Resistance toughens in the cocaine fight in Peru

October 08, 1992|By McClatchy News Service

LIMA, Peru -- Of course they don't expect flowers and cheers. But they also don't expect stones and bullets.

Last month, 60 Peruvian police accompanied by U.S. drug agents landed in Palma Pampas, armed with a list of cocaine labs and warehouses to take out.

Suddenly, they were surrounded by rock-hurling women who were shielding themselves with their children. Village men fired Uzis, AK-47s and 16-gauge shotguns in the air.

This was not the usual, docile Peruvian coca farmer. After a tense, 20-minute standoff, the agents aborted the mission, boarded their helicopters and retreated.

"We expected some resistance," said a source in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "We never dreamed it would be on that scale."

Peruvian drug agents say the scene has been repeated twice in recent weeks. It's one of the growing complications in the joint U.S.-Peruvian assault on the capital of coca. The U.S. crusade against cocaine faces new challenges at the source of supply.

Despite years of struggle, U.S. and Peruvian officials say, little progress is being made in curbing the production of coca, the base ingredient for cocaine, even as they insist that cooperation between the two governments has never been better. On both key fronts of the Peruvian assault -- police work and economic development -- it seems the battle is being lost.

Another complication has been the Shining Path guerrillas. Their leader, Abimael Guzman, was sentenced yesterday to life in prison without parole, but the rebels continue to harass the government.

"Peru has all the problems of any country I've worked in but worse than anywhere else, and some of its own problems as well," said one frustrated U.S. diplomat in Lima. "I'll be blunt: Under these conditions, I see no realistic prospect that drug production here can ever be eliminated. What we're doing now is a holding action."

Peru cultivates an estimated 62 percent of the world's coca-leaf crop.

Until April 5, when President Alberto Fujimori suspended the constitution and declared martial law, U.S. economic and anti-narcotics aid totaled more than $300 million. Most of that was suspended. But DEA is keeping about 28 agents in Peru.

Critics, including Peruvian officials, blame the government for failing to help farmers switch from coca to other crops. Diverted by other priorities -- especially its fight against the Shining Path guerrillas -- the government spends little of its dwindling resources to develop the neglected countryside.

Police are even more startled to find that Peruvian drug lords are taking on their Colombian masters in the market. Widening Peruvian networks -- as many as 20 of them -- are pushing wares directly in Europe and Asia.

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