In Peru, U.S. Is Losing Its Most Ambitious War Against Cocaine

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Times Staff Writer

When the gunmen came, the Peruvian campesinos, paid $4 a day by the United States to destroy coca plants, were sleeping alone in a jungle clearing. Special U.S.-financed troops trained to protect the workers were confined to their barracks 20 miles away.

The gunmen, drug runners, slaughtered 15 workers. That same night, a few weeks ago, a Peruvian topographer and his three assistants camped nearby also died, victims of a Maoist insurgency that complicates drug enforcement on the eastern slopes of the Andes.

Besieged by Drug Czars

Besieged and bloodied by jungle drug czars and Maoist guerrillas alike, the United States is losing its most ambitious attempt in Latin America to stamp out the cocaine traffic at its source.


In the judgment of Peruvian and foreign analysts here, the two-year-old anti-cocaine program, budgeted at $22 million through 1986, is making scant headway. Officially, the U.S. Embassy takes a more positive view.

A $4-million coca eradication program, suspended after drug smugglers massacred the workers, is resuming, embassy spokesmen say. And a parallel, $18-million crop-substitution and agrarian development program, curtailed in August because of guerrilla activity, is now operating except in particularly dangerous areas, American officials said.

Despite such professions of optimism, coca is still king in the raw and tangled highland jungles where the Andes descend into the Amazon Basin.

Half of U.S. Cocaine From Peru

By some estimates, as much as half of the raw coca that reaches the United States as processed cocaine is grown in Peru. In the 500-square-mile Upper Huallaga Valley, around the town of Tingo Maria, rough-hewn coca plantations may total 60,000 hectares, or 148,200 acres, according to Peruvian sources. Before its suspension, the U.S. program had eradicated about 9,139 acres of coca plantings over two years, American officials say.

An agricultural survey of the remote region, which has a population estimated at 125,000, showed 15,500 farms on the valley floor, of which around 14,000 grew coca along with other crops. More than half of the coca, though, is thought to be grown on hillside plots, where the land will not support other crops.

A hardy plant whose leaves can be harvested four times a year, coca is a staple crop of staggering munificence to jungle farmers, many of them Indians newly come from Andean highlands and nearly all of them poor. Peruvian specialists say coca, at boom prices, can generate 10 times as much income for a farmer as tea, palm oil, cacao or other crops that the United States is trying to encourage as alternatives.


The current boom is due in part to sterner enforcement in Bolivia and Colombia that jeopardized operations there and, in Peru, withdrawal of anti-drug security units while government soldiers pursued guerrillas in the coca-growing areas.

In the last four months, the Peruvian coca market has changed radically. Traffickers are now paying as much as $120 for a 25-pound sack of coca leaves. The official price for coca grown legally in Peru for medicinal purposes is $8 a sack.

By one informed guess, the illegal coca industry may generate as much as $3 billion this year, equal to 20% of the gross national product, and perhaps $500 million of that is expected to stay in Peru.

The anti-cocaine campaign is administered by the Peruvian government with U.S. funds and is the biggest such continuing American effort in Latin America, although a similar program is getting under way in Bolivia.

In the Peruvian backlands, the effort is frustrating, in part because of the scale of the illegal coca operations. One U.S.-inspired campaign earlier this year located no fewer than 40 jungle airstrips in the Upper Huallaga that are the smugglers’ lifeline to processing laboratories in Colombia.

In a campaign called Operation Bronco, Peruvian troops in a 280-man, U.S.-financed anti-drug unit destroyed or damaged 28 of the jungle airstrips with dynamite. While the last were being attacked, the first were being repaired, Peruvian sources say.


Peruvian coca leaves are reduced to a paste in homemade labs in nearly 300 jungle communities and then flown north for additional refining. By rough count, a ton of leaves produces 220 pounds of paste, which produces about five pounds of cocaine.

With trouble affecting the U.S. program in the jungle, the Peruvian press has reported a coca-fueled boom around Tingo Maria in the last few months. New construction abounds. Car sales are breaking records. Bank branches in settlements most notable for their muddy streets wire their headquarters in Lima for urgent shipments of Peruvian currency with which to buy American greenbacks, the coin of the smugglers.

The beleaguered American anti-cocaine program has the official support of the Peruvian government here in Lima, but foreign and Peruvian observers insist that good intentions at the top have not been translated into vigorous action in the jungle. Coca money is seductive and often easy to amass, for settlers and minor officials alike. Some Peruvians believe that cocaine is a problem for gringos, not Peruvians, particularly at a time of national economic hardship.

In the Upper Huallaga, the hostile fire from two directions is, to say the least, intimidating. Earlier this year, guerrillas of a Maoist group called Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) began marauding in the Upper Huallaga, which is far north and west of the more embattled guerrilla areas around the highland city of Ayacucho.

Beginning in June, workers in outposts of a U.S. agricultural development program came under sporadic attack as part of a general guerrilla offensive. In August, the Peruvian army moved into the Upper Huallaga, and the development program was curtailed while troops pressured elusive guerrilla bands.

By then, Peru’s jungle frontier sheltered a bewildering and dangerous array of contending armed forces: the army, the government’s anti-coca unit and the guerrillas, along with any number of armed irregulars on the payrolls of drug warlords. One squabble between two smugglers’ armies left 18 dead.


The anti-drug unit, civil guardsmen who are militarized policemen paid an extra $100 a month under the coca eradication program, is not popular with either the smugglers or the small farmers whose crops are destroyed. Neither, for that matter, are the Peruvian technicians of the U.S. development program who try to persuade farmers to try alternative crops.

The growing resentment against the anti-coca campaign may have been what prompted the Sendero Luminoso guerrillas to open a new front in the Upper Huallaga. Factual information is hard to come by in this area, but despite repeated government assertions, there is as yet no evidence of an alliance between the coca traffickers and the guerrillas. Each has its own goals, rules and targets.

The army’s mission, though, was clear-cut from the outset: track down the guerrillas.

Anti-Drug Unit Sent to Barracks

Whether to reduce the number of guns in the field or to avoid tainting its troops with the guard’s unpopular image, the army sent the U.S-conceived anti-drug unit back to its barracks in Tingo Maria.

Since the army’s arrival, guerrilla attacks have dwindled. And although the army has not moved against the drug traffickers, its presence in the region was reckoned a sufficient guarantee of safety for the coca eradication program.

About 400 to 600 workers in the program continue to earn their $4 a day, a good bit of money for campesinos who have no coca of their own. They destroy coca plants to American specifications, uprooting the bush entirely or chopping it to within 12 inches of the ground and flooding the stump with herbicide.

The notion of security brought on by the army’s presence vanished abruptly with the massacre, near a settlement called Corvinilla. The eradication program stopped.


Force Returned to Field

Not long afterward, the government announced that the anti-drug force would be returned immediately to the field and that eradication would resume.

The announcement, though, came at the start of the rainy season on the eastern slopes. About 140 inches of rain falls there annually, most of it between December and March. Hillsides with coca bushes clinging to the poor, acid soil are difficult to reach even when it is dry.

Thus, by the most optimistic estimates, it will be months, if ever, before the poor coca farmers and super-rich smugglers of the Peruvian jungle again feel the impact of the American program.