THE United States and Latin America must design a more effective joint strategy in their war on drugs. Often the fight has been sporadic, lonely, and costly in lives lost and strides made. Needed: a steady, concerted effort to reduce the US demand for drugs and South America's abundant supply, to counter the traffickers' campaign of violence and intimidation. Last week drug dealers in Colombia, the source of 80 percent of US cocaine, killed that nation's chief prosecutor. It was the latest in a four-year series of brutal murders of judges, journalists, and politicians aimed at gaining immunity for traffickers from prosecution or extradition.
Colombian President Vergilio Barco has promised tougher enforcement and more severe penalties. Many Colombians consider the action weak and too late; some would prefer compromise with the drug lords to more violence.
Latin America's widespread poverty and growing foreign debt make cracking down on drug supplies there particularly tough. About 450,000 Bolivians now depend for a living on coca production. Farmers who might like to grow alternative crops feel they cannot afford to. Repatriated drug profits now account for 20 percent of Peru's official export earnings. In Colombia, which now sells more cocaine than coffee, traffickers two years ago offered to pay part of the $13 billion debt for their freedom.
Some drug-related corruption extends to the highest levels: A convicted US drug smuggler testified on Capitol Hill last week that Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, Panama's strong man, accepted a $300,000 payment for his help in laundering drug profits through Panamanian banks. General Noriega is also accused by a former Panamanian diplomat of aiding Colombia's famous Medell'in cocaine cartel.
Some Latin nations routinely rotate police postings to guard against corruption at lower levels. Convictions of drug dealers are difficult to get. Mexico has made more than 60 arrests linked to the 1985 murder of a US drug agent, but no one has been convicted.
Drug trafficking threatens both democracy and the judicial system in several Latin nations. Often dealers team up with leftist guerrilla groups to control areas within a country. Latins themselves are now among the addicts; in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia per capita cocaine use is higher than in the US. The drug mafia's gifts to local welfare projects and arguments against extradition as a violation of sovereignty tend to net them a certain ``Robin Hood'' following.
The US must work harder to curb drug demands within its borders. Education programs should be strengthened.
Some continued US pressure on Latin nations is useful; it can help give them the political courage to continue enforcement efforts. But US threats to cut back already modest US assistance, if performance is not up to par in Congress's eyes, can hinder more than they help. Several Latin nations complain that the US holds them to unrealistic antidrug goals. The $50 million a year which the US channels to Latin drug-fighting efforts is a sound investment that should be increased, not reduced. Also, as the search for alternative crops goes on, the US should be sure no quotas or tariffs bar the entry of such products.
The US and its Latin neighbors should find ways to evaluate, jointly, antidrug programs now in place and progress achieved. Too much energy is now wasted on accusations of who has not done enough.
Ways must also be found to stiffen the resolve of judicial and police systems in Latin nations in the fight against drugs. Crop eradication has its place in the broad fight against drugs. But if foreign troops are needed, some kind of multilateral force should be considered. Sending in US troops, as the US did in Bolivia in 1986, can stir up anti-Americanism, and its success can prove questionable. Bolivian coca prices are back to normal.
Most of all, more regional determination to solve the problem is needed; solidarity in the fight can make the important difference.