LONDON. — London -- No news is bad news in this case. The Latin American drug war has slipped away into journalistic oblivion. Yet after nearly three years of President Bush's ''war on drugs'' the price of cocaine on the streets of American big cities is falling, the murder rate is still increasing and, more to the point, American addiction is corrupting and militarizing one Latin American country after another.
Many of Latin America's most experienced observers doubt that fragile democracies in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia can survive Washington's present line of military confrontation with the traffickers. Nor do they think the economies of these countries can survive without the drug subsidy (30 per cent of the total value of Peru's legal exports). Not least, they doubt the many corrupt military and police officers in these countries want to dispense with the pay-offs.
American drug-related military aid to Latin America has jumped from about $5 million in 1988 to more than $140 million annually today. Governments such as Bolivia and Colombia, initially reluctant to draw their militaries into the fight against drugs, were told by Washington that a refusal meant no increase in economic aid.
U.S. policy, it appears, is blind to evidence that the police have proved far more effective than soldiers in fighting cocaine and that traffickers have established strong alliances with military officials.
But Washington persists, even trying to persuade Argentina's air force to join in, cloaking the effort in the kind of ''body count'' language that proved so disastrous in Vietnam -- the number of coca fields eradicated but not the amount of new coca planted; the number of processing labs destroyed but not the number coming on stream; the number of seizures but not the total amount shipped; and the number of arrests, not the growing efficiency of the trafficking networks.
The conflict between police and army reaches its apogee of contradiction in Peru, where the Maoist guerrilla movement, Shining Path, once dismissed as a nuisance, has now permeated every crack and orifice of Peruvian society. One of its strongholds is the Upper Huallaga Valley, the most important producing area of coca leaves in the world. The military wants to drive a wedge between the guerrillas and the coca-growing peasants whom the Shining Path have sworn to protect.
Thus the military, even while pocketing Washington's drug-war money, tends to let the peasants get on with the coca growing while it concentrates its efforts on fighting the guerrillas. But the police aim to destroy coca production. Not surprisingly, the army often has brazenly thwarted police operations.
But who would want to be associated with the Peruvian army anyway, as corrupt and brutal a force as can be found? For the last five years Peru has either been number one or two in the United Nations' list of countries with forced ''disappearances.'' While there is no easy way of combating Shining Path, which is even more brutal than the army, this surely is not the way. And as for the drug business, the army is more than anti-police. Its officers routinely take bribes for letting traffickers use airstrips. A $70,000 bribe to a colonel who earns $250 a month is big money.
What are the alternatives? Most U.S. officials involved concede that crop substitution doesn't work. Market forces make nonsense of it.
The Bush administration appears not to learn the lessons. Failure so far is considered reason to do more of the same. Yet even if the ''drug war'' could reduce shipments to the U.S. market by 50 percent, as an article in the current issue of Foreign Policy by a group of Latin American experts demonstrates, ''it would only have a negligible impact on domestic street prices in the U.S. The largest part of the price on the street is added on after the drug enters the U.S.''
In short, to solve America's chronic drug problem by supply controls is a hopeless quest. There are useful things that Washington could do on the supply side which, so far, it has tended to ignore -- aiding and training the judiciary and other institutions in Latin America threatened by the power of the drug barons, or lifting the crushing burden of debt, to give these besieged economies a real chance of honest growth.
But the only way to work really effectively and productively on the drug problem is inside America itself. Perhaps it's going to take another couple of years of rising murder rates and increased cocaine use, but I predict policy makers, sooner rather than later, are going to have to face the unmentionable -- ending prohibition. It is the only reform that, at a blow, will slow the murder rate in the U.S., break the back of the drug cartels and distribution gangs on two continents, and end the awful corruption endemic in Latin America and now spilling over into the U.S. itself.
Once everyone is allowed to smoke or sniff cocaine openly -- even if one has to buy it in a Swedish-style state-run liquor store with strict opening hours -- the underworld will cease to exist the next day. Then with the revenues from the sales and taxes, America can embark on a massive program of popular education, to match the success of the decade-old one on tobacco, together with the provision of adequate rehabilitation facilities for the drug-afflicted.
Is there a politician in the house with the courage to say so?
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.