BOGOTA, COLOMBIA, FEB. 23 -- The spreading power of Colombia's cocaine traffickers is undermining governments in Latin America and the Caribbean and beginning to pose a threat to U.S. security interests in the region, according to interviews with officials here and recent testimony in the United States.

The Colombian drug lords have secured the allegiance of many leading officials in various governments and armies through bribes. In the opinion of many experts, the Medellin Cartel, which processes much of the world's cocaine, has become as destabilizing a force as the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador, where the Reagan administration has focused its attention.

Recent allegations of links between Colombian traffickers and officials in Panama, Honduras, the Bahamas, Haiti and Cuba have lent urgency to calls for a revised international battle plan to confront the cocaine syndicates. U.S. court records and Senate hearings this month have shown the Medellin Cartel vying for dominance in nations south of the U.S. border.

In effect, the cartel, a coalition of criminal organizations headed by a handful of kingpins headquartered in Medellin, has evolved from an underworld power in Colombia to a multinational conglomerate with private armies and its own foreign policy.

"The advantage for narco-traffickers is that they don't recognize national sovereignties or frontiers as we governments must," said a Colombian Cabinet member. "They have moved with lots of expediency in Latin America and the Caribbean.

"Our own foreign policy has really been no match for theirs," the official added. "We must stick to protocol and diplomatic requests and have relatively little money, resources and capacity to move. But the traffickers have cash, guns and planes and act very aggressively. Just purchasing arms, for instance, takes the Colombian government two years, while traffickers can go and buy what they want in hours. It's unbelievable."

Through payoffs and other favors, the drug barons have won the cooperation around the region of key officials in setting up processing laboratories, using landing strips and ports and laundering billions of dollars in illicit profits.

"The Latin criminal cartel which has profited from the depravity of some Americans constitutes an international underworld so extensive, so wealthy and so powerful that it can literally buy governments and destabilize entire societies," retired U.S. Army Gen. Paul Gorman, former commander of the U.S. Southern Command, told a Senate subcomittee this month. "If you want to move arms and munitions in Latin America, the established networks are owned by the cartel. It has lent itself to the purposes of terrorists, of saboteurs, of spies, of insurgents and of subversives.

"Drug trafficking constitutes a clear and present danger to the very survival of democracy in certain countries which have long been friends and allies of the United States," Gorman said.

Appealing for a "reassessment" of America's antinarcotics strategy, Gorman was especially critical of U.S. efforts in Colombia, calling them "half-hearted." He said the United States had promised more help here than it had delivered, had substituted short-term "Band-Aid" measures for a "long-term comprehensive strategy" and had yet to apply advanced American technologies against trafficking. He noted further that while the United States has extensive intelligence about Central America's political conflicts, "there is no comparable apparatus being brought to bear on international drug trafficking."

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the cocaine trade was becoming big business, the Medellin Cartel sought staging bases and money-laundering privileges in Panama and the Bahamas. After the murder of Colombian justice minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla in April 1984, which provoked a crackdown on traffickers here, the cartel's foreign operations grew in earnest.

According to Jose Blandon, a former political adviser to Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega who recently broke with the Panamanian leader, 1984 was "a key year for the development and growth of this international network."

Cartel leaders took temporary refuge in Panama and Nicaragua. In Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador, authorities began reporting a sharp increase in narcotics activity. Peru and Bolivia were already the main sources of coca leaves, the raw material for cocaine.

More recently, U.S. officials have expressed concern about connections between traffickers and military officers in Honduras, a staunch U.S. ally in Central America.

Honduran Ramon Matta Ballesteros is wanted by U.S. drug officials in connection with the murder of U.S. narcotics agent Enrique Camarena Salazar in 1985. There have been allegations that senior Honduran military officers were involved in the transshipment of cocaine from Colombia to the United States, charges that Honduran authorities deny.

"The recruiting process follows the same mechanism," Blandon told the Senate subcommittee chaired by John Kerry (D-Mass.). "They use money, they use flattery, they leave briefcases full of money, and that is all part of a process." Later he added: "The procedure used by the cartel is very similar to the procedure used by intelligence agencies when recruiting individuals who they think are important in a given political or military structure."

A glimpse of what it has cost the drug lords to expand overseas is also contained in recent public statements. Ramon Milian Rodriguez, a former chief financier for the drug cartel, told Senate investigators that Noriega had received about $320 million from Colombian traffickers between 1979 and 1983 in exchange for the run of Panama's airports and banking systems, as well as the identities of U.S. drug agents and the schedules of U.S. Coast Guard and Navy drug-surveillance vessels.

At the trial of cartel member Carlos Lehder Rivas in Jacksonville, Fla., a government witness said this month that he had paid $3 million to $5 million in bribes to Bahamian Prime Minister Lynden Pindling between 1978 and 1981 for protection of marijuana- and cocaine-smuggling boats. The Bahamian government has denied several specific charges made by Lehder.

Osvaldo Quintana, an informant in a federal grand jury probe of Haitian cocaine smuggling, told reporters last week that Col. Jean-Claude Paul, the commander of the Haitian Army's largest battalion, had charged $250,000 for landing rights for Colombian planes carrying cocaine.

