THERE now is reason for some optimism that Colombia, a prime supplier of illegal drugs to the United States, finally is moving to crack down on drug-trafficking. If such action continues and succeeds, it could result in a substantially decreased amount of cocaine and marijuana available in the US. By some estimates 90 percent of cocaine and 60 percent of marijuana in the US come from Colombia: Some is grown there, the rest in Bolivia or Peru and processed in Colombia.
The promise of Colombian President Belisario Betancur that he is launching an all-out war against drug trafficking should be welcomed. While Colombian officials have been saying for years they are committed to stopping the traffic, there has been little evidence of effective action. That is what is different about the current situation - action is being taken. In a reversal of his decision a year ago, President Betancur this week agreed to extradite 18 persons accused of drug trafficking to the US, as Washington has long requested. He also ordered that other persons suspected of drug trafficking be tried in Colombian military courts.
And two months ago Colombian government agents attacked and captured a jungle factory which processed cocaine and seized 13.8 tons of cocaine with a street value of some $1.2 billion. US officials called it the world's largest drug raid.
Several factors may have combined to cause President Betancur to heed suddenly the long-time pleas of US officials and act against US-bound drugs. In essence they add up to a recognition that it is in the interest of his nation and its government to deal with the problem.
One factor is increased US pressure. Last year the US Congress passed a law permitting the US to cut off all aid to any nation, including Colombia, that did not make sufficient inroads in decreasing the flow of drugs to the United States. At a Senate hearing three weeks ago several senators said ominously that Colombia had done little in this regard, and that this might be the time to consider ending its aid. Armed with the threat of a cutoff, the US State Department and Drug Enforcement Agency have increased their pressure on Colombia to act.
Another factor may have been concern by President Betancur over the growing strength of Colombian guerrillas, some of whom are said to be communist oriented. In recent months there have been increasing reports that Cuba was involved in shipping much of the drugs from Colombia to the US; in return Cuba siphoned off some of the profit, which it used to buy weapons and ship them to rebels in several Latin American nations, including Colombia.
President Betancur may have become alarmed by the strength of his nation's Cuba-supplied guerrillas and of Colombians who have become wealthy and powerful through drug trafficking. The government said communist guerrillas were guarding the cocaine-processing plant that it attacked in March. Further, the government's justice minister was assassinated last Monday, a few months after he had announced a major effort to curb drug traffic. It was two days after the killing that President Betancur announced the top-level crackdown.
One additional factor looms. For years drug addiction was low among Colombians, but recently it has begun growing at an alarming rate.
American specialists hope President Betancur can withstand internal pressures and continue his effort to curb the drug industry - growing, processing, and transporting. By far the most effective way to cut down the flow of drugs is at its source, before the drugs get to the US - far more effective than even the largest raid on drug distribution points inside the continental US.
For example, 42 persons now face criminal charges after arrests in Florida; they are accused in connection with a cocaine smuggling ring. Over the course of a year and a half the group is accused of having smuggled eight tons of cocaine into the US; this is thought to be the largest amount of cocaine ever listed in a single indictment in the US. Yet by contrast, the Colombian government's capture of the cocaine refining plant two months ago resulted in the seizure of 13.8 tons of cocaine at one time.
President Betancur should be encouraged in his efforts.