Going to the Source

September 25, 2007

A grizzled group of men gathers every evening on the veranda of Tingo Marla's Hotel de Turistas to drink beer and swap tales of jungle adventure. They dress sportily in T-shirts, jeans and chinos, with a few touches of khaki and camouflage. The men eye strangers suspiciously. They are plainly not tourists, and they are not-as they might have been not long ago--drug dealers looking to do business in a town once notorious as Peru's "Snow City." Rather, they are pilots-U.S. civilians hired by their government to wage the war on drugs.[1]

Local people call the men los vietnamitas because the pilots' appearance leads people to believe they took part in the Vietnam war. The men themselves make no comment, though several look too young to be Vietnam vets. Whatever their past, they are now participants in a new kind of jungle war-one of the most violent and complicated in Latin America. In Peru the war on drugs is inextricably bound up with the battle against an army of revolutionary guerrillas, a battle in which the United States may become deeply mired if drug control policy continues on its present course.

Tingo Maria is located 350 miles northeast of Lima in the valley of the Huallaga River. The valley lies in what is known as the ceja de selva ("eyebrow of the jungle") halfway down the eastern slope of the Andes, between the cold, and mountains and the steaming lowlands of the Amazon basin. Orchids thrive in the moist jungle heat. So does coca, the plant from which cocaine is made.

The Huallaga Valley is said to be the most important coca growing zone in the world. U.S. officials estimate that between 50,000 and 75,000 hectares of coca are under cultivation there-the raw material for at least 85 tons of cocaine a year.[2]

The first steps in turning the leaves into cocaine also occur in the valley, in hundreds of plastic-lined pits where coca leaves and chemicals are mixed to form a paste. Nearly every day, small planes appear in the valley skies and land on makeshift airstrips cut in the jungle, or on roads that have been temporarily closed to transport the paste to large laboratories in Colombia or more remote parts of Peru for final processing into cocame.

The valley's economic life now depends on the drug trade and the dollars it brings. Tingo Maria was once the center, but now much of the action has been pushed north to Uchiza, Tocache, Juanjuí and other small towns. Many people have found work stomping coca into paste in the pits, transporting coca or coca paste, and bringing supplies from Lima. Most of those who supervise the local drug business, known as narcos ( from the Spanish narcotraficante ), are Colombians, representatives of the traffickers who run the international trade.

With the rise of the cocaine industry, violence has become an integral part of the valley's daily life: Bullet ridden, mangled bodies are often found floating in the Huallaga River of lying near the roadside. Many of these deaths are the work of drug traffickers or their underlings, the result of vendettas and rivalries.

But the valley is also a front line in the guerrilla conflict now raging across Peru. Sendero Lummoso ("Shining Path"), currently the dominant guerrilla group in the country, is able to control parts of the valley at will and has become the de facto political authority in some towns. Well-armed Sendero guerrillas have made frequent attacks on police outposts. During one of the bloodiest, in June 1997, 300 guerrillas destroyed the Ucbiza post with grenades and automatic weapons, killing six police and four civilians.[3]

Another group, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) has also been active in the region. MRTA briefly dominated Peru's news in November 1997 when a large column armed with automatic rifles and rocket launchers made daring takeovers of Juanjuí and several other Huallaga towns.[4] President Alan García was reportedly shaken when a TV report revealed Comandate Rolando, the leader of the column, to be Victor Polay Campos, a political ally and an old friend from the two men's university days. MRTA guerrillas have largely faded from sight in the wake of govemment counterinsurgency operations, although MRTA supporters reportedly still work quietly in the area.

In response to the guerrilla presence, the government has placed most of the Huallaga Valley under a state of emergency. Army counterinsurgency units patrol the region; many constitutional guarantees are suspended; and military authorities are in control. Human rights groups charge that the armed forces are responsible for a growing number of deaths and disappearances.[5]

Adding to the violence in the valley are the fierce turf battles between some of the army officers in charge of the war against the guerrillas and certain police officials running the anti-drug campaign. Besides struggles over authority, Peruvian sources allege some officers also compete for lucrative payoffs from traffickers.

