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Grading Out: US drug certification ritual angers Latin countries
Mexico Business / May 1996

By Larry Luxner

BOGOTA -- The massive new U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, a $73 million fortress brimming with the latest in surveillance and anti-terrorist technology, sits on a lavish site landscaped with 4,400 trees, 12,500 decorative plants and an artificial lake.

"The construction of this building," declared U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette to hundreds of invited dignitaries attending the embassy's Feb. 15 inauguration, "not only reaffirms the vital importance U.S.-Colombian relations have had for nearly two centuries, but strengthens our desire for even closer ties with Colombia, in the present and for generations to come."

Just as Frechette was building bilateral bridges in Bogotá, however, his bureaucratic bosses in Washington were tearing them down. A March 1 edict by President Clinton decertifying Colombia's drug-fighting efforts prompted the burning of a U.S. flag inside the Colombian Congress -- and renewed cries of colonialism across Latin America.

The "decertification" effectively disqualifies Colombia as a partner in the fight against drug trafficking -- putting it in the same basket with Afghanistan, Burma, Iran, Syria and Nigeria -- and further tarnishes the reputation of President Ernesto Samper, who faces impeachment and a possible prison term for allegedly accepting up to $6 million in tainted campaign money from the notorious Cali cocaine cartel.

Colombian party politics aside, Washington's latest move won't earn it many friends in Bogota.

"The United States is applying a foolish policy that undermines the international relations between underdeveloped countries and the great colossus to the north," fumed Bogotá lawmaker Heyne Mogollón, head of the committee investigating Samper.

In Medellín -- whose very name was synonymous with drug trafficking until Cali surpassed it in importance about three years ago -- the municipal council "decertified" the U.S. government for its "attitude toward drug consumption" and declared Robert Gelbard, U.S. assistant secretary for international narcotics and law-enforcement affairs, persona non grata for referring to the city in a "gross and disrespectful manner."

The mayor of Medellín, Sergio Naranjo Pérez, predicted in a Feb. 21 interview at city hall that Republican pressure on the Clinton administration would eventually outweigh Samper's recent efforts to capture and even assassinate known drug dealers. "Colombia has made a tremendous effort in the fight against drug traffickers and the destruction of fields and laboratories," the mayor said. "But in an election year, you lose all objectivity."

Mexico, meanwhile, won full certification, as did Peru and Bolivia -- the world's largest coca producers. Paraguay was given only partial certification.

Yet all these countries, regardless of how they happened to fare this time around in the annual certification ritual, are clearly getting tired of being graded by Washington on their performance in the so-called war on drugs. They point out that the United States is the world's largest drug-consuming nation -- whose president has admitted to smoking marijuana -- is no position to tell other countries what to do.

This particularly holds true in Mexico, which was certified over the objections of many Washington lawmakers.

"The Mexican government does not recognize any legitimacy to the process of certification because it goes against the principles of equality amongst nations under international law," wrote Mexico's consul-general in New York, Jorge Pinto, in an angry letter to the New York Times. "The process of certification runs counter to the spirit of cooperation between our two countries and could jeopardize bilateral cooperation in this area."

Editorialized Lima's El Comercio: "After almost 10 years of a failed war against drugs, it is obvious that whoever promotes it is not seriously trying to win it but merely use make-up to please the people. It seems much easier to certify or not certify third, weak and distant countries than, for example, to fight the intact Miami, Los Angeles or New York cartels with a pinch of the energy the Colombian government was demanded to use in fight-ing the Cali or Medellín cartels. It is easier to accuse the Bolivian police of being corrupt than to efficiently act against the laundering of narcodollars in U.S. territory whch some estimate amounts to $100 billion per year."

Yet in Asunción -- where contraband smugglers and money launderers are an essential part of the Paraguayan economy -- local deputy Hermes Rafael Saguier said he regrets Paraguay "hasn't done what is necessary to obtain a full certification from the United States, because recognition in drug enforcement is a sine qua non for a country's insertion in the society of nations."

While disqualification of Colombia's drug-fighting efforts carries little economic impact -- since it doesn't exclude the nation of 35 million from the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA) -- it does scare the country's business executives, who unsuccessfully lobbied in Washington against decertification. For one thing, the new policy requires the United States to delay loans from such institutions as the Inter-American Development Bank and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a policy that could put a serious damper on foreign investment. It also allows the Clinton administration to slash Colombia's sugar quota, or raise tariffs at any time.

Under ATPA -- which includes Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela -- the five Andean nations receive preferential U.S. tariffs in exchange for destroying coca crops and capturing drug smugglers. In this manner, Colombia alone saves $50 million to $60 million in tariffs every year. Overall U.S.-Colombian trade is valued at $7 billion a year, with Colombia's biggest legal exports including cut flowers, ceramics, coffee, bananas, textiles and leather goods.

Not surprisingly, talk of reducing or eliminating ATPA benefits puts businessmen here in a panic.

"This could have terrible consequences," says Francisco Piedrahita Echeverri, executive president of the Medellín Chamber of Commerce, whose upbeat projection of 4% economic growth for 1996 was issued before the certification debate began dominating headlines in this attractive city of 2.5 million. "How can it be that in the late 20th century, one country is telling another what to do?"

The concern is equally palpable in Bogotá, where one of Colombia's fastest-growing industries -- cut flowers -- is concentrated. Maria Isabel Patiño, president of the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters, says her country exported $374.7 million worth of carnations, roses, marigolds and other colorful buds during the first nine months of 1995. Of that total, $293.9 million (78.4%) went to the U.S. -- thanks to ATPA, which exempts Colombia from having to pay an 8% duty on cut flowers. If that $40 million trading advantage suddenly disappeared, she warned, so might the jobs of 75,000 people.

"This would affect everybody in the flower sector. If we have to pay an 8% duty and other countries don't, our price to the consumer will be increased," she said. "I think it would be unjustified, because the country, the government and the private sector have shown results against the drug dealers. You can see the kingpins in jail. The United States shouldn't use decertification as a political instrument."

But that's exactly what Washington is doing. Sources say the original idea behind ATPA -- drafted five years ago by the Bush administration -- was to create a constituency within Colombia's private sector that would have a vested interest in fighting the country's cocaine cartels. That hasn't happened, say administration officials who point to Samper's involvement with drug lords and the country's lack of an effective money-laundering law.

A big part of Clinton's motivation, of course, is his desire to appear tough on drugs in the face of vigorous election-year campaigning by Republican presidential hopeful Bob Dole. Yet the president's decision is also a stinging indictment of Samper, who had never been trusted by the U.S. government and who is now being urged by politicians of all parties -- including his own -- to resign for the good of the country.

"Democracy demands respect for the law by all citizens, including the president," said Alvaro Uribe Vélez, governor of Antioquia, Colombia's second-largest department.

Few Colombians, in fact, doubt that Samper's link to narcodollars was a key factor in Clinton's decision to decertify Colombia. "Although the U.S. intervention is repugnant and unacceptable," wrote Bogotá's El Tiempo, "the president must admit that the only reason for the decertification is he himself."

In late March, Samper indicated for the first time that he might step down before his term expires. If he does, that would relieve Colombians of a major headache, go a long way toward restoring the warm ties between Washington and Bogotá -- and undoubtedly clear the way for Colombia's full certification in 1997.

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