COLOMBIA'S SAMPER AND THE DRUG LINK
MARCH 20, 1996
Three weeks ago the United States said officially that it was not satisfied with Colombia's fight against drug traffickers. In a Newsmaker interview, Colombia's embattled President, Ernesto Samper, talks to correspondent Charles Krause about his relationship with the drug cartels. Krause's report begins with an overview of Samper's life in office.
CHARLES KRAUSE: When Ernesto Samper was inaugurated President of Colombia in 1994, the United States already suspected his campaign had taken millions of dollars from the Cali Cartel, said to be the largest and richest drug trafficking organization in the world. At a meeting in New York, Samper denied the charges, but he also reportedly promised the United States that once he became President, he would work to remove any lingering suspicions by taking strong measures to counteract the drug traffickers. In fact, the Colombian police made significant progress during Samper's first year in office, confiscating large amounts of cocaine and arresting six of the Cali Cartel's seven top leaders. One of them, Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, is shown here shortly after his arrest. Another of the drug lords, Jose Santacruz Londono, was shot to death by police just three weeks ago after successfully escaping prison in January.
(Music in background) But despite the progress, U.S. doubts about Samper, himself, continued to deepen. U.S. officials told the NewsHour that on a number of occasions last year, the President and his ministers conspired with corrupt members of the Colombian congress to thwart key narcotics legislation. Then last January, Samper's former campaign manager and long-time friend, Fernando Botero, confirmed the earlier allegation that Samper's campaign had, indeed, taken money from the drug dealers.
Specifically Botero accused the President, himself, of having known and approved the decision to go to the cartel for nearly $6 million during the final days of the campaign. Botero's testimony broke the case wide open, and last month, Colombia's chief prosecutor, Alfonso Valdivieso, formally charged Samper with illegal enrichment, with violating Colombia's campaign spending limits, and with attempting a cover-up. The charges are now being investigated by a committee of the Colombian House of Representatives which, as in the United States, will decide whether or not Samper should be impeached, then tried by the Colombian Senate.
It was against this backdrop of allegations and growing scandal that President Clinton decided to certify Colombia earlier this month. The certification is the official way of saying Samper's government is not cooperating with the U.S. war on drugs. While the U.S. statement did not specifically charge Samper with having taken money from the drug lords, U.S. officials have made clear they consider that to be the problem. Decertification means Colombia is no longer eligible for foreign aid. But the administration held back from taking the more serious step of imposing trade sanctions.
Still, Colombia's economy is beginning to soften due to uncertainty. With public opinion in Colombia split over whether the United States had legitimate cause to decertify Colombia and whether or not Samper should remain in office, we interviewed President Samper in Bogota last Thursday.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Just for the record, how is it possible that your campaign manager and the finance manager of your campaign apparently accepted $6 million, according to their own testimony, from the Cali Cartel, and you didn't know about it?
PRESIDENT ERNESTO SAMPER, Colombia: (speaking through interpreter) Very simple. First, because the financial structure of the campaign was made to have the candidate detached from the financial affairs of the campaign. I was the product, and the campaign handled the product. Second, because it is still to be established if those funds did enter the campaign because investigations suggest that part of these funds and eventually all of them could have been diverted to personal accounts of those who are currently under investigation. That is why the truth will only be revealed when Mr. Botero's bank account in the U.S. and other trade operations made on his behalf by the treasurer of the campaign are investigated.
CHARLES KRAUSE: So, in other words, you're suggesting that perhaps this money, while the Cali Cartel may have thought it was giving it to your campaign, in fact, was being used by your campaign manager and finance minister for their own purposes?
PRESIDENT ERNESTO SAMPER: (speaking through interpreter) It is there where these investigations should lead us. Of course, I am not able to release any information, due to the confidentiality of the process. They are working on that hypothesis, and until they clearly establish these facts, the truth on the campaign will not be known.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Even if you didn't know about it and even if the two gentlemen we've been talking about took the money and used it for their own purposes, if the Cali Cartel gave them $6 million, it must have given it to them for a reason. What do you think that reason was?