Guerrilla feuding has contributed to the death toll: The bitter rivalry between Sendero and MRTA has led to deadly battles, as have ongoing disputes between the guerrillas and the narcos.[6] Sendero has also executed local officials and residents who refuse to cooperate or who are suspected of collaborating with security forces.

The presence of all these armed groups-narcos,guerrillas, police and military-has created a bewildering and savage situation. "When something happens here it's almost impossible to determine who's responsible," says Guillermo López Salazar, a reporter for Radio Tingo María. "Say five or six people are found dead, and there's a note with them that says 'This is the way informers die.' That's the kind of note Sendero would leave-but any other group could have left the sign so people would think Sendero did it. It's very difficult to untangle."

The town of Tingo María itself has become a center of both the drug war and the counterinsurgency war: Soldiers armed with automatic weapons stand next to sandbag barricades on the bridge leading to the airport. Truckloads of soldiers and police, at first glance indistinguishable in their camouflage fatigues, roar in and out of town. Helicopters fly overhead continually, carrying troops to and from the army base next to the airport or the police base in town.

As a whole, the Huallaga Valley is the site of some of the most concentrated U.S. anti-drug activity in the world. U.S. contract pilots and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents are frequently seen accompanying the Peruvian drug police on their missions. During the last decade, the valley has been a testing ground for Washington's drug policy overseas. Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics Matters Ann Wrobleski, who coordinated the Reagan Administration's international anti-drug efforts, says "The primary policy focus is to stop drugs at the source ... So we've focused our efforts in the fields, in an effort to eradicate the plants before they are harvested."'

In Peru, as in Bolivia and Colombia, this policy has failed to achieve its goal-coca production in the Huallaga has increased steadily. More seriously, U.S. policy has provided the guerrillas with a ready base of support among the farmers affected by the U.S.-sponsored eradication program.

So far, the number of U.S. personnel on the scene is relatively small: the civilian pilots, a few DEA agents-the exact number has not been made public-and representatives of the State Department or other agencies. According to U.S. officials, the Garcia government has enthusiastically tried to carry out a drug control program on its own. But that program was largely designed and is almost completely funded by the United States. Sendero has made U.S. involvement a primary focus of its local propaganda efforts: "Down with the imperialist coca eradication plan!" reads Sendero graffiti found almost everywhere on the road outside Tingo María.

US Officials often speak of "narcoterrorists" or"narcoguerrillas." In Assistant Secretary of State Wrobleski's words: "I think everyone who follows Latin America, everyone who follows terrorism, everyone who follows narcotics agrees that there is linkage- unfortunately an ever stronger linkage-between narcotics traffickers and insurgents. We're certainly seeing it in Peru." Some officials have described this linkage as an actual alliance; Wrobleski refers to it as a "marriage of convenience." This characterization, however, misrepresents the complex and highly conflictive relationship between the two groups.

Sendero Lummoso does play a role in the Huallaga drug trade-despite the group's zealously moralistic ideology, which denounces "vices" ranging from rock music to prostitution. But Sendero does not act at the behest of the narcos or in alliance with them. Rather, the senderistas act as a bargaining agent of sorts for the region's coca farmers, forcing drug producers to pay fair prices for the leaves. They also "tax" shipments of coca paste flown out of the area, as well as the shipments of kerosene and other inputs smuggled in for the paste processors. Sendero's "tax rate" has been estimated at 5%, which translates to some $30 to $40 million annually for an insurgent group with no significant outside funding.

The interests of Sendero and the traffickers contrast sharply. On the simplest level, Sendero wants to keep coca prices and "tax" rates as high as possible, while the traffickers want them low. On a deeper level, even Wrobleski admits that "Logic would tell you that drug traffickers-being, some people say, the ultimate capitalists-would not necessarily embrace the politics or the philosophy of, for the most part, leftist guerrillas." This deep rooted conflict of interest makes it doubtful that even a "marriage of convenience" can be consumunated-and suggests that clashes between the two sides will intensify. In Colombia, drug traffickers have already declared open war on the guerrillas who organized in that country's coca fields. They were probably responsible for the 1987 assassination of Jaime Pardo Leal, the leader of the Unión Patriótica political party in which some of the insurgents participate.[8]

In its war on drugs, the United States government finds itself face to face with Sendero Luminoso. What fuels the growing guerrilla presence in the Huallaga is not the drug traffickers, but U.S. drug control policy itself.

