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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S.-Colombia Relations Sour Despite Samper's Exoneration

BOGOTA -- Colombian lawmakers have cleared their president of drug corruption charges, but the United States remains skeptical of that decision and reluctant to resume normal ties with Ernesto Samper.


Riding high after his exoneration by a loyalist Congress of allegations that he took $6 million in campaign donations from drug traffickers, President Samper last week characterized U.S.-Colombia relations as emerging from intensive care and entering the recovery room.


But columnist Rafael Santos of the leading newspaper El Tiempo described the relationship as "agonized and lapsing into a vegetative state.''


A cable sent by U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette just hours before Samper was cleared June 12 said the Colombian leader should be kept "as invisible as possible in our bilateral relationship."


In fact, the two men have not met since late April, and U.S. officials say Samper is among more than 30 Colombian political figures whose visas may be revoked for alleged drug corruption.


More than a dozen prominent Colombians have been stripped of their U.S. visas. Gustavo De Greiff, current ambassador to Mexico and chief prosecutor from 1992 to 1994, lost his Friday.


Bilateral relations were ruffled again a week ago when Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gelbard accused Colombia's secret police of shadowing Frechette as he travels the country meeting opposition figures.


Meanwhile, Attorney General Janet Reno formally requested the extradition of the Cali drug cartel's four main figures, three of whom are in jail and reportedly negotiating lenient sentences.


Colombia's 1991 constitution prohibits extradition, the only judicial tool drug traffickers fear.


During the murderous reign of the late drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, the Medellin cartel terrorized Colombia into nullifying a 1979 extradition treaty with the United States. Escobar's hired guns kidnapped journalists, assassinated judges and killed hundreds of civilians in indiscriminate bombings.


The Cali cartel, which succeeded Escobar's gang as the world's preeminent drug mafia, has fought extradition more subtly -- with bribes. Many Colombians feel their society is now so utterly corrupt that only international pressure can save it.


"The United States considers our judiciary a farce, our jails clubs, our Congress part and parcel of the drug trade and the president hardly committed" to pledges to finally crack down on the Cali cartel with stiff jail terms and the confiscation of ill-gotten gains, Santos said Sunday in backing the U.S. call for extradition.


Samper's response was that extradition is out of the question, and opinion polls found most Colombians to believe Washington was using it as a pretext for imposing economic sanctions.


Last March, the United States decertified Colombia as an ally in the fight against drug trafficking, citing evidence that Samper funded his 1994 campaign with $6 million from the Cali cartel.


Despite Samper's exoneration by loyalist lawmakers, the Clinton administration has threatened tough sanctions, including lifting $30 million in trade preferences if Colombia fails to cooperate fully in the drug war.