Colombia forces hard choices on Clinton President must respond to drug trafficking

February 21, 1996|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is approaching what may be one of the most crucial decisions yet faced by the United States in its decade-long war against Latin American cocaine barons, officials and experts say.

The president has until March 1 to decide whether Colombia, the world's biggest source of cocaine, has been cooperating in the drug war. If he concludes it has not, he can either impose economic sanctions or -- should he decide such action would be counterproductive -- waive the penalty.

Experts say the decision could have a far-reaching impact on Colombia's fragile democratic institutions and on the battle against drug corruption throughout Latin America, which is a source not only of cocaine but marijuana and heroin as well.

"This is the first time when [such] a U.S. decision may make or break a government," said a congressional aide who follows the drug war closely.

The case for punishing Colombia gained strength last week when that country's chief prosecutor, Alfonso Valdivieso, formally accused President Ernesto Samper of accepting campaign contributions from drug traffickers. The charges, filed with a legislative committee, set in motion a process that could result in the president's impeachment.

"I don't think we help the people who want to clean up the institutions of Colombia and destroy the drug cartels by not telling the truth and failing to take cognizance of the evidence of corruption," said John P. Walters, a key anti-drug official in the Bush administration.

The new charges underscore the extent to which Colombia's government institutions have come under the influence of the cocaine barons, requiring a tough response from the United States, Mr. Walters said. And if Washington is unwilling to come down hard against Colombia, he said, it will exert even less control over growing narcotics-corruption in Mexico, a country where the United States has a much bigger economic stake.

But others worry that sanctions could have unintended consequences, even undermining the efforts of Mr. Valdivieso and enemies of corruption in the police and the military.

"They're going through their own Watergate right now, so it may not be the best timing for a foreign country to tell them what to do and how to run their show," said Raphael Perl, a senior adviser on narcotics at the Congressional Research Service, the think tank for members of Congress.

Some experts fear that pressure from the United States could stir up strong anti-Americanism in Colombia, leaving Mr. Samper more entrenched than ever. Worse, it perhaps could trigger a coup that puts a drug-tainted military junta into power, they say.

Asked about that possibility, a senior Clinton administration official acknowledged that the impact of imposing sanctions "is unpredictable."

The drug war is frequently a hot issue during election years as politicians vie with one another to appear tough on crime.

Under pressure from Capitol Hill, the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and now Mr. Clinton have all focused on Colombia in an effort to stem the flow of cocaine and its potent byproduct, crack, into U.S. cities.

The drug is derived from the coca plant, which flourishes on the Andean hillsides of Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. Much of it is converted into cocaine in Colombian labs, then transported by plane, truck or boat to the United States.

With U.S. help, Colombian authorities broke up the violent cocaine cartel based in Medellin, killing or imprisoning most of its leaders, but they have had less success against the Cali cartel, which has penetrated Colombia's business community, terrorized the judiciary and compromised other government institutions.

Mr. Samper's narrow win in the 1994 presidential elections followed a late infusion of millions of dollars in campaign cash that former aides have said came from the Cali cartel. Mr. Samper has denied knowing the money came from drug traffickers.

The economic sanctions Mr. Clinton could impose would amount to tens of millions of dollars and would particularly harm the cut-flower industry, experts say. This would please Patrick J. Buchanan, a GOP presidential candidate who has criticized trade preferences for Latin American cut flowers.

But any sanctions could weaken Colombia's stake in the international trading system and thereby increase the drug traffickers' sway over the legitimate economy, said Rensselaer W. Lee, co-author of a coming book on the Andean cocaine industry.

"Decertification might boomerang on us," said Mr. Lee, using the official term for declaring that a country has failed to cooperate in the drug war.

He urged the administration instead to repeat what it did last year: grant Colombia a "national interest" certification. This halfway measure puts a country on notice that it has failed to cooperate, but does not impose a penalty.

Complicating the assessment is the uncertain impact on the drug war in Mexico, a growing center of drug trafficking, money laundering and corruption.

Past Colombian crackdowns, and U.S. law enforcement efforts in the Caribbean, have had the effect of driving some of the traffickers' operations into Mexico. Where money and drugs have gone, corruption has followed, officials say.

Given the heavy U.S. investment in Mexico, Mr. Clinton is considered virtually certain not to impose sanctions there. But if he only penalizes Colombia, he could open himself to charges of allowing a double standard.

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