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Drug Czar, Colombia President Meet White House Official Praises Country’s War Against Narcotics

Public arm-twisting of Colombia appears to be over, replaced by gentle encouragement and praise.

Embodying the new approach, White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey broke a U.S. quarantine of Colombian President Ernesto Samper and met with him Monday.

Later in the day, he effusively hailed those on the front lines of the drug war.

“Colombian law enforcement and counter-drug military forces should be enormously proud of their sacrifice, commitment and courage,” McCaffrey said.

McCaffrey’s 45-minute session with Samper was “frank, open and cordial,” said Juan Carlos Esguerra, Colombia’s ambassador to Washington.

McCaffrey made nary a public remark about U.S. suspicions of the Colombian leader.

Washington yanked Samper’s U.S. visa last year over charges he took at least $6 million from the Cali Cartel to win election in mid-1994.

In an afternoon speech at the Colombian Army War College, McCaffrey warned of an alliance between the cocaine trade and leftist guerrillas he said has “created an unprecedented threat to democracy, the rule of law, and the very fabric of society.”

“We are now convinced the majority of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and a significant faction of the National Liberation Army benefit from drug trafficking,” he said.

McCaffrey estimated the two insurgencies receive a total of $60 million a year from protecting coca and poppy fields and laboratories.

Until recently, U.S. officials dismissed suggestions Colombia faced a destabilizing threat from rebels financing their fighting with drug profits.

“It is no accident the 32 percent increase in coca cultivation that took place in Colombia last year was concentrated almost entirely in guerrilla-controlled territory,” he said.

McCaffrey described rebel efforts to sabotage Oct. 26 municipal elections as an attack at “the beating heart of democratic society.”

Even while noting “narcotics-related corruption is threatening your way of life,” McCaffrey paid tribute to Colombian pilots who run perilous drug-crop eradication flights over coca and poppy fields.

“The bravery of these pilots, whose aircraft were struck by ground fire on at least 57 occasions so far in 1997, excites admiration in us all,” he said.