The Drug of Kings : THE COCAINE WARS Murder, Money, Corruption, and the World's Most Valuable Commodity by Paul Eddy, Hugo Sabogal, and Sara Walden (W. W. Norton: $18.95; 400 pp., illustrated; 0-393-02579-9)

Montalbano, The Times' Rome bureau chief, covered the cocaine wars for many years as a resident of Miami and a correspondent in Latin America. His new novel, "The Sinners of San Ramon," is forthcoming from Simon & Shuster.

Official Washington has recently been acknowledging, belatedly, a truth manifest for years in New York tenements, Los Angeles court rooms, Miami suburbs and the backlands of South America: The bad guys are winning America's war with drugs.

Cocaine particularly is a big winner. Cocaine by the line, by the snort, by the crack. Cocaine by the blizzard; for White House aides and movie stars, as ever, but also now, cocaine for school kids.

Every year more cocaine is seized. And every year more cocaine reaches the market. America's insatiable appetite for

cocaine mocks presidential rhetoric and congressional millions. The quick hit, that singing high, humbles spotter aircraft,

sniffer dogs, patrol boats, phone taps, exotic computers, undercover informants and honest cops at every level.

Routinely, with a strength that is too often irresistible and a frequency that is always appalling, cocaine corrupts. No country where cocaine stalks is immune. Government ministers, judges, policemen, soldiers, lawyers, and bankers too often

have sacrificed their calling and their pride for cocaine's cash. Men of principle resist in the Andes and along the muddy Miami River. Sometimes they die.

"The Cocaine Wars" by a trio of reporters who have worked for the London Sunday Times and the BBC is a valuable primer in helping to understand cocaine's victory.

The publisher describes the book as "investigative reporting with the pace and grit of the best crime thrillers." It is hardly that. There is little here that is new, and some, particularly the sections on Colombia, in which the focus is fuzzy: outsiders analyzing flickering wall shadows without ever really seeing the cave.

Still, the reporting is not bad, and if the book is uneven in depth and perception, it is also handsome with detail.

The winning generals of cocaine's war, the authors make plain, are loosely allied Colombian traffickers known collectively as the Medellin Cartel, after the once-pleasant provincial center where homicide is now the leading cause of death among young adult males.

The losers are not only individuals, foolish or criminal, whose lives are ruined by cocaine, but also countries, where cocaine has subverted decency worse than any alien ideology ever could: Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Panama, Honduras, Mexico and the Bahamas are already grievously wounded. Which will be next? As "The Cocaine Wars" concludes, there is a common root to everybody's problem. Concentrated around Medellin, above-the-law cocaine barons as ruthless as they are nouveau riche administer Latin America's most dynamic new industry.

They buy coca leaves or rough-cut paste from farmers in Peru and Bolivia. They process it in laboratories in Colombia and elsewhere, sometimes creating entire pioneer communities in the rain forest east of the Andes that live on cocaine. The finished product, dazzling white and infinitely alluring, is smuggled north, with Miami the favored port of entry (and, DEA agents in Andean countries always insisted, Los Angeles the world's largest retail market). When the '80s began, couriers called "mules" smuggled cocaine to Miami a few kilos at a time. Now, boats and planes haul it by the ton.

"The Cocaine Wars" graphically portrays the cartel leaders, describing their multimillionaire life styles, and the savagery that is their trademark. Murder, of a Colombian judge or attorney general, or a turncoat in Miami or Baton Rouge, is a fact of business life. Assassins are as easily conjured up as bodyguards for the Mercedes fleet or prostitutes for a big bash at the ranch.

The authors overlook the outrage and the pluck that is maturing--too late?--in the Colombian press, government and public against the marauding cocaine barons. At stake in the struggle against cocaine, Colombians now realize, is not so much national honor, or law and order, or even right and wrong, but the very survival of institutions that have made their violent nation a thriving democracy despite its long history of tumult.

By contrast, the book is vivid in its description of how the traffickers systematically subverted government officials large and small in the Bahamas. Again, the story of how a Caribbean gem became a nation for sale is not new, but here it is compellingly told.

Colombia and the Bahamas are appetizers. If their guardians and institutions succumb to the torrent of cocaine dollars, should Americans be any different? Not, alas, in Miami, the dynamic Latin American Casablanca that is cocaine's bank, its playground and its battlefield.

The strongest section of "The Cocaine Wars" recounts the tragic, almost surrealistic, transformation of City of Miami policemen by the dozen into murderous conspirators, drug hijackers and big-time dealers. When patrolmen wheel up for the midnight shift in sports cars costing several times their yearly salary, something's very wrong.

As told here, the saga of Miami's River Cops is a case study in cocaine-bred anarchy. With a gone-straight trafficker as one of their sources, the authors chillingly depict how a major American city proved no more able to stem the cocaine flood than any backward Andean village.

The reporter-authors of "The Cocaine Wars" focus more sharply on trees than on the forest. Yet their documentation is sufficiently compelling for the reader to strike his own discouraging conclusion.

Loud and expensive years after Ronald Reagan proclaimed his war on drugs, cocaine is stronger than ever. Worse, it is unquestionably the most potent source of subversion in this hemisphere today. Democratic American allies in Latin America are unable to cope, and tears are also appearing in the fabric of U.S. society itself.

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