In Peru, narcotics output increases as corrupt army units help traffickers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LIMA, Peru -- Drug traffickers, operating with the protection of corrupt Peruvian army units that block U.S.-backed interdiction operations, have dramatically stepped up narcotics production and commerce in northern Peru, according to diplomats.

Army commanders have been openly cooperating with traffickers since September, the diplomats said, marking a serious deterioration in the narcotics war. Army troops and police units accompanied by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents have faced off in several tense confrontations.

President Alberto K. Fujimori underlined the severity of the crisis in a nationally broadcast year-end news conference, criticizing a decade of Peruvian anti-drug efforts designed and financed by the DEA. "Ten years of anti-narcotics war has been a total failure," he said.

A sign of the deterioration came Oct. 19 with the ambush of Gen. Mario Brito, the army commander in charge of Peru's Huallaga River Valley, which traffickers have turned into the world's most important coca production zone.

The attack was originally attributed to leftist guerrillas, but a diplomat who monitors Peru's anti-drug war said he believes the ambush was a revenge strike by traffickers two days after General Brito ordered army units to stop interfering with DEA-supervised drug raids.

The recent setbacks have led several senior U.S. officials to urge President Bush to refuse to certify Peru's anti-drug cooperation when he reports to Congress on the worldwide narcotics war March 1. That decertification could lead to a partial suspension of economic aid to Peru, a U.S. Embassy official said.

On the other hand, a diplomat said, U.S. officials hope that a new anti-drug agency, which Mr. Fujimori created by decree in December, will allow him to end the discord that has marked army-police relations for more than a year in the Huallaga Valley, which begins 150 miles northeast of Lima.

Police, operating in U.S. helicopters and accompanied by DEA agents, raid coca-paste labs and drug storage houses in the valley from the U.S.-financed Santa Lucia Air Base outside Uchiza, about 100 miles north of the Huallaga headwaters. Army officers, expressing concerns that anti-drug operations will increase peasant sympathies for Peru's two guerrilla organizations, have never cooperated fully with the U.S.-backed coca eradication plan.

But relations worsened considerably in October, when the army garrison commander in Uchiza sent an emissary to the Santa Lucia base demanding written permission a week in advance for police raids.

The order, affecting six towns stretching north of Uchiza for 60 miles -- Tocache, Puerto Pizana, Campanilla, Juanjui, Nuevo Progreso and Paraiso -- brought groans from DEA agents stationed at Santa Lucia.

"Obviously, the military had been paid and was operating closely with the narcos," a diplomat said.

The police and U.S. officials complained about the army interference to senior officials in Lima, and on Oct. 17, General Brito overruled the garrison commander's order.

Two days later, as General Brito rode along a dirt road near his zone headquarters in Tarapoto, nearly 200 miles north of Uchiza, gunmen fired from a pickup truck and a motorcycle intercepted his jeep. The general was seriously wounded, and his bodyguard and driver was killed.

It was the first direct attack on an active-duty army general in command of one of Peru's emergency zones in 10 years of civil war.

During General Brito's two-month convalescence in Lima, a diplomat said, "Things worsened considerably."

"The rhythm of drug trafficking picked up," with scores of labs working at top production and coca-laden aircraft taking off daily from regional airstrips bound for Colombia, the diplomat said.

At least twice in late November and December, DEA-accompanied police attempted raids without seeking army permission; each time, soldiers turned them back. When two helicopters carrying police and DEA agents landed outside Puerto Pizana and marched toward the town to hit a drug storage house, soldiers blocked their path, and an army major said the police lacked authorization.

The connivance of regional military officers with the traffickers is the latest deterioration in a drug policy that has seemed a losing battle from the start and has been especially murky since President Fujimori's inauguration. In his first five months in office, Mr. Fujimori purged scores of Peru's best anti-drug agents, hired as an adviser a mercurial lawyer who has defended the country's top traffickers and rejected $36 million in U.S. anti-narcotics aid.

Yet with his unveiling of Peru's Autonomous Authority for Alternative Development, Mr. Fujimori may be pioneering a home-grown drug strategy, in the view of several diplomats. The Dec. 5 decree announcing the authority in Peru's official newspaper said the agency's mission is to help coca farmers switch livelihoods. Because the authority is also to coordinate police and army anti-drug efforts under Mr. Fujimori's personal direction, it could have the presidential clout to end the squabbling.

Already, the discord appears to have lessened: Twice since Dec. 20, police have carried out surprise raids without army interference.

On Dec. 22, drug police drove before dawn in trucks from the Santa Lucia base for a morning strike on a drug stash house in Uchiza. Surprised troops watched without intervening while police seized several hundred kilograms of coca paste, a diplomat said.

The next day, the Peruvian air force for the first time intercepted a Colombian traffickers' plane flying without authorization in the Huallaga Valley, forcing it to land and destroying it after the crew fled, according to a military communique.

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