U.S.-backed assaults on cocaine processing sites are under consideration for Peru and Colombia, depending on the progress of the imminent anti-drug campaign in Bolivia, government officials said Wednesday.
U.S. support of these initiatives, which could begin as early as next month, would not be as extensive as the involvement in Bolivia, where six Army Black Hawk helicopters with 160 U.S. pilots and support personnel have been sent for what is expected to be an eight-week effort, according to the sources, who declined to be named.
Instead, agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration would assist local troops and police in Peru and Colombia who would be authorized to cross each other's borders in cocaine-growing areas, the officials said.
The unusual multicountry operation would be financed largely by the State Department's international narcotics control program and would be another step in the Administration's accelerating effort to turn the corner in the war on illicit narcotics.
Meanwhile, the drive in Bolivia, dubbed Operation Blast Furnace, is still scheduled to begin Friday, despite extensive publicity there and in the United States. Officials said they believe that many of the drug targets--including airstrips and barracks for cocaine processors--cannot be protected or removed before the raids begin.
"There's too much of a commitment to pull back now," one source familiar with the operation said.
White House spokesman Edward P. Djerejian, in confirming Wednesday the U.S. backing for the Bolivian operation, disputed earlier statements by government officials that Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger had to be pressured by Vice President George Bush to support Operation Blast Furnace.
"Secretary Weinberger did not have to be pressured into providing military support for counternarcotics operations," Djerejian said. "All of the actions directing military involvement reflect the proposals made by Secretary Weinberger last year in a memo to the attorney general."
Despite Djerejian's statement, a Pentagon official said Wednesday, "It's not in the Army's interests to be doing this."
Djerejian's comments left uncertain what role Bush played in initiating Operation Blast Furnace. A spokesman for the vice president said that Bush, in his capacity as head of the National Narcotics Border Interdiction System, had recommended that the United States "accede to Bolivia's request" for assistance.
A More Prominent Role
The Administration appears to be trying to give Bush more of a prominent role in the stepped-up drug war as the effort for his campaign to succeed President Reagan gains momentum. He is scheduled, for example, to announce an expanded effort against drugs on the Southwest border on July 23.
The idea for assistance to Bolivia stemmed from the annual meeting last April in Buenos Aires of the International Drug Enforcement Conference, said John Russell, a Justice Department spokesman. Bolivia, Peru and Belize all requested U.S. help for steps to counter mounting cocaine production in their countries at that meeting, Russell said.
It is not known how Colombia came to be involved in planning for the cross-border operation, but the Bogota government has been cooperating more closely with the United States on drug enforcement.
Bolivia was selected for immediate U.S. assistance, even though it ranks second to Peru in the growing of coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine, because the invitation from Bolivia's government was "more vigorous," Russell said.
Requests Relayed to Meese
The requests for assistance were relayed to Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III by DEA Administrator John C. Lawn, who served as chairman of the enforcement conference.
"The attorney general took it to the Cabinet and got a strong favorable response--the most favorable from Vice President Bush," Russell said.
In briefing reporters Wednesday on legal authority for the Bolivian program, Justice Department officials noted that on July 10 Meese and Weinberger had signed an agreement jointly determining that the Bolivian cocaine processing constitutes an "emergency circumstance," justifying the use of U.S. personnel and equipment.
They acted under a 1981 law that provided exceptions to the Reconstruction Era's Posse Comitatus Act prohibition on the use of the military for civilian law enforcement.
Not the First Time
"This is not the first time we have used manned U.S. helicopters to assist" in an anti-drug effort by another country, Russell said.
He cited Operation Bahamas and Turks, in which two or three U.S. helicopters, flown by U.S. pilots, have been used for transporting Bahamian troops on drug raids since May, 1983.
Every six months since that operation began, Meese and Weinberger have signed a document certifying that an emergency circumstance exists there, permitting use of the U.S. equipment and pilots, another government source said.