Aparadox is occurring in the Western Hemisphere fight against illegal drugs, especially cocaine. After years of prodding by the United States, the governments of the two largest coca-growing nations -- Peru and Bolivia -- are finally sending agents into coca-growing areas to destroy crops. They have made considerable inroads. Consequently the entrenched illegal drug industries in both nations are fighting back. For these impoverished nations the stakes are high: Under a relatively new law, the United States can withhold foreign aid from a nation that does not make advances in combating its drug traffic.
Even as Peru and Bolivia record partial successes, the Reagan administration is proposing a budget cut that would sharply impair the ability of the US Customs Service to spot the smuggling of cocaine into the US by air. An estimated 50 tons of cocaine is smuggled into the US every year, half of that by air.
The administration would reportedly chop some 40 percent from the budget of the air wing of the Customs Service. It would then be without funds to fly newly acquired radar planes capable of spotting drug flights along the southern US border.
The recent efforts of Bolivia and Peru should be supported.
The budget-cutting efforts of the Office of Management and Budget should be opposed. It took Washington many years to get Latin American nations to act against drug traffic. It would be unfortunate to convey the impression that the US is unwilling to do its share to combat the smuggling.
Within the US, the best pressure point at which to curtail drug distribution is the point of entry: Air surveillance and seizure of drug smugglers ought to be emphasized, not curtailed.
In his welcoming on Tuesday to Ecuador's President, Le'on Febres-Cordero, President Reagan appropriately praised that nation's drug-eradication efforts. Those nations that are acting deserve support from Washington; it requires courage to strive to curtail an underdeveloped nation's biggest cash export crop.
Colombia, which started the current round of South American crackdowns in 1981, has done less well in recent months. Many of the accused drug traffickers have been released, and President Belisario Betancur has been preoccupied with the aftermath of a major earthquake and his Army's attack, with many fatalities, on the terrorist-held Ministry of Justice.
In both Peru and Bolivia much remains to be done. Alternative cash crops should be devised for farmers. And indications are that new crops are being planted faster than old ones can be destroyed.
Peruvian farmers appear to be planting more coca than the government has destroyed. For several days Bolivian farmers, likely at the behest of drug traffickers, surrounded some 250 narcotics officers who had entered coca-growing areas to destroy drug crops.