Anti-Drug Role of GIs Expanded in S. America
In a quiet escalation of U.S. military operations in South America, small groups of American soldiers are leading drug-war training patrols in the jungles of Peru, Colombia and Bolivia, according to U.S. officials.
At the same time, overflights by American intelligence planes have been stepped up sharply in an effort to search out drug laboratories and monitor traffickers’ communications. The expanded intelligence gathering is part of a separate effort to help direct assaults by local forces against cocaine traffickers and the political insurgents who support them.
These sensitive operations are being coordinated by the U.S. Southern Command in Panama, which has declared counternarcotics the top priority for American forces in the region--a strategic shift described as going “from megatons to kilos.”
The initiatives, outlined in budget documents and described by officials in Panama and Washington, do not appear to violate a Bush Administration prohibition against direct involvement by the military in anti-drug operations.
But they do add up to a considerably larger role for the military than has been publicly acknowledged, raising its profile in what is expected to be an increasingly bloody war in the Andes region.
Among current missions is a five-week operation in which a dozen Marines lead Colombian troops on practice anti-drug patrols along the Putumayo River near the Peruvian border, sources say. This is an area of heavy narcotics trafficking, and operations here raise the possibility of clashes, U.S. military officials acknowledge. They say no Americans have yet come under fire.
It is far from clear how effective the Pentagon’s accelerating efforts will be. Other government agencies have launched themselves boldly into the war on drugs only to fall short of their goals.
And with as many as 150 U.S. soldiers expected to join the mobile training teams in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia by this time next year, some critics fear that the current American operation marks the beginning of a potentially dangerous escalation.
“We pressed the Pentagon’s button” to get more involved in the war on drugs, a congressional official said. “Now it’s going to be hard to turn them off.”
For the military, the new anti-drug programs mark an important test as it seeks to demonstrate its versatility in confronting new forms of conflict at a time when the traditional mission of containing the Soviet Union appears to have diminished.
In a challenge to its critics, the Bush Administration last month scorned what William J. Bennett, director of drug control policy, labeled “stale anti-military rhetoric.” He declared: “This is not an American invasion. It is not an escalating intervention.”
Bennett, the nation’s top anti-drug official, also issued a warning: “This is a dangerous enemy, and we cannot expect to fight this battle unscathed.”
The new military involvement in South America represents the most significant product of a dramatic about-face by the Defense Department. In less than a year, the Pentagon has transformed itself from bystander to active participant in the anti-drug fight. The change has been reinforced by a turnabout of similar speed and proportion on the part of U.S. intelligence agencies, including what informed sources say has been a quadrupling of CIA manpower and spending devoted to counternarcotics efforts.
On some fronts, there are indications that the change has been less dramatic than it appears to be, that Cold War projects are being sheltered under drug-war budgets. The most controversial of these is a $231-million, over-the-horizon radar system that Congress rejected when it was proposed as a barrier against nuclear attack. It resurfaced this year in the counternarcotics budget, which describes it as a crucial defense against drug-smuggling planes.
But in South America, where the effort is commanded by Gen. Maxwell D. Thurman, chief of the Southern Command and the hard-charging architect of the Panama invasion, there is little doubt that the new anti-drug mission is being carried out enthusiastically.
Thurman gloated in a recent private meeting that the outbreak of peace in Europe has left his military colleagues with little to do but “dance with themselves.” The Latin American drug war, he declared, “is the only war we’ve got.”
“We get their attention,” a top Thurman deputy said of the Washington-based military establishment. “(If) a guy’s not worried about the Soviets attacking the next day, you can talk to him about counternarcotics.”
Evidence of the accelerating anti-drug effort is apparent here at Southern Command headquarters, where a new 30-man team oversees counternarcotics operations and staffs a command post deep inside a tunnel burrowed into Ancon Hill, which overlooks Panama City.
Southern Command headquarters serves as the setting for frequent drug-war strategy sessions of American diplomats and generals. Across the isthmus, at a U.S. military jungle training school, a cocaine laboratory has been added to the collection of mock targets. Special Operations forces rehearse anti-drug missions under heavy foliage that a commander says “is as close as we can get to the Andes.”
And in the clearest indication of a compass newly oriented toward drugs, U.S. military assistance for South America--nearly all of it to the Andean region--now exceeds that to Central America, formerly the more urgent preoccupation of military planners in this region.
Yet the sensitive nature of the new military role--both in the United States and in Latin America--has made officials reticent.