May, 1988. Eduardo De la Cruz Ramírez, a fifty-year-old Peruvian farmer and father of four children, is plowing his field outside Tingo María. For years it had stood fallow, overgrown with the few weeds that could survive in the depleted, acidic soil. The seven- or eight- acre plot was once planted with coca, a crop De la Cruz says his family had grown since they arrived in the valley some 50 years ago. Coca was only one of several crops De la Cruz farmed on his 100 acres, but it was an important source of income for him and for many of his neighbors.

In the early 1980s, under U.S. prodding, the Peruvian government began a series of eradication operations. One Sunday morning in 1981 they reached the De la Cruz farm: "They were police, I believe, part of a 200 man team that had been arriving in the area since Friday, coming in on big Buffalo and Hercules planes. That Sunday, about seven in the morning, they arrived here. The first thing they did was blow up the building I used to dry my coca. With dynamite. Then they started in on the coca field, They wanted to just pull it up, but they couldn't so they started to use their machetes."

De la Cruz still feels outraged: His coca plot was legal. It was registered with the government's National Coca Company (ENACO), which since 1978 had been issuing licenses to Peruvian coca growers and purchasing their leaves for resale to traditional users. De la Cruz can still recite his license numbers: "It was 82 on one side and 35 on the other. That means I was one of the first to register."

According to De la Cruz, he was selling all his coca to ENACO. At this late date there is no way to verify his claim and there is no doubt that a certain proportion of registered coca was diverted to the drug trade, but ENACO officials readily admit that large numbers of registered growers were eradicated. "They wiped out so much legal coca," says one, "that we couldn't even meet our purchase quota." Says De la Cruz: "It was a stupid thing to do, something that never should have happened."

Some drug control officials now agree that the first forced eradications were misdirected. Although most of the unregistered coca in the zone was cultivated on the steep slopes of the hills surrounding the valley, the eradicators refused to distinguish between legal and illegal coca, and concentrated on more accessible plots on the valley floor, like that owned by De la Cruz. An ENACO official who was present at the time says many registered growers were forcibly eradicated shortly after they had signed an agreement for a voluntary coca reduction program.

Since 1983, the Peruvian government agency CORAH (Special Project for the Control and Eradication of Coca in the Upper Huallaga) has worked to eradicate coca in the Huallaga. Despite the thousands of acres destroyed-1,737 in 1983; 7,744 in 1984; 11,930 in 1985; 6,365 in 1986--CORAH's labor did not reduce total coca production. Producers merely moved downriver, where they were joined by other farmers, part of a continuing influx of migrants from the highlands.

After his field was destroyed, De la Cruz says, he was jailed for a month, accused of drug trafficking. Since his farm was larger than some of his neighbors and he felt he could survive without coca, he decided to stay in the area. Many of his neighbors fled and their fields now lie abandoned, as do their sturdy cement block houses. "Where did my neighbors go? Different places," says De la Cruz evasively. "Some have gone to look for a more peaceful place."

According to local sources, some former residents took up a less than placid pursuit-they joined Sendero Lurnmoso. Still others moved to more remote parts of the valley and began growing coca under guerrilla protection. De ]a Cruz shrugs when he is asked about the guerrillas, and says little except, "We're between the sword and the wall."

Since the insurgents were the only group effectively protecting the farmers' livelihood, they continued to gain strength as eradication progressed, drawing supporters from organizations representing local farmers."' Less than ten miles outside Tingo María, abandoned houses are covered with senderista slogans. A red hammer and sickle and graffiti protesting the coca eradication program are scrawled on the government telephone office. Outside De la Cruz's house, the guerrillas have dug narrow ditches across the road to stop passing vehicles so they can inspect them. Further up the road lies an abandoned police post.

