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Colombian Chief Vows to Press Drug War : Inauguration: New president rejects U.S. criticism, denies charges his campaign accepted money from cartel.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Promising firm action against drug traffickers and renewed efforts to bring an end to the oldest guerrilla war in South America, Ernesto Samper was sworn in as Colombia’s president Sunday.

Samper, an economist and veteran political insider, took power amid suspicions that his presidential campaign accepted money from the world’s biggest cocaine barons. Samper admitted that the offer was made but denied accepting it. Nevertheless, the allegations strained relations with Washington and raised doubts about Colombia’s resolve to press the drug war.

In an effort to dispel the suspicions, Samper vowed to make ending the drug trade a priority for his government. But he also complained that “nobody in the world has the moral right to give our country lessons on how to fight the narco-traffickers.”

“We have combatted--and we will continue to combat--drug trafficking because of our conviction, because of the serious damage that it has done to Colombian society,” he said.

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Samper, 44, spoke during an inaugural ceremony at Bogota’s 16th-Century Plaza Bolivar with an audience of 4,000, including Cuban President Fidel Castro and six other Latin heads of state.

Security was tight; sharpshooters guarded rooftops and armored personnel carriers patrolled streets.

With emotion, the former economic development minister recalled the 1989 assassination attempt against him, allegedly by drug traffickers.

Samper has been the object of international scrutiny since a cassette recording revealed attempts by the heads of the Cali cocaine cartel to contribute approximately $4 million to his presidential campaign. The revelations, coming just days after his narrow June 19 victory and compounded by past allegations of drug connections, sent U.S.-Colombian relations plummeting to one of their lowest levels in decades.

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Insisting on his innocence, Samper has promised to increase penalties for drug traffickers, although he said he would continue the policy of offering leniency to traffickers who surrender.

U.S. officials have blasted that policy, fearing that it will be used to give a break to the leaders of the Cali cartel, believed to be the world’s most powerful drug organization, with annual profits of between $5 billion and $30 billion. The cartel is said to control 80% of the world’s cocaine trade.

Samper said Sunday that countries where cocaine is consumed, principally the United States, must do their share in the drug war.

“My government will be as bold and resolute in the eradication of illicit crops and the persecution of drug traffickers as it will be categorical in demanding effective action by (drug-consuming) nations in reducing demand and controlling money laundering,” he said.

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Speaking to a somber and largely impassive audience, the new president also expressed his willingness to find a political solution to a decades-old guerrilla war between leftist rebels and the government.

The guerrillas launched a major nationwide offensive last month, attacking military bases, blowing up bridges and briefly occupying small towns on the outskirts of Bogota in an effort to pressure the new government to the peace table.

More than 50 government troops were killed, including a senior army officer, Maj. Gen. Carlos Julio Gil.

Samper reiterated his desire for peace Sunday. But he warned that would happen only when the rebels offer clear signs of a change of heart, and then only in direct negotiations with the government.

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Responding to concerns of both guerrillas and human rights groups, the new president promised to curb rampant abuses by the police and military.

Colombia’s security forces have been widely accused of assassinating members of leftist groups and of “social-cleansing” operations against street children, beggars, prostitutes and gays.

Curbing the killing in this violent nation, with about 28,000 homicides per year in a population of 35 million, will be crucial in attracting foreign investment to help finance badly needed social programs.

Violence has been a key factor in perpetuating chronic poverty among an estimated 46% of Colombia’s population, especially in the badly underdeveloped countryside, despite generally healthy economic growth spurred by the outgoing government’s free-market policies.

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Samper took over from President Cesar Gaviria. Both are of the Liberal Party, one of two political parties that have dominated Colombian politics for decades.


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