BOGOTA, Colombia -- A joint Peruvian-American anti-drug force has launched a major offensive against cocaine traffickers in Peru, staging helicopter-borne raids that destroyed three jungle laboratories in a single day, Peruvian and American officials confirmed Sunday.
The raids in Peru's Upper Huallaga Valley marked the start of a "frontal assault" after a seven-month halt in operations there, according to the officials, employing a drastically revised strategy that targets the traffickers instead of peasant coca growers.
'Didn't Have Resources'
A U.S. Embassy official in Lima noted that in all of 1988, the Peruvian-U.S. operations destroyed only 75 laboratories in the valley and never managed three in one day because "we just didn't have the resources last year."
The missions flew Friday from the newly fortified and expanded base at Santa Lucia in the heart of the valley, which is protected by mine fields, sandbag bunkers and sensitive electronic detection gear.
As many as nine American-piloted Huey UH-1 helicopters, armed with twin M-60 machine guns on the doors, are ferrying units of six Peruvian police officers and two U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents on each of the strikes, the spokesman said.
As operations began, at least 20 decapitated bodies were found floating down the Huallaga River in front of the base, Peruvian and U.S. officials said. It was unclear whether they were victims of drug traffickers--and meant as a message to the base--or casualties from the bloody fighting between the military and leftist guerrillas in the valley.
Gen. Juan Zarate, director of the Peruvian drug police, said on the eve of the campaign that his forces will squeeze the traffickers in Peru at the same time that the traffickers are facing unprecedented pressure in neighboring Colombia.
The increase in U.S. funding announced by President George Bush last week is vital to the new initiative, Zarate said. But he stressed that the police thrust will fail unless accompanied by economic development aid and expressed concern that such aid is barely mentioned in the U.S. plan.
World's Main Source of Coca
Peru is the world's main source of coca leaves, grown by tens of thousands of peasant settlers and partially refined into paste before shipment to Colombia in small planes for final processing into cocaine.
For years, Peruvian police focused their efforts on cutting down coca bushes, and eradication acreage figures became the anti-drug war's version of the body count. But overall, coca cultivation steadily expanded to more than 450,000 acres, according to Peruvian figures, mainly in the Upper Huallaga Valley on the eastern slopes of the Andes.
The eradication program alienated the thousands of growers who bore the brunt of the program, Zarate said, and raised support for Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), the violent Maoist guerrilla movement that has built a tactical alliance with the traffickers.
In February, the combined threat from the two groups forced Peru to suspend its eradication program, which was based at Tingo Maria in the southern end of the valley. Virtually no anti-drug operations had taken place in the area since then.
Zarate, a meticulously correct officer who is highly regarded by American drug agents, said the guerrilla movement had been able to build up support among the population because of the eradication missions. The rebels exploited the chance to appear to defend the people's interests by ambushing patrols and shooting at the helicopters.
'Reaction of People'
In the months since the eradication stopped, he said, "we have begun noticing a reaction of the people against Sendero Luminoso because they attract more police, more army, and they bring repression. . . . We have to take advantage of this fissure now.
"Don't think of a war in which a big army marches out and confronts the enemy in a massive conflict," he said. "This must be a very finely tuned war, very precise, that seeks to attack the enemy without doing much damage or exacting a high social cost to the population, while doing plenty of damage to the traffickers.
"Eradication now is not good, because the region is already violent and it would get more violent. There would be more opportunity for the subversives to manipulate the people and encourage violence. If you work on a massive scale, you will complicate the social situation. We need to be very selective."
The Colombian crackdown, including the seizure of dozens of small planes, has dramatically reduced shipments of coca paste, forcing the traffickers to build up stockpiles in Peru, Zarate said.
'We Will Grab Them'
"This is better for me," he said. "We will grab them with everything, so that they lose plenty."
While he is pleased at the prospect of getting greater U.S. aid--a fourfold increase to $261 million for Peru, Colombia and Bolivia--Zarate said the campaign also must provide an alternative livelihood for the coca growers. That means offering alternative crop possibilities, infrastructure and agro-industrial development.
U.S. officials have said they want the first-year program to emphasize the fight against the traffickers and improved security, with development efforts to follow in the rest of the five-year, $2-billion program. The United States contends that without better security, development will not succeed.
Peruvian politicians and analysts have made the same point in reaction to the Bush program, emphasizing the danger of strengthening the hand of the rebels by displacing those in the drug trade without simultaneously offering them other options. More than 14,000 people have died in Peru since the Sendero Luminoso began its war in 1980, and most Peruvians see the guerrilla threat as far more serious than the drug trafficking.
The merging of the two threats in the Upper Huallaga Valley since Sendero Luminoso penetrated the area in force in 1986-87 has helped galvanize support for confronting drug trafficking.
Although there is considerable drug-related corruption, Peru has not experienced the degree of domination by drug lords that prevails in Colombia. However, an unending and devastating economic crisis, fueled by the insurgency, has left Peru with fewer resources than Colombia to scratch out a day-to-day living, never mind wage war against both the traffickers and the leftist rebels.
Inflation surpasses 25% a month, buying power has fallen about 50% in a year and confidence in President Alan Garcia has waned as hardships mount. Per capita income last year was about $900. As the economy has deteriorated, street crime has soared, and the nation's social fabric is being shredded.
Garcia said Thursday: "The drug threat is not a problem of military repression, which only attacks the symptom."
Economic development as a solution to the drug problem has long been out of fashion in light of the huge profits in coca. Recently, however, critics have argued that well-funded crop substitution and development programs--never seriously attempted--could offer realistic alternatives if combined with pressure on the traffickers.
Cocaine's Economic Role
Gustavo Gorriti, a Peruvian journalist specializing in the subject of drugs, said in an article in the July issue of Atlantic magazine that cocaine has revolutionized the economies of the Andean countries, generating up to $1.5 billion in income for Peru alone. He said that "the mistake in the drug war has been to try to quell what is fundamentally an economic revolution by means of punitive law enforcement."
Gorriti recommended vast investment programs to strengthen the legal economies of the source countries. He said it would prove cheaper in the long run and would be far less hazardous for the United States and healthier for the Andean region.
From his police officer's perspective, Zarate expressed similar concerns.
"A policy of repression without development will mean that the problem will just move elsewhere," he said. "We have to develop the zones that are immersed in narco-trafficking. If we only have repression, we will not solve this grave social phenomenon, and perhaps we will aggravate it. All this must be done together. You have to do both."
Times Buenos Aires Bureau Chief Smith, who has been on assignment in Peru during the past 10 days, traveled Sunday afternoon to Bogota.