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Profiling the international drug trade

The Underground Empire: Where Crime and Governments Embrace, by James Mills. New York: Doubleday. 1165 pp. $22.95. Cocaine . . . marijuana . . . heroin. . . . They continue to pour into the United States from abroad, smuggled in by way of private and commercial airlines; on boats ranging from small, unmarked outboards to large deep-sea tankers; via cars making ostensibly normal ``tourist'' crossings; in bags carried by illegal aliens. The volume of cocaine smuggled into the US this year alone is expected to be double that of 1985, according to the US Customs Service.

Most important, the toll imposed on society from drug usage is enormous, in terms of lives lost or destroyed, emotional and physical disorders, sloppily-made products, a lowering of safety standards in many professions, and -- most serious -- violent crime. The evidence is inescapable that much of the organized criminal activity in the US is directly linked to the financial gain to be made from the sale of illicit drugs.

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In a breezy literary style that can at best be described as ``Miami-Vice-shoot-'em-up'' lurid, author James Mills has put together a fascinating profile of a number of the shadowy personas and courageous law enforcement officials who find themselves locked together in drug wars. As Mills shows, the drug trade is just that: a form of subterranean warfare, with both sides -- police and dealers -- attempting to outmaneuver the other.

Mills, who wrote ``Report to the Commissioner'' and ``The Panic in Needle Park,'' knows his market well. For many people, ``The Underground Empire'' will prove to be far too long, too emotional, too overstated. Yet his account will probably prove popular. His rapid fire, dialogue-laced chapters read as though they were designed for immediate translation to film or television. Mills's device for the Hollywood treatment is clever: He builds his profile of the drug war around Centac, a US government anti-drug operation set up in the 1970s that was eventually dismantled by the Reagan administration.

Mills's book comes out at a good moment for this type of docudrama, just as the reading public prepares for summer vacations. Excerpts are running in Rolling Stone magazine. The book will no doubt be sought out by many younger, college-age readers.

But there is more -- much more -- that needs to be said about controlling the international drug trade than is suggested by Mills's account. Merely incarcerating drug chieftains, as good a cause as that is, will not be enough to stop the drug trade. Part of the problem is political. How does the US encourage friendly nations, such as Mexico, to control its own drug traffic? How does the US persuade overseas governments to divert farmers from growing drug crops to cultivating more wholesome crops instead, without losing desperately-needed economic revenues in the process?

Finally, the challenge is as much spiritual as economic. The trade flourishes because of a willingness within large segments of society to tolerate illegal drugs. Until that public attitude is more effectively challenged, there seems no end to the number of dubious characters who will come out of the woodwork to profit in the tragedy of illegal drugs.

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