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Documentary : Cocaine Patrol: Prowling Bolivia's Jungle With the DEA : They aren't military, but they wear camouflage, carry guns and look for trouble. Come along on an operation with the Americans who man the front line of the drug war.

May 22, 1990|WILLIAM R. LONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHIMORE, Bolivia — The 14-man DEA team assigned to this outpost in the green heart of South America looks like so many Rambos. Camouflage fatigues, combat boots, black M-16 automatic rifles. Hard muscles, macho manners.

But their leader, "the Colonel," bridles at the Rambo comparison. These Americans didn't come to kill, he tells us. "These people are all investigators. These people aren't military." They're here to help the Bolivian police look for drug laboratories, cocaine and traffickers in the Chapare jungle.

The Chapare, an area the size of New Jersey, is dense, subtropical forest drained by meandering rivers and creeks, scarred here and there by rough dirt roads and patched with settlements and farms. Almost all the farms grow coca, a twiggy bush with small, pointed leaves from which cocaine is processed.

Traffickers come and go in planes and boats, bringing in dollars to buy coca paste, which is extracted from the leaves by gasoline and acid in plastic-lined pits. Many traffickers are armed, and these jungle hunting grounds pose other dangers different from what most of the U.S. agents are used to on American city streets. That's why the Drug Enforcement Administration provides them with military assault rifles and special Army training.

The mission is part of Operation Snowcap, a program begun by the DEA in 1987 in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. It's the first U.S. anti-drug program that has assigned teams of DEA agents to live and work on a daily basis in the remote, rural beginnings of the long cocaine-trafficking trail. All the agents have had several weeks of training in the Army Ranger school at Ft. Benning, Ga. The Colonel broke a leg in a practice parachute jump there. All have had Spanish-language classes, although only the Colonel and four others speak Spanish fluently.

All except the Colonel sleep on cots in a big barracks across a muddy street from the team's day room in a small, wood-frame house. The Colonel sleeps in a small room in the back of another small house next door that serves as the DEA mission's office. The DEA teams are rotated, each staying 90 days. This team has been in the Chapare 24 days and has helped plan and carry out a total of 51 anti-drug operations with Bolivian police. Much of it is night work. "They're going all the time," the Colonel says.

Jungle operations often require long marches. "It's up and down and it's through streams, water," the Colonel says. "The biggest hazard is water. Like stepping off in a hole in the river with 40 pounds of gear." Yes, 40 pounds. "On all-nighters or two-day operations, they would have at least that. It's the same stuff light infantry wears. That's where we get it."

The Americans work closely with a 60-member unit of Bolivia's militarized anti-drug police, the Mobile Patrol Unit, UMOPAR. The Bolivians wear the same camouflage uniforms as the DEA agents but carry ancient M-1 carbines instead of M-16s.

An UMOPAR patrol was ambushed by armed traffickers in March, and a lieutenant was killed. Although DEA agents were in the area on the same operation, none were with the patrol. The Colonel acknowledges the danger to DEA agents operating in the Chapare, but he tells us that traffickers seem wary of the well-trained and -equipped Americans. "I think they show reluctance to hit us when we are there because they know they are going to get waxed."

In the past, there have been 30 major paste buyers operating in the Chapare. But the disruption of trafficking networks by police action in Bolivia and Colombia has reduced the number in recent months. "We only know of seven buyers in the valley now," the Colonel says.

It's a Wednesday afternoon, and a handful of agents are lounging around the DEA day room, which is part of the UMOPAR base. We ask for the Colonel. "He's indisposed right now," one of the agents says. We wait, looking around the room. A big American flag hangs from one wall behind a table covered with a plastic tablecloth and flanked by rough wooden benches. A Texas flag hangs overhead. Three overstuffed armchairs and a couch, wearing wrinkled cotton slipcovers with delicate flower patterns, are all occupied. The men are in T-shirts, some wearing camouflage pants, others in running shorts. They talk, doze, smoke Marlboros. From outside comes the steady rumble of the generating plant that provides electricity for the base.

Most of the agents have mustaches. The Colonel doesn't allow beards. Two or three are watching a videotaped movie being shown simultaneously on two television screens sitting on shelves at different angles. It's "Heartbreak Ridge," with Clint Eastwood; he's wearing almost exactly the same gear that these agents wear.

The shelves around the television sets are crammed with all kinds of American supermarket goods: tea, tuna, cereal, raisins, cocoa, ketchup, mustard. There are also a couple of rows of paperback books and video movies.

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