DISAGREEMENTS between Colombia and Bolivia over how to tackle the illegal cocaine trade are delaying approval of a common Latin American drug policy to put before a summit meeting between President Bush and three Andean country presidents. Colombia's President Virgilio Barco Vargas has used troops as well as police in his recent offensive against his country's cocaine cartels. But Bolivia is reluctant to eradicate the coca fields that provide a living for thousands of its farmers unless alternatives are created.
These differences emerged in talks last week in the Peruvian coastal desert town of Ica, between Presidents Barco, Jaime Paz Zamora of Bolivia, and Alan Garc'ia P'erez of Peru. But the leaders of the three Andean countries at the heart of the production end of the cocaine trade did agree to issue a formal invitation to Mr. Bush for the summit meeting ``within 90 days.'' This was swiftly accepted by the White House, though the date and site of the meeting are still to be finalized.
The Andean countries postponed a decision on a common policy to put before Bush until a further ``technical meeting'' next month.
``The main problem is Bolivia,'' a Colombian official in Ica said. But he added, ``the political will to reach a common position is there.''
Presidents Barco and Garc'ia were later joined in Ica by the leaders of five other major Latin American democracies for the annual meeting of what is still known as the Group of Eight - although the eighth member, Panama, was suspended from participation last year. More than half their seven and a half hours of talks were devoted to drugs, according to officials. But though the presidents expressed their intent to ``concert'' their actions on the subject, they came to no firm policy conclusions.
``It's not appropriate just to talk of aid donations, small or big'' in the drug fight, Garc'ia told reporters during the meeting. ``There has be political consultation and policies that treat [the drug trade] in all its complexity.''
THIS complexity of the cocaine industry is a prime difficulty Latin America faces in reaching a common policy to fight it. As the three Andean presidents said in a joint statement, ``there are distinct phases of production, distribution, and consumption that require different treatments.''
Staff from the three foreign ministries had drawn up a 23 paragraph document for consideration by the presidents. This stressed the need for more economic aid for their countries in order to support ``programs of alternative development and crop substitution,'' and ``preferential treatment'' for their legal export products.
This reflected the position of Bolivia and Peru. Both are among the poorest countries in Latin America, and between them they produce about 85 percent of the world's coca crop. In both, tens of thousands of farmers grow coca partly because of price and marketing problems for other crops.
Eradicating coca without providing alternatives simply worsens social problems while generating increased violence and support for guerrilla groups, according to officials in these countries. Mr. Zamora, for example, said shortly after taking office in August that Bolivia is prepared to play its role in fighting the drug trade ``provided that this doesn't leave the country poorer than it already is.''
Colombia faces the very different problem of being the corporate headquarters of the trafficking syndicates who control the refining and export of cocaine. Their armed power and killing of judges, politicians, and police officers have posed a direct challenge to Barco's ability to rule. ``President Barco's position on cocaine is very categoric: It has to be eliminated,'' his press spokesman said.
While Peru has had a program of forcible eradication of coca fields in the past, this was suspended in February, and the government shares Zamora's concern with trying to find alternatives to coca. In Peru's Upper Huallaga Valley more than 100,000 people depend directly on coca, according to an official at Peru's interior ministry.
``What do we do with them? Ship them to Miami?'' he asks. If coca is eradicated, ``we will end up with an enormous social problem. If there is not a financial parachute for them they will free fall into the laps of the guerrillas,'' he says.
He was referring to the presence in the Huallaga Valley of the hard-line Maoist guerrillas of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). Police chiefs say the guerrillas have gained support there because of resentment at previous coca eradication efforts.