LIMA, Peru — American helicopters and pilots have played a key role in helping Peruvian agents combat cocaine producers in a sometimes-violent campaign, according to Peruvian and U.S. drug enforcement officials.
Police Gen. Juan Sarate, the chief anti-drug officer in Peru, said improved Peruvian-U.S. cooperation has led to a surge in coca plant eradication and destruction of clandestine laboratories in recent months in the Upper Huallaga Valley, source of 70% of the world's coca leaf production.
Five helicopters provided by the U.S. government have been deployed and four more are due within days to help ferry eradication teams and supplies in the campaign, Sarate said.
Three Americans Involved
So far, three civilian American pilots are taking part, contracted to fly missions and to train Peruvian pilots, he added.
Craig N. Chretien, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration attache for Peru, said one American pilot was wounded a few weeks ago when drug traffickers shot at his helicopter and a metal fragment struck his arm. That has been the only injury to an American during the hundreds of sorties carried out since June, 1987, he said.
The helicopters are used for transport only and carry no mounted weapons. Armed Peruvian police man the doors and return fire if the aircraft come under attack from the ground, which happens "quite a bit," said Chretien. American DEA agents usually accompany Peruvian police on the missions, the two officials said in separate interviews here Friday.
Sarate said Peruvian government officials recognize that the death of an American in the program "would cause a great problem." He stressed that the American pilots and agents play a supportive role and "are here as technicians, nothing more."
Chretien said American agents and pilots leave the fighting to the Peruvians and avoid conflict as much as possible.
Some Armed Resistance
"We respond if someone's life is in danger," he said. "We have been in situations where there has been some armed resistance."
Chretien acknowledged that the program entails some personal risk, but he said the most effective contribution the United States can make is to help attack cocaine at the source. While arrests of dealers in the United States often result in small seizures, a single successful strike in Peru can prevent thousands of kilograms of cocaine from reaching the market, he said.
The Upper Huallaga Valley is a nightmare for both governments because of the combination of well-armed drug traffickers, Maoist guerrillas of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) movement and common criminals exploiting the turmoil and lawlessness of the region. The dangers of dispatching teams on the ground make helicopters vital to the operation.
"Without rotor-wing resources, we could not conduct this program," Chretien said.
Sarate said a plan for aerial spraying of herbicides to eradicate coca is another crucial element in the anti-cocaine program. He said he hopes that government approval will come soon and that spraying can begin within three months. Environmental groups have raised doubts about the safety of spraying, and Peruvians are conducting tests to determine whether the program would pose any risks.
Sarate and U.S. officials argue that the spraying would be safe--and in any case that the environmental damage from cocaine production itself is already incalculable, including the dumping of toxic chemicals into rivers and soil erosion. Given the perils of operating on the ground, spraying from the air is the only practical method of large-scale eradication, they say.
Chretien said the spraying program "will have a dramatic effect on the availability of cocaine throughout the world." Until now, eradication crews have had to rely on painstaking manual operations with cutting machines.
Sarate said the most recent major Peruvian-U.S. campaign, which took place in August, resulted in the seizure of nearly five tons of cocaine paste and 8,500 gallons of chemicals and the destruction of 17 clandestine airstrips, some of them used for as many as three to four flights a day to ship the partially processed cocaine to neighboring Colombia, the center of the Latin American cocaine industry.
Sarate said the assault on coca fields has halted the usual annual increase in coca acreage in Peru, with agents destroying as many acres of fields as are planted. But Chretien said he believes the net increase has slowed but not yet stopped.
Airstrips Quickly Repaired
The airstrips are quickly repaired, however. The traffickers employ peasants for this task--encouraging the local people to tip off agents so the strips will be destroyed again and provide another payday for additional repair work. Drug dealers also have widened existing roads for use as landing strips and have bribed officials at legitimate airstrips to allow their use for drug flights.