COLOMBIA, struggling against the drug cartels, is warily eyeing a deal with the devil. The state would let the kingpins of the notorious Medellin cartel in effect rejoin society, and they would shut down the cocaine trade. It is at face preposterous: as though these criminals deserve anything but the full fury of the law, as though anyone could trust them to leave the business or as though others are not instantly ready to replace them. The negotiation, not to speak of the enforcement, of such a plan would pose hideous problems. But growth of the cartels to dimensions that overawe Colombia's democratic state -- there is no working judiciary -- has forced on that country options that others more fortunately situated must at least weigh before dismissing them as morally or politically beyond the pale.

Ever since drug traffickers assassinated a presidential candidate in 1989, Colombia has been under a particularly brutal siege of bombings, killings and kidnappings; truth-telling journalists have been a special target. Like his predecessor, the current president, Cesar Gaviria, has pursued the battle against difficult odds, responding to the intimidation and corruption of judges by extraditing major suspects for trial in the United States. The extraditions have gotten the keen attention of the Medellin "Extraditables," and led them to enter on-and-off, up-and-down indirect talks with the government on the terms on which normal life might be resumed for them and the country. This "negotiation" -- the government shies from the word -- has understandably moved to the center of public life in Colombia.

It is sickening to think that kingpins responsible for the vilest deeds could somehow be relieved of accountability and accepted again in society. The urgent question is whether any terms that may finally be agreed on will adequately serve society's needs. This is necessarily a matter that can only be decided in Colombia -- and at an uncommon level of public seriousness. It is also a matter that intensely concerns the United States, which stands to benefit immensely from any source or shipping country's success in narrowing the flood of drugs and which still is far from matching Colombia's performance in its own realm of responsibility: inhibiting demand.