PRESIDENT ERNESTO SAMPER: (speaking through interpreter) That is very simple. All the mafias in the world, those which have operated in the U.S., in Italy, or in Colombia, seek ways to buy political powers. They pursue ways to influence decisions in their favor. Then the real answer to your question would be if the government of President Samper has favored the Cali Cartel. Did they give that money in order for me to imprison them? Did they give that money for me to judge them? Did they give that money for me to chase Mr. Santacruz, for me to present a law on money laundering to be passed by the congress in order to take away from them any possibility to circulate their money? That would be absurd. It would be an act of historic masochism.
CHARLES KRAUSE: In that case, why is it that the United States Government or at least very high officials in the United States Government, believe that you have been bought, that you are influenced by the drug mafias in this country?
PRESIDENT ERNESTO SAMPER: (speaking through interpreter) I don't have an explanation for that. It may be an attempt to show my government is weak and to demand greater commitments within the drug war, but it is quite a censurable way to request results from any government. I assumed a frontal position against drug trafficking since I took office one year and a half ago, and I am going to fulfill my commitment with or without the U.S., with or without certification. I am an honest man. I am not a rich man. Anyone in Colombia can talk about my personal belongings or about my life, because it is an open book, therefore, if U.S. officials believe that by questioning me or by trying to weaken my government they are going to obtain greater commitment, they are wasting their time, because it is precisely those commitments which we are going to fulfill, regardless of any international pressure.
CHARLES KRAUSE: How has decertification affected relations between Colombia and the United States?
PRESIDENT ERNESTO SAMPER: (speaking through interpreter) Above all, it means the destruction of the alliance we have had for more than 15 years between Colombia and the United States to combat drug trafficking. I believe this is one of the main and more concerning effects. Of course, it may have some economic effects, which we are trying to counteract, but to me, the most important effect is that it breaks the alliance we have had for 15 years in the fight against drug trafficking.
CHARLES KRAUSE: When you say that it's ruptured the alliance, do you mean that your country will sever its relationship with the United States regarding the war on drugs in this country?
PRESIDENT ERNESTO SAMPER: (speaking through interpreter) We are prepared to maintain this alliance on the basis of concrete conditions. First, Colombia's right to have its own policy against drugs must be respected. The second condition is that the U.S. also assumes an honest position regarding its commitment, because the problem is not only ours. If there was no drug consumption in the United States, Colombia would never have faced this drug trafficking problem. The United States must reflect on its commitment because its sole policies must not be that of demanding explanations from drug producing countries. The U.S. must win their own battles, the fight against domestic drug traffickers. Who is selling Colombian drugs in New York, in the streets of Miami and San Francisco? Who is consuming Colombian drugs? To me, the two basic conditions under which we may constructively reestablish the alliance is that we understand that first that it should be made on a basis of confidence and second, that each country must accomplish its own part.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Has the decertification made it more difficult for you to govern this country?
PRESIDENT ERNESTO SAMPER: (speaking through interpreter) In some aspects, it has. In some others, it hasn't. Of course, it is difficult not to have a smooth, free, and spontaneous relationship such as that I would like to have with a country which is so important to Colombia as the U.S. is. And it implies problems within the handling of foreign policy in general. But on the other hand, this decertification decision, which I consider unfair to Colombia, has created a huge feeling of national unity, of national dignity, because decertification was a blow to the heart of the Colombian people who feel betrayed in their long-running fight against drug trafficking. We have buried too many people in this country because of drug trafficking. I was a victim myself. As you know, I was almost killed some years ago. So in that sense, it has awakened a feeling of national dignity which is obviously being tantalized through the President.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Do you expect to be able to finish your term as President?
PRESIDENT ERNESTO SAMPER: (speaking through interpreter) It is not a matter of expecting or not. It is my decision to complete the commitments I assumed before the Colombian people who elected me for a four-year term. If the people of Colombia say that I should leave because they believe I cannot govern the country, then I will leave. But I cannot leave because my detractors ask me to do so. It would be an act of cowardice to abandon the country in a moment of crisis.
CHARLES KRAUSE: President Samper, thank you very much.