Long before forced eradications be gan, U.S. officials spoke of the need to provide coca farmers with other means of survival. In 1981, U.S.AID and other U.S. agencies began to pour in sub-stantial amounts-$167 million was budgeted for the first five years. But the U.S.-funded development pro-gram turned out to be merely a thin glove padding the iron fist of eradication. The program was poorly conceptualized and controversial. A December 1980 memo circulated to members of Congress says a group of U.S.AID employees who saw the original planning document

were highly critical of it and felt that something needed to be done quite soon to prevent the project from being approved ... The basic aim of the [project] is not economic development at all. Rather, it is a drug control and eradication scheme .... The use of development assistance monies for purposes other than the meeting of basic human needs, especially when such monies are so closely tied to police and military efforts ... threatens to seriously undermine the credibility of U.S. development agencies. [11]

While admitting that in the Huallaga no other activity could be as profitable as growing coca, project planners argued that farmers would cooperate with the program if "systematic eradication" were undertaken. The earliest eradications "were successful in causing fear among coca producers," said a planning document. "This momentum should be sustained ... " [12]

It was the planners' unspoken assumption that growers who had been eradicated would have no choice but to cooperate with the program if they wanted to survive. Some farmers did choose to cooperate-but others found another option more attractive: packing up and moving on to clear a new plot in the zone's vast expanses of virgin forest. While the economic security of a clandestine coca fanner is virtually assured, his life is equally sure to be marked by violence. The farmers needed protection against exploitative, dishonest coca buyers, and, of course, protection against being eradicated again. These were services that the insurgents were happy to provide.

By 1984, when the Peruvian government began a series of drug control efforts called Operation Bronco, the guerrillas had already become an important force in the valley. During Bronco, air force helicopters were used to attack naco landing strips, but the operation became intertwined with counterinsurgency and the helicopters were used to track down Sendere, units." [13] The results were poor," according to the account published by the Lima-bascd Andean Report, "and only weeks later Sendero Luminoso seemed on the verge of overrunning the countryside even in the serm-urban [Tingo María] zone." The government of President Fernando Belaúnde then called in the army, whose commander, Brigadier Gen. Julio Carbajal, "immediately forbade anti-narcotics operations in the area. Sendero had to retreat or lay low. Coca-paste exports boomed, though narc o-related garig violence grew considerably." [14]

When the García government took, office in 1985 it began its own series of operations, dubbed Condor. During Condor IV, the most highly publicized of the series, the Peruvian air force dropped 500 pound bombs on major narco landing strips hidden deep in the Peruvian Amazon.[15] Other operations targeted cocaine laboratories and smaller air strips- Police seized eight small planes used by the narcos and destroyed 12 others. The majority of the Condor efforts, however, were directed at smaller targets like the coca paste pits that dot the Huallaga Valley. Police destroyed 464 pits during the first five phases of Condor and seized some 74.000 kilos of paste. [16]

DEA agents went along on many of the missions, and in later operations U.S. contract pilots flew the aircraft used to transport Peruvian drug police. The most dramatic demonstration of the U.S. role-and the operation that most clearly illustrates how closely drug control efforts had come to be linked with counterinsurgency--came on July 15, 1987, the first day of Operation Condor VI. "At 2:30 in the afternoon more than 500 police occupied the city [of Tocachel] without meeting resistance," reported the Peruvian news magazine Sí. "Troops on the match," is the way the newsweekly Caretas described the scene: "A group of police, bearded, long-haired, and in combat uniform, looked like replicas of Che Guevara ... DEA agents took part in the operations dressed in Vietnam-style hats and armed to the teeth. An atmosphere of paranoia reigned."

A State Department report offered a more staid description:

[Peruvian] forces penetrated the town of Tocache, noted as the area's principal drug trafficking center. The police established a field headquarters there and cornmenced daily antidrug operations, Air support was provided by three INM [Bureau of International NarcoticsMatters]-leased helicopters and, later, by the INM-owned C-123 transport. [17]

What the report does not say is that Tocache was almost completely controlled by Sendero Luminoso at the time of the operation. The group had not "lain low" for long after Operation Bronco in 1984. Two years later Sendero turned back an MRTA guerrilla assault on the town. In April 1987 Sendero took on the narcos who ran the Tocache drug trade-at least 30 people died in the ensuing battle. [18] In May the senderistas declared Tocache a "liberated zone." Though the narcos were allowed to keep their businesses, houses of prostitution were closed. [19] Armed guerrillas patrolled the streets and every day the senderistas "made the entire population fine up double file, and masked guerrillas gave indoctrination speeches," a town resident told Caretas. "Tocache was a 'red city'-the people liked the terrucos [terrorists] better than the police, because they let them work their coca." [20] Two months later, when the drug and other police arrived by helicopter to take back the town in what was ostensibly an anti-drug operation, all of the senderista leaders and major narcos had already fled.

