COLUMN ONE : Image vs. Reality in Colombia : A soccer star's slaying is the latest blow to a drug-besieged nation struggling to redefine itself. The identity conflict creates a schizophrenic society and fuels tensions with U.S. over how to fight narcotics war.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just hours after he was chosen president of this country of contradictions, an exasperated Ernesto Samper was tackling his first post-election meeting with international reporters.

"There have been 17 questions in this press conference, and 14 have been about drug trafficking," he complained to the assembled journalists.

"That," he said, "is Colombia's problem."

It seemed as though Samper was less bothered by the fact that his country is the world's largest cocaine producer than by the fact that the foreign press was focusing on it.

The undeniable influence of the multibillion-dollar drug business at so many levels of Colombian life has created a society in conflict with itself. Appearance and image often take precedence over a dirty reality.

It is a society that cleaves to formal niceties and politeness, yet has one of the highest homicide rates on the planet--approximately 85 per 100,000 people. It is an extremely legalistic society, yet one where fewer than 5% of its murderers are ever brought to justice.

Colombia is the center of the international cocaine trade, yet Colombians are increasingly tired of that single label. Many Colombians bridle at hearing their country described as a "narco-democracy," but they are constantly confronted with reports of drug money infiltrating political campaigns, law enforcement agencies and even their beloved soccer teams. The shocking slaying last Saturday of soccer star Andres Escobar, for example, may be linked to angry traffickers who lost money on Colombia's elimination from the World Cup.

The concern for image, combined with a volatile sense of nationalism, has created a deep ambivalence about the drug war among many Colombians, who say they would like to clean up their government and institutions but who resist and resent pressure from Washington to fight the traffickers more forcefully. Increasingly, Colombians speak of legalizing drugs and accommodating traffickers as an alternative to the head-on, violent confrontation that has claimed hundreds of lives.

And if Colombia seems schizophrenic about the war on drugs, Washington too has been sending mixed signals to the Colombians. The confusion only compounds frustration and suspicion at both ends and ultimately weakens efforts to staunch the flow of illegal narcotics at a crucial time--just as the Clinton Administration is reviewing its Andean drug strategy.

"Colombia is a strangely paradoxical country," said anthropologist and drug expert Alfredo Molano. "A great portion of public opinion, and the government, is against drug trafficking from a legal point of view, and from a moral point of view.

"But economically, it fills the pockets of many people--not just the rich but the poor too. In spite of everything, the cultivation and trafficking (of narcotics) has provided the country with certain economic stability. Therein lies the ambivalence."

Samper, who narrowly won Colombia's presidential election June 19, has been dogged ever since by new drug scandals that once again pose a dilemma for Colombians. To accept that the allegations are true would be to accept the worst about the Colombian system.

Two cassettes of taped telephone conversations, sent surreptitiously to journalists days after the election, reveal overtures made to Samper's campaign by the Cali cartel, the sophisticated operation that U.S. officials say controls an estimated 80% of the world's cocaine trade.

One tape, the authenticity of which was verified by Colombian officials, contains three conversations between the heads of the Cali cartel, brothers Gilberto and Miguel Angel Rodriguez Orejuela, and a journalist who has worked as their go-between. They are heard matter-of-factly planning to offer at least $3.75 million to Samper's campaign.

In a second tape, the authenticity of which has not been verified, Gilberto Rodriguez says that he has already deposited about $4 million in Samper's coffers and expects the future president to respond with unspecified favors.

Outgoing President Cesar Gaviria, who is from the same political party as Samper, attempted to quash the second tape by prohibiting local television from airing it, saying it violated a new law that bans broadcast of statements by criminals. Gaviria knew of the first tape before the election but kept it secret.

Samper acknowledged that the Cali bosses repeatedly offered contributions, but he denied accepting them. He said his own code of ethics plus legalistic mechanisms set up with accountants prevented the entry of dirty money into his campaign. But Samper did not address the fact that most such money is laundered or passes through third parties before reaching its destination.

In many countries, a scandal of this ilk would sink a politician, but Samper went on vacation and is expected to weather the storm. Similar accusations have arisen in past campaigns and faded away. Samper, as head of the presidential campaign of Alfonso Lopez Michelsen in the early 1980s, was alleged to have accepted money from the Medellin cartel; a committee of Colombian politicians cleared Samper of the charge then.

Despite great consternation among American officials, who demanded an explanation from Samper, domestic reaction to the latest scandal was mild, an almost disinterested shrug from a public already accustomed to, even weary of, such news.

Newspaper and radio headlines concentrated on how the story was playing abroad, and on the damage that was being done to Colombia's reputation. Some blamed the messenger--one of the tapes was publicized by the man Samper defeated in the election, Andres Pastrana.

"What is bothersome in all of this is not whether or not there is 'hot money' in the campaigns, which is an undeniable reality in this country," Maria Jimena Duzan, a leading columnist and author, wrote in the newspaper El Espectador. "It's the opportunistic and low way that Pastrana manipulated the information on the cassette.

"In one day, (Pastrana) returned us to those dark days when, to prove that we were not in league with the narco-traffickers, we had to offer our lives and submit to all U.S. pressures."

Enrique Santos Calderon, a columnist with Bogota's largest daily, El Tiempo, said: "This scandal again places narcotics trafficking at the center of all that occurs in this country. . . . I can imagine the delight of Sen. Kerry and all the things that the gringo and international press are going to speculate."

