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Battling Cocaine, Guerrillas in an Amazon Valley : War of Drugs, Rebels Rages in Peru

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

With the support of Washington, the Peruvian government is fighting to regain control of an Amazon frontier valley rich in coca--the raw material of cocaine--and ruled by millionaire drug bosses and Maoist guerrillas.

Three helicopters and a cargo plane chartered by the United States are spearheading the assault by 800 militarized national police against Peru’s drug mafia and Sendero Luminoso guerrillas in the jungled Upper Huallaga Valley on the eastern slopes of the Andes. The aircraft are flown by both Peruvian and civilian American pilots.

The raiders made their first strike in mid-July at Tocache, a town that guerrillas of the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, had taken over after killing a prominent public official and terrorizing the town’s 15,000 people.

Tocache does not have a single paved street, but small planes chartered by Lima banks regularly ferry in local currency to exchange for dollars earned in the coca trade. Police found Tocache literally painted red; monuments and buildings were daubed with the hammer and sickle and Maoist slogans.

Townspeople told Peruvian reporters that the guerrillas staged public meetings in the plaza, in front of police headquarters, and gave lectures on Communist purity. They said the guerrillas harassed the drug traffickers on behalf of the peasants who grow the coca that is turned into cocaine. Moreover, they said, the guerrillas closed the town’s brothel.

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After the raid, the government reported several hundred arrests and the seizure of large quantities of weapons, coca paste and U.S. dollars. The guerrillas faded into the countryside and, while the police were busy in the town, they dynamited a caravan of seven tanker trucks that belonged to a local palm oil factory.

Night Belongs to Criminals

In the Huallaga valley, as in the back lands of war-torn El Salvador and the guerrilla-controlled areas of Colombia, the government’s writ runs only where its soldiers tread. The bush, and the night, belong to criminals and zealots.

For the United States, Operation Lightning is a bold quickening of a war against cocaine that cocaine is winning throughout the Andes. Thus far, there has been little to show for anti-drug efforts in the Huallaga, except for the corpses of 26 eradication workers murdered by traffickers and terrorists.

For President Alan Garcia, vexed not only by drugs but also by the swift growth of insurgency in the valley, which the guerrillas now proclaim “liberated territory,” the new campaign is both a gamble and a major test of strength.

Garcia, 38, is losing his luster as he begins the trying third year of a scheduled five-year term. In the early days, nearly nine Peruvians in 10 applauded Garcia, his fiery rhetoric and the welcome changes he brought. Now, with guerrilla violence worsening and his economic advances jeopardized by inflation, falling reserves and a growing budget deficit, only one Peruvian in three endorses Garcia’s performance, according to recent polls.

In the past few months, Garcia has endured a vest-pocket rebellion by air force officers, a police strike, and a general strike. In the meantime, Sendero Luminoso has extended its reach from its mountain lairs into poor, crowded coastal cities and drug-producing areas.

There are still probably no more than a few thousand guerrillas, but Sendero Luminoso has become Peru’s No. 1 problem. The government’s inability to check the guerrillas threatens the stability of Garcia’s government, and, implicitly, its survivability.

Compulsively secretive and sectarian since its birth in 1980, Sendero is now openly wooing recruits among disaffected Peruvian leftists. Astonishingly, Sendero held a public meeting at the national university in Lima last month. A radical newspaper in the capital now serves unapologetically as spokesman for the guerrillas, railing daily against the new anti-drug offensive and accusing police raiders of widespread abuses.

Army troops are conspicuous by their absence in the new Huallaga campaign. Peruvian sources say that underlines the profound distrust between Peru’s young president and the powerful armed forces, which resent his efforts to assert civilian authority.

The army crushed an initial guerrilla probe into the valley in 1984-85, but along the way concluded, to the dismay of Garcia, the United States, and the outgunned police--that suppressing coca was not its war. So the drug traffic has flourished, well-protected. Military judges are now asking the general who commanded valley units and 31 of his officers to account for assets greater than what they could have acquired on army pay.

In small hillside plots scattered throughout the wild and beautiful Upper Huallaga grow hundreds of thousands of acres of the world’s finest coca. Rendered into paste in backyard pits, the coca is flown out by Colombian smugglers for processing into cocaine. Peru is the world’s largest source of coca paste, which now rivals oil and copper as the nation’s most important source of foreign exchange--about $750 million a year, by one estimate.

In a country where chronic foreign exchange shortages are aggravated by Garcia’s refusal to pay international creditors, U.S. officials are impressed with his commitment to fight the traffickers.

“If we had been discouraged at the lack of progress by the Peruvian government, we now see a government which has made some hard, courageous decisions with long-term impacts,” said Craig N. Chretien, who heads the attack on cocaine here for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Police Want Control

Chretien said the Huallaga assault calls for U.S.-paid anti-drug police and elite anti-insurgent troops of Peruvian police to re-establish government authority, and then to remain in force indefinitely in outback towns.

According to the plan, behind the troops will come eradication teams and developmental technicians to underwrite crop substitution for coca farmers who lose their livelihood. Up to now, the absence of governmental authority in the Huallaga has paralyzed Washington’s six-year, $23-million developmental program for the valley.

U.S. funding for enforcement and eradication has doubled since 1985, to nearly $6 million this year. So far, around 10,000 hectares (a hectare is 2.47 acres) of coca have been eradicated, but the acreage planted in coca has grown dramatically since the U.S. effort began.

Government spokesmen ballyhoo the raiders’ successes against the drug gangs and downplay the guerrilla role in the valley. The United States, after all, is paying to fight coca, not guerrillas. Even as the bureaucrats dueled in Lima, though, Sendero Luminoso came into its own in the valley, not as an ally of the coca lords but as their competitor for the allegiance of thousands of campesinos lured to the jungle by the hope of making a windfall in coca.

Independent Peruvian sources with first-hand information from the valley paint a chilling picture of Sendero Luminoso’s growth over the past six months. There are reports of major clashes won by guerrillas against bands fielded by the traffickers, and reports of guerrillas executing traffickers who cheat the peasants.

For Garcia, the stakes are high. For him to win, the police must suppress both the guerrillas and the drug traffickers.

Much is at stake for the United States, too. If this elaborate, expensive assault on coca’s stronghold, undertaken with the enthusiastic support of a democratic Peruvian government, does not work, it is hard to imagine what will.


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