TOCACHE, Peru — The lush green hills that look down on this raw frontier town in Peru's highland jungle conceal columns of Shining Path guerrillas on the prowl for profits from cocaine trafficking.
Since the beginning of the year, the rebels of the Maoist guerrilla movement have entered into a deadly alliance with drug dealers, both the peasants involved in the illegal trade and the police say.
The pact has brought a new level of violence to the upper Huallaga River valley--the world's greatest source of coca, the plant used to make cocaine.
Counterinsurgency experts say involvement in the illegal drug trade has helped the Shining Path--until now poorly armed in its seven-year insurgency--build a war chest for the acquisition of sophisticated weapons. They estimate that the rebels have already accumulated as much as $7 million after only a few months.
The violence has included clashes between rival gangs of narcotics traffickers, with the Shining Path siding with key drug lords like "the Vampire," the cocaine king of Tocache.
Sendero Luminoso--as the group is called in Spanish--also has battled another rebel band, the pro-Cuban Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, for control of the valley.
With the aid of the Vampire's hired killers, the Maoist rebels expelled their rival revolutionaries from the valley after an ambush outside Tocache in March that townspeople say left at least 40 dead.
Local residents and police call the powerful, muddy Huallaga River "the biggest cemetery in the valley." They say that during the last year barely a day has passed without a bullet-riddled body floating swiftly downstream past riverfront villages.
The Carretera Marginal, the valley's principal highway, also has been strewn with its share of the dead.
"Some days as many as three bodies are seen along the highway," taxi driver Pascual Rojas said.
Tingo Maria, with 75,000 people, is the biggest town in the valley. It is located 230 miles north-northeast of Lima on the eastern slopes of the Andes and is the starting point of the jungle highway 80 miles south of here.
Five miles outside Tingo Maria, the Shining Path announces its presence. For the next 25 miles, until the town of Aucayacu, long stretches of pavement and every single building along the way have been painted in blood-red revolutionary slogans:
-- "Death to the genocidal Alan Garcia (Peru's president)."
-- "Long live Presidente Gonzalo (the rebels' name for Shining Path founder and leader Abimael Guzman)."
-- "Death to the Yankees--they will find their tombs here"--a reference to U.S. narcotics agents taking part in anti-drug raids in the valley.
The Shining Path guerrilla organization launched a rural insurgency in the highland state of Ayacucho in 1980 to topple Peru's government and install a peasant and workers state patterned after the ideas of China's Mao Tse-tung. Since then, the violence has claimed more than 10,000 lives.
The upper Huallaga valley is hemmed in by jagged peaks at its southern end but broadens to 20 miles as the swift-flowing river drops 1,000 feet by the time it reaches the town of Juanjui, 150 miles to the north. The valley floor is covered with luxuriant tropical vegetation, and the coca grown on the hillsides produces the world's finest cocaine.
"Practically all of the region from Tingo Maria to Juanjui is filled with coca plantations, and during the past seven or eight years, narcotics traffickers have established a marketing network with Colombian organizations," said Col. Jorge Vidal, commander of a 1,500-man police force sent into the valley in July to try to establish government control.
Tens of thousands of impoverished highland peasants have poured into the valley since the early 1970s to grow coca to meet the soaring U.S. demand for cocaine.
The campesinos (peasants) turn the coca leaves into dough-like paste in crude processing pits in the jungle. Narco traficantes (the local drug chieftains and their hired gunmen) collect the paste and market it to Colombian buyers, who arrive in small planes at dozens of airstrips scattered throughout the valley.
Refining the Paste
In Colombia, international narcotics organizations refine the paste into pure cocaine for smuggling to the United States and Europe.
The huge profits from the cocaine trade and the campesinos' resentment of a U.S.-financed coca eradication campaign have combined to draw the Shining Path into the valley, according to peasants, priests, police, teachers and community development workers in the area.
"There is a pact between the drug smugglers and the Shining Path," said William Tirado, Tocache school superintendent. "The coca trade has become a source of income for the terrorists."
In areas controlled by the Shining Path, the rebels charge drug traffickers $3,000 to $4,000 in "landing rights" for each planeload of cocaine paste, police say.