Repeated requests to visit one of the U.S.-operated training sites in the Andean region were turned down by U.S. officials. Military commanders refused to discuss a plan for assistance to Peru on grounds that it has not yet been approved by the new government there.
The plan is controversial because it would provide support for a Peruvian campaign against the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas, who control regions where drug trafficking has flourished.
Even the official document that outlines the $125-million aid package to all three countries remains classified. Sources familiar with the document say it does not specify how many U.S. soldiers would take part in field training missions.
But a picture gleaned from other documents and interviews makes it clear that the extent of the new U.S. military operation in the Andes exceeds by a significant margin what has been spelled out by Administration officials and is detailed in the $125-million package.
It shows a new American effort to engage in war against drug traffickers by deploying advanced weapons and intelligence resources, with behind-the-scenes help from U.S. advisers in directing assaults by host-country forces.
* An additional $106 million in the current budget, much of it classified, was authorized by the Bush Administration early this year to fund further anti-drug operations in the Andes. The amount will rise next year to $116 million, with further classified programs adding considerably more.
Nearly all this money goes to a largely secret effort to attack drug traffickers by gathering “tactical intelligence” and relaying it to host-country forces who then intercept aircraft or raid drug laboratories. In Peru, the intelligence effort will include the acquisition of information to assist government forces in raids against Sendero Luminoso guerrillas, a senior Administration official said.
* Among new military personnel already deployed in the region are tactical analysis teams in U.S. embassies in Peru, Colombia and Bolivia. The teams decide which intelligence should be passed on to host-country forces and also help to plan joint operations by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the host country, according to informed sources.
* U.S. soldiers in the field frequently lead host-country teams in training patrols outside secure bases into potentially hostile areas. Although they are prohibited from taking part in actual operations, the military personnel have new leeway to conduct training in high-threat areas, including the Sendero-dominated Upper Huallaga Valley.
* The number of U.S. military personnel in the field is increasing. An additional 30 to 50 soldiers will be deployed to each of the three countries by early next year to help train U.S.-funded counternarcotics strike forces. “It could be more,” a well-placed U.S. official said.
The details provide no indication of any direct involvement in counternarcotics operations. In interviews, U.S. commanders in the region made it clear that they would vigorously oppose any effort to use U.S. military personnel for assaults against drug traffickers.
Military assistance makes up the largest portion of counternarcotics aid that the United States will provide this year to the Andean nations, with $110.5 million slated for Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. Beginning next year, economic aid is to make up the bulk of the package. Nevertheless, the military component will swell to $141 million in 1991 and is scheduled to total $676 million over the next five years.
Much of this year’s aid has already begun to flow in the form of helicopters, planes, river boats and weapons for military forces in Bolivia and Colombia. No assistance to Peru will be made available until a plan is approved by President Alberto Fujimori, but Administration officials say they believe that such a deal can be signed by the end of the summer.
Among the new programs funded by the United States, according to documents made public in the Congressional Record, are the special military anti-drug forces in the three countries, including a 3,800-man Peruvian infantry team in the Upper Huallaga Valley.
Other major U.S.-backed programs include a plan to transform Bolivian aircraft into fighters capable of intercepting drug-smuggling planes and the construction of a Colombian jungle base that would guide counternarcotics aircraft on similar missions near the Peruvian border.
According to senior officials, such forces are crucial to the U.S. military strategy for the region because they are uniquely able to take advantage of intelligence that the United States can gather at arm’s length, officials said.
“A counternarcotics campaign . . . is best guided by information on where to apply force,” a senior Southern Command intelligence officer said. “That is certainly our aim.”
“This is the solution to a dilemma,” a high-ranking American source said. “We now know a good deal about potential targets. But without the help of their forces on the ground, there would be nothing we could do about it.”
The intelligence-gathering effort was launched by the Pentagon late last year as part of a flurry of new measures that nearly doubled counternarcotics spending.
The operation, which involves both the Defense Intelligence Agency and the super-secret National Security Agency, provided “technical support” for the Colombian assault late last year that resulted in the death of cocaine kingpin Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, according to informed sources.
The sources indicated that the effort has also contributed to other significant raids but declined to provide further details. From Megatons to Kilos Increased U.S. military involvement in anti-drug operations in Peru, Colombia and Bolivia is coordinated by U.S. Southern Command in Panama. It is part of strategic shift for U.S. military away from anti-Soviet posture and toward a stronger anti-drug role in the Andean region.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.