SANTA LUCIA, PERU — A WOODEN sign calls it the Santa Lucia Integrated Development Project. But with its tall wooden watchtowers looking out over the jungle and its sandbagged and mined perimeter, the camp on the bank of the Huallaga River has the appearance of a military firebase. Designed by two former United States Special Forces officers who served in Vietnam, the base is the biggest antidrug base in the Americas, perhaps in the world.
Work started on the Santa Lucia base in 1987 and is still not complete. But it opened hurriedly Sept. 8, three days after President Bush's televised policy speech on drugs.
The base is intended to play a key role in Mr. Bush's ``Andean initiative'' against the cocaine trade. But an emerging dispute between the Peruvian Army and US officials over how the drug war should be fought has thrown into question what exactly its role will be.
Santa Lucia is in the heart of Peru's Upper Huallaga Valley - the source of about 60 percent of the world's coca, the ancestral Andean shrub from whose dried leaves cocaine is made. The base provides a secure operations headquarters for a team of between 20 and 30 agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration and eight State Department-supplied Huey helicopters, as well as a 100-strong detachment of the Peruvian Drug Police.
Most of Washington's investment in Santa Lucia - running at more than $1 million so far - has gone into a mile-long airstrip allowing direct supply from Lima, the Peruvian capital, 350 miles away across the Andes. The plans call for runway lights, prefabricated living quarters, and 14 more helipads, protected by sandbagged retaining walls, taking the overall cost to up to $3 million.
But what makes Santa Lucia ``unique,'' a narcotics official from the US Embassy in Lima said during a recent press visit to the base, is that ``we have a paramilitary operation out here because of the security situation.''
Almost since its inception eight years ago, the US-backed antidrug program in the Upper Huallaga has been dogged by local hostility and the violent opposition of the Maoist guerrillas of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) movement.
Sendero's violence led in February to a seven-month shut-down of antidrug operations in the valley after several helicopters were fired on. In March, Sendero overran a 60-man police detachment in the town of Uchiza, half an hour by road from Santa Lucia and one of the main centers of the drug trade. A month later Gen. Alberto Arciniega of the Peruvian Army, with 4,000 troops and Russian-made helicopter gunships, was placed in charge the area including the Upper Huallaga His job: ``to destroy the subversives.''
The general claims to have killed 400 armed guerrillas in 32 clashes between April and July. Security in towns like Uchiza has visibly improved.
But his efforts to win the local population over from the guerrillas have led to charges in Washington that he is protecting the drug trade.
Late September, Melvyn Levitsky, the assistant secretary of state for international narcotics matters linked General Arciniega to ``reports of taking payoffs from [drug] traffickers'' and ``other kinds of collusion.''
The general angrily denies this: ``The problem is that the United States has established that its first priority is the fight against drugs to the detriment of any other problems.'' With half the country under a state of emergency and weekly killings of mayors, local officials, and security force members, it is Sendero rather than drugs that poses the greatest threat to Peru's democracy. The latest incident took place Saturday, when eight people were killed by guerrillas sympathetic to Sendero.
These concerns among Peruvian officials, including Arciniega, have forced an important policy change in the Upper Huallaga - the indefinite suspension of the forcible eradication of coca fields. This was once the core of the US-backed antidrug program - mainly, US officials admit, because it is cheaper than going after professional traffickers and their infrastructure.
But for Arciniega, ``the only thing it does is stir up trouble'' and drive the Huallaga's 150,000 coca farmers into the arms of the guerrillas.
``No strategy can work if it goes against the mass of the population. In fighting subversion, I am also fighting the drug trade by providing security in the area,'' he told the Monitor. ``But when I tell the gringos that, they don't understand.''
Rather than forcible eradication, the general favors the voluntary substitution of coca with other crops. He has backed a 12,000-member farmers' cooperative in Uchiza that aims over a 10-year period to replace coca with crops such as coffee and oil palms - though all involved stress that this requires economic aid to build processing plants and roads and marketing networks.
To give the voluntary approach a chance, the general has banned the drug police from Uchiza. Their policy of confiscating money, radios, and televisions from coca farmers has made them deeply unpopular. But the result, according to a senior US narcotics official, is that in Uchiza ``planes are landing, drugs are stockpiling ... Arciniega feels bad about it, but he's not going to let the police in,'' because it would mess up his project.
All this means that the work going on at Santa Lucia is centered on the only thing that both sides can agree should be done - helicopter raids on laboratories and airstrips that hit the professional trafficker rather than the coca farmer.
In almost daily sorties by DEA agents accompanied by the Peruvian drug police, a score of labs and a dozen strips have been hit since Sept. 8.