KINGS OF COCAINE Inside the Medellin Cartel -- An Astonishing True Story Of Murder, Money, and International Corruption By Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen Simon and Schuster. 391 pp. $19.95 POLITICIANS in Latin America like to blame the United States for the havoc inflicted on their countries by the drug trade, while our politicians love to blame Latin scapegoats for our 6 million cocaine users. But as this well-researched and tightly written account points out, the rapid expansion of cocaine supplies starting in the mid-1970s was the result of a joint U.S.-Colombian venture. George Jung, an American marijuana trafficker, and Carlos Lehder Rivas, a Colombian-born car thief and marijuana dealer, met in the Federal Correctional Facility in Danbury, Conn. Jung had the idea of adapting marijuana-smuggling techniques to cocaine: importing hundreds of kilos in small private planes from Colombia, instead of a few kilos at a time hidden in luggage or clothes. Lehder, who had lived for 10 years in the United States, had the connections and the drive to make it work. With a wholesale price in Colombia of $2,000 per kilo and a U.S. street value of $55,000 per kilo, there was no way they could avoid making money. Lehder quickly set up an air bridge with a hub on Norman's Cay in the Bahamas. He took a quarter of each load as his cut. It didn't take long to achieve his goal: "a conglomerate of small-time cocaine producers" who would put all their merchandise together into one shipment to pay the costs and in the process generate new demand in the United States. Lehder fancied himself the "king" of cocaine and a future president of Colombia. But his method was open to imitation, and he quickly became just another thug. Like so many other traffickers, Lehder gravitated to Medellin, Colombia's second biggest city, famous for its orchids, year-round spring weather and the opulent lifestyles of the new residents. They built expensive villas and ranches, sponsored bullfights and, in one case, even constructed low-cost housing for the poor. The turning point in their steady rise to political influence was in early 1984 when police raided their labs, and cartel-hired assassins killed the minister of justice. Vendettas multiplied, and Medellin paid a fearsome price, reporting 1,698 murders in 1985, a per capita world's record. The figure almost doubled in 1986 to 3,500, or about 10 a day. But this is a tale of two cities, for Medellin spawned the traffickers who turned Miami into "Miami Vice." Now two superlative journalists from the Miami Herald tell the gripping tale of cops-versus-cartel. In their account, stories that we may have read once over lightly in a newspaper are related in their dramatic entirety. The effect is mindboggling. For instance. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration masterminded the first big bust at Tranquilandia, Columbia, in March 1984 using an ingenious sting. First, it imposed tight controls on U.S. manufacturers selling ether, essential for cocaine production, and then set up its own bogus ether supplier. Radios concealed in false bottomed drums of ether signaled the location of the lab in Columbia's tropical jungle. Closing in, Colombian police seized an entire cocaine factory, 13 nearby cocaine labs and 100 garbage cans full of cocaine in semi-liquid form. The individual portraits of these thugs are memorable. Lehder idolized Hitler, John Lennon and "Che" Guevera. Pablo Escobar began his career "stealing headstones from local graveyards, shaving off the inscriptions and reselling the blank slabs to bereaved relatives at bargain prices" and went on to become one of the biggest traffickers, shipping 1,200 to 2,000 kilos a month to the United States. Owner of a Medellin newspaper and an alternate member of the national legislature, Escobar successfully wooed the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the city and was on his way to becoming a national politician when he crossed swords with Columbia's justice minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. THE HEROES of this tale are the few Colombian judicial officials who confronted the cartel and were murdered and the DEA staff who risked their lives working with them. But without two Americans who had penetrated the cartel's inner circle and became indispensable informers -- Barry Seal, a pilot, and Max Mermelstein, a New York-born engineer -- the cartel would remain an impenetrable mystery to this day. In this labyrinth of greed, one of the most curious stories concerns Oliver North. In May 1984, shortly after Lara Bonilla's assassination, Escobar -- the former tombstone thief, now on the lam in Panama -- told Barry Seal that "all the cartel's cocaine laboratories in Colombia" had been dismantled and were "going to be moved to Nicaragua." Federico Vaughan, an assistant to Nicaraguan Interior Minister Toma's Borge, went on to say that "his government stood ready to process all the cocaine base the Colombians could deliver"; East Germany would provide the ether. Seal made three visits to Nicaragua, the last two with a plane equipped by the CIA with a hidden camera. He was about to travel to Bolivia to pick up cocaine base for delivery to Nicaragua when North, in a vain bid to influence Congress into voting aid to the contras, decided to leak the story. More was blown than an investigation. In Spain, where Ochoa had been arrested, the White House's blatant attempt to exploit Seal's revelations for political ends gave Ochoa's lawyers an argument that eventually prevented his extradition to the United States. My only problem with Gugliotta and Leen's vivid narrative is that the DEA, their primary source, also serves as their frame of reference and receives little critical scrutiny itself. Seal, a DEA informant, later killed by cartel gunmen, is the sole source of the story about the Nicaraguan labs; there is no sign the authors tried to obtain corroboration in Nicaragua. And Panamanian strongman Antonio Manuel Noriega, an obsession for the Reagan and Bush administrations, and a focus of Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign, is a relatively minor figure in their book. The authors express puzzlement over his indictment in Miami in February 1988 and suggest it occurred for political reasons. Most of his "supposed transgressions . . . had been public knowledge for years." This implies that U.S. politicians of both parties have stirred up public concern over Noriega far beyond the merits of the evidence. The DEA, which awarded Noriega citations for his assistance, would no doubt agree, and it may be the case. But before we turn Noriega into a scapegoat, some examination of the DEA's relationship with him over the years is needed. Roy Gutman covers the State Department for Newsday. He is the author of "Banana Diplomacy: The Making of U.S. Policy in Nicaragua, 1981-1987."