THE BLOOD BOILS to read that in Colombia they have let out of jail the man identified as the billionaire drug trafficker whose ring supplies up to 80 percent of the cocaine sold on the American market. Colombian authorities, holding Jorge Luis Ochoa on a small charge, had agreed to release him only to the United States to face drug charges in this country. But, it seems, by the intimidation and bribery that have made Colombia's whole criminal justice system a free-fire zone of the drug cartel, the man was freed, and he disappeared. Enraged American authorities are slowing down incoming Colombian travelers and goods. There are calls for tougher sanctions.
In the United States, the law is widely seen as the last line of defense against the drug juggernaut. But in Colombia and other Third World countries, the juggernaut rolls over the law. Traffickers have simply killed those judges, legislators and police who could not be bought. The latest incident shows that the principal escape hatch, extradition to the United States, is being closed down too. In Colombia the ordinary murder rate is many times that of the United States. A ''dirty war'' continues in which thousands of leftist political figures have been murdered by a far-right element that mocks Colombian democracy. Drug violence is sovereign. The state appears to be vanishing. This is why American sanctions, such as slowing down imports of Colombian cut flowers, are a weak reed.
This isn't to say it is pointless to keep pressing Colombia and other growing and transit countries to do what they must do in law enforcement, economic development and health education. But these things cannot be expected to work while the United States allows the great engine of the trade -- the immense American demand -- to roar unchecked. The government organizes a policy to that end, but the burden of the effort necessarily falls on choices made by individuals. A crude social determinism is often invoked to explain drug usage by the disadvantaged in American society. The advantaged, including many who use the cocaine dispatched by the likes of Jorge Luis Ochoa, cannot so easily claim the same deference. They usually flee the thought that their ''measured'' use of a ''recreational'' drug, far from being a liberating personal act, feeds a monster that devours neighborhoods, cities and even countries. But that is the truth of it.