Peru steps up war on cocaine industry. US-funded squadrons stage airborne raids in key drug-production area
Lima, Peru — For Peru's illegal narcotics industry, trouble is dropping out of the sky -- trouble in the form of specially-trained squadrons from the Peruvian National Police Force. Since the middle of November they have been staging airborne raids throughout central Peru's Upper Huallaga Valley, a vast stretch of jungle territory which is one of the world's largest centers for the manufacture and shipment of basic cocaine paste. The offensive is known as ``Operation Condor III.''
Swooping in on their targets in a American Bell 214 helicopter, a West German Bolko, and a Soviet M-18, teams of commandos have dynamited clandestine airstrips, destroyed paste-making facilities, and captured almost a ton of drugs.
Peruvian authorities say the operation, which has been extended to 45 days from the originally planned 15, is the largest in the Upper Huallaga Valley since 1979.
``This is a war,'' said Col. Juan Z'arate of the Peruvian Drug Police Directorate, who is commanding the operation.
Impressive as the results look, however, there have been snags in the operation. Other signs indicate that the valley's problems with drugs and violence are far from over.
The commandos have struck at the heart of the drug smuggling activities by dynamiting 40 of the valley's 57 clandestine airstrips, Colonel Z'arate says. He estimates that four or five flights a week used to leave the busiest airstrips. The smugglers' biggest twin-engine planes can carry up to 1,540 pounds of basic cocaine paste to cocaine-making laboratories in the Amazon jungle.
The commandos, who work in two teams of 12 men each, have also captured or destroyed just under 2,000 pounds of the paste, worth almost $500 a pound, and destroyed 48 facilities for processing the paste. They have burned more than 7,000 pounds of raw coca leaves and 55,000 pounds of partially processed leaves; seized five boats and two small aircraft; and arrested six suspected traffickers.
Last August and September two US-Peruvian-Colombian ``Condor'' operations in the Peruvian Amazon netted eight cocaine laboratories, five light aircraft, 3.5 tons of basic cocaine paste, and 22 airstrips.
The US Embassy's Narcotics Assistance Unit is paying for virtually the entire operation, including food, fuel, and dynamite. The unit also pays $1,000 an hour to rent the helicopters from the Peruvian Air Force. The US negotiated a discount off the Air Force's usual rate of $1,700 per helicopter per hour.
US observers from the Narcotics Assistance Unit and the Drug Enforcement Agency, armed with pistols, accompany the commandos on some of their missions.
(In a recent interview, Vice-Minister of the Interior Augustin Mantilla called the amount of drug enforcement money that the US was offering Peru for fiscal 1986 ``ridiculous.'' State Department figures show that US antidrug aid to Peru for fiscal year 1985, which ended Sept. 30, was $3.5 million. Antidrug aid is estimated to be $4.35 million for 1986.)
Z'arate said that his commandos had encountered hostile fire from drug smugglers on three occasions so far, but he described the gunfights as ``small'' affairs in which there were no injuries.
``We don't chase the narcos into the jungle,'' he explained, ``because the paths might be booby-trapped.''
Z'arate says that he doen't fear violence from valley residents as a result of the operation, because ``I'm not attacking their crop [illegal coca]. I leave them with their coca, but who are they going to sell it to? If I go into the fields I get into problems, so I go to the airports.''
Z'arate conceded, however, that the Condor III raids do not mean even the beginning of the end for Peru's $600 million per year drug industry.
``You have to be realistic,'' he said. ``You're never going to finish with coca. We are going to limit the traffic.'' Disrupting the drug marketing apparatus will eventually force coca farmers to try to earn a living through legal means, Z'arate added.
Even disruption is difficult, because Colombian drug smugglers, aided by local residents who participate in the drug business, have so far managed to repair many dynamited airports.
``We put five holes, eight meters wide and two meters deep, in one airstrip in the morning,'' Z'arate said, ``and the next day at eleven an airplane landed there.''
The police are stepping up aerial surveillance to keep up with the repair attempts and counting on the onset of the the rainy season to turn the filled-in holes to mud.
Operation sources said word of impending raids often leaked out well in advance.
An amateur radio operator in the capital reported having overheard narcotics smugglers transmitting warnings to ``cool it'' over a week before the raids began.
Original plans called for the commandos to enter Uchiza, a strategic drug-producing town in the middle of the valley, and secure surrounding lands for teams which would destroy the coca crops.
The incursion, vigorously urged by Washington, was called off because the police decided that the smuggler-dominated zone was still too dangerous for them to enter.
Meanwhile, coca leaf production in the valley is increasing, with the latest US estimate at 100,000 acres under cultivation.
Recent flights over the Upper Huallaga Valley have revealed what police say are vast areas of mountain terrain that have been cleared by slash-and-burn methods for new illegal coca cultivation.
Efforts to wipe out coca are lagging far behind their annual targets.
The Upper Huallaga Special Project, a five-year, $26.5 million program funded mainly by the US Agency for International Development with the goal of helping the valley's farmers develop crops other than illegal coca, is entering its fifth year with what one official calls ``minimal'' results, and is currently being completely redesigned.
Operation Condor III marks the first time that the military has agreed to lend its aircraft to drug enforcement forces, since the Upper Huallaga was placed under military control in July 1984 in response to a wave of Sendero Luminoso guerrilla attacks.
Previously the armed forces had taken no action against drug production and smuggling, arguing that law enforcement was strictly a police matter.
The military had even prevented one antidrug force from operating in many coca-growing areas which it maintained were dangerous ``red'' (subversive-dominated) zones.
In a recent incident one senior Peruvian official called ``very grave for the Army,'' patrolling troops fired on a team of coca erradication workers and their guards. There were no casualties, but the official said that the Army captain responsible is under investigation.
Police and military sources agree that the guerrilla threat of the communist Sendero Luminoso has been all but eliminated in the valley.
The Army's actions therefore led to suspicion among knowledgeable sources in the Upper Huallaga Valley that armed forces officials were in some way collaborating with the drug trade. The military denies this.
On Dec. 6, President Alan Garc'ia P'erez lifted the emergency decree placing the valley under military control, an action long urged by Abel Salinas, Peru's top law enforcement authority.
Advance word of Mr. Garc'ia's announcement leaked out in the Upper Huallaga Valley.
A few days before the official announcement the mayor of the Upper Huallaga town of Aucayacu, a member of Garc'ia's party who has been an outspoken foe of drug traffic, was assassinated.
Mr. Salinas says narcotics traffickers are suspected.