Bid to Show US That Colombia Fights Drug Trade Looks Too Little, Too Late

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Earlier this month President Ernesto Samper Pizano stood surrounded by coca plants in the southern province of Guaviare - the cocaine-processing capital of Colombia - and congratulated his police on their latest victory in the war on drugs.

The Colombian government was touting the seizure of a huge illegal drug lab in San Jose, Guaviare, the largest such facility ever uncovered, capable of producing 1-1/2 tons of cocaine per day.

On Thursday the United States State Department will decide whether to "certify" Colombia as a country that is taking sufficient steps to fight its illegal trade in cocaine and heroin. Colombia has undertaken a slew of recent steps to convince the US that it is doing enough, including intense lobbying in the US and new crackdowns and antidrug laws at home. But "decertification" seems to be a foregone conclusion after Robert Gelbard, the US assistant secretary of state for narcotics, said earlier this month that the US considers Mr. Samper himself to be linked to drug traffickers. Now Colombians are just hoping that the unfavorable ruling will come unaccompanied by damaging economic sanctions. Samper was cleared last year by Colombia's Congress of charges that he had accepted a $6-million campaign contribution in 1993 from the Cali cocaine cartel. But the US showed its conviction that Samper was corrupt by revoking his US visa. As long as Samper is in office, it will be difficult for Washington to consider Colombia an ally in the drug war. "I don't think Colombia will be fully certified in 1997, nor in 1998," says Juan Tokatlian, director of the Institute of Political Studies and International relations at National University in Bogota. "It would be really surprising to fully certify a country whose leader they have 'decertified.' " Despite the allegations of corruption hanging over Samper, his administration has won several clear victories against narcotics. Besides the laboratories and tons of pure cocaine seized, the Samper administration oversaw the dismantling of the Cali cartel and shepherded several important antinarcotics laws through Congress, including an asset-forfeiture bill that will allow the government to seize millions in drug-traffickers' land and goods. In record time last week Colombia also approved a new agreement to cooperate with the US Coast Guard in the Caribbean, a law fighting money-laundering, and most importantly, a higher maximum prison sentence for drug trafficking: 60 years. "Clearly in some areas there has been considerable progress," says US ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette. "However, the fact is they actually seized less cocaine this year than they did last year. They passed a strong law on asset forfeiture, that's an important plus, but on corruption they didn't do very well. …


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