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Drastic Move in a Beset Colombia : State of emergency is justified amid mayhem from left, right, drug rings

August 20, 1995

Overwhelmed by the number, variety and depth of problems facing Colombia, President Ernesto Samper has imposed a 90-day state of emergency. Clearly the move--permitted by the national constitution--was necessary.

To understand the presidential decision one need only look at recent events in this troubled South American country. In a single weekend leftist guerrillas killed at least 42 people in 14 attacks. This rampage came after Samper proposed peace talks on his first anniversary in office. Many Colombians believe that the leftists, violently active now for three decades, are taking advantage of the wobbly political situation to further destabilize the country.

Violence comes also from the right wing. Land and cattle barons have created paramilitary groups to fight off guerrillas and suppress or eliminate troublesome workers who are pressing demands for labor or human rights. In one outrageous incident, a right-wing paramilitary group killed 18 in a crowded bar to avenge a leftist shooting of six people.

Then there are the drug cartels, which have been placing bombs in the streets of Cali, Medellin and Bogota as if they were planting trees.

Altogether, Interior Minister Horacio Serpa told Congress last Tuesday, 19,662 have been slain and 704 kidnaped in Colombia thus far this year.

Adding to Samper's problems is that he declared the state of emergency as he was trying to beat back an attempt to oust him from the presidency. The effort to remove him stems from allegations that drug cartels financed his 1994 presidential campaign.

The Colombian media have been reporting secret testimony indicating that Fernando Botero, a former defense minister and onetime campaign director for Samper, sought money from the Cali drug cartel for Samper's campaign, with the candidate's approval. Botero surrendered to authorities and is now being questioned. The campaign's treasurer, Santiago Medina, also is under arrest.

The timing of the state of emergency does raise a lot of questions, and the opposition parties have reason to doubt the intentions of the president. The declaration allows him to promulgate laws without congressional approval and the government can restrict publication of news it deems a threat to public order.

Samper, however, should be given the benefit of the doubt at this point. The country is dealing with such severe problems that the allegations against him should be put on hold until there is a respite from violence.

Despite all the rhetoric of denunciation, the Conservative Party has decided to remain in coalition with Samper's Liberal Party, out of concern that its withdrawal would worsen the nation's situation. This decision supports Samper's position that Colombia is being besieged with problems that demand extraordinary actions.

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