COLOMBIA has been in the news recently as a place where Americans are said to be in some danger of violence. The State Department has issued a travel advisory. People who aren't paying close attention may get the idea that yet another Latin country has fallen victim to the anarchy and lawlessness often associated with the region.
Yet in Colombia's case the truth is very different. Such danger as there now may be to some of the thousands of Americans who live in the country arises not from some egregious failing on the part of the authorities but from an immensely brave and bold effort on the part of President Belisario Betancur to fight the drug trade. Earlier this month he took the politically difficult step of extraditing four Colombian citizens to the United States to face drug charges. It is apprehension about possible reprisals to Americans in Colombia that has produced the recent alarms.
During the 1970s, Colombia became a major grower of drugs for the American market, and a major funnel of drugs grown elsewhere in Latin America. The ease of producing, processing and shipping cocaine and marijuana, and the temptation of the immense profits to be made from this trade, produced a tremendous new center of wealth and power in Colombian society and threatened to upset the legal order. Efforts to fight this monster were undertaken; it took the assassination of a determined anti-drug minister of justice last April to move them into high gear. President Betancur put the armed forces in charge of the battle, and great successes have since been recorded in seizing illicit drugs, burning marijuana fields and bringing drug figures to justice.
Unfortunately, the drug trade gets worse. The demand is great, the supply easy to replace. We Americans know this, but often we do not accept all the implications of it. For the demand is primarily an American demand. Without it, countries, such as Colombia, which are struggling to hold on but do not have the substantial resources and the strong social institutions of the United States, would not be undergoing this trauma. For the Colombians are making a mighty effort, one extending far beyond the American preoccupation with law enforcement (necessary as that is) and one costing them far more in basic social stability than the American drug problem (terrible as that is) costs the United States.
Americans are attentive to Colombia's role in contributing to the supply of drugs. Colombians could be forgiven for wondering if Americans are half as attentive to their role in creating the demand.