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette. He lists the legislation now before Colombia's congress, as well as "progress" toward allowing extradition of Colombia's top drug lords to the US.

Colombia has an extradition treaty with the US, but the country's new Constitution, dating from 1991, outlaws the practice.

Colombian officials working closely with Samper say it is a "top priority" to get the antitrafficking legislation passed, but they admit it will not be easy. "The government's scenario is to have this legislation finished by December," says Foreign Minister Mara Emma Meja, "but we know this will be difficult, because the power of the narcos is still there" in Congress.

Some Colombian analysts estimate that as many as 175 of Colombia's 300 representatives and senators have received financing from or are controlled by the country's drug traffickers.

"Normally the influence of the [president] is very high and [he] would get out of Congress what he wants, but in this case the members of Congress must listen to two voices. The government, yes, but also the narcos who have financed them," says Alejandro Reyes, a political scientist at Colombia's National University in Bogot:

Foreign Minister Meja acknowledges that "we do not like" the certification process, but she says getting tough with the country's drug traffickers is something Colombians should not see as an "imposition" but must do for themselves. The legislation should not be viewed simply as something the US is demanding, she says - an argument that has led some members of Congress to argue against passage on grounds of sovereignty - but as measures to bring Colombia up to international standards in an international drug war.

What has many analysts and economic leaders worried is not only the snail's pace at which congress has taken up the legislation, but also recent proposed amendments that would weaken key provisions. One proposal is for a "graduating" of stiffer prison sentences, which some observers say would favor the kind of small traffickers that drug-trade analysts say are now taking over from the famous and once all-powerful cartels of Cali and Medelln.

The catch is that in Colombia sentences of three years or less are never served. So with so many of Colombia's representatives and senators knowing they could face illegal enrichment charges (not to mention those who are already in prison) the measure is seen as a bald case of self-exoneration.

For political analysts, the legislative battle is thus much more than just a test of US-Colombia relations; it is a barometer of Colombia's social and political health.

Congress's open discussion of blatantly self-serving measures "is a stain of shame on our country," says Mr. Reyes, "but unfortunately we cannot expect much better from the current congress."

Adds political scientist Juan Tikatlian: "What we are answering here is, 'Is Colombia a democracy or not?' Congress is not going to proceed on this [legislation] until society demands it," he says, "so the essential element now is pressure from all private sectors. We have to see if there is any accountability."

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