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Colombia's Drug War

COLOMBIA is fighting back after the latest murderous rampage of the nation's drug lords. After the assassinations last week of a high judge, a major police official, and a presidential candidate, the government has arrested more than 11,000 drug-running suspects and seized millions of dollars worth of property belonging to alleged kingpins. For this aggressive response, President Virgilio Barco Vargas is to be commended. This isn't the first time Bogot'a has declared war on the narcotics mandarins, though. In 1984, after Colombia's justice minister was killed, the government took emergency measures against the traffickers. Yet five years later, the cartel leaders in Medell'in and Cali still carry on with near impunity.

The law-enforcement problems are formidable. The drug bosses conduct business from remote bases in mountainous areas, guarded by private, high-magnum armies. They have wide intelligence networks and, through terror or bribery, have neutralized police officials and much of the judiciary.

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But Colombia's drug war has political obstacles, as well. The will to combat the trade has been fitful not only because of terrorist intimidation, but also because so many Colombians are either benefited by the nation's most lucrative export or unaffected by it.

Perhaps that's changing. The outpouring of grief and outrage that followed the murder last Friday of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Gal'an may signal a new recognition by Colombians that their society is breaking down, and that their national self-respect, their democratic values, indeed, their very culture are being undermined by the drug industry.

What can the United States do to help? Given its limited success in dealing even with its own drug problems (witness the murder rate in the nation's capital), the US should assist Colombia with humility and modest expectations.

Sending in US military forces seems uncalled for; such troops would be of limited effectiveness and would raise diplomatic problems for both countries.

Perhaps the most useful thing the US could do would be, through aid and training, to help establish a separate, incorruptible law-enforcement branch - involving police, judges, and prison officials - to deal with drug cases. This would remove such cases from the regular law-enforcement system, which has been heavily infiltrated and corrupted by the drug lords.

Colombia is displaying political courage. The US should do more than just hold its coat, but there's not much the US can do to wage the fight.

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