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LATIN AMERICA : Samper Sidesteps to the Far Right : As drug scandal grows, Colombian president seeks to appease business, military.

August 25, 1995|STEVEN AMBRUS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BOGOTA, Colombia — Struggling to retain power as his government reels under the weight of a mounting drug scandal, Colombian President Ernesto Samper is shifting sharply to the right, alarming human rights groups and advocates for the poor.

Samper argues that he declared a state of emergency, increased criminal penalties and pushed through a Pact Against Violence last week to combat a crime wave.

But analysts here suspect that the real reason for Samper's hard-core law-and-order measures was to appease the nation's largest financial groups and a restless military. Samper, these analysts say, needs the political right to bolster his teetering center-left government amid growing evidence that his 1994 electoral campaign accepted as much as $6.2 million from the Cali drug cartel.

"Samper is no longer ruling independently but as part of a board of directors that includes conservative politicians, large business groups and the military," said Alejandro Reyes, a political scientist at the National University in Bogota. "From now on, he will have to forward their interests as part of a deal in which they provide him much-needed political support."

The constituency that elected Samper--the poor, the unions and other grass-roots organizations--is worried. They voted for him because of his image as a reformer dedicated to land redistribution and anti-poverty programs. Now they fear he will do the bidding of business: cut public spending and abandon his social programs in favor of greater military spending aimed at improving public order and the investment climate.

Human rights defenders predict the worst. With the military increasingly influential, they fear for the government's peace negotiations aimed at ending a three-decade-old guerrilla war. Further, they foresee a rampant increase in death squad activity and other human rights abuses in a nation already suffering from 3,000 political killings a year.

"Even before the state of emergency was declared, it became obvious that this government's profound instability would force it to ingratiate itself to sectors that are not very enthusiastic about its peace and human rights programs," said Gustavo Gallon, the director of the Colombian section of the Andean Commission of Jurists, a human rights organization.

"With the president changing his policies to stay in power and forced to show signs of gratitude to his backers, I see a very dark future indeed," Gallon said.

Warnings that Samper was shifting to the right sounded early in July when Army Cmdr. Gen. Harold Bedoya protested the government's plans for beginning peace negotiations with the guerrillas by moving troops far from proposed negotiation sites. At first, Samper publicly rebuked the commander. But a few days later, without explanation, he acceded to most of the general's objections.

Then, two weeks ago, the president decorated a colonel accused of participating in the 1987 "disappearance" of a guerrilla taken from her home and never seen alive again. By honoring the officer for distinguished service to the army, the president ignored the findings of the attorney general's office, which had determined that the colonel was involved in the atrocity.

And Samper recently decided to establish procedures for developing rural security groups. Theoretically armed only in "exceptional circumstances," the groups are supposedly a way for rural people to protect themselves from kidnaping and theft.

But human rights advocates have long warned that such security groups could turn into paramilitary death squads beyond the control of the state. Colombia has the world's highest kidnaping and homicide rates, with three times more murders relative to population than any other country.

Anticipating suspicion that his real motive for declaring a state of emergency was a tactic to divert attention from the drug-money scandal, Samper said, "We are not trying to draw a smoke screen but to draw open the blinds of truth and . . . combat a problem of violence that is nothing less than a question of life and death."

However, many analysts argue that the lack of stability resulting from the president's dwindling authority is likely to lead to an increase in violence despite the state of emergency.

"This is a president who no longer governs, who has become a yes-man for all the forces that support him," said Juan Carlos Pastrana, editor of the opposition newspaper La Prensa. "He is a president so weak and worn-out that his very presence contributes to instability and violence in Colombia."

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