A top DEA agent talks about the drug war


Craig N. Chretien has spent the past 21 years in the war on narcotics -- from steamy rain forests of South America where the coca bush is grown to U.S. cities where powdered and crack cocaine are the scourge of a generation.

Today, he is assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for Baltimore. His primary job is to manage dozens of agents in an attempt to interdict drugs, primarily heroin and cocaine, coming into Baltimore and arrest traffickers.

Hardly a day goes by, however, when he doesn't remember a lush valley about 200 miles long and 60 miles wide in Peru. It is a breathtakingly beautiful region that supplies more than 70 percent of the world's coca leaf, the natural ingredient that is converted into powdered and crack cocaine.

Mr. Chretien spent 1987 through 1990 in that South American country with a U.S. government multi-agency team in a riverside base camp. There, members of the State Department, DEA, other U.S. agencies and the Peruvian military continue to attempt to put a dent in the multibillion-dollar cocaine trade. Mr. Chretien was also stationed in Bolivia and Brazil for the DEA in the late 1970s.

QUESTION: Few people in the United States understand the significance of the Shining Path guerrilla movement, the ultraviolent Communist Party of Peru, and its direct involvement in cocaine. How does it fit in?

ANSWER: It's an odd mix. On one hand, the Sendero Luminoso [Spanish for Shining Path] revolutionaries claim to be a very moralistic group of people who punish with death members who use drugs or engage in corruption. They claim to be strict Maoist followers and derive much of their reputation among the local population dating back to pre-Inca times.

But much of their war chest is suspected to be fueled by the cocaine trade. The guerrillas tax local growers in the valley and levy tariffs on the Peruvians and Colombian traffickers who fly into the valley to pick up loads from their cocaine laboratories in the jungles.

Q.: Is this basically how the Peruvian revolution is being funded?

A.: Besides taxing the indigenous growers, they hit each plane for up to $15,000 to pick up their loads without being ambushed. About a dozen of these flights go into and leave Peru daily. And most of that money, we suspect, goes directly into the insurgency.

To the Colombians, it's just the price of doing business.

The Shining Path accepts no assistance from the outside, including Russia or China.

Going back to their historical roots, the only weapons they get are the ones they take off an enemy they kill in battle. They are primitive -- in some ways -- attacking with knives, revolvers, rifles, dynamite. What they lack in modern equipment they make up for in dedication to overthrowing the government of President Alberto Fujimori or any other regime.

Q.: Since 1980, the Shining Path has strategically escalated terrorism under their leader, Abimael Guzman, currently in a Peruvian jail facing a life sentence for treason. Has the movement stalled, terrorism dropped?

A.: Guzman's arrest was a severe blow but not a mortal wound.

Terrorism continues, with more car bombings occurring lately in the cities, mostly in and around Lima. The campaign of intimidation started, however, in the countryside, where we worked. If local people in a village hesitated to side with the guerrillas, execution squads would shoot them or tape dynamite to the heads of several people and detonate them in front of the entire village.

In that early period, Guzman planned to assassinate political leaders, and the guerrillas started leaving warnings by killing dogs and leaving them in strategic places. Later in the decade, the violence was escalated, and entire villages were wiped out.

The guerrillas have killed police, government people, religious workers. They have blown up power stations, police offices. There are, of course, actions by the Peruvian police and military which are viewed as suppressive and brutal by some.

The Shining Path moved into the first stages of its terror campaign in the early 1980s in reaction to Peru's military regime and some constitutional violations.

Q.: In this country, the U.S. military has continued to resist attempts to place qualified females in combat roles. I understand the Sendero Luminoso has an opposite view.

A.: Women are held as co-equals in the Shining Path.

There are women in the top command staff, and we saw patrols in the jungles led by women. Guzman's top aide was a woman. Again, this is traced to the history and mythology of ancient Peru when women fought alongside men. And the peasants have seen brutality at the hands of women guerrillas.

Once, just to prove herself, a female cut out the tongues of some villagers. It certainly had more of an impact.

Q.: While U.S. intelligence waits to see who ascends to lead the Shining Path, what is the status of the organization, and is the movement of cocaine affected?

A.: After Guzman was arrested, many documents and computer disks were confiscated by Peruvian authorities. Members of the country's upper class and people in government became suspects.

But the Shining Path remain intentionally primitive -- they still utilize runners instead of modern communications in the jungles --and can strike anywhere and any time. Reports show us cocaine continues to move with more Peruvians involved. Where there were Colombians before, we now see a few Peruvians with distribution chains in place.

Knowledgeable people feel Shining Path will continue to destabilize the country of Peru for a very long time. Without Shining Path, movement of cocaine would not be significantly altered. Without them, the growers and traffickers just would conduct business as usual without paying "taxes" to the revolutionaries.

Q.: Do you personally feel the war on cocaine is a lost cause?

A.: A lot of the programs we initiated five or six years ago are not completed, in that we are only beginning to see some results.

Overseas, in particular, the issue is still the strength of the will of the country involved. Institutionally, the government of Colombia has become fed up with the killings and corruption, and we are seeing some changes there insofar as cooperating with us.

Under the ideal situation -- that is, if we had enough resources -- I argue that we should increase overseas interdiction, at the source, the transshipment points. We should refine and increase those programs in addition to what we do in the states. Most cops, if they are honest, will tell you much more needs to be done in treatment here in the U.S. to reduce the demand side of the drug problem.

It is absolutely inexcusable to have a waiting list -- addicts waiting one month, three months, six months -- before someone can get into a program to kick heroin or crack. But this shouldn't be done at the expense of enforcement.

These days, it seems like the administration will stress domestic enforcement, and we are not sure where any cuts will be made. We're still making our pitch, people in the State Department, DEA, all the players, to the Clinton administration.

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