THE RECENT arrest in Colombia of Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, a leader of the Cali drug trafficking cartel, is being hailed as a major victory in the war on drugs. After years of hesitation and equivocation, U.S. officials say, the Colombian government has at last moved against the organization said to control most of the cocaine smuggled into the United States.

"This arrest is evidence that no drug mafia leaders are above the law, no matter how powerful they are, and no matter where they hide," said Thomas Constantine, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The arrest of Rodriguez, he added, "signals the beginning of the end of the Cali mafia."

Rodriguez's arrest is just one of several recent events that have heartened U.S. officials. Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced the indictment of 62 people associated with the Cali cartel, including six lawyers allegedly involved in money laundering and other illicit acts. After years of inaction, the Cuban government re cently arrested Robert Vesco, the fugitive financier who has long been implicated in Latin American drug dealing. In Mexico, meanwhile, the government of Ernesto Zedillo, stung by accusations of corruption from Washington, shows signs of moving against the powerful drug syndicates that have so bedeviled that country.

Unfortunately, none of this is likely to reduce the flow of drugs into the United States. In the case of Rodriguez's arrest, a few days of front-page stories and self-congratulatory comments by U.S. officials will be followed by the traffickers resuming business as usual: sending cocaine into the United States at the rate of about a ton a day. And there things will stand until the next big arrest or indictment. The hunt for narco-traffickers has become one of Washington's longest-running -- and least convincing -- acts. Every time a major cocaine entrepreneur is nabbled, we are told that we've finally got the Big One. Always, though, it turns out that someone else out there is bigger and badder.

Just a few years ago, the target was the leaders of the Medellin cartel (remember them?), who were considered public enemy number one. "Colombia's Kings of Coke," Newsweek called them in a 1985 cover story. "Together they have become Colombia's cocaine overlords -- a small tight-knit clique of smugglers almost as rich and powerful as the Colombian government itself," the magazine reported. "From heavily armed strongholds deep in the Andes, according to U.S. drug enforcement officials, they refine and smuggle $2 billion a year in coke to the United States and the rest of the world." The Medellin cartel was said to control 80 percent of the cocaine entering the United States.

Newsweek singled out Carlos Lehder, the long-haired, swashbuckling, Hitler-loving narco as "narcotrafficante numero uno." In 1987 he was arrested in Colombia and extradited to the United States. "A major victory by the government of Colombia in the war on narcotics trafficking," declared Attorney General Edwin Meese. Lehder eventually received a life sentence. But the flood of cocaine into the United States did not diminish.

In 1989 Jose Gonzalez Rodriguez Gacha was gunned down by Colombian soldiers. "The notion that the cartel leaders are invincible has been put to rest," William Bennett, then the drug czar, declared. A drug enforcement agent told reporters, "This is the trophy bass we've been waiting for." The price of cocaine on the streets of the United States did not change.

In December 1993, Colombian troops, after a nationwide manhunt lasting many months, succeeded in cornering and killing the execrable Pablo Escobar, who had asserted his power by setting off car bombs and blowing up civilian airliners. "Escobar was the most ruthless of the drug kingpins, and his fate should serve as an example to others who traffic in death and misery," said Lee Brown, the current drug czar.

Escobar's demise marked the effective end of the trafficking syndicates based in Medellin. After years of bloody warfare, in which thousands of Colombians lost their lives, the United States had achieved its long-sought goal. Yet the underlying purpose of the whole enterprise -- reducing the amount of cocaine available in America -- was not achieved. From New York to Los Angeles, cocaine and crack remained available at record low prices.

At this point, one might have expected government officials to evaluate their strategy. Instead, they simply fastened on a new target. The Cali cartel was said to be even more ruthless and efficient than its Medellin counterpart. "The Cali cartel is the most powerful criminal organization in the world," said Robert Bonner, then the administrator of the DEA. "No drug organization rivals them today or perhaps any time in history."

The existence of the Cali cartel had not been a secret. For years, the organization had operated alongside the Medellin traffickers, quietly going about its business while Escobar & Co. got all the attention. Many Colombians noted that if the Medellin cartel were eliminated, the Cali syndicate would quickly take its place. And that's exactly what happened. According to the DEA, the Cali cartel now controls 80 percent of the cocaine entering the United States -- the same proportion that Medellin allegedly held. Unfortunately, the Cali cartel is just as replaceable as Medellin was and Rodriguez just as replaceable as Lehder and Escobar.

