Colombia's new leader faces drug cartel test: Incoming President in Bogota takes on a tradition of democracy and violence, writes David Battman

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NO ONE can accuse Ernesto Samper of shirking a challenge - yesterday he became President of Colombia, notorious as one of the world's most violent countries, where the murder rate averages 15,000 per year.

To many outside the country, Colombia is typified by images of drugs and traffickers, political violence, savage repression and cowed authorities - where the football star Andres Escobar could be killed because of an own goal in the World Cup. Mr Samper is aware of the dangers - he still carries several bullets of the nine which hit him during the assassination of a left-wing candidate in the 1990 elections.

As if the job were not difficult enough, Mr Samper starts with a handicap. He had a difficult time denying serious charges that the Cali cocaine cartel contributed to his election campaign. So, even before entering office he is under pressure from the US to demonstrate his intentions by speedily cracking down on the Cali cartel, by far the largest of the drug-trafficking organisations.

Mr Samper also has to follow the most popular outgoing President in recent times, fellow Liberal Cesar Gaviria, who bows out with an unprecedented 60 per cent approval rating. Mr Samper is aware that he was only selected because the 1991 constitution forbids Mr Gaviria from running again, and that he is thought to be uncharismatic. The negative images surrounding Colombia all have their basis in fact. But as Colombians always complain, they show only one side of the picture. For this is a country with a strong economic base, popular with multilateral organisations and banks for paying its bills on time. Foreign investors have also regarded Colombia as something of a safe haven and Britain in particular has been promoting investment there.

Colombia's proud democratic tradition is an exception in Latin America and the levels of violence do not affect political stability. Its people are remarkably resilient, perhaps because they have been used to overcoming adversity.

President Samper's immediate priorities will be to encourage economic growth and maintain foreign investment while countering the violence which gives the country such a negative image. He looks set to rein in what he regards as the more extreme neo-liberal policies of his predecessor and to pay more attention to working on the economic and social causes of Colombia's problems, without actually making major changes. The new government is keen to counter high levels of poverty, arguing that this is the best way to counter crime and left-wing rebellion. It has the advantage of a booming economy which has inflation under control and which shows signs of sustained growth.

But for the most part, the government will be content to pursue the same course as the outgoing one. This, explains incoming Foreign Minister Rodrigo Pardo, includes maintaining strong links with Britain - a seemingly unlikely accord that began when Margaret Thatcher sought to help Colombia combat the drug barons and was strengthened in 1993 by an official visit by John Major.

Continuity of policy will be the order of the day when dealing with drug-traffickers and guerrillas. A mixture of military repression and inducements to surrender will be maintained, though Mr Pardo believes that sentences for repentant drug-traffickers should be increased. It is unlikely that guerrilla violence will end in Mr Samper's term of office. The government and guerrillas will probably hold peace talks without arranging a lasting cease-fire.

The government should make more progress in the ongoing anti- narcotics campaign. The killing in December 1993 of the Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar probably brought to an end an era in which drug-mafia bosses sought to protect their position through indiscriminate terrorism. The Medellin cartel is now virtually dismantled but drug-trafficking will continue, though it will be obvious to surviving traffickers that the non-confrontational approach of Escobar's rivals in Cali proved more effective than violent tactics.

Colombia's of plea-bargaining with remaining drug-traffickers is seen as too lenient by US officials, who have drastically reduced assistance and co-operation in the anti- narcotics campaign. A re-evaluation of the relationship seems likely, particularly after the allegations that drugs money helped fund Mr Samper's campaign.

There has, however, been little international concern expressed over a constitutional court's ruling in May that decriminalised possession of small quantities of narcotics for personal use. In an opionion poll published in the leading newspaper El Tiempo on 8 May, 69.9 per cent of those interviewed disagreed with the court's findings and 60.4 percent believed that criminal charges against drug users should be as severe as those against drug-traffickers. A referendum is expected which would again outlaw any use of narcotic substances. An equivalent poll in the West would be of interest.

'We are also looking to increase international co-operation between countries affected by the problem of drug-trafficking', adds Mr Pardo, explaining that much can still be done to reduce demand for drugs in the industrialised countries and to monitor the chemicals used in the processing of cocaine. He promises that the government will make the improvement of Colombia's much- criticised human rights record a priority. Human rights monitors such as Amnesty International have long complained that the security forces take advantage of emergency legislation to torture and kill suspects. Officials have stressed that guerrillas and drug- traffickers - as well as members of the security forces - are guilty of violations, but critics allege that Bogota lacked the political will to enforce legal safeguards and prosecute offenders.

But Rodrigo Pardo insists that 'we are not just after a public relations exercise, but an actual improvement in the situation which leads to an end to impunity.'

The writer is deputy head of research at Control Risks Information Services.

(Photographs omitted)