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Officials Say Colombian President May Be Linked to Drug Cartels

By Thomas W. Lippman
The Washington Post

Arrest warrants issued last weekend by the chief prosecutor in Colombia and new charges linking prominent political figures there to narcotics money form a trail that could lead directly to President Ernesto Samper, according to some U.S. officials.

If such a link is established, it will reinforce the views of Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gelbard and other Clinton administration officials who have long been suspicious of Samper and sought his resignation. Secretary of State Warren Christopher has resisted pressure to break with Samper, saying the administration wants to "work with" him despite disappointment with his performance, but the cases against Colombian legislators and members of Samper's party are likely to increase pressure in Congress for a formal rupture.

"This all points to Samper," a senior U.S. official said. "There's no smoking gun yet," the official said, but the investigation may generate enough pressure that Samper "may have to resign."

"There isn't necessarily a direct connection yet, but the evidence (against Samper) is out there and will come out eventually," said a U.S. official in Bogota, the Colombian capital.

Samper was elected president of Colombia last year. Washington accepted the election as free and fair, but U.S. officials warned Samper during the campaign that they suspected drug cartel money was financing his campaign.

Samper has firmly and repeatedly denied any link to Colombia's notorious cocaine underground, depicting himself as a victim of the cartels in a 1989 assassination attempt, and has promised to crack down on narcotics trafficking. The Clinton administration, however, has viewed him with suspicion since the campaign and has criticized his government for alleged tolerance of drug cartel activity.