Three years ago, residents here were buying Japanese-made stereos, TV sets, and refrigerators faster than storeowners could stock them. As the commercial center of Peru's Upper Huallaga Valley - the world's biggest source of cocaine - this town of 40,000 people was living high on the lucrative trade. But these days, storeowners find their appliances gathering dust. Economic activity in Tingo Maria has come to a halt. And Peru's US-financed antidrug effort is responsible.
Ironically, however, choking off Tingo Maria's economic lifeblood does not represent a success for the antidrug campaign, but demonstrates its inability to stem the drug trade.
Indeed, armed attacks by drug traffickers have forced narcotics police and a coca eradication workforce to confine their efforts to Tingo Maria itself. So while coca growing and drug trafficking have virtually been eliminated in Tingo Maria, both activities flourish throughout the rest of the Upper Huallaga Valley - a vast stretch of jungle northeast of Lima.
At the same time, priests and development aid workers say Peru's guerrilla group, the Shining Path, has sharply increased its presence in the Upper Huallaga over the past year, winning support among coca farmers unhappy with the antidrug project.
Police, backed by US-supplied aircraft, were scheduled to conduct their biggest raid against the cocaine traffickers on April 20, sources familiar with the secret operation said. The operation, code-named Condor 6, was delayed because the coca farmers blocked the roads in anticipation of the raid.
Even though Condor 6 involves a larger police force and more sophisticated equipment than previous raids, several people familiar with the operation say at best it will only disrupt the trafficking for several months. They are pessimistic because they believe the traffickers were tipped off.
Others question whether Peru's government will have the political will and enough resources to sustain the attacks for months, which crippling the cocaine trade would require.
US officials, who have spent $35 million on the narcotics campaign in the last six years, are wondering if it's possible to halt the flow of cocaine. Peru supplies 50 percent of the coca leaf used to produce cocaine for the US.
``The Upper Huallaga is totally out of control in terms of criminal activity and drug trafficking,'' says a foreign analyst. ``It's going to be extremely difficult for the government to take back the valley.''
It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. In 1980, the US unveiled a three-pronged attack that the State Department said would curtail the Upper Huallaga's burgeoning cocaine trade. The US plan involved the creation of:
Umopar - a special Peruvian narcotics police force with US-trained commanders. It was to disrupt the trafficking by identifying and destroying clandestine airports and processing laboratories.
Corah - Peru's coca eradication project of the Upper Huallaga. Its workers were to pull up plants and thus encourage farmers to grow other crops instead.
Peah - a crop substitution program. It was to provide loans, seeds, and technical assistance to farmers looking for an alternative to coca, the leaves of which are refined into cocaine.
Today, while Corah and Peah have smaller workforces and have reduced their goals, Umopar is trying to retake the offensive after suffering a series of defeats.
``We didn't foresee the degree of violence our program would spawn in the Valley,'' says an official involved in the process. ``That has had a substantial impact on our ability to carry out our projects.''
From the outset, the program ran head-on into an inescapable economic fact: In an impoverished area where traditional crops such as coffee and cacao could give farmers enough to eat, coca growing could make them rich.
So in the early 1980s, as demand for cocaine rose in the US, the farmers began increasing coca production. (A limited amount of coca leaf is produced legally in Peru for use in soft drinks and pharmaceuticals.) Not only could coca generate as much as 10 times the profit per harvest of other crops, it could be harvested five times a year rather than just once, and required little care.
By 1984, coca's profitability had brought in two groups of outsiders: Colombia's drug lords and Peru's Shining Path guerrillas.
Today, local residents report the Colombian drug traffickers control the northern part of the Upper Huallaga, which includes the towns of Uchiza and Tocache. The residents say they believe that battles between rival groups of traffickers is behind the rising violence in Tocache. More than 30 people were killed in the town on March 24 during an apparent shootout between drug traffickers.
Local residents say that within the last year the Shining Path guerrillas have gained control over a 60-mile stretch of territory in the central valley. The rebels are believed responsible for the murders of six mayors in the area since 1985. The traffickers and the rebels have killed about 15 members of Umopar.
Each time Umopar has tried to establish a presence in Tocache and Uchiza, armed residents have forced them to retreat.
The police last tried to enter Tocache March 5 when the antidrug police force director and the then-head of the US Drug Enforcement Agency in Peru flew in by helicopter. But the traffickers blew up the helicopter as it was landing, killing a policeman and forcing the two men to take refuge in the jungle. They were rescued the next day after two firefights with drug dealers.
Meanwhile, Corah has eradicated almost 30,000 acres of coca plants since 1984. But during this time, farmers planted another 124,000 acres, increasing the number of acres under cultivation in the Upper Huallaga to about 926,000, agriculture specialists say.
Like Umopar, Corah has been forced to limit its work to the area around Tingo Maria. The last time Corah ventured into the main coca-growing area, in April 1986, coca workers blocked its trucks from leaving camp and prevented food from being brought in.
Corah continues to face obstacles there. Last July, six workers were killed, raising its death toll to 29. Since then, Umopar members have guarded Corah workers. The hostility Corah has generated has helped damage Peah's ability to carry out its programs. In the past year, Peah has had to pare its workforce and focus on rebuilding roads, constructing schools, and digging wells.