Slowing the drug traffic

THE Reagan administration is optimistic that its efforts to reduce US drug traffic are about to yield major successes. But Democratic critics are skeptical; they say, in effect, that they have heard it all before and wonder if the optimism is mostly election-year rhetoric.

The Reagan administration effort is rooted in the view that the most serious criminal problem in the United States is drug-related crime: Criminals who break into homes or rob individuals in order to obtain money with which to purchase drugs. The administration concluded, as have others before it, that the best way to deal with the drug problem is to cut off the supply at its source - in such nations as Colombia, which grow large percentages of the illicit drugs that come to the US.

In addition, the administration is attempting to identify the kingpins of the drug trade and to take the profit out of it by tracing the flow of the huge amounts of money that change hands when illicit drugs are shipped into the US. In most cases this money is processed by banks in a handful of other nations that have secrecy laws preventing US law-enforcement authorities from learning the identities of those who are taking in all this money and who are behind the drug operations. Stripping this cloak of secrecy, officials believe, would make drug profits more difficult to conceal and thus might result in a substantial drop in drug trafficking.

Administration officials indicate that they are close to gaining approval of some nations in the Americas to open up their bank secrecy laws. However, they acknowledge that unless several nations agree, drug traffickers might merely transfer their banking operations to countries which do not permit access to their bank records. Democratic critics are particularly skeptical of the claims of progress, saying that a year ago they had heard similar reports, which did not come to fruition.

The most visible anti-drug activity is in Colombia. After years of government resistance to US requests that the drug tide be stemmed, President Betancur recently declared a full-scale assault on all drug operations in his nation after drug overlords had challenged his government by assassinating a Cabinet minister. Thus far the government is making major progress in destroying drug refineries. If it proves it can gain and retain the upper hand, the result would be encouraging to other drug-growing nations to do likewise, before they, too, are dangerously close to being in the grip of their nation's drug ''industry.''

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