Venezuela launches patriotic war on growing drug traffic. Education drive stresses drug lords' threat to society

With chalkboard and pointer in hand, attorney Bayardo Ram'irez looks more like a slightly rumpled college teacher than a front-line fighter against Latin America's drug lords. As head of Venezuela's presidential commission on drug abuse, Mr. Ram'irez and his team of social scientists have developed what they hope will be a powerful weapon against the drug empire that has laid siege to the country: an anti-drug education effort based on patriotism.

``We have to organize ourselves as a society,'' says Ram'irez with urgency. ``Our culture, our sovereignty - everything is in jeopardy.''

Ram'irez says the US slogan ``Just say no'' makes no sense for Latin America, where both pushers and consumers turn to drugs for economic reasons. His model acknowledges that governments must create economic alternatives. Venezuelan fishermen, for example, who are carrying cocaine from the impoverished state of Sucre to the island of Trinidad should be organized into profitmaking fishing cooperatives, Ram'irez says.

But the campaign's main thrust would be to rally patriotic sentiment against a clandestine, transnational empire that threatens the independence of Latin America, Ram'irez emphasizes.

``We say this isn't [just] a problem of individual choices but a problem for the whole country,'' he says.

The frequent concern expressed in Venezuelan municipal councils and neighborhood associations about drugs suggests that Ram'irez can count on popular support for his proposed patriotic war on drugs.

Although Venezuela arrived late on the drug scene, authorities say it now plays a major role in the transshipment of cocaine from laboratories in Colombia. The largest cocaine bust in United States history involved a 3,000-kilogram shipment of high-quality cocaine in October from the Venezuelan port of La Guaira to West Palm Beach, Fla.

The big bust was not unique. Even as antidrug officers from Venezuela and Colombia were winding up a November strategy session on border drug traffic, Venezuelan National Guardsmen were discovering major cocaine operations in nearby Tachira State, which borders Colombia. A National Guard antidrug officer who asked not to be identified said that 1,000 kilos of cocaine a month are passing through Venezuela's porous borders.

During the oil boom years, the country's high standard of living and low unemployment rate reduced the appeal of drug trafficking as a means of making money. But rising foreign debt and falling oil earnings forced Venezuela to devalue its national currency by 74 percent in 1983. Unemployment is officially estimated at 20 percent. Purchasing power is down 35 percent since 1979. The lure of the drug trade has taken on new luster.

The government's nagging nightmare is that more and more of the drugs destined for markets abroad will be consumed here, making Venezuela another drug-ridden society. Large numbers of youth in the cocaine-exporting nations of Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia are now hooked on bazuco, the cheap coca paste smoked in cigarettes.

Since no Venezuelan government agency systematically collects data on drug abuse, no one knows for sure how many people are smoking, snorting, and swallowing illegal substances here. But officials believe the trend is up. According to Minister of Youth Virginia Olvio de Celli, a Gallup poll showed that teen-agers are turning increasingly to drugs as an escape from mounting economic pressures.

The government of President Jaime Lusinchi has expressed strong determination to prevent Venezuela from becoming a drug-dominated society. His administration pushed through a major criminal law reform that lengthened prison terms for traffickers and established the presidential commission to coordinate the antidrug battle.

After a year of study, commission president Ram'irez is proposing an antidrug educational program that he hopes will become a model for Latin America.

In its effort to mobilize Venezuelan society, the commission is starting with high-level government functionaries. Top public administrators met for three days recently to hear commission experts explain the drug danger and what should be done about it.

Commission coordinator Rom'an Gonz'alez says that key ministries such as justice, education, health, and defense will each draw up a plan of action for pilot projects to begin this year.

In the long run, the commission will have to ask Congress for funds to turn successful pilot projects into permanent policy. Ram'irez suggests that it will involve some $40 million. Funds for the commission's long-range program are limited for the same reason that trafficking has become more attractive in Venezuela - the economy is in crisis.

And Venezuela's antidrug effort will face other barriers, according to former police chief Rafael Rivero Munoz, a leading independent analyst of Venezuela's drug problem. Mr. Rivero shares Ram'irez's concern that Venezuela's sovereignty is at stake.

He questions, however, whether Venezuela can defend itself against the onslaught. The economic crisis, he notes, also makes underpaid law enforcement officers an easier target for drug corruption.

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