Crisis in Colombia Drug money: Investigations threaten to bring down President Samper.

January 31, 1996

THE BIG BUZZ SAW, after two years, is closer to the presidency of Ernesto Samper of Colombia. Since election in 1994, he has steadfastly denied having sought and accepted drug cartel money in that campaign. Now two high campaign aides have said that he did, and an incorruptible investigator has been extended in office to press the case.

This is an object lesson in reasons to demand that politicians be absolutely clean of drug money. The suggestion is that, once beholden, the beneficiary of such philanthropy can never shake the corrupting influence, and can certainly not get rid of the taint.

Colombia has made great headway against the drug cartels in Medellin and Cali. Credit goes to Prosecutor General Alfonso Valdivieso and Police Chief Rosso Jose Serrano, not the president. When the violent Medellin cartel was largely shut down, the more corrosive and political Cali cartel filled the void.

Now that it is under severe pressure, the news for Americans is not entirely good. There are signs of its place being taken by cartels in Mexico, which find easier access to U.S. markets and have clearly had a corrosive effect on Mexican institutions.

The truly heartening thing that has happened in Colombia is a change in public opinion, a growing intolerance of narco-traffickers influence on the highest levels of politics. What was accepted as the way things are in the 1980s is now thought to be intolerable. Reflecting this sea change, a panel of judges extended the term of Mr. Valdivieso, which was to have ended March 1. The congress defeated measures that would have undermined prosecutors.

Mr. Valdivieso is thought to be closing in on President Samper. If he issues a "denuncia," a congressional commission would reopen its investigation, and Mr. Samper would probably have to yield to the pressure to step down.

The president has been trying to short-circuit the procedure by demanding a quicker investigation. Should it exonerate him, he might insist on a quick referendum to ask the voters whether he should continue in office.

Mr. Samper is fighting hard for survival, but Colombians increasingly want a clean, drug-free government. Mexicans are taking note.

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