The main aim of the Medellin Cartel's moves abroad has apparently been to secure drug-running activities and make cartel members even richer. But the foreign expansion has had a political effect as well, undermining legitimate authority in the region.

Many say the massive corruption of institutions has eroded U.S. efforts to promote democracy in Latin America, thus increasing the chances that either leftist insurgencies or right-wing forces will assume power.

The Medellin Cartel is known to be funding groups on both ends of the political spectrum, although the cartel's alliances with communist guerrilla movements and paramilitary groups often appear to be more marriages of convenience than part of some grand ideological campaign.

Traffickers are known to have dealt with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua on at least one occasion, in 1984. In recent weeks, Milian Rodriguez has testified about more recent payments by the drug barons to the contras. In Colombia, drug money has gone to the pro-Cuba M-19 insurgency and right-wing death squads, according to local authorities.

The cartel's inroads have generally come at the expense of U.S. influence and the recent testimony includes charges that America's regional nemesis, Fidel Castro, also has taken a hand. The Cuban leader is said by Gorman to have worked with Colombian traffickers in facilitating the shipment of drugs through Central America and the Caribbean.

According to Blandon, Castro also mediated a dispute between the cartel and Noriega in 1984 after the Panamian leader ordered a raid on a cocaine laboratory in Panama that the cartel had paid him to protect.

{Second Secretary Angel Pino of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington dismissed the charges as "science fiction," of a piece with similar charges by U.S. administrations over the past 20 years. He noted that Cuba had prosecuted the same number of Colombians and U.S. citizens -- 101 each -- for drug trafficking in Cuban territory during the 1970-86 period. "If we had been dealing in drugs we could have solved our economic problems," he added.}

Outlining the alleged Castro-cartel relationship, Blandon said Castro's strategy is this: "If you want to have an influence on Colombia's political world, you have to have an influence on the drug trafficking world, too." Asked how the Cuban leader could justify being part of the cartel's drug operation, Blandon told the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Affairs: "Fidel's view of the situation was that the war in Central America waged by the United States made it easier or at least gave him a moral justification to do anything against the United States, anything that was necessary."

One of the reasons Milian Rodriguez, the cartel's former money launderer, said he decided to go public with his story was to warn about communist infiltration of the cartel. Cuban-born and fiercely anticommunist, the accountant, who is now serving a 43-year jail term, said Cuban intelligence had been much more successful in penetrating the cartel than the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Milian Rodriguez suggested that Cuba's involvement may be part of some master plan aimed eventually at killing off cartel leaders and taking control of an organization with tentacles reaching into many of the region's governments and with a hold over millions of drug addicts in the United States.

As incredible as such speculation may sound, it has added to a view here and elsewhere that the tactics used so far to combat the cartel must be revamped. Weakened by the enormous power and ruthlessness of the traffickers, the Colombian government has concluded that current strategies for confronting the drug lords are simply ineffective.

More than just repeating past appeals for additional aid from the United States, officials here have begun to rethink their war on cocaine. While still vague about what new international action they would like to see, some Colombian officials talk of the need to improve intelligence about the cartel's activities and to do more to seize drug money being laundered abroad. They also suggest drafting a new multilateral extradition treaty to replace the U.S.-Colombian one that the Supreme Court here rendered unenforceable last year by striking down ratifying legislation.

U.S. diplomats contend the main problem has been implementation of existing strategy, not the strategy itself. But while efforts here continue, including stepped-up searches of traffickers' safehouses, Colombian officials admit to having lost confidence in the ability of police action alone to break the power of the cocaine mafia.

Moreover, the officials complain that too often the antinarcotics fight is still being viewed abroad as essentially a Colombian one. They also note that in the past four years, Colombia has paid a higher human price than other nations in the drug war -- with cartel-ordered murders of a justice minister, an attorney general, several editors and numerous judges and police officials.

"The problem is, we just don't see any progress in the strategy we've been following," said a government minister. "There have been more seizures of drugs and more detentions of traffickers, but in the end, the situation has gotten worse. We feel that a whole reevaluation of the strategy is necessary, not only here but in the United States and in other affected countries."

Some prominent political figures and two Roman Catholic bishops have called for opening a dialogue with the traffickers. Four years ago, Colombia's leading dealers indicated they would be willing to retire from the drug business, repatriate their profits and cooperate in rehabilitation programs for addicts if the traffickers were given assurances they would not be extradited to the United States. Although the public offer has not been repeated, some still insist a possible deal should be explored.

Others have recommended legalizing cocaine so that authorities could regulate it. Urging the government to consider both legalization and a dialogue with the traffickers, Alfredo Gutierrez Marquez, Colombia's new attorney general, characterized existing antidrug measures as "useless" in interviews last week.

A source close to President Virgilio Barco said the government is not ready either to negotiate with the drug barons or legalize cocaine, largely for moral reasons. But the source also said that presidential aides, with the help of outside experts, are drafting proposals for a new "global strategy."