Overall, the results from the Tocache operation were far from spectacular: Some 160 kilos of coca paste and over $150,000 in cash were confiscated, but, admitted the State Department, "while seizures and arrests were up significantly, trafficker activities continued relatively unimpeded." [21] The operation did succeed in driving Sendero from the town-an important victory for the Peruvian government, however temporary. U.S. officials seemed unconcerned that U.S. funds, equipment and personnel were being used for what was, in essence, a counterinsurgency operation. They were far more worried that the Huallaga eradication program, the cornerstone of their policy, was going nowhere.

"In 1987, manual eradication carried out by the 462-man [CORAH team] dropped to 355 hectares from 2,575 hectares the previous year," reported the State Department- "[CORAH's] efforts for most of the year were stymied by severe security concerns, as terrorists and narcotics traffickers held sway in the area." Coca eradication has always been dangerous work in the Huallaga. Nineteen CORAH workers were killed in 1984. By 1987 the number had risen to thirty. Since November of that year, in an effort to protect the workers, U.S. helicopters flown by civilian U.S. pilots have been used to airlift the CORAH teams along with police guards to their worksites. This immediately raised the eradication rate but increased the likelihood that U.S. personnel would run into senderistas in the field. There have been reports that such confrontations have occurred, though U.S. officials will not confirm them. Several sources familiar with the operations put it this way: Who knows-and who cares-who exactly is shooting at you in a situation like that, whether they are narcos or senderistas. The important thing is to protect yourself.

While US officials continue to propagate the phantasm of narcos and guerrillas allied against democracy, the real danger is that U.S. anti-drug efforts will become ever more closely linked to counterinsurgency and draw the United States inexo-rably into a vast and bitter guerrilla war. The participation of the U.S. military in the war on drugs-hugely popular in Congress and the media- would seem to make that prospect ever more likely.

Until recently, calling U.S. international drug control efforts a "war on drugs" was taking rhetorical license~-the U.S military had scant involvement and, in fact, was impeded by law from doing more, But in 1982, the law was amended to allow the Pentagon to assist in drug operations, and in April, 1986 President Ronald Reagan authorized the use of military resources and personnel in drug control activities. [22]

Since then, the U.S. military has played an important supporting role: The Navy provided the Coast Guard with 2,500 ship days in 1987; the Air Force and Navy gave more than 16,000 flight hours to "the interdiction effort"; and more than $300 million worth of military equipment is on loan to law enforcement agencies. The Pentagon has participated in anti-drug operations in the Bahamas, the U.S. Southwest, and-the largest scale participation to date-Operation Blast Furnace in Bolivia in 1986. [23]

The Pentagon itself, however, is staunchly opposed. One month after the Senate voted 83-6 to make drug interdiction an official military mission, Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci told Congress, "The primary role of the Department of Defense is to protect and defend this country from armed aggression ... Adding another mission at this time will come at the expense of the Department's primary mission-unless additional resources are made available."" Some drug enforcement officials also caution against the kind of military involvement politicians are clamoring for, that is, "at the source," in the fields. Says Ann Wrobleski: I don't see a role for them in that environment." She does, however, think the U.S~ military should help train, arm and equip anti-drug forces in the producing countries.

"I think the basic argument is that almost any other branch of the U.S. government is more acceptable in anti-drug programs than the military," Rand Corporation senior economist Peter Reuter told a Capitol Hill seminar in June 1988. [25] "There is nothing more likely to inflame the passions of Latin and South American neighbors than the sight of U.S. military boots there. They have been there before on non-benign missions, and that's a piece of history that will not go away for a long time."