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John Kerry, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, has become a favorite target of Colombian criticism since April, when he publicly quoted a drug trafficker labeling the country a "narco-democracy." His comments came amid an escalating dispute between officials in Washington and Bogota over the tactics used to go after traffickers. The dispute, in the opinion of many experts, has eroded the working relationship between the countries and fueled Colombian ambivalence and American mistrust, while giving a break to the bad guys.

"The drug war in Colombia is in very, very sad shape," said a senior U.S. official. "It's probably never been worse. The kingpins are not being attacked, and their power is only increasing with nothing to stop it."

Colombia began changing tack on the drug war in 1991, during Gaviria's first year in office and following the assassination of three presidential candidates and a justice minister. Bowing to a demand from master criminals such as Pablo Escobar, the government rescinded its extradition treaty with the United States, sparing narcos the possibility of appearing before a U.S. court.

In the years that followed, Gaviria's government began a policy of plea-bargaining with traffickers who turned themselves in, confessed and gave up part of their business. But as the policy seemed to offer increasingly lenient sentences to brutal thugs, American support faded.

Much of the controversy in the past year has centered on Colombia's principal law enforcement official, Gustavo de Greiff, who is in charge of bringing traffickers to justice. He has repeatedly angered American officials by advocating the legalization of drugs and by openly declaring the drug war a lost cause.

His most egregious sin in the eyes of American officials is his willingness to negotiate with the Cali cartel bosses. Under the plea-bargaining policy, the Rodriguez brothers and other leaders would spend little time in jail, and their fortunes would remain largely intact.

Such accommodation outrages U.S. law enforcement agents, yet De Greiff and other Colombians see it as the only practical way to put a dent in a business conducted by men who can pay millions of dollars and kill with ease to protect themselves. A military offensive would exact too high a toll, they argue.

"Colombia has no other way out, unless it has a suicidal calling to conduct a fundamentalist religious war, exposing itself to all forms of destruction," said political scientist Alejandro Reyes, an expert in Colombia's endemic violence.

"There is no other possible solution. Kill all drug traffickers? (The offensive against drug czar) Escobar cost us 500 to 800 lives. . . . A civilized country cannot sacrifice the lives of 500 people, and how many police? How many judges? Just to give us the pleasure of seeing the fall of Rodriguez Orejuela? If we can do it with negotiation--he goes to jail, stops killing, stops trafficking, pays a huge fine--that would be a great deal for the country."

Whereas the Medellin cartel attacked the government head-on with car bombs and terrorism, the Cali bosses have more subtly damaged the government and economy through bribes and a complex system of shell companies and middlemen.

In retaliation for De Greiff's policies, Washington late last year suspended a longstanding practice of sharing evidence with Colombian judicial officials, paralyzing an estimated 50 drug-trafficking cases. The tensions between Washington and Bogota were inflamed further in May, when the Pentagon abruptly halted the use of American military radar and spy planes to track suspected drug flights.

Pinpointing the flights as they made their way from Peru and Bolivia, where the raw material for cocaine is grown, to Colombia, where the drug is produced, and on to the United States, had been a pillar of the international interdiction effort. But the Pentagon said it feared legal liability if Colombia or Peru began shooting down planes.

Radar operated by U.S. military personnel in Colombia's Amazonian jungle led to the interception in the past two years of more than 400 illegal flights carrying 300 tons of cocaine, Colombian and U.S. officials say.

Given that relative success, Colombian officials were shocked and baffled by the sudden suspension of the intelligence-gathering effort. Gaviria's government had taken the political heat that came with allowing American military personnel to operate in national territory because a greater good--the stopping of drug flights--was served. The Colombians felt as if they had cooperated, only to have the rug pulled out from under them.

The loud, clear signal to the Colombians was that the United States was withdrawing from the front lines of the drug war. And if that was the case, why should Colombia make greater sacrifices?

"This (the suspension) is not something that is done among friends," said Maj. Gen. Alfonso Abondano Alzamora, commander of the Colombian air force.

In fact, the Pentagon's action apparently stunned and angered U.S. Congress and State Department officials as well. President Clinton last month asked for legislation that would restore the radar and the spy flights, and a law that accomplishes that is before the House.

The Colombians had a right to be angry, said Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs and follows narcotics issues. "The Colombian government had been challenged to take a stand and interdict the narco-traficantes ," he said, "and no sooner had they begun (than) the United States government withdrew its cooperation. . . . It put all of us in an embarrassing position."

Torricelli, citing intelligence from the Drug Enforcement Administration, said drug flights jumped 20% after the radar was turned off.

While this particular issue may be resolved, it became symbolic of the deterioration of a cooperation that once existed between the United States and Colombia.

A growing movement among intellectuals such as Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez to legalize drugs as a way to make the trade less profitable, and a Colombian high court's recent decision to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and cocaine, raised further questions.

Gaviria, who opposes legalization, argues that his government has fought the good fight, pointing to the killing by police of Pablo Escobar last December and the dismantling of the Medellin cartel. But some wonder if the more insidious Cali cartel has not been allowed to operate virtually unchecked.

"A good number of Escobar's henchmen are in jail, and people feel, finally, a sense of relief," said political scientist Rodrigo Losada, an expert in drug violence. "But if you look below the appearances, you see the business of narcotics trafficking is as powerful as ever. There have been symbolic cases that bring tranquillity to people, but it does not change things deep down."

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