A political verdict Colombian acquittal: Legislators find president innocent of drug money allegations.

June 15, 1996

EXONERATION of Colombian President Ernesto Samper on charges that drug dealers financed his election in 1994 was not unexpected.

After all, the Latin American nation's politicians are so influenced by cocaine lords that a jailed senator named 39 congressmen in the 165-member Chamber of Representatives, including eight on the panel that recommended clearing the president, as people who should have abstained from the debate because of a conflict of interest. A dozen politicians apparently had links so brazen with narcotics interests they are under official investigation.

This points to the problem Mr. Samper will have despite his exoneration by his political friends. Few in Colombia or abroad believe he is as innocent as he claims. Since it has been proven persuasively that his campaign received at least $6 million from drug dealers, it is difficult to fathom that the candidate himself was not aware of where the cash came from.

This, in turn, suggests that the political crisis caused by questions about Mr. Samper's drug connections are only starting. "The real crisis will begin after the congressional vote," wrote Fernando Cepeda, a prominent figure in the president's Liberal Party. "We will see increasing radicalization, which is worse than the polarization we now have."

Despite calls for his resignation, Mr. Samper seems determined to hang on to office. This is bad news for his country. International organizations and reputable businesses are likely to curtail badly needed aid and investment to Colombia. Some governments, including the United States, may even impose official sanctions. Already in March, the U.S. decertified Colombia as an ally in the war on drugs.

Like many Colombian politicians, Mr. Samper argues that a drug flow from his country to the United States is a problem fueled by American demand to which his poor country's farmers respond. He says that U.S. sanctions would mean that legitimate growers of flowers, coffee and bananas would be forced to turn into cultivation of coca leaves and hemp if their current exports are limited.

This is a cynical view from a cynical leader. The only possible silver lining is that more and more Colombians are getting so disgusted they are speaking out and demanding change.

Pub Date: 6/15/96

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