The United States has asked Paraguayan officials to destroy a seized shipment of chemicals that could be used to manufacture "tons" of cocaine, but the officials have not yet complied, the State Department said yesterday.
Department spokesman Alan Romberg, calling the matter a "difficult and sensitive issue" between the two governments, said the United States had "expressed concern about the potential . . . for manufacturing tons of cocaine" and had offered to pay for the destruction of more than 49,000 gallons of ether, acetone and hydrochloric acid seized by Paraguayan customs agents Sept. 22.
Romberg was reacting to a report in yesterday's New York Times that said the delay has led U.S. officials "to believe that senior members of the Paraguayan military government may be involved in drug trafficking."
Romberg and other U.S. officials declined to comment on the allegations of official complicity and refused to discuss the contention in The Times report that U.S. Ambassador Arthur H. Davis Jr. has been rebuffed repeatedly in his efforts to meet with Paraguayan President Alfredo Stroessner to discuss the problem.
However, administration sources said privately that, while they cannot link Paraguayan officers to the international drug traffic, there are grounds for suspecting that failure to destroy the drugs involves considerations of "official protection." The sources, asserting that the United States "intends to go to the mat on this," also said the information had been made public as a means of putting the Paraguayan actions under "the spotlight of world publicity."
According to the sources, the matter is of special importance to the United States because the Drug Enforcement Administration has had considerable success with a two-year program of interdicting supplies of ether and other chemicals into Colombia, the principal site in Latin America for refining cocaine.
As a result, the sources continued, the United States wants to head off attempts by cocaine traffickers to shift their operations to other South American countries.
In recent months, the sources said, a substantial amount of cocaine processing has been transferred to Argentina and, to a lesser extent, Brazil and Paraguay. All three are easily accessible to the Andean regions of Peru and Bolivia, where the coca leaves that are the basis of cocaine are grown.
For those reasons, the sources said, the United States is determined "to force the issue at the highest levels of the Paraguayan government," even if it means risking tensions with Stroessner. Stroessner, who has ruled Paraguay since the 1950s, has always sought to maintain good relations with the United States.
A spokesman for the Paraguayan Embassy here said yesterday that the chemicals had not been destroyed because an investigation into their ownership and intended use has not been completed.
When it is, the spokesman added, "the government of Paraguay is fully capable of deciding what course to take in this matter."