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Weakened and Stigmatized, Samper Heads For An International Stage

September 19, 1996

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ President Ernesto Samper’s links to drug lords have soiled his international image and left him badly weakened at home, where guerrilla attacks and social unrest worsen by the day.

He’s also minus a U.S. visa.

But that’s not stopping Samper, who won election in 1994 with $6 million in drug contributions, from heading for New York to propose a global anti-drug strategy before the U.N. General Assembly on Monday.

Samper insists he will serve out his four-year term, and has survived all manner of domestic challenge. He has even gone on the counterattack.

This week, he charged that Washington is treating developing nations unfairly, making aid and access to U.S. markets conditional on compliance with its demands on drugs, human rights and the environment.

``Conditionality is the new name for (U.S.) interventionism and that’s what I will say at the United Nations,″ Samper, who chairs of the 114-nation Non-Aligned Movement, told the Brazilian newspaper O Estado.

Samper’s U.N. trip was scheduled after Washington canceled his tourist visa in July, angered that a highly partisan Congress cleared the Colombian leader of drug corruption charges.

The State Department has not yet said whether it will slap travel restrictions on Samper while he’s in New York as it did last year for Fidel Castro, who was limited to a 25-mile radius.

On Thursday, it said Samper would be traveling on a diplomatic visa and that Colombia ``has assured us that Samper will not travel outside of New York and that his travel is for official purposes only.″

The United States has tried hard to marginalize Samper _ though U.S. officials meet regularly with his ministers and cooperate closely with trusted Colombian police and prosecutors.

The drug-money scandal forced Samper to cancel all but one trip outside South America this year. President Jacques Chirac of France received him last month but Spain’s prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, snubbed him.

Samper insists Colombians are mainly the victims _ not the villains _ of the narcotics trade. But 80 percent of the cocaine and a growing amount of the heroin on the U.S. market is processed here.

Under U.S. pressure, Samper’s government has arrested or forced the surrender of the Cali drug cartel’s top four leaders over the past 15 months _ the same people who helped bankroll his campaign.

In July, Samper proposed legislation to stiffen jail terms for drug lords, make it easier to seize their assets and crack down on money laundering. But Washington is skeptical.

``We don’t believe there is a serious push on the part of the government, particularly for the reform of the sentencing and asset forfeiture laws,″ Robert Gelbard, assistant secretary of state in charge of narcotics, said by telephone from Washington on Wednesday.

The three Ochoa brothers who ran the violent Medellin cocaine cartel with the late Pablo Escobar all were released this summer after reduced prison terms. Fabio Ochoa, freed Monday, served the longest _ 69 months.

At the United Nations, Samper will make a ``concrete proposal″ on the international drug war, including ``control of supply and demand, money laundering and prosecuting drug traffickers,″ said his international affairs advisor, Diego Cardona, without offering specifics.

In addition to the new drug legislation, which would more than double maximum sentences for trafficking to 30 years, Samper’s government has intensified coca eradication efforts.

But the fumigation has had limited success _ rebels shoot at herbicide-spraying planes _ and also sparked violent coca-grower protests.

Just before the protests ebbed, guerrillas launched their most successful offensive ever. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest and oldest rebel group, has a vested interest in the coca growers because it draws most of its revenues from taxing drug production.

FARC guerrillas infiltrated the coca-grower protests. And authorities claimed masked guerrillas also were among rioters who, angry over energy price hikes, set fire to city hall on Tuesday in Facatativa, 20 miles west of Bogota, in disturbances that left one person killed and 25 injured.

Guerrillas have killed more than 100 soldiers and police since Aug. 30 and have paralyzed traffic in much of the countryside, burning more than 40 trucks and buses.

As the rebels grow stronger, Samper has ceded more power to the military.

Washington is on the verge of approving the sale of 12 Blackhawk helicopters mounted with twin M60 machine guns to Colombia’s armed forces, something it refused to do in the past because of the military’s dubious human rights record.

The helicopters would be used primarily for fighting the narcotics trade, Gelbard says, but Colombia may use them for anti-insurgency operations because it is a cash sale and not classified as aid.

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