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Democracy and Drugs

EVENTS in Colombia and Mexico have shown that the corrosive effects of drug dealing reach beyond families and communities to democracy itself.

These Latin American countries, situated on the cocaine trade route between the Andean region and North America, aren't alone in having their institutions of government penetrated by moneyed traffickers.

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Drug-trade cash is undermining democratic processes and reform in parts of Asia, Africa, and the former Soviet Union, too. Even systems of justice in the oldest democracies can be tarnished, as shown by the recent indictments of a number of US lawyers, some of them former federal officials, charged with being in the pay of the Cali, Colombia, cocaine cartel.

Colombia is in the strange position of having a president, Ernesto Samper, who is accused of accepting millions of dollars in campaign contributions from Cali's drug lords even as he cracks down on those same criminals. American officials note that Mr. Samper's move against the Cali traffickers came only after his country was told, earlier this year, that it was in danger of losing all US aid because of lax pursuit of the drug barons.

President Samper has denied that he knowingly accepted money from the cartel. But former campaign officials have acknowledged taking the tainted funds. What lingers is the picture of a country where drug money flows readily into the political system, corrupting many political campaigns, lawmakers, and judges.

If anything, Mexico presents an even more labyrinthine picture, with drug connections suspected in the country's recent spate of political killings. Drug-cartel payoff money is widely believed to be filtering into the pockets of federal police officials and politicians in the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Mexico's drug corruption is particularly disturbing to US officials, given the country's proximity. Mexican drug-distribution cartels could fill a void in the trafficking world left by the Cali crackdown.

A key to diminishing the influence of Mexican, Colombian, or more far-flung criminal networks is strengthened law enforcement and judicial structures. But that doesn't necessarily mean a direct export of US or Western techniques, methods, and philosophy. The last thing a country like Mexico wants is public lecturing from Washington on how to apprehend traffickers and fight corruption.

But the the US can work behind the scenes, with suggestions and urgings. And many private groups, based either in the US or elsewhere, can advise countries about judicial procedures and investigative techniques.

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The need to strengthen democratic structures - including independent judicial systems - was much talked about in the wake of the cold war. The war against drug trafficking is a prime reason that need shouldn't be forgotten.

A key to fighting drug corruption is strengthened legal and judicial systems.

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