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When U.S. troops invaded Panama and captured Gen. Manuel Noriega, the country was mired in drug trafficking and political corruption.

Here it is more than four years later and the people of Panama are preparing to go to the polls Sunday in the country's first free elections in more than 25 years.What a change from the bad old days when political change was effected by bullets instead of ballots.

But once that achievement has been noted, the list of improvements resulting from the controversial U.S. action comes to an abrupt end. Drugs, money-laundering, and corruption still abound.

Though the government seemingly no longer runs it, the drug business still thrives under an estimated 25,000 neighborhood drug lords and gangs. And though Panamanian politicians have been implicated in various corrupt schemes, polls show voters are far more concerned about unemployment and other social ills.

Surprising? Hardly. Three years ago the U.S. General Accounting Office reported that drug trafficking in Panama had doubled since the ouster of Noriega and that the creation of shell companies as covers for criminal activities was proliferating wildly.

Sadly, this situation can be expected to persist as long as Panama's strategic location and weak banking laws lure criminals and as long as drugs remain so stupendously profitable.

The U.S. can't do anything about geography and shouldn't send American troops in whenever Panamanian laws or leaders displease Washington. But, as the world's leading market for illicit drugs, the U.S. can do something to reduce the obscene profits in drugs by reducing the demand for them.

Long after the historic May 8 elections in Panama, Americans must continue to wage the kind of war that doesn't involve dramatic invasions but centers on improved drug treatment programs, education efforts and peer pressures that make drug use socially unacceptable.