Drug wars: the view from Colombia

SO far this year, Colombia has captured almost 5,000 people engaged in the narcotics trade. We have destroyed more than 600 laboratories, almost 10,000 kilos of cocaine, and over 1 million coca plants. These statistics signal our total commitment to the war against drugs. Nevertheless, as we all realize, we cannot yet claim victory in this fight. More than 200 members of our armed forces and police have lost their lives in this battle in 1988. Indeed during the last several years, thousands of our people have been slain - not only soldiers and police, but the minister of justice, our attorney general, judges, journalists, human rights leaders, and other innocent civilians - all for daring to stand up to the drug dealers seeking to destroy our democracy.

It is not just Colombians who have fallen because they sought to block the cocaine traffic as it surges across our borders toward its final market on your streets. American law enforcement officers have died, too, for trying to stop this trade. Then comes the final link in this fatal chain: the young addicts whose lives are lost because they fall captive to cocaine. We are all victims: Americans, Colombians, Latin Americans.

Little wonder, then, that the people of my country are perplexed when the hemispheric drug issue - the greatest threat to our democracies today - is labeled a law enforcement problem.

If all that were required to stop drugs were the commitment and competence of law enforcement authorities in Colombia and the United States, we would have solved this deadly problem years ago. Yet as we all know, cocaine continues to plague our hemisphere, plunging democratic nations into new depths of violence.

For the US, for Colombia, and for many other nations, the devastating consequences of illegal narcotics call into question the ability of democratic governments to preserve order even as they protect liberty.

Overcoming a crisis of this magnitude will require candor, as well as courage. It will require us to recognize that uninhibited consumption of cocaine will overwhelm even the boldest and best-laid plans for stopping supply.

An understanding of the fundamental importance of substantially reducing supply in no way warrants an end to Colombia's war against drugs. We are committed to intensifying our efforts against the narco-traffickers. Encountering fierce resistance in the battle against narcotics, we have not always reached our objectives. We accept the responsibility for those areas where we have fallen short.

At the same time, we are convinced that trying to eradicate supply while American consumption remains enormous is to attempt to defy economic gravity.

Colombia will continue to capture narcotics dealers, blow up processing plants, and interdict drug shipments. What we cannot do is indulge in the belief that it is possible to stop all drug supplies at the source or seal off the entire American coastline.

We believe that the war against drugs will be won not only in the field, but in schools; not only by new hardware, but by the hard work of education and treatment. All of us must acknowledge that the outcome of this battle will be determined not only by the proven heroism of American and Colombian police officers, but by the attitude of the American people toward drugs.

Today, the epidemic of cocaine use in America is crippling both of our countries and many of our neighbors. We must insist on the message that illegal drugs are neither fashionable nor harmless, whether at glittering parties of the wealthy or in low-income neighborhoods.

Our two nations and many of our democratic neighbors, long tied together by common values, are now bound as well by the common enemy of cocaine. The drug crisis is an international problem that demands a renewed and intensified commitment by the international community.

Faced with this menace, I do not believe we can surrender - or succumb to illusions about what is required in all of our countries to save our children.

Virgilio Barco was elected President of Colombia in 1986.

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