The whole notion of "drug cartels" is misleading. It conjures up the image of an OPEC-like council of cocaine ministers sitting around a table, setting prices, fixing production quotas and allocating territory. In fact, the cocaine trade is highly amorphous and fluid, with several large syndicates loosely associating with one another on huge cocaine deals while dozen of similar criminal organizations vie for a piece of the action. When one group goes down, others quickly rush in. Rather than OPEC, one should think of Hydra, a beast able to generate new heads when existing ones are lopped off.

Nonetheless, the United States continues to go after those heads. "Kingpins" they're called at the DEA. As a drug enforcement agent recently explained, if you wanted to put Chrysler out of business, you wouldn't seize individual cars, you would go after its corporate leadership. True enough, but once Chrysler was out of the way, General Motors and Ford would surely move in. To an extent, the drug enforcement community remains under the spell of its first great victory: the smashing of the so-called French Connection in the early 1970s. At that time, Corsican traffickers, using opium produced in Turkey and refined in labs in France, controlled much of the heroin entering the United States; drug officials put the figure at 80 percent -- a number they seem fond of.

The Nixon administration persuaded Turkey to ban the growing of opium poppies, pressured France to crack down on the labs and arrested a few key traffickers. The heroin pipeline dried up, producing a severe drought on the East Coast. Around the same time, Hollywood released the movie "The French Connection," starring Gene Hackman as a hero-narc. It was a heady time to be a drug agent.

It did not last long, however. As soon as the heroin shortage became apparent, traffickers from Mexico and Southeast Asia rushed to fill it. Since then, the international drug trade has grown enormously. In addition to various Colombian and Mexican cartels, it encompasses Bolivian and Peruvian syndicates, Guatemalan colonels, Jamaican posses, Dominican drug lords, Nigerian mules, Asian triads, Burmese guerrillas, Sicilian capos, Russian mafiya, Balkan drug runners, Los Angeles gangs and so on in an endless, chilling list of thugs and miscreants.

In the days of the French Connection, heroin would be smuggled in 100-pound lots concealed in the underbellies of cars. Today, multi-ton shipments of cocaine are transported in jumbo jets owned by the narcos themselves. U.S. drug agents are simply outmatched, and drug droughts are unheard of.

Colombia is producing so much cocaine that U.S. officials can barely keep track of it. Based on the extent of coca leaf production in South America, they put the hemisphere's annual cocaine production at about 1,100 metric tons. Drug users in the United States consume about 300 of those tons; police and customs seize another 300 tons. That leaves a tremendous glut of cocaine in the world market, helping to keep street dealers on several continents flush in the face of continuing "victories" like the arrest of Rodriguez.

Since the mid-1980s, the United States has tried practically everything to keep cocaine out of the country. It has sent AWACS planes over the Caribbean, set up radar balloons on the Mexican border, trained elite paramilitary units in Colombia, built a military base in Peru, sent Special Forces troops to Bolivia, invaded Panama, sprayed herbicides, cut down coca plants, mounted crop-substitution programs, intercepted boats and planes, extradited traffickers, shuttered banks, even kidnapped foreigners. Yet cocaine is more plentiful and cheaper than ever. A kilo of cocaine, which cost more than $60,000 in 1980, now goes for less than $20,000.

In many anti-drug operations, the cure winds up simply spreading the disease. A good example is the South Florida Task Force, set up in 1982 to halt the flow of drugs through Miami, then the chief gateway. The task force, headed by Vice President George Bush, brought together the forces of Customs, the Coast Guard, the DEA and the Pentagon, all working to repel traffickers from southern Florida. In the narrowest sense, the strategy worked -- smugglers did begin avoiding the area. Instead, they began shipping their product through Mexico and across its 2,000-mile border with the United States. The Mexican trafficking syndicates proceeded to amass so much power and money that they now constitute a virtual sovereign state. They owe their success, in part, to the success of George Bush.

This year, the federal government will spend more than $8 billion to reduce the supply of drugs in the United States. Oddly, at a time when government spending of all types has come under intense scrutiny, the drug-fighting budget remains largely unquestioned. Certainly, some of that $8 billion could be better spent on treatment and prevention programs. The nation has an estimated 2.7 million hard-core cocaine and heroin users, a population that accounts for much of the nation's drug-related crime, overdose deaths and AIDS cases. Treatment facilities in most cities remain overwhelmed; and many of those who want help can't find it. As long as that's the case -- as long as Americans seek out drugs -- someone's going to find a way to supply it.

Which cartel will be targeted next? Michael Massing, a fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities, is writing a book on the drug problem in America.