The waters of the Caucaya River in Colombia's southern jungle roil like dark varnish as the armored gunboat advances head-on into the river bank's tangled vegetation.
Menacing assault rifles in hand, Colombian marines jump to the oozing jungle floor and slash their way to the interior. Their objective: the hidden forest labs that turn coca leaf into coca paste, the basis for powdery cocaine.
When they find the labs, they arrest whomever they find operating them, seize evidence, then torch what remains. In a two-week operation in April, the marines of Puerto Leguizamo destroyed 15 labs and seized 31 tons of coca leaf. Thus far in 2001, they have destroyed at least 38 coca labs.
Officials here in the Colombian department of Putumayo say they want to stem the violence that has surged across this Wild West as settlers seeking land &#8211; and the drug traffickers who employ them &#8211; have moved in.
And one key element to doing that will be controlling the rivers along the southern border with Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil. In Colombia, a country with more navigable river miles than paved roads, officials see controlling inland waterways as tantamount to establishing an orderly state presence in large swatches of the country.
&#8220;Eighty percent of drug-trade-related traffic in this area is fluvial,&#8221; says Major Gonzalo Aladino, commander of &#8220;Operation Piraa,&#8221; the name given to last month&#8217;s strike against area drug labs. &#8220;That alone tells you it&#8217;s essential we be on the rivers.&#8221;
Both supporters and critics of what some call a &#8220;river militarization&#8221; see potential risks ahead. As this effort to control rivers grows in the jungles of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, and Venezuela, so will the potential for regional instability and international incidents like the April shoot-down by Peruvian forces of a private plane suspected of carrying drugs - which turned out instead to be transporting American missionaries.
Traffickers are using these water routes more to get cocaine-processing ingredients, like cement and gasoline, in, and to take their profitable product out of the makeshift labs. Gasoline and cement are poured over leaves to produce the murky, gritty coca paste.
"Our mission here is aimed at all the generators of violence, from the drug-traffickers to the subversive forces and self-defense groups that control and profit from the narcotics trade," says Juan E. Prieto, commander of Colombia's Southern Naval Forces based at Puerto Leguizamo. "If we can take control of the rivers, we can effectively limit a problem that affects not just Colombia, but humanity."
Operating with 1,500 soldiers, Puerto Leguizamo is responsible for some 1,000 miles of navigable river. About the only road here leads from a small airport into town. But all around are rivers, including the chocolatey Putumayo River that divides Colombia from Peru and Ecuador.
This international element complicates the riverine unit's work - since like bandits anywhere, Colombia's traffickers use borders to evade their enemies.
"The chemicals and other things the traffickers need to process their product come in from Peru and Ecuador, but we can't do much about that," says Commander Prieto. Colombia limits single cargos of gasoline to 450 gallons, and cement to 280 pounds.
But Ecuador, with the river port El Carmen just down the Putumayo, has no limits. "The commander of the Ecuadoran army's battalion in El Carmen told me he knows exactly what's up when he finds a cargo of 5,000 gallons of gasoline, but there's nothing he can legally do about it," Prieto says. "He hazs to let it through."
Prieto says he is hopeful the Bush administration's Andean Regional Initiative will help boost regional military cooperation. The Andean initiative, a companion to last year's $1.3 billion package of US military and social assistance to Plan Colombia, is a response to the fear expressed by Colombia's neighbors who fear a spillover from a stepped-up anti-drug war.
Part of the US administration's 2002 budget, the initiative calls for additional military and social assistance to Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Colombia. One key idea of the initiative is to help with training and equipment to fortify the region's borders.
The US already supports Bolivia's "Blue Devils" riverine units, and participated in establishing a training school in Iquitos, Peru, where it helps train river-patrol units.
But Prieto says he also sees some dark clouds on the horizon. Up to now, he says the Ecuadoran military hasn't had problems with Colombia's guerrilla or paramilitary groups who operate in the region and profit from the drug trade. Colombia's largest insurgency army, the FARC, admits profiting from taxation of traffickers and is estimated to take in at least $500 million a year from the drug trade.
"But what happens when the Ecuadorans really start patrolling their border and controlling what goes in and out?" he asks. "They're going to have trouble with the FARC."
Such scenarios for regional instability are one reason that US human rights groups and some members of the US Congress oppose the Andean initiative . The Washington-based Center for International Policy says the Andean countries already account for more than half of all US military training in foreign countries. And the center says, a scheduled decrease in the 2002 budget in the $2 million-a-day-in-US military assistance Colombia is receiving under Plan Colombia will be made up for by an increase in aid to Colombia's neighbors.
Colombia's navy received $16 million in US military assistance under Plan Colombia - $12 million of that to step up control of Putumayo's rivers. Part of the money is for training new recruits in river patrolling.
Commander Prieto has something else on his wish list: "I think a good idea would be to bring some of the US academics and university students down to our river base, even some of the people up there who use this cocaine, to see the impact this drug trade has. I think once they saw ... the violence it causes and the impact it has on our environment, they might have a different opinion of what we're doing."
Look for tomorrow's photo essay on life in a Colombian coca-growing town.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor