THE war against drug lords in Colombia and the other Andean nations won't be won only by storming the enemy. Medell'in cartel leader Jos'e Gonzalo Rodr'iquez Gacha was recently eliminated, but the enemy persists - a huge, clandestine economic machine embracing thousands of would-be Gachas. A vacancy in its hierarchy is quickly filled.
That's not to downplay the successes the Colombian authorities, spurred by the commitment of President Virgilio Barco Vargas, have had. Retaliatory violence by the cartels has subsided.
But the flow of cocaine from Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru has not. Production facilities simply shift from one part of the Andean backcountry to another as government pressure increases. Likewise, Panama's role as a shipping point for cocaine will migrate.
Farmers in Bolivia and Peru have become dependent on the coca crop. Efforts to wean them away from this noxious harvest will require well-thought-out crop substitution programs.
Economic development, in fact, must be an integral part of a US-South American war on drugs. President Bush has made a start with his planned $2 billion in aid to the three Andean nations over four years. Much more from the United States and other developed nations with a stake in fighting drugs will probably be needed to help move economic activity away from cocaine. A useful step would be reconsideration of the international agreement on coffee prices, abandoned by the US. Colombia stands to lose $500 million a year because of the agreement's collapse. Trade barriers against other exports from the Andean region, such as textiles and cut flowers, should be lowered.
Economic revival in the coca-producing nations is a critical front in the drug war. So is the lessening of demand in the US through education, media campaigns, and treatment. So is law enforcement in Latin America and the US. The first two fronts - the most difficult in conception and strategy - need bolstering.