David Westrate, DEA assistant administrator for operations, agreed: "The law enforcement flag in South America and around the world sells ... [The DEA operates in] a non-political kind of a situation which enables us to create things and do things under the law enforcement flag which we would not be able to in a military mode. [26]

These days, "the law enforcement flag" shields an ever-wider range of international drug control activities that would fit better in a war movie than a police novel. While the Drug Enforcement Administration is the best-known drug control agency, the U.S. State Department plays an even more important role internationally. The State Department is the "lead agency" for drug control, and through its Bureau for International Narcotics Matters (INM), it coordinates the drug control activities of other U.S. agencies, includ-ing the DEA, U.S.AID (which funds income-substitu-tion projects in drug producing areas) and the U.S. Information Agency (which conducts campaigns against drug abuse). It is the State Department's job to persuade foreign governments to go along with drug control policy as formulated in the United States. According to Ann Wrobleski, more than half of the U.S. embassy's work in countries like Peru and Bolivia is drug control.

The State Department's role goes far beyond diplomacy. Almost all U.S. df ug control funds are channeled to foreign governments through the INM. As the primary funder of drug control operations, it has become increasingly involved in helping foreign governments carry them out. For anti-drug efforts in Latin America and Asia. the State Department has created its own mini air force-known as the Air Wing-which includes 13 Thrush fixed-wing spray aircraft used in drug crop eradication programs, six Bell 212 helicopters and a C-123 transport. [27]

By contrast, the DFA, which is part of the Justice Department, provides only manpower. DEA personnel have just two key functions overseas: to gather intelligence about drug production and shipment, and, most visibly, to advise and train local anti-drug forces. [28]

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, approved by Congress in October, temporarily waives a ban on arming the special anti-drug police units which have been created at the urging of U.S. officials in countries around the world. That bill earmarks $2 million for training foreign anti-drug forces and an additional $3.5 million in "military assistance"-the wording of the bill itself-for South American police forces involved in drug control.

In Peru. as elsewhere, these forces bear little rescmblance to what we know as police, and they seldom engage in Miami Vice-style shootouts with designer suited drug lords. Instead, they are trained and equipped for jungle warfare. Peru's special anti-drug police, known as UMOPAR (Rural Mobile Patrol Unit) though it was officially changed to the Civil Guard Drug Police last year, is a 500-member combat-trained force currently armed with North Korean AK assault rifles. In 1987, the United States paid $3.6 million to train the force, supplement its pay, and provide field equipment, supplies, and transport; $4 million was budgeted to do the same in 1989. UMOPAR has five Bell helicopters and a C-123 transport on loan from the State Department's Air Wing.

DEA agents work closely with the Peruvian force in the field as trainers and "observers" of operations commanded and conducted by Peruvian officials. No matter how limited the operational role of the agents (and some accounts suggest that it is not always strictly observation) U.S. strategic thinking undoubtedly plays a key part in determining how the operations are carried out. The DEA's role is analogous to that of U.S. advisers in EI Salvador: Washington's policy is carried out while most of the risk is shifted to foreigners.

The analogy with EI Salvador should not be oversimplified. The conscious aim of U.S. drug policy in Peru is not to fight guerrillas-even though the official view that they are "narcoterrorists" in league with the traffickers means that the lines between counterinsurgency and drug control are easily blurred.

Until now, Neither US nor Peruvian officials have shown much enthusiasm about outright U.S. involvement in counterinsurgency. The populist and nationalist government of President Alan García has said at least publicly-that it can wage the war against Sendero on its own. What's more, "Peru is a 'red country' on U.S. military maps," says a former intelligence analyst- This designation, which indicates communist-allied or influenced governments, dates back to 1968 when a progressive military government made the Soviet Union one of Peru's major military suppliers. U.S.-Peruvian military ties have improved since then, but Soviet ties are still considerable.

Over the last two years, however, there have been signs that both Peru and the United States are easing the barriers to U.S. involvement. U.S. military advisers have reportedly met with members of the Peruvian military to discuss guerrilla warfare techniques; in mid-1988 reports circulated that a sizeable increase in military aid to Peru was under consideration. [29]

In Washington, no one talks of "losing" P

Tags: Coca, Peru, Shining Path, drug trade, US drug war

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