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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.


BOGOTA, Colombia — 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.

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