The Wrong War in Peru

FOUR Americans involved in anti-drug operations in Peru have been killed this year, including one who was killed recently in a skirmish between Peruvian Air Force planes and a US C-130. Clearly, the drug war in Peru is dangerous. The question is whether the fight is worth the risks involved in trying to control drugs while in the crossfire of a raging civil war. It may be time to cut United States losses and rethink the whole approach to drug control in Peru.

For three years the Bush administration has pressed its so-called "Andean Strategy" on the major coca- and cocaine-producing nations of Latin America. Through a combination of enticements and ultimatums, the three targeted countries - Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru - have been inspired to increase their efforts to eradicate and intercept cocaine. Mostly the countries follow the US lead and conduct militaristic search-and-destroy operations.

With 60 percent of the world's raw coca being grown in Peru, that country has received high priority in the drug war. But coca production has increased 21 percent in two years, and eradication of coca plant seedlings dropped 13 percent from 1990 to 1991. The prospects for making significant headway against the massive Peruvian coca crop any time soon are dim.

Like the other Andean nations, the Peruvian government has been willing to fight traffickers mainly to the extent that they overlap with bona fide domestic threats. The country's Maoist guerrillas, the Shining Path, control some of the prime coca-growing regions of the country and draw millions of dollars a year from peasants and traffickers. Severing their links to the drug trade would help weaken the insurgents, so the government shares this limited objective with US policymakers.

But forcing the Shining Path out of the coca-producing regions would not necessarily reduce drug trafficking. There is bountiful evidence of military officers' profiteering from the drug trade, suggesting that coca growers and traffickers would merely direct their payoffs to a different set of people once the guerrillas are driven out of a region.

George Bush's drug warriors seem to believe that having an authoritarian government in Peru presents new and welcome opportunities. A more streamlined government might have more of the political will necessary to combat a major cash crop. With the military unrestrained and sharing leadership of the country, perhaps more significant damage can be inflicted on traffickers.

BUT the real priority for President Alberto Fujimori is eliminating the Shining Path. With his decision to withdraw US Green Berets who were training the police and military but to keep the DEA in Peru, President Bush appears to be signaling that the US will stand by Mr. Fujimori in this battle, but only if his government commits to fighting drugs as well.

Sticking by the new Peruvian government, mainly in hopes of fighting drugs more effectively, would be an absurd strategy. It would also show that the US president does not understand how his policies encouraged Fujimori's tyranny, nor does he see how the drug war could draw the US into the Peruvian civil war and help push Peru towards a totalitarian Maoist regime.

How did the Bush administration's emphasis on a militaristic drug war help create the conditions for a coup? The Andean Strategy moved financial aid toward the military and away from the urgent economic needs of Peruvians, provided the Shining Path with opportunities to win the hearts and minds of peasants, created opportunities for military and governmental corruption, and strengthened the hand of the military against civilian institutions.

In view of the threat posed by an increased US commitment to the drug war in Peru at a time of civil war and the slim returns thus far from the Andean drug war, the US should be rethinking the entire militaristic approach to drug control abroad. The current approach fails to recognize that for over a million Andean peasants, coca growing means the difference between subsistence and starvation. The Bush administration is using the machinery of war for an economic fight.

Though the Shining Path's numbers are small, the guerrillas now control a reported one-fifth of the country. The US-led drug war plays into the Shining Path's hands by threatening to deprive peasants of a source of income and by looking distinctly like Yankee imperialism. The guerrillas could score a public relations victory and force difficult decisions in Washington by killing a US drug agent.

The drug war has already contributed to the one action the guerrillas have eagerly awaited for more than a decade: the end of democratic legitimacy for the Peruvian government. The Bush administration's failure to recognize the consequences of its drug war threatens to help the Shining Path even more in the future.

It is time to reevaluate the drug war in Peru before more American lives are lost or the US finds itself overly committed to the new government's counterinsurgency campaign.

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