Colombians fear government will encourage repression Tarnished administration will not last, some say

June 30, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Hours after the Colombian Congress earlier this month cleared President Ernesto Samper of ties to drug traffickers, he vowed to spearhead a movement for national reconciliation.

Yet many Colombians fear that "reconciliation" is a code word for whitewash and even repression by an administration determined stay in power despite evidence that the 1994 presidential campaign was financed by millions of dollars in drug money.

Repression may not even be needed if jaded Colombians simply allow Samper to remain in office. That could leave Colombia saddled with a discredited president at a time when the country desperately needs a leader to make peace with its guerrillas and crack down on crime, particularly drug trafficking.

The president's opponents find themselves reluctantly looking to pressure to remove Samper. Americans have threatened to raise duties on Colombian exports to the United States unless this country steps up efforts against narcotics traffickers. Because of evidence that Samper received campaign contributions from drug lords, there is little confidence that he will lead such an effort.

Samper had hinted that he might step down if accusations against him were dropped. But he quickly back-tracked on that suggestion after Congress, dominated by his Liberal Party, voted to halt the investigation into his campaign finances for lack of proof.

Still, many observers, even inside the government, believe that the current, tarnished administration cannot stay in office until 00 the regularly scheduled election two years from now. "This government cannot sustain itself," said one senior official. "The situation is serious."

Fears of repression were fed two weeks ago when an enemies list surfaced. A memorandum, supposedly prepared by outside consultants to the national intelligence agency, known by the initials DAS, outlined strategies for neutralizing dozens of possible government opponents. They ranged from journalists to Cabinet members, including Foreign Minister Rodrigo Pardo, a childhood friend of Samper, and Gen. Jose Rosso Serrano, commander of the National Police.

While opponents say that fear of reprisals is behind the public's failure to protest, they also acknowledge that Samper is still a tremendously popular president with a 40 percent approval rating, among the highest in Latin America, according to the latest polls.

"We cannot ignore that a large part of the population has been tricked into believing that this is a conspiracy of the Americans and the domestic bourgeoisie," said Adolfo Salamanca, the assistant prosecutor who has pursued investigations that have landed eight members of Congress, the attorney general and an assistant attorney general in jail on drug-related corruption charges.

Ironically, such an alliance may be all that can remove Samper from power, observers said.

"The president can easily resist his opposition with support from the military," said political analyst Rodrigo Losada.

"But if the United States imposes sanctions that hit hard at specific sectors of the economy, such as flower exports and air transport, businessmen could organize company shutdowns that would force the president to step down.

"Otherwise, Samper will finish out his term."

Pub Date: 6/30/96

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